Character Building

How Jury Duty’s James Marsden Became a Celebrity Jerk, but “Not a Sociopath”

The actor’s high-wire act of improv and self-deprecation earned him his first Emmy nomination.
How 'Jury Duty' Star James Marsden Became a Celebrity Jerk but “Not a Sociopath”
Courtesy of Amazon Freevee.

“First of all, I appreciate you making the distinction that it’s a character,” says James Marsden with a laugh. “That’s my first little victory there: Let me make sure everybody knows this isn’t really me.”

Marsden is talking about the character “James Marsden” he plays on Jury Duty, the breakout hit show that landed him his first Emmy nomination. He’s relieved that most people—and Emmy voters, clearly—seem to know he was taking on a role, despite the character’s having his name and backstory.

In Amazon Freevee’s series, which also scored a surprise best-comedy-series nomination, Marsden plays celebrity and juror James Marsden. His new colleague is Juror #6, Ronald Gladden, a real-life person who thinks he has been summoned to regular jury duty. In reality, Gladden is the subject of a hidden-camera show in which everyone else on the jury and in the courtroom is an actor, with the entire show built to showcase his reaction to the absurdity around him.

Many of the show’s most ridiculous situations are thanks to Marsden, who enters the story as a Hollywood star who very much wants to use his fame to get out of jury duty, and then later spends much of his time name-dropping the new film he’s going out for, throwing a few celebrity tantrums along the way. “I find it a lot of fun to play the guy who thinks he’s the greatest gift to everybody, but he’s just a big jackass,” says Marsden, who spoke to Vanity Fair on the day of his Emmy nomination and two days before the SAG-AFTRA strike began.

For Marsden, whose credits include Dead to Me and Westworld, the opportunity was exciting because it was such “fertile ground for coming up with funny, kind of foolish things to do as this guy—someone who’s just desperate for attention, desperate to remind people that he’s better than jury duty.”

While the role may have seemed silly on paper, Marsden had to find a way to make sure his character remained sympathetic in the eyes of both the audience and the unsuspecting Gladden. He says there were hours and hours of Marsden and Gladden just chatting and being friendly that were left on the cutting-room floor. It was a tightrope act of improvisation to keep his character likable enough, even when he was doing wild and obnoxious things. “If I was a despicable prick all the time,” he says, “he just never would sit next to me or never engage.”

Jury Duty’s James Marsden looks exactly like actor James Marsden and has the same backstory. In terms of the character’s style, Marsden combined some of his more everyday looks with costumes. “I didn’t want him too fancy,” he says, “but definitely not too pedestrian either. You couldn’t go too high-concept with what he was wearing or too broad, or else it would signal that this is a show.” When we first meet him, the character is wearing those iconic celebrity clothing staples, like a black baseball hat. “And he’s got the earbuds in his ears because he wants to make a visual statement: ‘I don’t really wanna be bothered. All I do is take selfies all day long. Leave me alone,’” says Marsden.

But the outward appearance—and the character’s natural charm—is where the parallels to real-life Marsden end. He imbued the character with many of the flaws you’d expect in a Hollywood celebrity: an inflated ego, an obliviousness to the real world, and a strong streak of self-entitlement. “The guy’s just, like, a bit tone-deaf and kind of a dummy. He’s had other people think for him his whole career,” says Marsden. “That just shows how some Hollywood celebrities can exist in a bubble that is just so different than the reality that most human beings live in.”

You see, the real James Marsden is a very nice guy. When he signed on to the unusual project, he had one main priority: “It was imperative to me from the beginning that I don’t wanna be a part of a prank show,” he says. “It’s mean-spirited to turn the screws to [Gladden] or make him the butt of the joke.”

The humor would have to come from the ridiculousness of Marsden’s character and the situations happening around Gladden. This would require Marsden and the rest of the cast to improvise in every scene, based on whatever Gladden did in the moment. The writers for Jury Duty had created scripts—several versions of scripts, actually—that served as an outline for Marsden, who would then have to improv in the moment. “The writers are the unsung heroes of this show,” he says, complimenting the scripts that were made up of only stage directions. “I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did if all of that wasn’t there. I was reading those scripts and just howling with laughter at the circumstances that were created by these really, really funny people.”

At the start of every day, Marsden and the other actors would meet with the team to go over the scenarios for the day and how they could pivot based on what Gladden did in the moment. “Every day there were conversations about: ‘If he does this, what would be fun to say? If he goes this direction, what would be a good moment to really make an ass of myself?’” says Marsden.

Some of those crazy situations involve Marsden immersing himself in the role of Caleb for his potential new film, Lone Pine; helping a fellow juror to lose his virginity; and clogging up Gladden’s toilet (but of course claiming it “was already in there”). One of the most difficult moments for Marsden, however, was a scene featuring another juror’s surprise birthday celebration in a park. Marsden shows up and mistakenly believes the event is a pity party for him because he’s just lost out on an acting role. He angrily flips the cake off the table and throws a full-on Hollywood tantrum. “As soon as I flipped the cake, I saw him hang his head,” says Marsden of Gladden. “I was just like, I can’t do anymore. I can’t do this to this guy. It wasn’t anything directed at him, but because he cared about these people, it affected him, and that was always the hard part. Anything that affected him in a negative way, I resisted and pushed back on.”

Marsden hadn’t anticipated that Gladden’s reactions would so deeply affect him. “What surprised me were moments where I was making an ass of myself, but it upset him because he’s so empathic,” he says.

Even in his worst moments, Marsden had to make sure his character was never a one-note bad guy. He delivers a layer of vulnerability to the character, so that even in that cake-flipping scene, you feel sorry for him. He may be a celebrity jerk, but he feels like a real person, which was the only way the show could be a success. “I think the big decision for me was to find a moment to inject a little bit of that humanity of myself, too, into the James Marsden ‘jackass’ character I created, so that there was more dimension to him,” says Marsden. “There is a person in there that’s upset and his ego’s hurt, and in those moments you realize, Well, he’s not a sociopath.”

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