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James Marsden on His Big Westworld Episode and Why He Wants to Play Frank Sinatra

James Marsden. Photo: Getty Images

James Marsden has made a career out of subverting the expectations that come with his strong-jawed good looks. He’s played buffoonish assholes prone to wreaking emotional havoc (Bachelorette), a Disney Prince come to life (Enchanted), and a singing, dancing, socially progressive 1960s TV host (Hairspray). On Westworld he plays Teddy Flood, an android or “host” programmed as an earnest cowboy who gains sentience. Teddy may not be as vengeful as his beloved Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) or as venomously cunning as Maeve (Thandie Newton), fellow hosts who have also gained sentience and seek to define the terms of their own lives. But thanks to Marsden’s tender performance, his character often feels the most human. We spoke to Marsden about episode five, “Akane No Mai,” which is a major game changer for his character, throwing his future and relationship with Dolores in flux. We also discussed the vibe on the set of Westworld, what it means to play the good guy today, passing on Magic Mike, and the roles he wants to play next.

What initially drew you to playing Teddy?
When I was approached by Jonah Nolan, my god back in 2014 now, I only had access to one script. It was the pilot. But the ideas and the potential of where the show could go, the potential of perhaps maybe playing several different characters at the time, was pretty cool. We trick the audience into thinking he’s a guest when he first arrives and then oh, he’s actually one of the hosts. At first glance I thought wait, I’m playing a robot? And then I realized those were the most interesting roles in the show, from my perspective anyway. I did not know where it was going to go. I knew that there were virtues to Teddy that were in his programming from the beginning. So I like the fact that he’s a guy who wakes up in the morning and puts one foot in front of the other and tries to be a good man. But also, acknowledging his flaws and his dark side as well — we all have them — otherwise you wouldn’t be human.

That’s definitely why I’m drawn to him.
He’s one of the characters more tethered to seeing the light then the dark. It’s an interesting time for him now because he’s freed of any sort of construct of a narrative that’s been created for him and an identity that’s been created for him so he gets to choose who he wants to be. It does feel like a little bit like no good deed goes unpunished, right? It’s not exactly sexy to be the good guy nowadays, right?

Yeah, that’s true.
To be the virtuous superhero like Superman isn’t necessarily sexy. It’s more exciting to relate to the bad guys or the dark side of some of the other characters. But I find that it’s a nice ground to play in. I admire him. And I know it’s not exciting all of the time. Not to get all like social commentary, but we need people like that. I know that sounds corny, but it’s a lot easier to be bad than it is to be good.

Oh, I agree.
It takes a lot of effort. I know that sounds corny again, but I miss people like that. I miss heroes like Gary Cooper, like you mentioned in your article. Like in High Noon, when everything’s against you and it’s so easy to just drop your moral code. So I admire him, and I like that part of Teddy.

I think it’s also probably harder for an actor to play the good guy.
Yes, definitely.

Especially since Teddy is so different than anybody else in Westworld on multiple levels. Obviously he’s woken up to the fact that he’s a host and this world he’s lived in isn’t real, but he’s still partially holding onto this narrative about him and Dolores being together, as well as the moral code that has been programmed into him. Which is really interesting on a show that’s all about autonomy and having control over one’s own self. How do you create the humanity in a character like that?
Belief. His brain is spinning 100 miles an hour trying to figure out what it means to be conscious and to be alive and have free will. I do think he understands cerebrally what he is and where he comes from now, but there’s a little bit of what ties him to his past. Even if he knows it was manufactured for him, it felt real to him. The love for Dolores feels real to him, that dedication, that loyalty feels true to whatever soul that’s there underneath all of the programming. Much like Maeve coming back for her daughter, that was a narrative construct. This is written, it’s a story, yet it’s real to her.

For him, as an actor, you’ve just gotta go into it with conviction and belief. Every time he dies, it’s the first time for him. You just have to really jump in and commit to there being real stakes.

You know, I say that about comedy sometimes too, which is as goofy and silly as comedy sometimes can be, the best comedy comes from the people who present situations with conviction like there’s actually real stakes. If you’re winking at the audience, kind of taking a piss with them, it’s not as fun for them. They want to believe that you’re really in this ridiculous circumstance.

I think you’re really good at that.
Well, thank you. I find that those are the interesting characters, and whether it’s drama or comedy or whatever, you have to play it all like a drama.

Episode five is a huge turning point for Dolores and Teddy’s relationship — it goes from a sex scene to Dolores forcibly altering his programming because she feels he isn’t meant for this world. The show has been building to something major between them since Dolores saw Teddy let Major Craddock go despite her order to have him killed, and episode five felt like a betrayal to me. What was your thought process when you read that script for the first time?
It was heartbreaking because the reality started to take shape on the horizon that there was going to be conflict. You start to see them be at odds with each other and he’s grappling with (1) Seeing the world with his new set of eyes for the very first time, (2) Seeing the person he’s in love with behave completely differently than he’s used to, which is at odds with his moral compass and ethical code. Yet, he still feels bound to her in a very loving and loyal way.

That’s definitely a defining factor for his character.
But it was heartbreaking because it felt like a long marriage of two people changing over time. There’s still levels where they connect and they do have this idea of wanting all this to go away. Not wanting to have these feelings of revenge that she’s driven by and just wanting to run away from it all. But they have different directives now and he’s starting to feel the conflict of, “This is the woman I love, but I’m not sure I’m on board with this.” And —  I don’t want to speak for her — but it’s a betrayal, yes. But you can see her point as well which is, you’re not going to live, man. You won’t survive. You’re too kind. You’re too good of a man. The world doesn’t deserve you.

It’s almost an act of mercy.
Yes, it’s almost an act of, I’m saving you. Now we don’t know — well, I do —  but we don’t necessarily know what happens in episode six and for the rest of the season. Obviously, we’ll see. But it was a real heartbreaking time. Evan and I were on set actually getting quite emotional about that scene. She was not having a good time with it. Nor was I, because you get put in some pretty perverse situations on this show.

Very true.
And cruel emotionally. I’m not talking about cruel to the actors, I’m talking about just a lot of cruel ideas and story lines. Evan and I have a great relationship, we have a lot of fun on set. We cherish these characters and their dynamic and their connection. So it was a sad day when all of that went down. But we also know that we’re telling a long story, and we’ll see where it all goes.

How it is overall working with Evan since your characters are so bound together?
Well, thank god Evan’s got a remarkably sharp sense of humor and everyone on the show likes to have a good time. But I’ve never seen someone with the ability to really flip a switch, and when they yell action Evan transforms without a single movement. It’s all behind her eyes. She just shows you into the darkest corners of her mind with a look. Then they yell “cut” and she starts laughing. It’s great. We have a lot of fun on set pretending the show is a musical, pretending it were a say a spinoff of a Ron Burgundy movie — it gets very, very silly on set.

When we do our love scene, Evan and I go, “Okay, well we’ve seen each other’s everything already, from every given angle so here we go again.” We’re sort of like eh, no big deal now. Obviously we kind of show up and go, “Oh, what kind of crazy bullshit do we get to do today?” Like oh, we have to take off all our clothes and lay with, you know, blood seeping out of our bodies, and oh, take off all our clothes again and get in bed together. Okay, now we get to go into a rotted meat locker and betray each other. [Laughs.] Obviously she takes it very seriously and so do I, but in between in those big gaps of time when they’re setting up the cameras and moving locations, we try to keep it as light as possible.

I think you’d have to like have a light tone on set with a show that intense and bloody.
Not always though. I mean, I have to operate that way. But there’s times when you get on movies that have a dark, miserable tone to them and the actors take on that vibe. It’s like, oh my god, everyone’s just in a miserable mood. But I find what works for me is doing the opposite — keeping yourself in a lighter place and then stepping into it. Evan thank god is the opposite and so am I.

One thing I wanted to ask you about is a GQ interview you did in 2016, where you mentioned you kind of passed on Magic Mike because you felt unsure you would be good enough to not have most of your lines cut. And I think that’s so interesting to hear. Personally because I think you’re just talented — it’s like oh, he can dance, he can sing, he can do drama, he can be funny, oh, and he looks like that. [Laughs.] But I was wondering, have you had a moment on Westworld where you felt unsure about pulling off what you needed to do in a scene in a similar way?
That’s something that you always carry with you as an actor. If it were easy every day, I’d feel like you’re not doing good work. But you get used to it being an actor. I mean, I get used to doubting myself and you sort of find comfort in it. You get comfortable with the fear and the doubt and all of those things and you start to be concerned when those things aren’t there, if that makes sense.

That definitely makes sense to me, even just as a writer.
The Magic Mike thing was … honestly, I should have just kept it. I should have said to myself, dude, it’s Soderbergh, it’s Soderbergh, it’s Soderbergh, do it. I still think it ended up being the right movie maybe without me in it. But at the time it was like, there’s about six lines for me in the script. I’m in a Speedo and I’m naked through most of the movie, and I kept seeing myself just being an extra in a Speedo. You said very kindly that I’m a good dancer. Well, if I’m doing Corny Collins in Hairspray, sure, but if I’m in a Speedo trying to do what Channing Tatum’s doing, maybe not so much. So that was probably a little bit of like ew, is this gonna work or is this going to be like the male version of Showgirls? And boy was I wrong!

My mantra is, it’s all about the director. It’s like, put yourself in the hands of people you trust. And it’s a Soderbergh film, so it would have been fun, but I look at everything and go, that was for a reason, and it was just fine without me.

I would have appreciated you in there.
That’s very sweet of you to say. And sure, I would have liked to be able to do that with like, kill approval. Meaning I would have liked to shoot the movie and then watch it and go, “Ah, you know what, actually just take me out of the whole thing.” Or before it went to the theater, “Oh, I’m okay with it actually, go ahead with it.” But since that was out of my power, I could potentially end up on the editing room floor and then you see me a couple times dancing around wearing nothing. You shouldn’t frame your decisions like that necessarily, but sometimes you overthink things.

Speaking of anxiety, what has been the most challenging scene for you as an actor on Westworld?
Well, the funny challenging scene is sitting without a stitch of clothing opposite Anthony Hopkins. That was not necessarily as challenging as it was intimidating. Slightly humiliating. [Laughs.] There are moments Teddy’s haunted by in the first season when he’s talking about Wyatt. That was tricky. I didn’t have an fucking clue who Wyatt was. Who is this guy and why am I now a Union soldier outfit? Jonah and Lisa were like, “It will make sense later.” They were trying to be cryptic intentionally. It was difficult for me to assign meaning to it because I don’t know what I was really even talking about.

That sounds very tricky to handle as an actor.
There’s moments on the show when you’re saying things and you, as an actor, don’t really have a clue what is going on. You’re intentionally off balance because that’s the way it’s supposed to feel when you see it. When you deliver a performance, you want to feel like you’re in some sort of control. On Westworld, you’re just going, boy, I don’t know what I just did. I don’t know what just came out of my mouth because there’s so much that’s in code. Lisa and Jonah are great about making sure we know the necessary things. But when they want it to come out a little cloudy, they keep you in the clouds. So as the season progresses, there are revelations to us as well. Sometimes you go, “Oh, okay, that makes sense now. I wish I’d have known that back then when we were doing this.” I imagine it’s what some of the audience must feel a lot of the time, watching the show.

That’s definitely how it feel. It’s a fun show but often I’m wondering, what the hell just happened? But half the pleasure is in the mystery.
Yes, and getting comfortable with not knowing.

Westworld must also be a tricky show to talk about too because it’s not like you can talk about where your character’s arc may go, because so much of the show is about keeping those things under wraps.
The word that comes into my mind about the process of shooting this show is “surrender.” It’s a hard thing for actors to give in and make yourself vulnerable on set. But when you know you’re in the hands of people who have the ability and talent to create something as special as Jonah and Lisa have, it’s easier to keep your eyes shut and fall forward than it is if you’re not so sure about what the show is.

In your career, you’ve done a lot of different and really interesting work as an actor, but are there any type of roles you’d like to play that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
I’m not sure I can answer that with specificity, but I can tell you that I miss having more opportunities like Enchanted, like Hairspray, like Sex Drive. My appetite is strong for something fun [laughs] and musical with a lot of energy. But I’ve always wanted to — god there’s just such a goldmine of stories and rich directions this could go in because it’s a tough rights issue — but I’d love to play Sinatra at some point.

Oh, wow.
Yeah, I grew up listening to him, emulating him, not necessarily in his private life ways. [Laughs.] But vocally.

I would love to see you take on Sinatra.
I just think there’s some really interestingly dark stories there to tell. But you know, I think it’s in Scorsese land or Leo DiCaprio land or whoever owns it. That’s always a role I’ve felt like, “Oh, that’s something I could do.” When I read the script for Enchanted, it was like, “Oh, I know who this guy is, I see him in my head. I know exactly what to do.” That’s a good feeling. So I don’t know specifically what role it would be, but I’m enjoying and getting comfortable with getting a little older. I like that the roles that are starting to come my way have a little more substance and depth to them, and then hopefully I’ll still be able to keep doing some more musicals and comedies and things like that.

I loved you in Bachelorette. I know it sounds terrible to say, but you play assholes really well.
I guess I never want to be an irredeemable, flagrant asshole. But sometimes when they get everything handed back to them, it’s enjoyable. I find that funny. The role in Anchorman 2, in Sex Drive, and those kind of hotheads, I like the buffoon element to them, too. It reminds me like when my kids are watching America’s Funniest Home Videos, and the funniest ones to me are where someone is trying to do something really cool in front of the camera and that’s when they slip and fall on their ass. Roles where I’m able to do that are funny to me. It’s easier and more fun than playing the guy who does have his shit together.

You’re great in that vein.
When I look at roles that I feel worked well, the common denominator is I was having a blast. I forget how valuable it is, that one element for the audience, to see somebody enjoying the hell out of themselves. So more of those would be nice.

James Marsden on Westworld and Why He Wants to Play Sinatra