James Marsden Finally Took a Swing at Improv in ‘Jury Duty’ — And It Paid off Big Time

TheWrap Magazine: The actor got to realize a lifelong dream to make people laugh (and poke fun at himself) in the Amazon Freevee series

This story about James Marsden’s deep dive into the world of improv comedy in “Jury Duty” first appeared in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Based on James Marsden’s history of playing impossibly handsome leading men — and often, would-be leading men — in movies including “27 Dresses,” “Enchanted,” “The Notebook” and the “X-Men” films, a burning ambition to do comedy wouldn’t be the first thing you’d imagine he’s been harboring all this time.

But the laughs have always been the Oklahoma native’s first love. “Before I moved out here (to L.A.), I wanted to be a regular on ‘SNL.’ Not a host — I wanted to actually be one of the cast,” Marsden said during a recent interview in Los Angeles. “I just felt like that played to my strengths. I was never that comfortable playing the super leading man. I was more interested in the character actors, the goofy roles.”

So when David Bernad approached him about a series he was exec-producing that was not only funny but also preposterously off-the-wall original, Marsden was intrigued. Created by Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, who were writer-producers on “The Office,” Amazon Freevee’s “Jury Duty” shares plenty of DNA with that beloved NBC comedy. Only think of it as the version where everyone at Dundler Mifflin knows what’s being filmed is fake — everyone but, say, Dwight Schrute.

A mockumentary series, “Jury Duty” chronicles the goings-on of a fake trial in which every juror but one — a solar panel salesman from San Diego named Ronald Gladden — is an actor and fully aware of the production. Marsden plays Juror No. 14, an exaggerated, vainglorious version of James Marsden, Big Movie Star. Or, as he puts it, a “petulant brat” whose unfiltered industry chatter he likens to Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” character.

“It was extremely liberating. I enjoyed it a little too much,” said Marsden, who also reprised his role as a set of twins in the final season of Netflix’s “Dead to Me” and appeared in Starz’ “Party Down reboot” as a self-absorbed movie star named (hilariously) Jack Botty. “It was such a fun idea to lampoon your cliché Hollywood, entitled, egocentric actor guy who doesn’t want to have any other conversation other than what his next project is.”

“I’ve been doing this for decades, and I’ve never done anything like this before, so that was the appeal, but also the source of terror,” he added. “I love the world of improv comedy. It was an opportunity for me to get in there and play, but I wasn’t ready for everything it entailed.”

That included lots and lots of improv, not to mention staying in character all day, through hours of tedious court proceedings, even when cameras weren’t rolling.

“This was the closest thing to method acting I’ve ever really done, to be honest,” Marsden said. “You’re in it, and you’re staying there all day, and parts of you — who you really are — can come in, but you have to weave in the scripted moments as well and find little moments for ridiculousness.”

Marsden was also concerned about the series turning into a mean-spirited prank show that made Gladden (who, by the way, is nothing like Dwight Schrute) the butt of a joke.

“I thought many times I was jumping the shark where my career is over. Who’s gonna see this? Is it even funny? Is it a nice thing to do to somebody?” Marsden said. “It always felt like it was gonna be an either/or thing: We were either gonna do something really nice for this guy and celebrate his humanity and the comedy wouldn’t be there, or it’d be really funny and maybe skew a little mean or cruel. I didn’t want to do anything to humiliate him.”

In the end, the show plotted out a hero’s journey for Gladden, who led the jurors to unity and whose compassion regularly brought out the best in everyone. For instance, while the rest of the jurors avoided Todd, the annoying “nerd” character, Gladden befriended him and watched “A Bugs Life” with him. And when Gladden did find out that the trial was all a lark, Marsden made sure he knew that the friendship they’d built was sincere. They are still in touch to this day.

“We’re kind of hoisting him on our shoulders at the end and celebrating him and his pure-hearted- ness,” Marsden said. “A little sweet humanity is a good thing.”

Read more from the Comedy Series issue here.

Comedy Series Cover, Selena Gomez
Photographed by Jeff Vespa