Though he may still best be known for his breakout role as Cyclops in Bryan Singer’s original X-Men (and its two sequels), James Marsden’s career ever since has been every bit as colorful, appearing in films like Enchanted, Superman Returns and The Notebook. His latest role is that of Fred O’Hare in Hop, a 30-something slacker who, while trying to find some direction in his life, winds up the unlikely partner of E.B. (Russell Brand), a talking rabbit who just happens to be the next in line to inherit the title of Easter Bunny.
Hop is the second film from Illumination Entertainment, whose debut, Despicable Me, was one of the runaway hits of 2010 and, in addition to Marsden and Brand, features the voicework of Hank Azaria and Hugh Laurie as well as live action parts for Gary Cole, Kaley Cuoco, Chelsea Handler, Elizabeth Perkins and (appearing as himself) David Hasselhoff.
ComingSoon.net had the chance to speak with Marsden at the candy-filled press junket for the film on the Universal lot. Unfortunately, due to timing constraints, the interview had to be done by phone, something that the actor happily laughed off, having spent nearly the entire shoot playing opposite an imaginary bunny.
ComingSoon.net: So, yes, this is going to be just like talking to a rabbit.
James Marsden: Exactly. Without the British accent.
CS: I can do a British accent if that’s throwing you off.
Marsden: Actually, I think I’ve had my fill of that. (Laughs)
CS: I wanted to start off by asking how you got involved with “Hop.” I know you’ve said that you made it for your own kids and since you’ve stepped into a lot of bigger-than-life worlds in movies, I’m curious whether or not that’s something you actively look for.
Marsden: If I do, it’s on a subconscious level, but I guess you could certainly connect the dots that way. I don’t know. Mainly, I think that the bigger-than-life ones are the ones that everybody sees. I do look back and see a few others that don’t have that tone or that sense of “largeness” to them. But maybe they fall between the cracks and that’s where I should be. But, yeah, when I read the script for this one it was all about doing something for my kids. But also when I read a script, I see myself doing it or I don’t. If I don’t, I’m not really interested in pursuing it no matter who else is on board or who’s directing it. I don’t think that’s really based on the tone of the movie or whether or not it’s bigger than others. I just kind of go by the character and whether or not it’s something different from what I just completed. That’s something else. I like to change it up and mix it up. If I finish a drama, I want to turn around and do a comedy.
CS: Do you find when you’re shooting that the tone on set matches the subject matter? Is something like “Hop” a lot of fun to shoot and a project like your upcoming “Straw Dogs” remake a lot more serious, even when the camera isn’t running?
Marsden: A little bit. It kind of seeps in a little bit. But when the cameras weren’t rolling on “Straw Dogs,” everyone was laughing and joking around. But you don’t have to ascribe to a certain type of atmosphere on-set just because of the tone of the movie. It’s the same with “Hop.” No matter if you’re doing a kid’s movie or doing “Straw Dogs,” I take it all very, very seriously. I don’t want to coast through anything. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to have a good time on set. I do. I just try to stay very focused. “Enchanted” was a kid’s movie, but it was one of the more difficult shoots I’ve ever been on in my life. Mainly because you have the wardrobe and then all the technical stuff. And also not knowing if it was really going to work. But sometimes the movies that you think are going to be easy are the ones that are really difficult. It was a bit like this movie. This was the hardest job I’ve ever had to do.
CS: There are certain times when actors have to interact with 3D characters and you don’t quite buy it. You have a very natural focus on E.B. Is that something that you’re doing on-set or does that come from the post production?
Marsden: That bothers me, when it doesn’t work. Above the acting, that was the most important thing for me on this one. I can’t stand these kind of movies where you see the characters and it doesn’t look like they’re interacting. I was always encouraging the animation artists and everybody to let me physically interact with him — putting him on my back and things like that — because I think there’s a disconnect when you’re working without an animated character who will eventually be there. It takes you out of the movie. It takes me out of the movie. So I put a lot of effort into making that as seamless as possible.
CS: At what stage in the production did you meet Russell?
Marsden: I met Russell a few weeks before we started shooting the movie. He began recording his voiceover work a couple of weeks before we started shooting. Realizing the work that was cut out for me on-set and knowing that my costar wasn’t really going to be there, I wanted to get a glimpse of what he was going to be doing with the character. So I didn’t sit and watch him. I actually read opposite him in a sound recording studio. It was massively helpful for me and hopefully helpful for him, too, in some way to see what I was going to do. The whole movie really is these two characters and you’ve got to have chemistry there, so we tried to forge as much of a relationship as we could before he had to take off.
CS: Fred is a very naive guy, but also very likable. Is it fun to slip into that more childlike persona?
Marsden: Yeah, it really is like slipping into being a kid. You have to remind yourself what it was like to be young and carefree. Fred is a 32-year-old kid. That’s really the key to him. I wouldn’t say he’s naive so much as he is an artist and trying to figure out his path in life. He’s stubborn in that he doesn’t want to settle on doing something that he doesn’t feel passion for. But there’s also a lot of E.B. in Fred. They share a lot of the same personality traits. They share a lot of the same issues they’re going through with their parents. To me, the key to Fred is that he has to be a big kid. He’s gotta be a lovable loser. There are slackers who are just slackers and then there are others where you just have to enjoy the slackerness.
CS: It’s sort of the polar opposite of the character you played in “Sex Drive,” which was pretty much the villain but from a similar walk of life. Is there a big difference in how you approach a comedy bad guy?
Marsden: I’m a little more of a straight guy in “Hop.” I prefer the more character work like “Sex Drive” or “Enchanted.” I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just because it’s something bigger to sink my teeth into. I don’t know. But it’s not about villain or good guy for me. It’s just the richness of the character. That’s sort of my barometer for whether I’ll be a part of it or not.
CS: This film also gives you another opportunity to sing, albeit very briefly.
Marsden: Very briefly. That’s another thing, too. I have to remind people that I’m singing as the character would sing. Fred shouldn’t really have a good voice. You sometimes find yourself having to act like you can’t sing. Then people say, “James Marsden can sing. Why did he sound so bad there?” But that’s because it’s not James Marsden singing. It’s Fred. But yeah, it was fun. I’m somehow finding ways to incorporate singing into every job that I do. I don’t know why.
CS: There’s something I found very refreshing about “Hop” in that the plot is driven by Fred wanting to be the Easter Bunny. There’s not a romantic interest or any of the other sort of cliches of a movie like this. Can you talk about playing up that side of things and finding motivation in something that’s pretty unusual?
Marsden: Well Fred, first of all, had a very special experience when he was a kid that opened him up to believing in a certain form of magic. The sort of bummer thing about growing up and getting older is that that magic isn’t there as much when you’re an independent adult and have to mature and be self-sufficient and get a job. All the hardships about being an adult in the world. It’s easy to want to escape to that magical moment that he experienced when he was a kid. Maybe, like you said, it stuck with him a little too long, but I think that’s what kept him from pursuing anything else. He believes that he’s destined for great things. His father’s told him that his whole life. I think he feels unique in that maybe it wasn’t an accident that he saw the Easter Bunny when he was a kid. When he runs into him again, it’s like kismet. There’s no doubt in his mind that this is all fateful and meant to happen. Then it’s like a gigantic lightbulb goes off in his head and he’s like, “This is it. This is my calling. And as absurd and crazy as it is, maybe that’s what I need. Something that is completely crazy to be passionate about and to want to pursue.” Then every other job that he can think of that his father wants him to pursue is absent of magic. So this way, he gets to believe in that magic and share it with kids across the world.
CS: How was interacting with your human cast?
Marsden: (Laughs) That’s probably the first time I’ve ever been asked that question. Yes, I marked my calendar when I knew that Kaley Cuoco and Gary Cole were coming to the set. Because, believe me, you go home from set on a movie like this wondering if you’ve completely lost your mind since you’re talking to, essentially, an imaginary friend for two months. And you’re responsible for bringing energy to the scene. When you have other actors around, the energy shifts. It becomes a give and take and you can work together to create the scene. So I always looked forward to the day when I would get to act alongside, not only other human beings, but other actors. So that was a nice reprieve from the journey I was on with the stuffed rabbit.
CS: You didn’t go home and find yourself talking to imaginary rabbits?
Marsden: Maybe not that far, but it really was hard to shut my brain off at the end of the day. It was an assault of visualization in my head all day trying to imagine what the rabbit was doing or what the factory looked like. The days when Gary Cole and Kaley came in, it was nice to just have a camera pointed in another direction for awhile. When you’re with the rabbit, the camera’s always on you. If it’s a closeup of the rabbit, they just do that in the computer, so there’s no need to shoot it on the day. So when they came in, it was nice to be off camera for a little bit.
CS: There’s two other big human cameos. First, you have Chelsea Handler.
Marsden: Yeah. Talk about irreverent. Russell is a form of that, but Chelsea is a whole other form of irreverence. We shot for two days together and she was just Chelsea Handler. She’s exactly who she is on her show and I’ve never met a funnier person in my life. We were doing scenes together and it was one of those times when you just couldn’t keep it together. Sometimes you bust up and you ruin a take and have to start over. This was every take for about three hours straight. To the point that the crew was thinking about just walking out. We were pushing everyone into their lunchtime. We just couldn’t keep it together and kept sabotaging one another’s close-ups. It was fun and painful at the same time, acting with Chelsea.
CS: Then the other big human cameo is David Hasselhoff.
Marsden: I only had the one scene with him and he was a good 50 feet away from me, so I’m not even sure that could pick me out of a lineup. But it was fun to be there in his presence.
CS: Back to your kids, what movie of yours is their favorite?
Marsden: I would say “Enchanted.” There are plenty of movies that I’ve done that they can’t see yet. But that one had a big impact on them. I think I was the only element of the movie that they didn’t care for. They always struggled with the idea of their father being in a movie, so my daughter would actually fast-forward the parts with me in it and watch everything else. Because she was three or four years old and when she watches the movie, it’s very real to her. She just couldn’t get her head around the concept of me being in the TV screen.
CS: What do you have coming up? I know “Straw Dogs” is next to be released and you shot that right before this.
Marsden: Yeah, “Straw Dogs” is coming up and I’m looking to start a movie — or two, perhaps — in April or May that I can’t really mention yet. But “Straw Dogs” will be out in September, so I’m really focusing on doing press for “Hop.” Then, when fall rolls around, I’ll be doing this again for “Straw Dogs” which is just, obviously, a completely different type of movie.
CS: I would imagine there are fewer animated rabbits.
Marsden: Yes! In a good way.
CS: Any chance of working with Bryan Singer again on “Jack the Giant Killer”?
Marsden: I know he’s doing that, but I’m not a part of it. But I’d love to work with Bryan again. He’s a really good friend and has been so good to me over the years. So hopefully we’ll find something else to do. Hopefully we’ll reunite for something cool.
CS: It’s also very exciting to see “X-Men” coming back. It’s prequels now, but has there been any talk about coming back for a fourth film?
Marsden: If there has been, I haven’t heard it. But I would love to. I think it’s a real goldmine, those movies. And I don’t mean in a financial sense. There’s a real wealth of backstory and characters. You really could make ten prequels in the X-Men universe and you could take the three movies that we did and continue those as well. Hugh Jackman might be really busy, but maybe he’d be fine with it. I don’t know. I’m just glad they’re continuing the series.
CS: “Enchanted” is the other project of yours that gets sequel rumors from time to time.
Marsden: I don’t know. I think that the clock is ticking on that one. Amy [Adams] are both saying, “If there’s going to be a sequel, we’re not getting any younger.” Since we play sort of ageless animated characters. Hopefully we do. That was something really special and I’d love to come back and do another. I’ve heard the same things you’ve heard. There’s a script out there somewhere and there’s talk of it, but I never believe it until I see the script and know that we’re actually making that film. So I don’t know. Too many eggs in that basket.
CS: Is there a role or genre of film that you’ve always wanted to do and haven’t yet?
Marsden: Yeah, there’s plenty. I wouldn’t be able to tell you or describe to you exactly what that is since I just know it when I see it. The thing about the X-Men movies was that they were big-scale action/adventure movies but I didn’t get to do much action in those movies because my power was that I had a giant, concussive beam of force that would fly out of my eyes. I didn’t get the sort of kick-ass physical stuff to do. That might be something I would enjoy doing. An all-out action movie.
CS: Have your kids seen “Hop” yet?
Marsden: Not yet, but they’re going to at the premiere. Like I said before, they were never that impressed with their dad. They were more sort of weirded out by it. But now that my son is ten years old, he thinks it’s cool. And my daughter is excited for it, too. I’m glad they are, because, like I said before, they’re the big reasons why I did this movie.
CS: Can you talk about working with Chris Meledandri? Illumination is a new company and “Despicable Me” was such a big hit.
Marsden: Oh yeah. When you have two kids, “Despicable Me” is the kind of film you see over and over again. To me, there’s one or two really great animation studios out there. Maybe three? Illumination is right there with them. They’re so dedicated to storytelling and really making a good film. I feel like this is maybe what our future is as far as movies go. We’re going to to see more and more animated films. I’m going to be doing more and more voiceovers, probably. They’re one of the great companies to work for, out there doing it like it should be done.
Hop hits theaters everywhere this Friday, April 1st.