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James Marsden embraces his goofy side

Hollywood’s leading men are usually perfect physical specimens. Those who aren’t become character actors.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hollywood’s leading men are usually perfect physical specimens. Those who aren’t become character actors.

Except James Marsden. He’s pursued quirky characters despite his leading-man looks. Marsden is the guy on the sidelines, the goofy one who doesn’t get the girl. So his face is familiar but not immediately identifiable.

“Most people are like, ‘Didn’t we go to high school together?’” said the 35-year-old actor, whose screen credits include “Superman Returns,” “The Notebook” and three “X-Men” movies.

Marsden is taking a “slow-burn” approach; choosing roles that appeal to him in the hope that a gradual and meandering ascent will lead to a long and varied career.

“In going for the movie-star thing, the lead-guy thing, I’ve managed to have this whole sidetrack thing going where I’m playing these silly roles and doing great, offbeat, different things,” he said. “It was just to have fun being an actor, entertain yourself while you’re going for the gold. There was the career path and the work path. And now the work path has sort of become the career path.”

After his roles in big-budget movies such as “Hairspray” (he played Corny Collins), “Enchanted” (he was the prince who lost his princess to Patrick Dempsey) and “27 Dresses” (where he finally got the girl), Marsden plays a foul-mouthed bigot in the independent teen comedy “Sex Drive,” in theaters Friday.

He steals every scene as Rex, an overbearing tough guy who mercilessly teases his virginal younger brother.

Surprisingly funnyDirector Sean Anders had reservations about casting Marsden.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, this is some pretty-boy actor who wants to be in a comedy and thinks he’s funny but isn’t,’” Anders said.

Then he saw an audition tape that Marsden recorded for a different movie. Marsden was so ego-less and goofy, he used his computer Web cam to film himself reading lines for the role he wanted.

“By the end of it, I was like, ‘Can we really get this guy?’” Anders said.

Marsden wanted to do comedy, especially after his turn as Cyclops in the “X-Men” movies. Even after “Hairspray” and “Enchanted,” though, he longed for something edgier. With “Sex Drive,” he could see the character in his mind: the muscle shirts, the highlighted hair.

Marsden said he also hoped the part might catch the eye of Judd Apatow, director of “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

“This is completely over the top, and it’s so different from anything you’ve seen me do,” he said. “Now I feel like people will go, ‘OK, he’s funny. He can do comedy. But then I’ve got to put the brakes on a little bit and remind people I can do other things.”

‘I just started having fun with the roles’Though he happily plays quirky roles, Marsden hasn’t taken his eye off the leading-man prize. “I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t aspire to that,” he said. “I want to be a version of that. ... But I’m more like these weirdo, wacky, stupid characters I keep playing in these movies.”

The Oklahoma native began acting in junior high. After a brief stint in college, he headed to Los Angeles, where he had a string of small parts before landing a role in 2000’s “X-Men.” The following year, his wife, actress Lisa Linde, gave birth to their first child.

“I just sort of loosened up a little bit and stopped trying to navigate every little point, all of this career trajectory,” he said. “I just started having more fun with the roles and choosing more fun roles.”

He’s a bit daunted about being the leading man; to play, as he puts it, a nuance of himself rather than a caricature.

But Anders said it’s inevitable.

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“He’s going to become more of a leading man as time goes by because everyone who works with him is so impressed with what he does,” he said. “He is great-looking, yet you can still laugh at him and laugh with him. He’s got such a real quality about him that guys aren’t put off by him. Everybody’s seen how great he is in other genres, and how he can be so funny in ‘Enchanted’ and ‘Sex Drive.’ The guy’s got range.”

The slow-burn approach suits Marsden just fine.

“I just want to stay in the game and keep working,” he said. “The ideal career for me is to be able to let whatever inspires you creatively dictate what you choose to do, then the financial stability and all that stuff follows.”