The Season 1 finale of Dead to Me could have easily been the end of James Marsden's involvement with the Netflix dramedy. His manipulative and malicious character Steve Wood was undeniably dead after he confronted Jen (Christina Applegate), who knew he was responsible for her husband's death, and aggressively demanded access to his ex-fiancée Judy (Linda Cardellini), who'd been living with Jen. Apart from flashbacks that might explain exactly how Steve wound up face down in Jen's pool, it was hard to envision a future for the character on the series.
Creator Liz Feldman had an idea for how to bring Marsden back for Season 2, though. He'd return as Ben, Steve's "semi-identical" twin who looked exactly like him but was his polar opposite in terms of personality. And yes, the show leaned right into the soapiness of that development, starting with an absurdly comedic introductory scene, which finds Jen opening her front door to find the man whose body she stuffed in a deep freezer suddenly standing right in front of her with a cheesy grin.
Ben's arrival on the show is just as stunning for audiences as it is for Jen, but it's virtually impossible not to be won over by the guy as the season progresses. Instead of oozing arrogance and cruelty like Steve, Ben is completely disarming and leads with self-deprecating humor. His surprise arrival does more than just keep Marsden in the picture for Season 2. As Ben, Marsden becomes an essential component of the show's action, heart, and humor and remains an absolute scene-stealer — quite a feat considering both Applegate and Cardellini are still firing on all cylinders this season.
TV Guide spoke to Marsden about how he and Feldman crafted his affable new role, what might be next for Ben if Netflix renews the series for Season 3, and how happy he is to hitch a ride on so many female-driven vehicles on TV these days.
Can you talk about when you first found out that you would return for Season 2? Were you surprised when you found out how you'd come back?
James Marsden: I [originally] signed on for one season … I was excited to work with Liz and Christina and Linda. We'd worked with each other before — both Linda and Christina and I — but not to this capacity, and the experience was great. I loved working with all of them. When the show came out, it was a big hit, and I got greedy... I was excited about the idea of staying in the family, to the point where I was ready to grovel and get on my knees and beg. I sent an email to Liz Feldman congratulating her on the new season, and I asked her, very bluntly, "What are the odds of this cat surviving a traumatic head injury compounded by drowning? Is there any way — could I come back in a cloud? Or all flashbacks?
She called me back a couple of weeks later. She said, "I know you were kidding about all of that, but I have some ideas, and we'd love to have you back. What do you think about twins?" And my eyes kind of popped because at first I thought, "Will I be able to pull that off? Is that gonna look like a gag to the audience — a classic soap opera trope?" And she said, "Yes. By design. I want to lean into that." So my thing was, she told me about the character, [and] she told me how different he was from Steve, and to me, it's about working with good [creatives]... the people you feel safe taking a chance with. This could be a massive failure. I could really just blow this thing. But in the hands of those writers, I felt comfortable enough to take that leap... I thought, "Well, if I'm going to take this chance, I'm going to take this chance with Liz." She was very gracious to allow me to come back and make a fool of myself.
I just jumped at the chance, and I knew that she was going to guide me. Very early on, it was about making the specifics. It was about dialing in differences and the contrasts between Ben and Steve. I didn't want it to feel like a cheap return… She had a plan for the whole thing. And she would dial me in on set, like, "Let's lean into your clumsiness a little more. Let's lean into his discomfort, his awkward social attempts at self-deprecation that fall flat. That's where we're going to really create a divide between who Steve was and who Ben is." I really have to credit Liz with so much of it. A lot of it was in the writing, and he's got a physiologically bad heart, but he's got a much kinder heart than Steve ever did. [There were] just really big differences there for me to hold on to and a great space to create. After about Episode 1 or 2, it just felt like I forgot about Steve. And I was hoping the audiences would, too.
In certain scenes with Ben, he was almost too sweet, and you drew it back just enough that, as a viewer, you're thinking, "Is he duplicitous? Does he know something that he's not betraying?" So is he truly naive or an optimist, or is he hiding something?
Marsden: This question speaks to the fact that people who know the tone of the show know that it's about what's around the next corner. What rug is going to get ripped out? Like you said, when you see him at first, you're like, "Erm, this is a little too good to be true, this guy." Everyone's trying to anticipate where it's going and how it's going to end. My belief was always, let the stories come to me — meaning, I didn't read Episodes 1 through 10 at the beginning of the season. It unfolded as we went along. Liz gave me a general idea of where it was going, but not with too many specifics.
But I don't think Ben is making any conscious decision to do the things that Steve did, which is take information, figure out how to manipulate a situation. I think he's genuine. That's not to say he doesn't have his dark sides — I think they are there, but I don't think he hides those. He is OK with admitting them. Now, you can watch the last scene of the season and think otherwise. There's a level of ambiguity that was necessary when we shot [the finale]: We don't want every question answered. We want to leave it up to the interpretation of the audience so we can have a Season 3. [As to the] question of, "Is he really that pure? When's the genetic thing that he shared with his brother going to surface? When's that manipulation and that egocentric dark side going to come out?" The honest answer is I don't know.
Speaking of the finale, one of the most harrowing moments of your performance was when Ben received the call about Steve. Rewatching it, you can see him experiencing immediate grief, but also maybe kind of expecting it, and then trying to protect his mother. So which of those, or what other thoughts informed your performance there?
Marsden: I think you hit the nail on the head. I think it was all of those. It was the complexity of this maelstrom of emotion going on within him. I think that he probably — there was a part of him that expected this, that was fearing it all along, so he's not completely blindsided. Yet, I don't care how much you prepare for something like that, when you get that phone call, it guts you.
I remember shooting it with Liz. It was never written in the script what I'm hearing on the phone. And I asked Liz, "What do you think exactly what I'm hearing?" And she was like, "Well, you know, it's not good news." [Laughs.] So even she was playing coy on the day [of the shoot]. So I said, "I know you need to be at the monitor on the day of the shot, but would you mind standing just off camera with me and having a conversation with me as the police officer or [coroner or] whoever's calling?"
I don't really want to spoil what we talked about because it was almost improvised. She was great. She threw things at me that made me react in conflicting ways, compounded by knowing his mother is sitting in the other room. I always find it far more interesting to play — and hopefully far more interesting to the audience — to leave a little seed of doubt [and] ambiguity of, what did he hear? What is he feeling? Is there another side of Ben that we haven't seen yet? [It] leaves a lot more open for the next season... If it gets picked up, we will certainly explore all of that. From a storytelling perspective, I think it's more interesting to feel ambiguous about it and not answer every question that way … What's brilliant about Liz is she recognizes the importance of injecting nuance into every moment and injecting a little bit of, hey, let's not color this completely. Let's let the audience color this in a little bit.
The first season was a lot about Jen's experience of grief, and in the second season, we see more of that from Judy. So if we're going with the natural progression of things, I would suspect that Season 3 would be Ben's turn to process his pain. And he's got a double-whammy coming, with not only the news of Steve's death, but also Jen's relationship to the tragedy. What's your prediction for what Ben will go through next?
Marsden: Full disclosure, I actually do not know anything about Season 3. So I'm in the same position, just speculating about where that would all go. But what you just described was, I would say, a fair bet that a percentage of that is what would get explored. And I'll add to it that not only is he maybe going to find out that Jen was responsible for his brother's death, he's also guilty of a hit-and-run. And they were the victims of the hit-and-run. And his brother was guilty of a hit-and-run in the first season, so the perversity is — it's amazing that Liz can actually have comedy spring from that. It's a testament to her genius.
The show is [centered on] how we grieve, it's how we get through life, and the choices you make and the kind of life you want to live even when the world comes crashing down around you… It's a complicated one for Ben because you have all these outside elements compounding the situation: One, he's on the run; two, his brother's gone — or dead. [And] does he know that he hit Jen and Judy? Is he going to remember it? What's his life gonna be like when he finds out Jen's responsible for his brother's death? It's going to really test the constitution of soul. That's something I really look forward to as a performer because then you're not doing just ornamental work in scenes. You're not coming in and doing lines, being just the fumbling dope. … This guy I believe does make a conscious effort to look at himself in the mirror when no one else is looking and do the right thing. Do the right thing when no one else is looking, that's character. I think he tries to do that. But sometimes the forces can overwhelm. And I think those are starting to compound and pile up for him, and I think that'll be an interesting exploration in Season 3, if we go there.
This show is the latest example of a lot of your TV work lately being in female-driven shows, including Westworld and Mrs. America. Is that just something that's happening naturally, or is that something that you're actively working toward?
Marsden: I think it's both, because it's the evolution of what's happening within the industry, and I think it's a long-overdue and just shifting of opportunities — not only opportunities, but what people want to see, and the stories we want to hear, and we have an appetite for them. And it so happens that right now a lot of that is female driven.
If I were to think of a trademark of what sort of projects I seek out by design, it's always about compelling narratives, and sometimes those narratives are what's going on in the world. I love it if I'm viewed in some way, through Westworld and Dead to Me and Mrs. America, as someone who supports women in that way and [helps turn things] upside-down like we do in Westworld, taking these old classic tropes and reversing them. That happened in Westworld, which was kind of, "Oh I'm the old Wild West hero, and the little lady'll be OK, you just stay by my side." Turns out, it's completely the opposite. I just love the exploration of that.
I have no ego about [being the lead]. It's, "What story are we telling?" I want to figure out how I can contribute to telling that story, and these have been stories that are really interesting to me. So yes, it's a natural movement toward more female-driven projects, which I love to see, and for me to be able to go in and contribute creatively to that, it feels good. I've never felt like I need to be the one who's the focus of attention — in fact, quite the opposite, I do better in supporting roles. [Laughs.] I feel like I'm more comfortable being a character actor.
Dead to Me Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream on Netflix.
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