Based on the best-selling novel by author Nicholas Sparks, The Best of Me tells the story of two former high school sweethearts, Dawson (James Marsden) and Amanda (Michelle Monaghan), who find themselves reunited after 20 years apart. In their hometown for the funeral of their beloved friend, they are suddenly forced to face the love that they’ve never forgotten, as well as the life that got in their way. The film also stars Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Caroline Goodall, Sebastian Arcelus, Jon Tenney and Gerald McRaney.
At the film’s press day, actor James Marsden spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about playing the romantic lead that the audience is rooting for (unlike in his last Nicholas Sparks film), sharing the role with Luke Bracey, getting the first kiss right, and how much he enjoyed working with Michelle Monaghan. He also talked about how he kept his appearance in X-Men: Days of Future Past a secret, as well as what attracted him to the highly anticipated HBO sci-fi/Western series Westworld, how Jonah Nolan sold him on the project, the terrific cast (which includes Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Rodrigo Santoro and Miranda Otto), and how he hopes that it goes to series so that he’ll get to do more. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JAMES MARSDEN: Yes, by design.
How is it to be the romantic lead, this time around?
MARSDEN: It’s great! You always want to feel like you’re contributing something interesting, whether you’re the supporting role or the lead role. But this time, 10 years later, it’s nice to be the guy that audience is rooting for. You want to see them end up together. That’s a nice little change. You know what? It’s funny, I don’t think he was a bad guy in The Notebook. He just wasn’t intended to be the guy who the girl ended up with, per the writer. (Director) Nick Cassavetes said, “I want this guy to be a great guy. I want the audience to feel like, had she met him first and we’d spent more time seeing you two, they would want her to be with him.” It just made it more interesting and complicated, when she does go back. It speaks to the connection that Ryan [Gosling] and Rachel [McAdams] had, and their characters had. He was a great guy who was successful and charming. He just wasn’t the guy that she was supposed to be with.
Was it a surreal experience to share this role with Luke Bracey?
MARSDEN: Yeah, it is a strange thing. I’ve been in movies before where there’s a very young version of me. But once you reach 18, you’re what you’re going to look like, as an adult. Before we started shooting, we didn’t stress about being the carbon copy of one another and mirroring each other’s actions. We just had discussions about who this guy is, and we hoped that audiences would suspend belief just a little bit. Physically, we don’t look the same, but we just talked about who he was. He’s a little bit of an introvert. He’s not a man of a lot of words. His actions speak for himself. He’s a guy who just hasn’t had a lot of love in his life. When he sees Amanda, he lights up. So, the way he reacts to other people is a similarity that Luke and I talked about sharing. Most importantly, we feel like the essence of the character is the same, and we talked about the dialect to get on the same page with the accent. It’s hard. You’re not going to please everybody. Twenty years is a tough gap. The Notebook is 40 or 50 years. You can look totally different. This is a tougher age range. Hopefully, the story is engaging enough that you forget about it.
So much of these types of movies relies on the first kiss, and this one also has the first kiss once they’re reunited. Was there a lot of pressure with that, and did you have any funny moments, shooting that scene?
MARSDEN: I never feel the pressure of something like that. As an actor, you just want to make sure that you feel present in those moments and that nothing feels false. There are a lot of distractions on the set that keep you from that. But the audience is smart, and they can see it and tell if you’re phoning it in or it doesn’t feel right. You just have to be present. Hopefully, you have a good script and a good director who sets the tone on set, to lead you into that world. It was a delicate thing with Amanda in those scenes. Obviously, she is married and has a kid. It’s a complicated situation. And like The Notebook, she’s technically with me, but the audience is rooting for it, this time. What makes it realistic is that it’s not black and white. They are having to be careful. I don’t think that there’s any negativity that Dawson wants to put back into the world. I don’t think he wants to screw up her life, in any way. The connection they feel for one another is so strong that it’s overwhelming. That’s something that we all want in a relationship.
What was it like to work with Michelle Monaghan, especially with the easy chemistry that you share on screen?
MARSDEN: We were fortunate to get a good group of people, of terrific actors, but also just good human beings that want to be around one another. There were no egos, whatsoever. Sometimes you have those kissing scenes, and you cut and you laugh after and make jokes about it. It’s nice to be so disarmed with good people, and Michelle is certainly one of them. She’s not only a terrific actress, she’s an even more special human being. We shared a lot, talking about kids and family. We both came from the Midwest and had similar upbringings. We shared a lot of similarities. And when she smiles, it just lights everybody up. You’re always trying to get in the same room with her. And she’s such a professional. She’s just one of those good people that you want to be around. That actually informs the dynamic when the cameras start rolling, too. I’d hate to have to do a movie like this with someone you didn’t get along with. It was a good group of people. And seeing Luke [Bracey] and Liana [Liberato], they just looked so comfortable with one another, on camera. The older versions of the characters are a little more careful with each other because of the history, and it’s more complicated. They have to tread lightly and move very carefully with one another. But the early versions are just madly in love with one another, and you can see how comfortable they are with each other, which is a good thing.
What attracted you to the HBO series Westworld, and what did Jonah Nolan say that sold you on it?
MARSDEN: Well, I was one of the last people to be cast in that, and I looked at these crazy marquee names involved. I’ll be honest with you, I read the script and that’s what made me fired up, and I really wanted to pursue it. So, I was thrilled that he was interested in me for that role. It’s just a high-caliber, incredible group of people, all around, from the actors to the DP to Jonah and Lisa [Joy]. It’s something really special. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve seen four minutes of footage cut together into the sizzle real, and it’s pretty special. I hope we get to continue making it. Right now, it’s just a pilot. But, it was a pretty special experience. Jonah and I had a long 30- or 40-minute Skype while I was shooting this movie, actually, and he told me his ideas about what he wanted to do with this and where he wanted to take Michael Crichton’s concept. It sounded like a world that I wanted to be in.
One of the highlights of X-Men: Days of Future Past was the scene with you at the end. How did that happen, and what was it like revisiting that character?
MARSDEN: It was a hard thing to keep from the press, I’ll tell you that. I just flat out lied to the press. I would lie and say that I wasn’t in it, for a good nine months. And I actually enjoyed that. It was the only way to keep it a secret. I knew that, if it were to start to leak out, the impact would be lessened. It was nice to hear that fans’ applause when that moment comes on screen. It’s a very cool feeling. It was great. It’s nice to know that Scott is not dead.
The Best of Me opens in theaters on October 17th.