We’ve seen James Marsden in many roles — as superhero Cyclops in X Men, a prince in Ella Enchanted, John F. Kennedy in The Butler.
But rarely have we seen the 41-year-old model-turned-actor as a full-fledged adult leading man. Wait no more. Marsden has top billing in The Best of Me, the latest epic love story from Nicholas Sparks, whom he worked with on The Notebook. In that 2004 tear-jerker, Marsden played second fiddle to Ryan Gosling. In The Best of Me, out Friday, Marsden is the star dreamboat: Dawson, a man with a troubled past who after 20 some odd years reunites with his high school sweetheart Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) in their Louisiana hometown after a mutual friend dies. While Amanda is married with kids, Dawson is still single. Surprise, surprise; neither has gotten over one another.
We talked to Marsden from the Mandarin Oriental Miami Hotel, and in person, he’s distractingly handsome — with piercing blue eyes, an impossibly chiseled jaw and a warm, open grin. So that’s where those laugh lines come from. How refreshingly un-Hollywood: Marsden wears his wrinkles with pride.
Dawson had a rough upbringing. How did you incorporate that abuse into playing the character?
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Yeah, he had a really evil dad. I think with those storylines some people think, ‘That’s not real. Families don’t behave that way.’ But I grew up in Oklahoma and had friends whose fathers were just brutal in the way they disciplined their kids. You read about these cases all the time in the news. With these type villains, they always think their cause is justified, like, ‘I’m doing this for your own good, giving you this hard love.’ But it’s twisted. Any child who can get out of that situation, it’s a gift. There’s something better out there. That’s how I treated that with my character: Don’t succumb to the violence. Dawson had so few experiences with people who opened their heart to him and that were a light in his life, a positive influence. So when he did find someone, he wanted to stay in their gravity field and maybe become a better person for it.
What was it like seeing your character age over the years?
It was fun. I’ve really never been aged before for a role. But what they did on the outside matched what I have recently been feeling on the inside. To kind of have a better grasp of of the ways things are — and in that same breath — have no idea about life. It keeps you humble.
Could you relate to the evolution of Amanda and Dawson’s relationship?
[Laughs.] Young love is all about dopamine, chemicals spiking out of your body — all emotion and impulse and what you’re feeling and thinking is just right out of your mouth! Then then you get older and realize the nuances and difficulties of love and what you have to do to keep it alive. Life is tricky, and you have to navigate with somebody. I like the adult element of that.
What drew you to the script?
I always gravitate more to love stories with older people. Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall was one of my favorites. I mean, when you hear a 17-year-old singing about getting your heart broken ... what do you really know about the hardness of life yet? What do you know about the depth and complexity of love? I’m not taking anything away from young love, but it’s nice to see two adults — with all the mistakes and promises and scars — still have very strong feelings for each other. They are figuring out the dynamics and how they will proceed from here on out. The pain of the past doesn’t negate the fact that they are still drawn to each other. They are aware of how unique and special it is to feel that way even at that age.
How did the cast keep it light with such intense subject matter?
Michelle is really a professional. She came to the set grinning from ear to ear. Plus she’s experienced some life: She’s married with kids. I was married; I have three kids. We brought those personal elements to the table to make it more real. Something about the story resonates with her, and it certainly does with me. We share that connection with our scenes and our dialogue. You want to remind the audience why Amanda and Dawson are so good together.