In the new comedy The D Train, Jack Black plays Dan, a sad-sack family man who becomes fixated on the idea of wooing his popular classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) back to town for their high-school reunion. Shortly after graduation, Lawless skipped town to head to L.A. and become a famous actor; that hasn’t quite panned out for him, but to the starry-eyed Dan, he’s still a megastar … and soon enough, as Dan and Lawless start hanging out in Hollywood, his obsession with the charismatic, underemployed actor takes a very surprising turn. Vulture recently sat down with Marsden to discuss the left-field twists, what he can relate to about his character’s thwarted fame, and how some fans of The Notebook just won’t let him live in peace.
It’s sort of unusual to see a comedy like this. Things start off so traditionally, but then there’s a massive twist that the characters can’t put a pretty bow on by the end.
I think that’s why I responded to it, to be honest. In the comedy world, you just feel like you’ve seen everything and it’s all been done. I read this and thought, Oh, this is interestingly subversive, and these two characters are really going through this. In fact, they each have their own degree of desperation, and for a moment, they sort of fulfill each other’s needs. Dan needs Lawless to make him relevant, and when Dan’s in his field of gravity, he makes Lawless feel important. It’s a little bit of a drug for Lawless.
Tonally, it’s a tricky movie to pull off because it’s a comedy, but the plot could almost work for sensitive indie drama.
Well, you know, when we start talking about it, we could have a full-on, 100 percent dramatic conversation about what everybody’s motivations are and the themes of the movie, and that’s what I found sort of bracing about it. How does Dan tell his wife and kids what really happened between them in L.A.? How do you explain that? He can’t even explain it to himself. What lengths would some people go to to be desired or included? And [there’s] that level of desperation not only [for] Jack’s character, [but] for my character. He views himself as a failure in the Hollywood industry, and this guy comes into his life and thinks he’s Brad Pitt. So Lawless gets to be Brad Pitt for a little bit, and it feels good.
I talk to a lot of actors, and no matter how big they are, a lot of them think they’re only one job away from Lawless-like unemployment and failure. Do you ever feel that?
Yeah, you always do. I mean, it’s a weird business. And the classic, common neurosis of being an actor is you always fear your most recent job is your last job.
Why do you think you feel that? I’m so curious.
I guess if you’re smart enough to know that there are so many other variables that go into what makes someone a superstar and what makes a movie do well, then you do feel a bit powerless. As an actor, you can go in and you give your best performance, but if you hand that performance to ten different directors and ten different editors, you get ten different movies.
Did you realize all that when you first got to L.A.?
No, because I was too young to see it, you know what I mean? When you’re young and confident, you’re just like, “Bah, I’m gonna be James Dean!” You have that naïve confidence, and that’s one of the reasons why I found success. But when you get older, you see, “Well, okay, had I made a left turn instead of a right, I would have fallen a hundred feet.” You become smarter about it, and that also makes you a little bit more careful.
What were some of those left turns?
Well, one of the big struggles for an actor is sometimes you have to take work that you don’t necessarily want to do so you can pay rent. Those are the hardest decisions to do or not do, and I can look back and see lots of pitfalls like, “Oh, shoot, man, if I had done that job for a paycheck, it would have been horrible and my career would have been over.” Although I have more examples of movies and TV shows and projects that I decided not to do that ended up being a great thing than movies that I turned down where I look back and go, “Ah, I should have done that.”
I was looking at your Wikipedia page and it says you turned down 54.
Yeah, that’s not even true, actually. I auditioned for it and screen-tested for it, but I didn’t turn it down. I would have taken it!
Did you ever feel like Hollywood was sort of pushing you in one direction because you’ve got these handsome, leading-man looks?
Those are the kind of roles that came my way. You know, I always struggled playing the guy who had all his shit together. I could do it, but it just wasn’t interesting to me, so I wanted to spend some time reading some more comedy scripts or even drama scripts where there’s really something twisted about the character, or something off. With comedy, I always like finding a character who thinks he’s got his shit together but really doesn’t.
That’s what’s interesting about Lawless, because everyone assumes he’s got his life figured out and he really doesn’t.
Yeah, yeah. You can see he’s got some severe depression about it. I don’t think this is how he pictured it was going to be when he decided to be an actor. And the harsh reality is, not everybody goes to Vegas and wins the jackpot. So I think he’s probably wiser from it, but he still has an appetite for someone to fawn over him.
Do you ever think about the actors you used to audition against who now may be living this sort of unmoored, unsuccessful Lawless life?
Yeah. There’s a different section of my career where there were these guys I was going up against, and I’d see them all the time and actually became friends with some. Some of them, I don’t know where they are right now, and then conversely, I’ve watched guys who I was in the room with being catapulted into superstars. And I’m sort of somewhere in the middle. [Laughs.] But I always felt like you should really go after the work that you feel like plays to your strengths and that speaks to you. If you manage to balance that with a career that can pay the bills, then you’re going to have a longer career.
It seems to surprise people every time you excel in a comic role. Even after movies like Hairspray and Enchanted, they don’t seem to expect this sort of thing from you.
I’m really happy with the way it turned out because I can’t say it was all by design to be this guy who kind of does a bunch of different things. But I can see how the decision-makers out there could look at me and go, “I don’t really know where to put him. I don’t know if he’s the main superhero guy or if he’s the goofy guy from Hairspray.”
I watched The Notebook for the very first time last year, and I knew that you were playing the obstacle in this love story between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, but I actually found myself sympathizing with your character.
It’s a very polarizing movie with regards to my character.
Do you have people coming up to you saying, “I would have stayed with you”?
Yes, I hear people say that. Then I also have people coming up and going like, “Ugh!” They’re just disgusted by me. Like, “How dare you get involved with their love? You are the asshole in that movie.” I’m like, “How is he an asshole?”
He was perfect! Team Marsden!
He was a great guy.
He even relinquished her. He was like, “Go do what you need to do.”
“Go figure yourself out, because I’m in for the long haul.” You know, Ryan and Rachel were so tremendous in that movie, and that was such a rare chemistry that they had. When you see that movie and you’re a young teenager, it’s real. Those people really are in love — in fact, they dated after the movie. So anything that’s going to get in their way is bad or evil, right? It’s just funny how people carry it with them, like in real life when they say, “Oh, you’re the jerk in The Notebook!”
I’m sure you can tell who those people are right away when they’re coming up to you.
Oh, yeah. Some people are like, “I can’t even look at you.” They’re mad at me, James Marsden! [Laughs.]