A MISSION TO MARSDEN by Dennis Hensley

James Marsden doesn’t know how much he wants to say in The Advocate about his new film Heights—“I don’t want to ruin the plot for people”--but he does know what he doesn’t want to say. “Sometimes, I’ll read something were a straight actor (who is playing a gay character) will get defensive and go, “No, no, no, it’s acting. I’m straight and I want everyone to know I’m straight’,” explains the Oklahoma-born actor who is best known for portraying the visor-wearing Cyclops in the smash X-Men films. “I just don’t want (the article) to have that tone.”

“We’re a little sick of that tone ourselves,” I remark.

“Good,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s like, ‘Come on guys. Stop being pussies. Now, you sound like you’re not so secure with your so-called sexuality. Now, you sound like you’re hiding something.”

Hiding something is something Marsden does extremely well throughout most of Heights. In this day-in-the-life ensemble drama from first-time feature director Chris Terrio and producers Ismael Merchant and James Ivory, Marsden plays Jonathan, a dashing and successful Manhattan attorney who is about to marry his live-in girlfriend Isabel, played by Seabisquit’s Elizabeth Banks. What Isabel doesn’t know is that Jonathan has had at least one love affair with a man in the past and is hot and heavy with another even as they plan for their wedding. Though the ensemble film has a number of involving characters and subplots—the pitch perfect cast also includes Glenn Close, Jesse Bradford, Isabella Rossellini and Rufus Wainright in his film debut—it’s Jonathan and Isabel’s story that forms the heart of the film. It’s rare to see such a well-observed and up-to-the-minute portrait of a woman dealing with a man who wants to be heterosexual and just isn’t. Heights could be the perfect date movie for gay men and their ex-girlfriends, assuming their still speaking.

And Marsden, coming off his nervy turn as a gay lothario who may or may have not given Scott Speedman AIDS in the just-out-on-DVD indie The 24th Day, hits all the right notes as Jonathan. “I loved the tone of the script,” says the actor, whose last film was the hit tearjerker The Notebook. “I thought it really captured modern day living in Manhattan and how nuanced relationships can be.”

Tomorrow, Marsden—along with his wife of five years, Lisa, and their 4 year-old son Jack--jet off to Australia to shoot a role in X-Men director Bryan Singer’s highly anticipated Superman Returns. But today, he’s in a New York state of mind. “There’s nothing like shooting a movie in Manhattan,” he says. “You feel like you’re at the center of the universe.”

THE ADVOCATE: In Heights, you character’s secret life with men is revealed when his photographer ex comes to town with a sexy exhibition featuring all his past lovers. Does that mean that there are nude collectible shots of you out there that we should look for on E-bay?

(Laughs) No. Let me clarify. In one shot, you see me from the waist up with my arm behind my head and then on the opposite page is a full-fledged nude. That’s not me. Although, I should tell people it is because the guy is gifted.

I think the movie really nailed that sort of artsy intelligentsia theater-world culture. Have you had much experience in that world?

Not at all. I had to get coached a bit on the Manhattan lifestyle. I thought I had gotten rid of my Oklahoma accent completely, but the director, Chris Terrio, would go, “You’re holding onto that R a little too long. Flip over it and it becomes a little more Manhattan.”

I also thought Glenn Close was great in the movie as Isabel’s theater diva mother, a little full of herself but also vulnerable. Did you get to interact much?

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do stuff together but she’s great, isn’t she? There’s an interesting scene she has with Isabel where she brings me up and Isabel says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Her mother’s like, “Why don’t you ever want to talk about him? This is the man you’re getting married to.” I think Isabel has good instincts and she’s starting to realize something is not right.

For some gay men in Jonathan’s situation, getting out of that last serious relationship with a woman--as difficult as it is for all involved--is a kind of life-saving escape. Once the dust settles, it’s like an enormous weight has been lifted.

For some people, it is like that. It’s ‘I have no sexual attraction to this woman. I want to be with men but I can’t deal with injuring this other person and with the repercussions of coming out.’ But for others, maybe it’s not so black and white. That’s what I chose to believe about Jonathan. I believe that he absolutely loves Isabel and that they probably have good sex, but there’s an innate part of him that’s attracted to men. He doesn’t know what it is or where it comes from, but it’s very real to him and he can’t deny it. That, to me, was more layered and interesting than Jonathan just dealing with having to tell her he’s gay and then ‘Ah!’ he’s set free. I don’t believe that after he comes clean that everything is okay and kosher with him. I think it’s more complex than that. There are so many variables, I believe, that affect one’s sexuality. Was it Gore Vidal who said everyone for everyone there’s a degree of sexuality? I respond to that. I think that that’s true. For me, anyway.

Do you think if Isabel had forgiven Jonathan he would have stayed with her?

Possibly. At one point, he says, “It’s you I want. Let’s forget about this and move on.” I believe this is Jonathan not being not strong enough to deal with it. If she said, “Okay, let’s get through this,” he might have gone forward and probably kept the façade going and the relationship with a man on the side.

But instead she has that great line on the stairwell.

“I don’t care about what you want anymore.” She’s been dealing with what everyone else wants instead of listening to what she wants and she finally stands up for herself. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about what Jonathan is going through. Nor does it negate the fact that it hurts her.

Most of the times I’ve seen this situation dramatized it’s been from the man’s point of view and sometimes it’s done quite cavalierly, like ‘I ditched the bitch and made the switch. Whew!’ I appreciated how Heights gave the Isabel’s heartbreak its due without being sappy.

I agree. It felt real, like a real relationship. I can imagine how a woman in that situation would feel destroyed and very insecure about their own sexuality because, “He chose a man over me.” I have a friend who just turned 40 and he hadn’t told his mother he’s gay until recently. I asked him why and he said, “It’s kind of an unspoken truth. I feel like if I tell her that it’ll just destroy her.” Though it’s different with a mother-son relationship (than a romantic relationship), I would imagine most women in either situation would think they did something wrong because the person is completely rejecting their gender. His mother raised him and now he’s rejecting that sex.

The scene on the rooftop where Isabel catches Jonathan kissing another man--how did you approach that moment?

Before we had this kiss scene, the other actor and I had a talk and said, “The worst thing we could do is to do it 50 percent, so lets just fucking do it and be in the moment and be these guys.” Did I get off on it? No, but you know what? If I kiss a girl in a movie, I don’t really get off on that either because you’ve got ten thousand people and a camera pointing at you and you’re worried about what your next line is.

Out singer Rufus Wainright appears in Heights as another of your photographer ex’s conquests. Did you get to interact with him?

No, and it really made me sad because while we were shooting this movie, his music was all I listened to. (Director) Chris (Terrio) promises me for the premiere of Heights we’ll get together and have a drink and maybe do a duet or something.

You showed that you have a fine singing voice when you appeared on Ally McBeal. Have you ever thought of pulling a Hugh Jackman and doing a Broadway musical?

Actually, Hugh was interested in me being his boyfriend in The Boy From Oz.

What happened?

There was some scheduling thing or something, I forget. Or maybe I didn’t think he was completely serious. Anyway, I recently saw that he’s got this production deal at Disney to produce three movie musicals so I e-mailed him and said, “I see you’re doing some musicals...” He replied, “Yeah, now our career objective is to get you into one.” I do love singing.

Were you a big drama geek in high school or were you more of a jock?

I was in between. I got into drama because I thought it would be an easy A and then I started enjoying it. I had friends who were in drama and friends who were on the football team. While they went to football practice, I would go to play rehearsal.

Did anyone ever assume you were gay because you liked theater?

No, not really. We had a really good performing arts program in our school. A lot of money was put into it so it was difficult to outcast those people. I was a skinny, tiny kid until my junior and senior year. Then I started to fill out a bit and the girls started going, ‘Hmm,’ and the cool guys started seeing the girls going, ‘Hmm,’ so they adopted me in their group. It was like, “Here’s a guy who sings and dances and stuff, and it’s okay, he can hang around.”

You were born and raised in Oklahoma. What do the folks back home think of you playing gay roles?

I was a little concerned about how my grandparents or my mother would react, knowing I had to kiss a guy or whatever, but they get it. They realize that you’re an actor and you play different characters. Actually, my father was with me when Heights premiered at Sundance and he was so cool about it.

These are tough times for gay people in places like Oklahoma. Do you notice harsher attitudes towards gays and lesbians when you go home to visit compared to L.A.?

I don’t really get a feel for it when I’m home, mostly because I don’t ever leave the house. I just stay with my family. I don’t want to bash Oklahoma but sadly that kind of lifestyle is not very accepted there. Gay people are there but they keep a low profile. Or maybe there really aren’t any there because they’ve all moved to Los Angeles. (Laughs)

When you first moved to Los Angeles, did you experience culture shock?

Some. When I first moved to Hollywood, a very good friend who’s gay helped me get acclimated. We went to this event at a roller rink and there was cross-dressers running around and to be honest, I was a little uncomfortable because it was something I had never seen before. And my friend said, “I just like to think of it as different colors.” He kind of set that idea in my head and I said, “You know what? You’re right.” One thing I pride myself in is I’m really good at seeing everything from other people’s eyes. I don’t know where I got it, but I’ve always been just like, ‘If it’s not hurting me, then great, whatever.’ I don’t expect you to be like me and hopefully you don’t expect me to be like you. I wish more people could be like that. When you hear about these homophobic people who feel so threatened by somebody’s sexuality, to the degree that our president wants to amend the constitution? I mean, are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me? Are you really threatened by somebody’s sexuality that you would put that much energy into doing something like that? It seems ludicrous to me. We should all take a deep breath and relax and just let everybody do their thing.

Being an attractive guy in show business I’m sure you’ve had your share of guys hitting on you. Is it different that when women do it?

Guys can be more aggressive but it hasn’t really been a problem. I remember a couple of weeks after the roller rink party, my friend and I went to (the West Hollywood gay bar) the Abbey. This guy came up and kind of offered his hand and he had his business card hidden in his hand, you know, like ‘Call me.’ I just thought, ‘Eww,’ but I’d like to think that if a girl came up to me and did that it would be just as cheesy.

Before Heights you played another gay urbanite in the psychological thriller The 24th Day. Do these roles offer you a chance to show your stuff in a way that big budget Hollywood movies don’t?

Certainly. I think if you’re serious about this business and want to have a long career, you have to be open and willing to explore other personalities. That’s what it’s about. You’re an actor. I’ve been lucky enough to keep getting steady work, and I’ve done some really cool big action movies and they’re great to be a part of because the whole world sees them. On the other hand, it creates an appetite to, you know, put on a new suit.

And lose the Cyclops mask and show your eyes for a change.

And show your eyes and try something different. I don’t want to be one of those actors that say, “I don’t get jobs because I’m pretty and I want to prove that I’m an actor.” That kind of bothers me, but most actors want to act and dig deep and challenge themselves. Playing Cyclops in X-Men was a challenge in a whole different way. Then I was lucky enough to finish X-Men 2 and go right something totally different with The Notebook.

Which can make me cry just thinking about it.

I almost cry every time I see it. (Laughs) Some people think it’s hokey, but I think its nice to see those types of classic love stories still being made.

In addition to Heights, you’ll soon been seen in Alibi which stars your former X-Men cohort, Rebecca Romijn. I assume she’s not naked and blue in this movie.

Yes, it’s great to work with her again and not have her blue. Although it’s always good to have her naked. It’s a fun movie. Steve Coogan plays a guy who thinks that all men cheat or have the capacity to cheat, so he creates a very elaborate alibi service for people who want to cheat on their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, and whatnot. I play this rich kid who’s a pompous arrogant jerk and then when things start to get bad, all his true wimpiness gets exposed. Then I’ve got 10th and Wolf with Giovanni Ribisi and Val Kilmer and Dennis Hopper. It’s about these kids whose fathers were some of the last dying Philadelphia mob and they have to choose whether to carry on that legacy or just drop it and do something different.

And now you’re off to Australia to shoot Superman Returns for X-Men director Bryan Singer.

I’m playing Lois Lane’s fiancé. It’s basically The Notebook all over again. (Laughs) No, actually it’s very different. It’s very, very cool.

Are you going to be suiting up again as Cyclops in X-Men 3?

It’s very complicated. I want nothing more than to be a part of X-Men 3, especially since they’re probably going into the Dark Phoenix saga which would include my character a lot but the schedule might conflict with Superman. I hope it all works out. I told them I’d do it for free.

What’s your favorite X-Men collectible?

You should ask my son. He plays with my action figure. He tortures it and throws it onto the roof of my house, into the pool.

Do you see much of an overlap of X-Men and 24th Day fans?

It’s kind of two different markets. Although I was in the Phoenix airport and the guy making my drink at Starbucks goes, “James Marsden, right?” I go, “Yeah.” And he goes, “X-Men, 24th Day.” I went, ‘That’s eclectic grouping,’ and he goes, ‘Well, I could have gone with Sugar and Spice, and Disturbing Behavior.” I was like “Jesus, okay.”

I have a funny feeling that guy might someday read this interview.

(Laughs) He knew all my movies but he just wanted to hit the extremes. It’s not very often that that happens.