A tale as old as moving pictures, the saga of an android gone rogue has formed many a successful plotline from The Terminator to the “Itchy & Scratchy Land” episode of The Simpsons. But nowhere within the genre have so many ethical issues been raised than in the HBO remake of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld. When I caught up with one of the show’s stars, James Marsden, the first 10 episodes of the Golden Globe-winning series had just finished airing and news of a second season had already been announced.
Set in a fictional wild west-themed amusement park populated by robot hosts, Westworld is a place where, for a price, guests can indulge in the most socially unacceptable behaviour–ranging from routine vandalism to rape and murder–without fear of retaliation or consequence. But, as we join the characters in the first episode, we discover that during a routine system update, glitches have developed in the hosts’ programming that leads them to ask “the question you’re not supposed to ask.” This in turn encourages the viewer to question the morality of those who get their kicks by inflicting damage on the very robots that are capable of questioning the nature of their reality.
Oklahoma-born Marsden plays the new dude in town, gunslinger Teddy Flood, a role he is as enthusiastic about today as he was when he first read the scripts. “I hadn’t seen the original film and I asked Jonah Nolan, the show’s co-creator, if I should. He said yes but told me to bear in mind that the series was going to be something very different,” recalls Marsden. “The movie is now a cult classic but at the time it was a bit like Jurassic Park–a theme park thriller where something goes wrong and puts the human’s lives in danger. The TV show is so different in the scope of philosophies and what we are trying to address. We delve deep into themes such as what it means to be human, when does consciousness begin, when does it end and what responsibilities do we have when we take on the role of God?
“There is a great line in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum as Dr Ian Malcolm says: ’Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.’ That is what we are addressing with Westworld,” he continues. “It makes us look at actions and consequences and I love being a part of something that has this depth and allows us to explore these philosophies and themes. It is always going to be something that is relevant–the question of what makes life: Is it a heartbeat? Is it understanding? You get to see these characters born, killed and reborn and I thought it was a really smart idea and a show that could go in so many directions.”
Although the role of Flood has brought Marsden’s huge acclaim, he has been acting professionally since the age of 19, describing his journey into show business as the path of least resistance. “There wasn’t anything else that I felt I had the talents for–or at least the energy and discipline to go after,” he says, laughing. “I discovered the theater when I was in eighth grade, and the feeling of being on stage, singing and acting in front of an audience appealed to me from the start. I enjoyed getting lost in different characters.”
Marsden admits that it was an unrealistic dream to assume he could make his passion a career but with youth and naivety on his side he took the plunge, dropped out of university after just three semesters and, at 19, moved to LA to seek fame and fortune. “I already knew a few good people in the industry that offered to help me,” he says referring to help he received from actor friends Kirk Cameron and his sister Candace Cameron Bure.
“My parents were amazingly supportive and encouraging about my choice,” he says. “They knew that entertainment was where I wanted to be–I was always doing SNL sketches in school, mimicking and doing impersonations. They saw that I was clearly not going to be an accountant! I guess because they love me, they wanted me to be happy doing what I wanted to do. My father is a professor of microbiology, a job that is the very opposite of the arts but, when I told him I wanted to move to LA, he could see that I had thought things through and he was aware that I knew someone who could help me get a foot in the door. We made a deal and he agreed to support me for a year on the proviso that if it didn’t work out I would move home and finish school.
“My friends introduced me to some managers and one took me on. He sent me out on four auditions a day. I know that I was very lucky but equally I met the opportunities with preparation and I went in with all guns blazing. When you are that young you are cocky and think you’re going to be the next James Dean and it was that confidence that actually got me jobs.
“Only as you grow do you realize the power of being judicious about the choices you make and then you try to find smarter and more interesting material, which is sometimes difficult and you have to hunt for it. It became my philosophy to always try and find something different and interesting, so now 23 years later I am described as the guy who will have a go at anything–who can do a little drama, a little comedy, a little action.”
For Marsden it is this sheer spread of roles and avoidance of typecasting that keeps life interesting and work fun. Whereas some actors feel more comfortable playing similar roles throughout their careers because that’s what the audience wants from them, Marsden prefers to surprise people. “It’s one of the great things you are afforded as an actor,” he says, “to be able to shape shift and play different characters. The hardest thing for me is to play a character that is close to myself.”
When it comes to who that character might be, Marsden shrugs and points to Kevin Doyle in 27 Dresses – a normal guy who is a little cynical about love. “Not that I am,” he is keen to point out. “I am a big romantic. But Kevin is just… ordinary. Westworld, X-Men, Enchanted these are all character roles and I always feel more comfortable playing these, they are just more interesting to me and I feel I’m kind of like those guys anyway. I hunt for the characters that are odd and unique, the ones that have interesting flaws and a bit of humor. I’m not the swashbuckler, I’ve never been the guy who kicks ass, I am the guy who thinks he is that guy but is very clearly not. That’s good fertile ground for humor.”
Worldwide, Marsden is perhaps best known for his characters in X-Men, award-winning comedy legal-drama Ally McBeal and now Westworld, but in the US it is possibly for his portrayal of Lon Hammond in cult love story The Notebook. The plot tells the story of two young lovers, Allie and Noah, who are separated by her parents who disapprove of his lower social status. After waiting for Noah to write, Allie meets and becomes engaged to Lon before circumstances bring Noah back into her life.
Marsden smiles as he talks about the role that still earns him a hard time from fans 13 years after the film’s release. “There are people who love that movie so much that they take it as gospel,” he says. “For them Allie and Noah really existed and they are conditioned to have a dislike for anything that got in the way of them being together. People still come up to me and say: ’Oh you were in The Notebook. You were a dick. I didn’t like you.’ But my character was essential to the plot and he was a really good guy–he just didn’t meet her first. I love those fans and their craziness. Some of them watch the film once a week.”
Time to wrap
Interestingly, it is Marsden’s acting career that has helped form his love of watches. “I’m embarrassed to admit it now,” he says, “but my father gave me a Rolex Submariner a good few years ago and I didn’t appreciate what it was. I left it on my counter in a hotel room, went to work, came back and it was gone. At the time, I just shrugged and thought: ’My watch has been stolen”. My father was furious but I really didn’t get it.
“About six years later, David E. Kelly, the Executive Producer of Ally McBeal, gave me an IWC Portofino as a wrap gift. I was a little older and had more appreciation for what a beautiful watch it was. It was so classic in style and I wanted to know more. I’m a hobbyist and when I get into something I become obsessed, I have to immerse myself in it and learn. So, I started studying horology, learning the terminology and that was the start of my appreciation for finely made watches. It’s funny, I had a conversation with IWC’s Creative Director Christian Knoop last night. He asked me what I would like to see and I said: ’A perpetual calendar, split-second chronograph in a Portuguese case–if all that engineering could be fitted into a slim 43mm case?’ He said: ’Wow, you know a lot more about this than I expected.’”
A little while later, Marsden’s stylist Ilaria Urbinati was dressing him for a red-carpet premiere and decided that he needed a great watch to go with his suit. “By now I loved watches,” he recalls. “My ex-wife had given me a dive watch that was always complimented and this made me see that a fine watch is nourishing for the ego–people see it and comment and it feels good. So, on this particular occasion, Ilaria persuaded IWC to lend me a watch for the night and today I always say that Ilaria taught me what a great suit is and IWC taught me what a great watch is.”
Here, Marsden removes his watch and flips it over, explaining the Pellaton winding system to me and enthusing about the 7-day power reserve of the Caliber 52000 automatic movement powering his Portugieser. “I used to think: ’It’s just a watch, it tells the time.’ But when you wear something special, and you learn what it takes to create it and you look at the history of a brand, it stops you in your tracks. I sat on the plane yesterday and just stared at the movement of my watch. I love things with a real soul.”
Sensing his genuine interest in the brand, IWC decided to give Marsden the piece that he had worn. “That’s the thing with IWC,” he says, “they are not interested in people who just want a bit of bling on their wrist. That speaks to their philosophy–they care about what they make and want other people to care too. My style is classic, pure, elegant and all those adjectives seem to me to represent IWC. It is a brand that has modern lines and is branching out and moving with the times but it has an identity and it stays true to it and I love that.”
That started a relationship that first took Marsden to SIHH in 2015 where he met Georges Kern–CEO of the brand at the time–and fellow enthusiast. Today, he is the proud owner of an IWC collection including the Portugieser he is wearing today as well as a Portugieser Chronograph, a Portugieser Perpetual Calendar, a Big Pilot and a time-only Portofino. “I’m very lucky,” he says laughing. “I have my whole watch life covered with IWC.”