After “Dead to Me” premiered last year, James Marsden emailed creator Liz Feldman to 1) congratulate her and thank her for the one-season opportunity, and 2) jokingly ask if there was a way his character, Steve, would survive a head wound and drowning. “Yeah, I wasn’t joking at all! I demanded to come back!” Marsden told Gold Derby with a laugh (watch above).
“The season ended and I had a great time with Liz Feldman and Linda [Cardellini] and Christina [Applegate], and then I got greedy. I wanted to come back! It was such a fun experience. … I said, ‘How can I get invited back to the party?’ basically. I am always completely shameless in my endeavors to get work,” he quipped. “Liz called me back a couple weeks later and said, ‘I know you were sort of kidding about the whole ‘what are the odds of somebody surviving massive head trauma compounded with drowning?’ And she said, ‘I got an idea: Twins?'”
Marsden’s reaction was just like nearly everyone else’s when they learned he’s back in the second season as Steve’s semi-identical twin brother Ben: disbelief. “At first, I was like, ‘How are we gonna do this? Is this gonna feel a little bit like a soap opera trope?’ And she said,’Yes, but I want to lean into that, and I know you now as a person more than when we started and I want you to play a version of yourself. … She said, ‘I think he’s more like you are, except a little more clumsy and dorky,'” he recalled. ‘I said, ‘Whatever you want to do, I’m onboard.'”
In developing Ben, Marsden and Feldman focused on making him as different from Steve as possible. Steve was a slick, confident attorney who was also a total prick and cheated on his ex-fiancée Judy (Cardellini). A recovering alcoholic, Ben, on the other hand, is a sensitive, empathetic and inherently nice guy who’s endearingly awkward — right down to those sweet dance moves he busts out for Jen (Applegate) in the fifth episode (“I’m a much better dancer than that, so they had to CGI a version of me awkwardly dancing,” Marsden jokes).
“We didn’t want it just feel like, ‘Oh, it’s just James Marsden doing a caricature of somebody.’ Obviously, the writing really grounded the character in specifics of his journey and his past and his relationship with his brother and his awkward attempts at self-deprecating humor, but there’s this unabashed kindness about him,” the actor explained. “That, right there, created a contrast to Steve and then a stark contrast when you see scenes with Ben intercut with scenes with Steve, and you could really see the difference.”
Ben is in line with another dorky sweetheart Marsden played on another hit comedy: “30 Rock’s” Criss Chros, who married Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) in the final season. The series is returning for a one-time special on July 16 that will double as an upfront event for NBCUniversal. Marsden is remaining tightlipped about any possible involvement. “Is it shot already? No, I haven’t [shot anything]. I’ve heard about it, but I don’t know where that stands,” he teased. “I guess there’s a little element of Prince Edward to [Criss] from ‘Enchanted,’ like, ‘Here I am, dork and all, and I love it!’ I like playing those characters because they lean into that goodness, even if it’s not cool, with reckless abandon.”
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