The character(s): Steve Wood, the former fiancé of Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini), who convinces her to flee the hit-and-run accident that killed the husband of Jen Harding (Christina Applegate). After Steve winds up dead at the end of Dead to Me’s first season, his “semi-identical twin,” Ben Wood, arrives in season two to figure out what happened to his brother.
The actor: James Marsden, 46, found Hollywood stardom after playing Cyclops in the X-Men franchise and nice but expendable fiancés in The Notebook and Superman Returns. But he has since been defined by his versatility, having appeared in comedies (Enchanted, 30 Rock), musicals (Hairspray), and dramas (The Butler, Westworld, Mrs. America).
Essential traits: Steve is charming but self-involved and emotionally abusive, especially toward Judy; when cornered, he does what he has to do to save himself. Ben is compassionate, kind, and a bit of a dork, but he also has demons and isn’t inclined to take responsibility when he gets into a tough spot.
The (First) Origin Story
When Dead to Me creator Liz Feldman wrote the show’s pilot in January 2018, she already knew certain things about Steve’s personality. He would be narcissistic; he would be insensitive, particularly in the way he handles his break-up with Judy; and he would be much more confident than his looks would suggest. “I kept thinking of him as an average-looking dude who Judy thinks is incredibly handsome, but to the outside world he’s, like, fine,” Feldman says.
One could use many adjectives to describe Marsden. Average-looking is not one of them. So when he was the first suggestion from casting directors Sherry Thomas and Russell Scott, Feldman was surprised — not just because he’s more handsome than she imagined Steve to be but because she thought he’d never say yes. “He’s somebody that I’ve dream-pitched to play other roles that I’ve written in scripts that have never been made,” she says. “When they brought his name up, my first thought was, Oh, he’ll never do this.”
Feldman nevertheless called up Marsden that July while he was shooting Sonic the Hedgehog in Vancouver. “Liz was like, ‘It’s this guy, he’s kind of a douchebag.’ And I was like, ‘What kind of douchebag?,’” Marsden remembers. “‘Is it a guy that, when he’s onscreen you’re like, Oh, fuck you. Just get off the screen. I don’t even like watching you? Because if that’s the case, I’m not that interested. But if I can make fun of this guy, I’m all in.’”
During that conversation, Feldman explained that Steve would be “a douche with nuance and complexity” and described the character’s full-season arc, including his death in the finale. Marsden admits that part of the appeal, at least at that point, was knowing the job would require a commitment to only a single season. That way, he could work on a fun project without being locked into a long-running series. He was in.
Feldman was thrilled to have him in the role. And with Cardellini by then cast as Judy, it felt right to have Marsden play her ex-husband. “You could immediately see them together as this aspirationally, ridiculously gorgeous couple,” she says. “I liked the idea that they looked incredible on the outside and it was incredibly fraught on the inside of their relationship.”
Making ‘A Weird Psycho’
Even though Marsden turned Steve into a much more handsome character, his essential DNA didn’t change a lot from page to screen. Once the cameras started rolling on season one, he remained a charming man hiding a sinister side. The biggest changes came from Marsden, who had a knack for excavating comedy out of his character’s aloofness and self-centeredness.
“When you’re playing a bad guy who’s just bad to be bad, it’s not fun,” he says. “But if you can inject humor into it somehow and make him look like a buffoon …”
The first defining moment happens during Steve’s introduction in the pilot. When Jen makes a surprise visit to what she thinks is Judy’s house, she is instead greeted by Steve, who opens the door dressed in a bathrobe. Judy had told Jen that her fiancé was dead, but Steve, clearly alive, reveals that they broke up two months ago and that Judy is more or less stalking him. Jen is confused and reeling, but her concerns are of no concern to Steve. “I just gotta go,” he tells her in a dismissive tone that suggests other things are far more important. “I’m running a bath.”
“It’s so small,” Feldman says of the moment, “but you’re like, Yeah, that’s the guy who takes a bath and takes it seriously. He’s not going to waste his time talking to some lady at the door.”
While most of the season was written at that point, the casual arrogance Marsden brought to that moment prompted the writers to tweak other scenes so he could lean into that attitude even more, allowing the actor to find what he refers to as the “little flavors” of Steve. Another example: In episode four, when Steve and Judy awaken after spending the night together, Steve gets out of bed and announces that he has to “hop on the trampoline” to “get his lymph nodes going.” He then proceeds to jump vigorously on a mini-trampoline while having a serious conversation with Judy about the post-traumatic stress she has suffered since the hit-and-run. The contrast is deliberately ridiculous.
“He’s so weird,” Marsden says. “He’s like a weird psycho.”
But by the season finale, Steve is just a psycho psycho. That forced Marsden to go to uncomfortable places, particularly during a climactic argument in which Jen tries to get Steve to admit that he forced Judy to leave the accident scene. When cornered, Steve turns ruthless and cruelly berates her. Fully tapping into that ruthlessness was a challenge for Marsden because he felt so uncomfortable screaming at Applegate, whom he considers a friend.
“Liz was like, ‘I need you to be more despicable. Just absolutely demean her and be the worst person that you could be right now,’” Marsden recalls. “That’s not a comfortable thing for me to do, especially with people that I love and I care about. I know it’s acting, but you know, you have to tap into your angriest, nastiest side or at least fake it. I’m yelling the C-word at the top of my lungs, holding on to every consonant of the word, and it just doesn’t feel good.”
While shooting the fight scene, the follow-up flashbacks that were filmed in season two, and even during ADR sessions, Feldman pushed Marsden to find fresh ways to take Steve’s anger as far as he could so it would make sense when Jen snaps and semi-accidentally kills him. “We would do an incredible take, the director would yell cut, and he’d be like, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Feldman recalls him saying to Applegate. “He felt in-his-bones terrible even having to pretend to be that kind of man. He just had such a sweet and sensitive approach to playing this monster.”
That inherent sweetness helped make Steve likable even when all evidence suggested he wasn’t. And though he didn’t know it at the time, that sweetness would also inform the Dead to Me character Marsden would take on next.
The (Second) Origin Story
Ben Wood would not exist if Marsden hadn’t sent Feldman an email.
The actor knew full well that Steve would wind up dead in Jen’s swimming pool at the end of season one, but he was still sad not to be returning for season two. So after the show debuted in May 2019, Marsden sent what he describes as a love letter to Feldman, congratulating her on the show’s success, telling her how much he enjoyed working with her and asking, only half-kiddingly, if there was any chance he could return for season two.
“I was like, ‘That was awesome and congratulations and why have I spent the last 24 hours Googling the possibilities if a human can survive a head injury slash drowning?,’” Marsden recalls writing in the email. “‘Is there a way? I mean, is he really dead?’”
Feldman was touched, amused and then inspired.
“I did immediately think, twin,” she says. “I sat down with one of my best friends, Kelly Hutchinson, who’s also a writer on the show, and I told her about James’s email. We looked at each other, and we were both like, ‘Twins?’”
While Feldman was well aware that a surprise twin sounded like a ridiculous, soapy idea on its face, the challenge of playing with the trope while also remaining grounded in reality proved too tempting. So she and Dead to Me’s writers created Ben, a chiropractor, who, unlike his brother, cares about others and is inherently decent. She wanted him to display the opposite of Steve’s confidence, so she saddled him with long-standing issues: a drinking problem he sometimes struggles with and a heart defect that magnifies his insecurities about always being overshadowing by his brother. To add another layer to Ben’s presence, Feldman imagined a romance developing between him and Jen, one complicated by the fact that every time Jen looked into Ben’s eyes, she would see the eyes of the man she murdered.
Feldman went back to Marsden with the concept, two weeks after he’d sent his email, to see what he thought.
“First, I went, ‘Well, that could be hilarious,’” Marsden says. “‘Two, that could be a disaster.’ How can I pull that off, you know? Because I’ve never done that before. That said, I feel like if you were to define what I’ve been doing the last 25 years of my career, it’s jumping all over the place, playing weird, different characters.”
“He agreed right there on the phone that it was something he wanted to do,” Feldman says.
The ‘Semi-Identical’ Twin
On his first day back on the Dead to Me set last September, Marsden took a couple of days to find his footing as this new character.
“I saw Christina, and I hadn’t seen her in ages,” he says. “She gave me a big hug and then her first words out of her mouth were, as she looked directly into my eyes, ‘Uh, so twin, huh?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to give it the old college try.’ She’s like, ‘No pressure, Marsden, but the season is kind of depending on you.’”
Applegate was joking, but Marsden knew Ben needed to seem like a totally different person. So for starters, the actor adjusted his physicality: While Steve held his shoulders back and his chest out, like a man with something to prove, Ben hunched over. “He was just a little stiffer with everything,” Marsden says. “Words would fall out of his mouth like bricks instead of floating on the air.”
Marsden asked Feldman to flag him any time he dipped back into the old Steve habits. In one scene in which Ben tries to lift Jen’s spirits (and essentially seduce her into feeling better), Feldman thought Marsden was leaning too far into the Steve zone. “She was like, ‘Maybe cheer her up but with a little less confidence,’” he recalls. “She was really great at guiding me and making sure that this guy felt like a complete, separate person.”
In another scene, in episode five, Ben reveals to Jen that he used to take dance lessons and starts to demonstrate some of his moves. The script, written by Hutchinson, originally called for Ben to tap-dance, which concerned Marsden, since he doesn’t know how. Ultimately Feldman told him to just improvise and be silly. During the scene, Marsden does part of a time step, then gearshifts into the worm, a break-dance spin, and a Magic Mike–esque body roll. “I was possessed by Ben at that point,” he says. “I was like, What would he try to do that would fail?”
While the scene is played for laughs, it also tells the audience something important about Ben: He’s willing to make fun of himself, especially if it brings someone else a burst of joy. There’s a humility on display that Steve and his massive ego could never summon.
To Feldman, the scene that best demonstrates Marsden’s capacity to balance Ben’s conflicting emotions comes in episode six, when he and Jen go to the police station. Ben thinks the cops might have found his brother’s body, but they haven’t. Afterward, he breaks down in tears, apologizing to Jen as he does so. Like so many scenes on Dead to Me, it captures genuine grief while still landing as a piece of comedy.
“Maybe I’m a sick individual, but I often find crying to be quite funny. If you sit outside of the feeling and just observe it visually, it’s pretty ridiculous sometimes,” Feldman says. “He went from really, truly crying to being extremely funny, almost seeming like a little boy who’s apologizing for crying. That was a pretty great encapsulation of Ben.”
Both Feldman and Marsden agree that Ben is much closer to Marsden’s personality than Steve is, which is one reason the actor admits that he enjoyed playing Steve a little more. In season two, thanks to those flashbacks to Steve and Jen’s fight, he got his chance to revisit the role.
“When I had to get in Steve’s costume, I would step on set and make a joke,” Marsden says, laughing. “I’d be like, ‘What’s up, fuck sticks? I’m done with the Ben thing. Only the strong survive, motherfuckers!’ Of course, [everyone was] like, Great, he just couldn’t stay dead, could he?”
Marsden may get to be a jerk yet again, even in the guise of Ben. He and Feldman won’t say much about where Dead to Me’s third and final season is going, but based on the way the second season ended — Ben, driving drunk, hits the car that Jen and Judy are riding in, then speeds away — we’ll almost certainly see more of Ben’s shadowy side.
“Whether or not he remembers that accident is up for question,” Marsden says. “I don’t have any solid information about the facts, so I just have to look at it with my own interpretation, which is I know that he can go to dark, dark places.”