Dead to Me is over, and I’m a wreck. No more Jen (Christina Applegate) and Judy (Linda Cardellini); no more death metal; no more reeling at the bizarre idea that some cops are nice; no more just enjoying two best friends having a great time. I’m even going to miss Jen’s horrible children. And that cat! With the little collar! WITH A BELL!
I didn’t even mention that this means no more James Marsden, who’s killed it right alongside his co-stars for all three seasons of the Netflix black comedy. But then, it’s easy to forget James Marsden. Case in point: While working on this story about how wonderful James Marsden is, I’ve written the name “Patrick Wilson” more than once.
For most of his career, Marsden has felt peripheral to the cast, even when he’s the lead role. When he pops up as a handsome, successful, somewhat cookie-cutter secondary lead, I instead think of where we have seen him before. I become that meme of Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, pointing at his TV screen: “Hey, isn’t that Cyclops?”
I admit that, for a long time, I wrote Marsden off. He either played a handsome, soft rom-com antagonist or a handsome, minor bit player in ensemble productions like Hairspray or X-Men. He hardly stood out to me on his own, even as he kept popping up countless things I watched—and is, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, very handsome.
But throughout 2022, Marsden quietly became one of the most recognizable faces on our screens. With a slew of lead roles on screens both big and small, he has become more visible than ever—a presence that is both long overdue and well-deserved.
His television turns this year have particularly stood out. Marsden returned as beautiful cowboy Teddy Flood, in Westworld’s fourth (and final) season back in June. Five months later, he reprised his dual roles in Dead to Me’s final season, playing a pair of identical twins.
Initially, none of these roles felt unique from the typical James Marsden flavor when the shows premiered. In Westworld, Marsden appears as the stereotypical cowboy lead: handsome, mostly jawline, and looks like he’s got nice arms. In Dead to Me’s first season, he’s Judy’s rich, successful, villainous ex-fiancé. But in both of these shows, Masrden’s characters gain an edge. In Westworld, Marsden is challenged to keep up with the show’s devolution into a subversive mess, while in Dead to Me, his clean-cut image is laced with jock-like aggression and abusive behavior that ultimately gets Steve killed. In Season 2, Marsden manifests his own comeback, returning to play Steve’s goofy, lovable, alcoholic twin brother Ben.
Having Marsden play his character’s twin was a risky, almost soap opera-like move. Yet Dead to Me pulled it off, in no small part due to Marsden’s acting chops. “In the hands of a lesser actor,” creator Liz Feldman told the LA Times in 2020, following the show’s second season premiere, “it might not have transcended the trope.”
Instead of a staid cliche, Dead to Me’s twin twist forced us to consider how much we might have misjudged Marsden throughout the first decade or so of his career. A history of ostensibly dull, disposable characters—the hapless Prince Edward in Enchanted; the humiliated Cyclops in the original X-Men trilogy Lois Lane’s doomed ex-boyfriend in Man of Steel—belies that Marsden has been quietly killing it the whole time. Looking back, there’s a huge amount of range in James Marsden’s career: action movies, comedies, romance, dramas, even a musical. While he never stood out above the pack in these movies, he never stood out as a weak link, either. Instead, even when he’s being upstaged, Marsden has always felt at home on our screens.
Though maybe upstaged is the wrong word. Dead to Me convinced me that Marsden has been doing something else all along: bolstering his cast mates. Throughout the show’s three seasons, we’ve fawned over Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini—is this not everyone’s default state, with Dead to Me or otherwise?—but Marsden consistently provided a seabed in which to anchor their performances. It’s unselfish, generous acting, as he allows himself to recede into the background in order to elevate everyone around him. This is Marsden’s modus operandi as an actor even when that someone might be a blue, computer-generated, anthropomorphic “hedgehog.”
It’s even more impressive when taking into account how Marsden’s two characters, despite being twins, are completely opposite of each other. The guilt that Jen feels every time she sees Ben, for instance, is multiplied by how well Marsden sells Ben’s devotion to her. (Jen’s guilt comes from killing Steve, after learning that he and Judy were driving the car that hit and killed Jen’s husband; Jen later dates Ben.) He convinces us of Ben’s ineffable kindness and sensitivity, just as well as he sold us on Steve’s slimy shiftiness—a man so vile that we’re glad when Jen nuts him with a wooden bird at the end of Season 1.
His linchpin acting abilities are much easier to see than ever before in Dead to Me—perhaps because he’s playing two characters. But we’ve had ample opportunities to watch him flex this unique muscle throughout the year. Despite Westworld’s diminishing returns, Marsden’s earnest Teddy was a core foil to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in Seasons 1 and 2. After missing Season 3, his return for the show’s final outing was greatly appreciated; absence makes the heart grow fonder.
“Yes, it’s easy to forget about James Marsden—but that’s why he’s so great.”
This month’s belated Enchanted sequel, Disney+’s Disenchanted, may or may not be mostly pretty bad, but it also provided another fun romp for Marsden to flop around in. That he’s reprising his role in a fan-favorite film is also a good sign that he’s got career longevity.
There was also Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in April, which somehow transcended the CGI/live action-hybrid doldrums of Disney remakes and other messes to become something special. As Sonic’s father figure Tom, Marsden plays opposite an almost entirely computer-generated cast. Yet, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 leans into everything that makes Marsden so solid an actor, letting his soft, calming presence become a straight-man foil to Sonic’s haywire adventures.
Yes, it’s easy to forget about James Marsden—but that’s why he’s so great. He melts into performances in an utterly convincing way, even when juggling more than one character in the same show.
It takes a good actor to make a character believable. But it takes a great actor to do that and elevate their cast mates to that same level. Perhaps those years of serving as a supporting actor were actually intentional—they were just James Marsden being supportive. He is not the kind of actor who wants to hog the limelight; instead, he works for the betterment of those around him, and the film or show. He’s just done this subtly enough that it took now for us to notice.
In 2022, it’s clearer than ever, with Marsden boosting those around him not once but four times, in four wildly different contexts. This year, more than ever before, has been a benchmark of just how the features of his acting that have been used to criticize him are, in fact, what make him so good at what he does.