Interview with James Marsden: "I guess I like to keep confusing people"
Man of the hour
The IWC boutique at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mimics the warmth of a yuppie's living room; it's something you might find in a Proof Living catalogue. There's a fireplace at its heart, a Christmas tree at the corner — subtly reminding of 2016's near-end — while a two-seater couch flanked by a chair and a sleek glass table make for creature comforts. The light, however, is stark and bright. A reminder that you're not actually in a mate's home, but a luxury watch boutique where clients pore over Swiss-made investments. James Marsden and I sit on each end of the said couch, and by all intents and purposes, the setting paints quite a picture.
That is, if you ignore the handful of boutique employees in the room. Yet I try to milk our interview as an intimate chat as much as I can. From the get-go, the dynamics seem professional. Upon introductions, the 43-year-old actor flashes me with a mega-watt smile that Hollywood's trained him for, and I match that with a timid uncertainty of where to sit.
"So, you've starred in a range of films from drama and comedy to action and musicals. Which is your favourite genre?" I ask. There's a considered pause. In town to present an award at IWC and Marina Bay Sands' For the Love of Cinema Gala at the Singapore International Film Festival, Marsden's arrival signifies his introduction as an official ambassador of the watch brand (he was previously referred to as a "friend"), as well as IWC's strengthening relationship with the film festival.
Marsden's visit scores brownie points for the festival as well. Instead of just banking on an international actor's star quality, the folks have chosen Marsden just as his profile is trending. His role as Teddy Flood in Westworld — a HBO remake of the 1973 film — has propelled the actor back into the forefront of pop culture, with Marsden doing the talk show circuit and accumulating a healthy (and growing) fanbase since the series debut in October.
"I enjoy all of them," he finally responds, admitting that it's a tough question to answer. "I think movies like Enchanted and Hairspray are probably less torturing than doing something that makes you rip your heart open." Dressed simply in a dark blue polo where tightly fitted sleeves reveal a strenuous fitness regime, Marsden offers me a polite smile in the space between questions.
The Oklahoma native doesn't attempt to loosen up, nor does he engage me in an off-coloured comment that might be used as a click-bait headline for this story. Instead, he replies each question earnestly, calculatedly and succinctly. After question number three, however, I notice signs of him warming. He crosses his legs moments after I do the same. Later, when I clasp my hands over one knee, he follows suit. Could this subconscious mirroring technique signal the beginnings of rapport? I dive right in.
Does each film genre you delve into teach you different things about yourself?
For sure. Comedies teach me that nobody wants to watch somebody having a terrible time. When you're enjoying yourself and having a great time doing what you're doing, people are going to want to watch that. I learnt that with comedy. When you actually genuinely enjoy the process, that joy comes off on screen and it's one of the reasons why people like watching it.
What about when you're doing something far more intense like in Westworld?
That's enjoyable on a whole different level. I got to learn how to shoot guns and ride horses, but it's more calculated, I guess. In comedies you can be still calculative with humour, but with Westworld, it's a leap of faith with not really knowing what the next episode is going to entail and where the story is going. You kind of put your trust in Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy [creators of Westworld]. I've never played a robot before.
But you said in an interview before that being an actor is sort of being a robot.
These hosts are indistinguishable from humans — they should feel very human-like. There is nothing about them that isn't — other than their mechanical or electronical guts. So we really approach everything as humans and how we would play the scene. And then Jonathan would come in and tweak us a little. For the most part, I was just playing Teddy as a human.
Some of your roles have also involved singing, and I know that you used to play in a band back in Oklahoma. How did this interest in music start?
I've been playing guitar since I was 14. I should be a lot better than I am, having played that long. I took lessons for a little while from a classical guitarist... all I wanted to learn was AC/DC. Sweet Child O' Mine riffs. Music has always been a big thing in my family. My father and mother both were singers. They didn't really do much with it professionally but my mom would sing around the house. I was a mimic. I would emulate artists that inspired me so I try to sound like them. Then the challenge became finding your own voice as a singer.
Would you write your own stuff?
I've tried and it's a different muscle for sure. I don't feel as naturally gifted as a writer. But I still exercise that and try to write. I'm just that guy that, if it's not the greatest song ever written, I don't want to complete it (laughs). I don't ever finish my songs. I love doing it, and I love that I can do it and it doesn't have to be my livelihood. It'll just be my joy.
Speaking of being in a band back home, what do you miss most about Oklahoma?
The big skies.
Do you miss mowing lawns?
I do miss mowing lawns. Very therapeutic. $20 a lawn, that was my job. I miss the smell of cut grass. You just smell leaf blowers in LA (laughs).
What are your other hobbies?
"Films feel like memories, and the good ones, you find something that you respond to in the performance, or in the writing. I THINK it reminds us to feel."What kind of photos do you take?
Well, I got an old Polaroid camera from the '70s when I was going to Paris for X-Men press. I learnt the actual science of what makes a photo great: The light direction, the aperture, the shutter speed and ISO. Once it all finally clicks, I had to teach myself how to make a great photograph and have it not be an accident. I got a Leica M6, which is a fully manual film camera with great optics. First [photos] was architecture, and then I had kids, I became a portrait photographer taking photos of them, which is the toughest. It's like sports photography. They never stop, they're always moving so you constantly have to focus.
Are you the kind of parent who likes to show pictures of their kids to everyone?
I do. Yeah, I do, whether they like to see it or not.
When did you get into watches?
Embarrasingly, my dad did give me a watch and I didn't really care about them at that time. I didn't know he got me a super fancy one. I left it at my bedside table and it was stolen by the housekeeper. But then I was given an IWC Portofino after that when we wrapped Ally McBeal. I started working with this stylist Ilaria Urbinati who turned me on to IWC and her relationship with them. And I thought, "Wait a second, I have one already". Like I did with photography, I wanted to learn. What is an in-house movement? What is a perpetual calendar? I'm just fascinated with it. I became a bit of a watch nerd. I don't have some massive collection but I do have a few nice pieces. I rather have a couple of new nice things than a bunch of average things I guess.
Do you collect anything else?
I collect guitars as well. I just started getting into wall art, something I never knew anything about really. I love finely made, interesting things. I don't really collect anything digital. I got into cars for a while but those are expensive hobbies, so I can't do that all the time.
What's your cheapest hobby then?
I would say food, but that's probably my most expensive to be honest — because I have nothing to show for it. You eat it and it's gone. My cheapest hobby or collection... running shorts? (laughs) I don't really have cheap hobbies to be honest... coffee mugs? I've got a nice collection of talk show coffee mugs: Ellen [DeGeneres], Jimmy Fallon... they're all free.
What do you think your collection of IWC watches tells you about yourself? Which one are you wearing now?
There are some other lines from IWC that get far more complicated, but I'm sort of a traditionalist, just a purist by heart. When this [IWC Portugieser Hand-Wound 8 Days Edition "75th Anniversary" timepiece] came out I was like, "The dial is so balanced and so simple." I respond to things like that. Even if it's a film, it doesn't bash you over the head with its theme. Suits: Clean, perfect, elegant, nothing too crazy flashy.
I look at the watches that I have and they're all very sophisticated, but very elegant and very finely made. The ones that I have are usually in-house IWC movements. I love the workmanship that goes into them. Things are slapped together so easily nowadays, but IWC is making works of art — all handmade — and I appreciate that.
What advice would you give to someone who's looking for their first IWC watch?
Trust your instincts. Sometimes getting something simpler is more interesting. When you're in the IWC world, you're always going to get a great watch. So go with what you respond to. It should be, at the end of day, like buying a piece of art. What do you respond to? What are you drawn to? You can learn about them all you want, or you don't. Some people wear a $200,000 watch but they don't know how it's made or what's going on in the inside.
How does being a friend of IWC add to your film career?
I'm very lucky because I think there's a certain cache with this brand and to be associated with that is pretty special. It puts you in good company with mature, elegant product and that's the kind of film that I would like to make. That's the kind of career I want to have. It's a good synergy.
Tell us more about the kind of film career you want to have.
I just want to keep having one, I think that's the biggest thing for me. I obviously want to do good work but there comes a time where it's about longevity, you just want to stay in the game, stay at the table and keep doing good work. I've been very lucky to have been afforded the ability to do all kinds of different movies. I guess I like to keep confusing people.
Is there a role or genre you really want to try?
I've never done a biopic, that'd be kind of interesting. Like Sinatra.
What's your favourite Sinatra song?
I guess All the Way is a favourite of mine. I can't be put on the spot. Fly Me To The Moon... I don't know if I have one favourite.
What do you love most about cinema?
What I love most about cinema is what it brings out in you. I was on the flight over here and I was watching a film, and a good movie always pulls something out of you that you may have forgotten about. You might have an emotion that hasn't been touched on in awhile, and it reminds you. Films feel like memories, and the good ones, you find something that you respond to in that movie, or in the performance or in the writing. I think it reminds us to feel. They make us feel, and step away from our sometimes mundane or exciting reality but they present a story, and it's like reading a great book.
What film were you watching?
Captain Fantastic with Viggo Mortensen, he's home-schooling his kids in the woods without their mother. It's a challenge for the audience to think differently about how to raise kids and what's important. It's very simple and very sweet.
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