Actor James Marsden might be best known for his parts in the “X-Men” trilogy (he’s done three turns as the character Cyclops) and “Superman Returns,” but what he’s kept secret from action fans is that he can sing — and dance. He does both playing TV host Corny Collins, alongside John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken, in “Hairspray,” the new movie version of the Broadway musical and movie, in theaters on Friday.
Surprisingly, the 33-year-old — who grew up starring in “Bye Bye Birdie” and taking drama class “for an easy A” back home in Oklahoma — had been tracking “Hairspray” ever since a rather unconventional meeting with composer Marc Shaimen a few years ago.
“I ran into him in a bar in New York,” remembers Marsden, sitting in a suite in Manhattan’s Regency Hotel. “I was a little drunk, and I said, ‘I love what you do, and we’re going to work together someday.'”
That prophecy proved self-fulfilling when Sherman tapped him to do some Michael Buble-style crooning for TV spots for Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely perfume. “I’m a great mimic,” says Marsden, who loves imitating Frank Sinatra and playing the guitar for friends at the Los Angeles home he shares with wife, Lisa Linde, their six-year-old son, Jack, and two-year-old daughter, Mary.
Marsden seems to have good luck in bars. He was in another Midtown watering hole campaigning for the Corny Collins role with “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman when none other than Julia Roberts gave him a plug.
“She got up to walk out, and stopped and said, ‘I loved you in ‘The Notebook,”‘ so that sort of sealed the deal,” he chuckles.
“She whispered in his ear and my head almost fell off my body, it was so surreal,” recalls Shankman, who says that what really sealed the deal was a tape of Marsden singing. “Jimmy wasn’t even on my radar,” he says. “But when I saw the video, I said, ‘That’s him. We’re done.'”
Marsden found that Shankman ran a pretty even-keeled ship, even when putting the cast through several months of singing and dancing “camp.”
“There weren’t special rooms for John and Michelle,” Marsden says. “I kept thinking, ‘There’s no way that Travolta and them are doing this,’ and just then, the doors swing open and Travolta comes out, sweating from a whole dance session.” Marsden himself had a little trouble with Corny’s signature dance move, a syncopated knee-jerk and simultaneous arm-wave. “I swear I’m still not doing it right,” he laughs, giving it one more go.
Pfeiffer went whole hog as dubiously principled stage mom Velma von Tussle. “One day she said, ‘Oh my Lord, the things that come out of my mouth in this movie!'” he says. “But she’s such a great villain.”
His own role gave him no such qualms. “I just love that squeaky-clean, grinning from ear to ear, nonstop TV personality,” says Marsden, who modeled himself on a combination of Dick Clark, Ryan Seacrest and the late singer Bobby Darin. Next up for the actor is “Enchanted,” another campy musical co-starring Amy Adams, Susan Sarandon and Patrick Dempsey. After two such roles, he jokes, “I think it’s time for my ‘Taxi Driver.’