James Marsden’s new comedy, “Hop,” is a blend of state-of-the-art animation with live action. The actor, who continues to carve out a distinctive place in Hollywood with both comedic and dramatic roles, plays a 30-something out-of-work slacker named Fred who is trying to pull his life together. After he accidentally runs over E.B. (Russell Brand), the Easter Bunny’s son, while driving in Hollywood, the two develop an unusual friendship that leads Fred to discover his real purpose in life.
James sat down with us recently at a press conference in Los Angeles to talk about his new movie. He told us how he prepared for the role, what it was like working with improvisational comedian Russell Brand, and why it was challenging to shoot a film with a rabbit as his co-star. He also described how he celebrates the Easter holiday tradition with his children and why he made this film for them.
Q: You got to spend some time watching Russell do his recording sessions, how did that inform your performance and did it help being able to see what he was doing?
JM: It was really helpful. I’d requested it and Tim already had it in his head that he wanted to do that. I had just finished a movie before this called “Cats and Dogs” where I was a voice but there was live action stuff as well, and through that entire process I kept thinking Chris O’Donnell is up there and he can’t change his performance. When you lock picture, you lock picture. But as a voiceover artist, you can go back in and if something doesn’t work, come back in anytime and change the lines. So I thought here I am with Russell Brand, the world’s greatest improvisational comedian too, if there’s any back and forth banter, he’s always going to get the good end of it because I’m going to be stuck with what we shoot and he’s going to go back in and make it funnier. Mainly, I wanted to get together because this movie to me hinges on the dynamic and the chemistry between these two characters. I wanted to explore what that was going to be, what his take was going to be on the Easter Bunny, what sort of stuff he was going to come up with and make up on his own. It was really great for him and I to sit in the room together and riff off each other. We did it for about two days and it was great. I tried to record as much of it as I could in my head and remember it on the day when he wasn’t there. I thought can we get a Russell Brand impersonator to be off camera delivering his lines so that we can keep it as real as possible. But it was great. We got to bond and figure out what our dynamic was during that process.
Q: You’ve done action-adventure, comedy, the musical and now you’re doing live action with animation, which genre has been the toughest?
JM: I wouldn’t say it was a specific genre that was the most difficult, but this was certainly the most difficult technical process I’ve been through. I keep telling people it’s hard enough to just be a good actor. When you’re on set, there’s everything going against you. There’s walkie talkies going off and the camera creaking and moving and the boom mikes and you have to hit your mark and make sure you don’t shadow the other person’s face. It’s a really technical process. It’s difficult because you’re there to bring life to a scene to make it feel natural and normal when all these other things are going on. Then you add into that or subtract from that a co-star, because you’re actually talking to nobody and you’re looking at little pieces of green tape. I’ve never been more prepared in my life because I knew I couldn’t afford to not know my lines. I couldn’t afford to not know where my mark was. I had to know all of his lines and his blocking, his choreography of where he went, because if the rabbit moves around during the scene, the rabbit’s not going to move around when you’re doing the scene. There’s nothing there. So I have to remember during the scene, try to remember my lines and keep it natural, and oh yeah, the rabbit’s going there for that line and there for this line. So technically it was difficult. Every film has got its own challenges but this was a technical process. Normally on a film, when you’re with other actors, like when Kaley (Cuoco) or Gary Cole came in, I was like thank God, we can act together. You never went home on a movie like this thinking man, that scene today was awesome, I really felt it, it really came to life. It was all piecemeal. It was like singing a duet without the other person singing with you. I was like I hope whoever’s in the editing room with the scissors and the glue makes this all work.
Q: You’re not acting with a real actor in the scenes with the rabbit, so is there a method that you use when you’re trying to appear like you’re making contact with something that’s not there? Or is this something that each actor has to go for the best way he knows how?
JM: It’s kind of that. There is a process that makes it a little easier for you. We had a read through and there’s this great British actor by the name of Greg Ellis. He was in the Pirates movies. He came to the read through and he did Russell’s part in the read through and I said, “Can we get him? Can we just pay him to be right off camera so that I can hear a British accent with somebody with similar sensibilities and humor?” And we did. We got him for a few weeks until he had to go do the next Pirates movie and then another great actor came in to help as well. That was massively helpful. The other part of the process was it was great to be working with Tim who’s obviously done these kinds of movies before. He knew the process and what could be done to help the actors knowing that this was a completely unnatural thing to be doing. And that process was, they had a stuffed animal, the stuffed rabbit, and we would do one take. We would roll camera and someone would hold the rabbit and go “Here’s where he’s going to go during a scene. He’s going to hop up here on the kitchen counter. He’s going to say this and then he’s going to run over here and he’s going to eat a piece of licorice and he’s going to this and…” So we would roll one doing the scene and I would watch the stuffed animal and then they would take him out because obviously he can’t be in it when we’re shooting it. And they would replace it with little pieces of wire that stood up and a little piece of green tape on the end of it and you would have to replay the scene hearing the voiceover actor doing Russell’s lines and looking at these pieces of green tape. Beyond that, it was all your imagination. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool because you really do get to control the scene to a certain degree because you’re the only one that’s in the scene at the moment. And then Russell, you’re just hoping that he’ll come in later and fill in the gaps. But that was the process and it was still really hard.
Q: Do you have anything in common with your character? Would you like to be the Easter Bunny?
JM: No. What I would say I have in common with Fred is I’m sort of a perpetual child as a 37-year-old adult. I have two kids, a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old. My point in saying that is I’m always acting very goofy and silly with them. But when I was younger, up until I was 19 years old in college, I was surrounded with people in high school who felt like they knew what they wanted to do with their lives and that was intimidating to me because I didn’t. I didn’t know what my calling was. I didn’t know what I was here on Earth to do or even what my passion was until I discovered the dramatic arts in junior high and high school and I realized I like this. This is something I feel like I’m good at. But it was really unrealistic the idea of moving to Hollywood and becoming an actor. I guess what I have in common with Fred is I’m a little lazy, I’m a little bit of a slacker, and I didn’t want to settle for something that I didn’t feel was right for me. I didn’t want to go get a job or get a degree in business or marketing or whatever all my other friends were getting degrees in. But I also realized that this is a tough thing to do, to make a career out of being an actor. But I thought, you know what, I’m just going to make this happen. I’m going to move to L.A. and I had really supportive parents. It was great. And it happened, thank God, because I really to this day can’t think of what I would be doing otherwise. So I guess Fred and I have that in common, that I wasn’t going to do anything unless I was really passionate about it. I’m a little stubborn that way actually.
Q: Have your kids seen the film yet, and if so, what did they think? Did they visit the set at any point?
JM: No, they haven’t seen it yet. They did visit the set. My kids are all about free candy. So when they visited the set, it wasn’t like wow, I’m on a film set. They were at craft service picking out candy out of the bowls on the craft service table. We’re going to go to the premiere next Sunday. They’re going to get to go and see the movie for the first time. My son actually said to me last night, he goes “Is there going to be free popcorn?” “Yeah, there’s going to be free popcorn.” So he went, “Cool! Great! I’m excited.” They’re great. They’re one of the reasons why I did the movie. I just finished a remake of (Sam) Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” which, if you’re familiar with the movie, is a really dark, controversial, intense psychological thriller-horror movie. So after that, I had to get myself out of that place, and then all of a sudden “Hop” came along. I was like “Ah, colors, eggs, chicks, rabbits! This is fun! I’ll go do that.” “Enchanted” was something that I was really excited about being a part of and I did that for my kids too. This was definitely doing one for the kids.
Q: How was it to get to act opposite Chelsea Handler?
JM: You know what? If you interview her, she’ll tell you the same thing. There’s been three times in my career. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and there’s maybe three times where I just could not keep it together for a take. Chelsea was hilarious. She’s really irreverent. And here we are on this kids’ movie and we were messing with each other during each other’s close-ups. It took hours to get just one clean take and the crew was really angry. They were looking at their watches like it was funny the first time guys but now it’s like we gotta get through this. Of course, then that makes it worse. So I would be doing my close-up during the scene where she’s interviewing me and she would be looking at me going “You’re embarrassing yourself. What are you doing? You’re the worst actor I’ve ever seen.” She’s got her sense of humor and mine’s very similar to hers so we had a good time not being able to keep it together. We keep in touch now. She sends me random emails of kangaroos humping each other, just gross, random emails. So that was great working with her.
Q: What positive message do you think is in this movie for kids?
JM: I would say following your dream and finding your passion in life. When I think of my character, it’s pretty sad. He’s in his early thirties and he’s still living at home without a job. But he saw the Easter Bunny when he was a kid and that opened his world to a sense of magic, a real magic that most kids don’t get to see. And then he grew up in a world that doesn’t have a lot of magic and yet he held onto that. I think that was one of the reasons why he didn’t want to settle for something that he wasn’t passionate about. It just turns out that him being the Easter Bunny was his passion which is strange. But I think it’s about following your dreams. It’s about finding your passion in life and going for that.
Q: What are the components that go into picking a script? What do you look for?
JM: Every time I read a script I see the movie in my head and I try to see the best movie in my head because everybody interprets the movie differently when they read it. I just ask myself, first of all, what did I just finish doing? When I finished “Straw Dogs,” I wanted to do something completely different. This business has been really good to me in that they’ve afforded me a lot of opportunities to do very versatile, very different kinds of projects. I’ve done the “X-Men” movies and I did “Hair Spray.” It’s almost confusing people, like where do we put him? What does he do? He’s all over the place. To me, creatively, every actor is always talking about that balance in their careers of doing something to… It’s your livelihood. It’s your job. You get a paycheck. You’re paying a mortgage. There’s that part of it. There’s that component. And then the other side of it is our creative integrity about the projects you really feel you want to be a part of and that you feel you can contribute to creatively. And that’s what I usually try to have. I believe if you let that captain the ship, if you’re lucky enough to, then all the other stuff will come along with it. Every movie I do, whether it’s a little indie drama or if it’s a big budget action movie or a romantic comedy, I always approach it as I want this to be the best that there is. I told Chris Meledandri when I started “Hop,” I would imagine a lot of actors might want to step into a movie like this thinking oh this will be easy. It’s a kid’s movie. I’ll just phone it in. But I gotta tell you, I feel more of a responsibility to do more work on this than I ever have. And he said that’s exactly right. To me, it was important that the relationship between him and the rabbit felt very real, that it felt like him and another human being, even though he’s talking to a rabbit. But, to get back to your question, whatever scripts come to me, I read them and I look at the ones that I feel like I can see myself. You’ll feel a spark, like alright, I see this guy. I get this guy. This guy makes me laugh. I know what to do. When I read “Enchanted,” I was like I know who this guy is. Please let me have this. I’ll kill this role. And “Death and a Funeral” was the same thing. It’s like that, to me, was the best role in the movie. I feel really confident about my ability to create that performance and those are the ones that I go after. And then, within that, I always try to change it up and go from a drama to a comedy to something else. It just keeps it interesting for me.
Q: Did you celebrate Easter as a kid? Do you have fond memories? And since your kids love candy, what are you planning for them for Easter?
JM: Yes, I did celebrate Easter and we had visits from the Easter Bunny every year and we would dye eggs the night before and paint them and wake up and it would be this magical little display of baskets and candy and eggs and all that. I had two brothers who were very close in age. We would do an egg hunt and a lot of times the Easter Bunny – you know, they have these plastic eggs and you could put candy in them and sometimes there was money like a five or ten-dollar bill. So it became not this fun, oh this is so sweet, we’re gonna go find the eggs. It was like I’m going to kill you and then we’d count the eggs afterwards. If one had more than the other, there’d be a fist fight. My mother would go “Oh God, this is terrible!” So yes, we were very greedy as kids. For my children, we do the same thing every year. We have an egg hunt and they wake up and they get all our baskets and everything and we put carrots out. We’ve been really lucky every year. We go out and the carrots are half eaten and there’s little trails of pieces of carrots. It’s great. We get that magic every year. With them, with the candy, they’re pretty good about stopping when they know they need to stop because they’ve had a few times where they got sick. That changed after that. They know enough when to stop.
“Hop” opens in theaters on April 1st.