James Marsden on 'Sonic' and His Lost 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Scene

Whether it’s the No. 1 film in the world with Sonic or his recent string of acclaimed and anticipated television series like Westworld, Dead to Me, The Stand and Mrs. America, Marsden is on quite a roll of late, something that can be best illustrated by his involvement with Quentin Tarantino’s best picture nominee, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While his Red Apple cigarettes commercial cameo — as Burt Reynolds — hit the cutting room floor, it can still be found in the special features of the film’s home video release.

“When I got a call saying, ‘Quentin wanted to know if you’re down to put yourself on tape for a little cameo,’ I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ It was a brief little appearance in the movie as the late Burt Reynolds,” Marsden explains. “I popped in there even though I don’t think I looked anything like Burt, but Quentin was down for it. During a wardrobe fitting with Quentin, I was like, ‘I’ve got blue eyes, and he’s got brown eyes.’ And Quentin was like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t bother me.’ It was a bummer [that it was cut], but I also understand the sensitivity since Burt was part of the film for a while until he sadly passed away. I still think it qualified as a bucket-list moment.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Marsden also discusses his approach to the odd couple adventure comedy, working without Sonic’s voice performer, Ben Schwartz, on set and the origin story for his Zoolander cameo.

I was completely charmed by this movie.

Thanks, man. I appreciate that right out of the gate. So was I. It’s been months since we finished, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

It even reminded me of Planes, Trains and Automobiles a little bit because this odd couple is paired up for a road trip, an overnight motel stay, a highway showdown that results in the top of a vehicle being ripped off, as well as a family taking in a stranger. Did this ever cross your mind?

(Laughs.) No, but I’m so glad that you connected those dots. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that movie, but I do remember the top coming off. That’s excellent. That movie is a classic, so let’s hope this one turns into a classic as well.

Since it’s an odd-couple adventure trope, Steve Martin’s character was mostly annoyed with John Candy’s character. So, I really appreciated how Tom wasn’t aggravated by Sonic for too long. After all, Tom needed this adventure as much as Sonic needed a friend. Were you conscious of not wanting to play Tom as too much of a killjoy?

Yeah, I did another movie like this ten years ago or longer, and it’s grating after a while. It’s fun to have the odd couple where one of them is this free-spirited, freewheeling, sarcastic, not-a-care-in-the-world character and somebody else who has stuff to do — kind of a curmudgeon. But, you gotta do that the right way. There’s gotta be a sense of an amiable quality to the guy. He’s gotta have a kid inside him as well, and he’s gotta have a purpose. You don’t want him to be a buzzkill all the time. So, I appreciate that. The harder job of all the characters in the movie is finding moments to ground it all in reality. Jim is swinging for the fences and hitting home runs, and Ben is doing the same thing — literally — in a baseball park. They’re big, larger-than-life characters, and you need the human characters to ground it. It’s not always the sexiest or the most fun thing to do, but I was able to find moments with Jim, Ben, Tika (Sumpter) and Jeff (Fowler), the director, to make this guy a likable dude.

You went toe-to-toe with Jim Carrey in this movie, and since he’s such an unpredictable force of nature, did it take a couple takes to get a feel for his rhythm and tempo?

It did, yeah. He’s got his own unique way of working, but I met him on a weekend when we came to the stage with the director, writer and producers. We sat down and just read through our scenes for the week, and he was just this ball of electricity. It was like Sonic arrived on set. When Jim steps onstage, it’s like Sonic when he creates his blue lightning. He’d have a big grin on his face and say, “Let’s talk about this scene.” There was some stage direction where Dr. Robotnik puts on a song to get himself in the mood for plotting his next move. That’s all it says. And then, all of a sudden, Jim is like, “What if I did a whole music video dance sequence?” (Laughs.) That’s freaking awesome and why you hire Jim. When actors get inspired by the writing on the page and bring it to life with choices, options and crazy ideas, you have to be willing to go out there and fall on your face. Some of them don’t work, and some of them do. I just called working with him “getting on board the Jim Carrey train.” Whatever world he wants to go to is not a selfish one. It's a very specific “I’ve done my work homework and have ideas” place, but there’s room for you to come in, improvise and create the stuff that you do. And then he plays off of that. So, it was a very generous collaboration, and it was mostly just trying not to laugh at the stuff he’d surprise you with.

There’s a moment where Tika’s character draws attention to some San Francisco apartment rentals on her computer screen, which showed a $4,600 per month price tag. I don’t know about you, but I chose to interpret that as a clear sign that she was trying to get Tom, a small-town cop, to stay in Green Hills. She even brought up his family’s legacy in that town. So, she likely knew he was better off there, something he later figured out.

(Laughs.) That’s an interesting observation. She’s probably the breadwinner in that family since she’s a veterinarian. She probably makes a little more dough than Tom’s Green Hills street cop. I like to think they saved some money in order to give this a shot and live a little, but maybe that was her way of making him think about it a bit more. Although, she probably wouldn’t have encouraged Tom to go if she was worried about the rent. Still, it’s definitely a sad reminder of how expensive the West Coast is.

As far as the Sonic scenes, it’s my understanding that Ben was barely on set during production. Would someone read his dialogue to you out of frame?

Yes. I got to know Ben a little more before we started shooting, and we’d rehearse some scenes together to get an idea of his rhythms and how he’d be playing the character. Obviously, he couldn’t be there every day in Vancouver because he was doing the voice work in L.A. So, we got a local improv actor named Scott Patey to come in and read opposite with me. If I made something up, he could run with it and give a little life to the readings. It’s so important because you can’t just have the script supervisor reading to you in a droning voice. You need someone to have the charisma, charm and serenity of a 12-year-old kid. So, we were lucky to have Scott standing in for Ben and helping me come up with some fun ideas when we were on set. I really appreciated that I wasn’t left stranded.

When actors have to act against a tennis ball or a bust of some kind, they often tell me that they’re worried about overacting since their scene partner is usually there to help them keep the tone in check. Did you quickly find a groove to where you weren’t self-conscious about acting alone?

Yeah, that’s a good question. When you are acting with nothing else, you can find yourself involuntarily overcompensating. So, I was always trying to keep myself in check as far as reminding myself every minute of who’s going to be carrying the energy of the scene and where the jokes are. We wanted to make it intelligent because the kids will eventually figure out the more sophisticated jokes and the wry sense of humor or sarcasm. I just had to constantly remind myself to lean into the fact that I was talking to Ben, and it’s got to feel real. As absurd as it is to have this blue alien hedgehog sitting next to me, it has to feel like this is a friend who needs help. It’s a friend you enjoy spending time with, and it’s a friend you can cut up with and take the piss out of each other. It’s fun and enjoyable to do it. You’ve got to use your imagination and lean into it. It may feel a little flat at times, but it’s supposed to because it’s Sonic that’s supposed to be the one who’s bouncing off the walls. It’s definitely a different process because you feed off each other’s energies when you have the other actor with you in a scene. It also affords you the ability to have all the cameras pointed at you most of the time, and Jeff would dial me up and dial me down. He’d put me here, he’d put me there, and we’d record options. Then, they’d just turn around and record an empty frame for the Sonic stuff. So, it afforded me a little extra latitude to create.

Since you once left Oklahoma for a career in Hollywood, I presume you could relate to Tom’s need for adventure in a big city?

Very much so, yeah. I love where I grew up; I still have family there. It’s an excellent place to raise kids, but I wanted out. (Laughs.) When I realized that three semesters at Oklahoma State University were not really going in any specific direction that I wanted them to go, I felt like there was something else out there for me. It was better to try it then, when I was young, and I did it. I was young, naive and brave enough to do it.

Mid-budget movies have all but disappeared from the major studio system, especially comedies and romantic comedies. Netflix now owns the romantic comedy genre since they seemed to recognize that void. Have you noticed that there are less scripts going around for certain genres that you used to make for the big screen?

I think they’re just on TV now to be completely honest with you. I say this all the time, but in the movie theaters you have $300 million Marvel movies or $1 million to $3 million independent films. Everything else in between is probably not of interest anymore. It’s not entirely the case because it’s obviously very expensive to animate a kids’ movie as well. You just get so little in between now. The really interesting scripts and stories that we want to tell but might not be that exciting to a movie studio that wants to make a lot of money … have migrated to television along with those writers, directors and characters. They’re all over premium cable as well as Apple TV+, Netflix, Hulu, etc. They’re there, but they’re just not in the form of movies that much anymore.

Sonic features a bucket list of sorts, and I have to think that your Red Apple cigarettes commercial for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a bucket-list moment for you, along with having your name in the credits of a Tarantino film. Do you mind reflecting on that a bit?

(Laughs.) Sure! You’re pretty right on with that observation. When I got a call saying, “Quentin wanted to know if you’re down to put yourself on tape for a little cameo,” I was like, “Absolutely.” It was a brief little appearance in the movie as the late Burt Reynolds. I knew it always had the potential of not being a necessary thing that needed to be in the movie, but it wasn’t to the point where I was willing to say no to doing it. I thought it’d be fun to work with one of the greatest directors of our time. So, I popped in there even though I don’t think I looked anything like Burt, but Quentin was down for it. So, I got suited up in Burt Reynolds’ White Lightning attire, and during a wardrobe fitting with Quentin, I was like, “I’ve got blue eyes, and he’s got brown eyes.” And Quentin was like, “Oh, that doesn’t bother me.” I also said, “It’s funny because I can’t really lean into the chewing-gum, mustache-wearing, high-pitch laughing Burt Reynolds of it all, because this is 1969 Burt.” (Marsden imitates Reynolds’ high-pitched laugh.) And Quentin was like, “Yeah, you don’t get those crutches. You get to carve it out and really do a different thing.” Again, it was just a couple lines, but it was a wonderful thing. But, yeah, it was a bummer [that it was cut], but I also understand the sensitivity since Burt was part of the film for a while until he sadly passed away. So, I think that had something to do with it as well; I don’t want to speculate on that too much. But, yeah, I still think it qualified as a bucket-list moment. To me, my selfish needs were met by working with Quentin.

What’s the latest on The Stand?

We’ve got another month left. We’ve been working on it since September, and we’re wrapping up the last two episodes.

At the risk of asking a question you’ve answered a million times, how did your Zoolander cameo come to be?

I love telling this story, actually; I’ve told it many times. I auditioned for Hansel, the character that Owen Wilson ended up playing. In auditioning for Hansel, I made a home video as Hansel being interviewed by one of my very funny friends. We were just doing improv. He would ask me questions, and I would answer the questions as Hansel. Nothing was scripted, but I had full wardrobe based on what I thought he looked like. Christine Taylor was a friend of mine at the time, and while I don’t know if she was married to Ben yet, they were definitely dating. And, somehow, I managed to get the tape to Christine to give to Ben. He then sat down with me in his office and said, “Man, I just gotta tell you that your tape is so damn funny. But, I wrote the role for my friend Owen, and it looks like he’s going to do it. There’s a chance that he might not because of scheduling, and if he doesn’t, I’d love for you to play the role. If he does, would you come in and do a fun cameo since a bunch of people like David Duchovny are coming in to do cameos?” So, I was like, “Sure,” and he called me later and asked, “Do you want to play John Wilkes Booth?” And I was like, “Sure!” (Laughs.) So, that was another small role that could’ve gotten cut as well. Ben told me he looked up something like “Long live male beauty” in Latin. So, instead of saying “sic semper tyrannis,” which is what John Wilkes Booth said when he shot Lincoln, the line I said was something like “if these bones could kill” in Latin. You can’t hear me say the line in the movie, but you can still see me giving the “Blue Steel.”

Since that was a tired question, I’m going to reward you with no Cyclops questions.

(Laughs.) That’s alright — and thank you.

We’re running low on time, but I did want to mention how much I’ve enjoyed your work on Westworld and Dead to Me. I’m also really looking forward to Mrs. America and The Stand.

That means more than you know. There’s some great work on television, and I’m so glad you brought up that middle gap. That middle ground is where all the great adult dramas and challenging stories used to exist. You see them towards the end of the year during awards season, but there’s a big hole there during the rest of the year. And I think it’s gone to TV. So, those are the things I’ve been tracking down, and I’ve been lucky to find a couple of them.

Lastly, Disturbing Behavior was a big deal for me and my social circle at the time.

Thanks! It was a big deal for me, too. It was my first feature film, and I was really nervous. It was right around when Scream came out, and everyone wanted to see teen horror movies again. David Nutter was a tremendous director and wanted to do something smart, something that wasn’t a run-of-the-mill movie, and I think it’s still pretty cool.


Sonic the Hedgehog is now in theaters.

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