Box Office Mojo: Corny Collins in Hairspray is your first musical role since you played Hugo Peabody in a high school production of Bye Bye Birdie. What's the easiest part of being in a musical?
James Marsden: It's probably easier to answer what the hardest part is—there are so many easy things about it, for me anyway. When you throw yourself into a musical like Hairspray, [you get that] sort of high energy, colorful [show] with ridiculous costumes and I find the more extreme you take it, the easier it is. If you're singing and dancing, it gives you less time to be neurotic about the acting. Maybe it's because I was so excited to finally do a musical that I enjoyed every minute of it. On every job I've ever done, like with the cast from X-Men, the actors were always saying [to me]: 'when are we going get you on stage doing a musical or something?' I remember Hugh Jackman saying, 'mate, you've got to do a musical.' He actually wanted me to play his love interest in [the Broadway musical] Boy from Oz and there was a scheduling conflict or something. But I would have loved to have done it. So, all of it's the easiest part—the whole process—because I enjoy it so much. I would finish a day on Hairspray and I wouldn't want to go home. I would want to stay there and watch the numbers that I wasn't [appearing] in. I know it sounds cheesy but it was a real labor of love. I'm so stage-starved that it comes easily for me. I got along tremendously with the cast and with [director] Adam Shankman, who was certainly in his wheelhouse because he comes from something like 25 years of choreography and he was in his element. We were all having fun because he was—and it was great to see John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Chris Walken just go camp. The movie's not all camp—they wanted to bring a real tone to it—but obviously it's colorful and has all those fireworks. It rides on the spectacle.
Box Office Mojo: Musically, what's your vocal technique?
James Marsden: [Laughs] Mimicry.
Box Office Mojo: That's how you prepare to sing—you listen to singers whose work you admire?
James Marsden: Yes. Not entirely—but that is a great deal of it. I do use warm liquids with honey occasionally and I make sure I'm never singing in the morning. I do vocal recordings at night when my voice is sort of warmed up. When I was in college, I was in a choir but I haven't had that much training. I'm really good at listening to people that I enjoy and not purposely trying to emulate them—but it sort of sinks into me, into my subconscious, and it comes out through my voice.
Box Office Mojo: Who do you listen to?
James Marsden: [Frank] Sinatra, Harry Connick, Jr., rock music, I listen to a lot of [rhythm and blues] and Prince. I'm all over the map—I just respond to good vocals and good songwriting. I discovered Frank Sinatra when I was a senior in high school—Harry Connick, too—and that whole genre of music.
Box Office Mojo: What are your favorite Sinatra songs?
James Marsden: All of them—it's the orchestrations and his gift for phrasing. I like "I Get a Kick Out of You," the Cole Porter stuff, and [George] Gershwin's stuff. So, that sort of stuck with me and, when I did the last season of Ally McBeal, I was singing Sinatra songs, which I think the director of Hairspray saw and put two and two together. I've also known Marc Shaiman—he's the lyricist and composer for Hairspray—before all of this. He was Harry Connick's arrangement guy and he did When Harry Met Sally and South Park and I've always responded to his orchestration. I ran into him in New York after I'd had a couple of drinks and I said, 'we're going to work together someday,' which sounds so corny. Later, I ran into him again and he invited me back to his [home] with a group of people after a film premiere. I sang a duet with Christine Ebersole in his studio apartment. When I was in Australia doing Superman Returns, he called me and asked about singing a ballad. He said his friend Sarah Jessica Parker was launching a perfume and doing TV commercials where she was dancing around and she wanted a crooner, like Michael Buble, and he thought of me. So, I sang into my computer and e-mailed the songs and she liked them—so, if you see her ads, that's me singing.
Box Office Mojo: How many of your songs are on the Hairspray soundtrack?
James Marsden: I solo on two main songs—the title song, "It's Hairspray" and "Nicest Kids in Town"—then everybody sings on "You Can't Stop the Beat."
Box Office Mojo: John Waters pictures typically don't do well at the box office. Do you expect Hairspray to make money?
James Marsden: I expect it to do really well. There's an awareness of the movie and I think this movie's going to come out in the perfect climate for a movie like this. I really do. There are wonderful sequels coming out that everybody loves but I'm sort of getting tired of them and I think we've gone through a phase in the last decade or longer of these big, loud, cool, kick-ass, edgy, nihilistic sort of films. It was daring and risky to put something pure and unabashedly colorful and positive out in the market. I know most guys are going to be like, what, Hairspray? But New Line [Cinema] has the highest test screenings in its history—and they show that 95 percent of guys aged 18 to 25 and 96 percent of women across the board like this movie. I think there's a turn, maybe it's [the success of musically oriented television programs] American Idol and Dancing with the Stars having an effect. Now, Johnny Depp's doing Sweeney Todd—
Box Office Mojo: He also did John Waters' Cry-Baby—?
James Marsden: Yes, he did.
Box Office Mojo: John Travolta appears in drag in this picture. Would you dress in drag for a role?
James Marsden: Sure. I did dress in drag for an audition once—to play Penelope Cruz's drag queen best friend in Woman on Top. I went to Twentieth Century Fox dressed from head to toe in high heels and a dress. I just went for it. My wife dressed me—I thought I'd throw that in there. What's funny is that John Travolta's not in drag—he's actually playing a woman. That's a difference between the original John Waters movie, the Broadway musical and this [version]; these characters, as heightened as they are, we want them to exist in a real world—I'm not saying a drag queen isn't the real world—but to [increase] that believability level [it was important] to not have John [Travolta] in drag. This isn't a kitsch thing, he's playing a woman—there's no stubble, he's in prosthetics and a fat suit and he's become this mother of this girl, which is a challenge.
Box Office Mojo: Have you seen the Broadway version?
James Marsden: Yes. I saw it after I was cast in the role.
Box Office Mojo: Have you seen the original motion picture?
James Marsden: Yes.
Box Office Mojo: What's the difference between the versions in terms of story and does it matter?
James Marsden: It is based on the Broadway version. The plot's pretty much the same—the changes occurred between the Broadway show and our movie. The show is big, loud and colorful and so is the movie but there are moments that knock you in the stomach.
Box Office Mojo: What do you think makes a Broadway hit translate to the big screen?
James Marsden: It's a whole different format—it's tough. By nature, if something is conceived to exist on the stage, it's catered to that. You can't just stick a camera in front of the action and press record. It's a whole different medium and you have to translate that because you're telling a story and it has to be more cinematic, like you're watching these people really do all of this [singing and dancing]. You have to invest in these characters really going through this in 1962.
Box Office Mojo: Did you talk with anyone from the 1988 original, such as Shawn Thompson—who played Corny—in preparation?
James Marsden: I did not. Ricki Lake [who portrayed the lead girl in the original] came to the set once and she actually does a cameo in the picture. There are a few cameos. John Waters plays a flasher.
Box Office Mojo: Were you able to watch any archival video footage of the Baltimore-based Buddy Deane Show, from which your character's show is derived?
James Marsden: I didn't get to see the show but I read about it as much as possible and I did see original American Bandstand footage [with host Dick Clark]. But John Waters based this on the Buddy Deane Show. The host wanted [racial] integration, but he knew that wasn't [realistic] so the show was cancelled and they never achieved integration. But I understand that Buddy Deane personally was in favor of integration and he knew that the American people would reject it. That's why the show went away. We do go back to 1962 with these sort of caricatures and the black influence in music and dancing and the kids wanting to learn the moves from black dancers—and it's a very positive message. Corny Collins is in between old school and new school. He knows it's going to be difficult to transform America into accepting this yet there's a scene where he basically says [racial integration] is inevitable. He's encouraged and inspired by this change yet if he'd made that [viewpoint] vocal, he never would have been hired as the show's host.
Box Office Mojo: Did Adam Shankman teach you how to dance?
James Marsden: I still don't know who came up with all the moves but Adam was the head choreographer on Hairspray and he sort of created a layout of what I'm doing in the numbers, which is walking around like Bobby Darin snapping my fingers and doing a twist here and there. If I wanted to incorporate anything else, as long as it was 1962, it was OK. I don't dance as much as the dancers but I had to learn basic moves like the Mashed Potato and the Twist.
Box Office Mojo: Hairspray opens the same weekend as the gay-themed I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Any concern the gay niche will be tapped that weekend?
James Marsden: No. That's still an Adam Sandler movie. We're not shutting out any of their market.
Box Office Mojo: New Line Cinema has had a long string of bombs at the box office and trouble marketing its movies. Do you see warning signs about Hairspray?
James Marsden: No. The encouraging factor is that they're putting so much money into advertising and marketing because of the ShoWest reaction and the test screenings. They have the utmost confidence in this film. The other New Line film I was in that was a success was The Notebook. There's never an indication whether it's going to be a hit.
Box Office Mojo: How was working on Enchanted with Patrick Dempsey and Susan Sarandon?
James Marsden: I only have two scenes with Patrick and he's high energy. I spend most of the film running around in tights looking for the princess. Working with Susan Sarandon was a lot of fun, too. She's a consummate pro.
Box Office Mojo: Will you appear in another Superman picture?
James Marsden: I hope so. I don't know if Warner Bros. is doing it for sure.
Box Office Mojo: Is there a superhero you'd like to play?
James Marsden: Nothing comes to mind. I think I've done that.
Box Office Mojo: You take an interest in technical aspects of certain scenes such as the car wreck in Vanilla Sky. Would you like to direct a movie?
James Marsden: Very much so. I'm trying to figure out what the protocol is—but yes. Whether I'm directing or acting in it, I would love to see a political thriller like Marathon Man or Three Days of the Condor with an ounce of All the President's Men. I like that combination of something that's really smart and cinematic.
Box Office Mojo: What's the reaction to your character's demise in X-Men: The Last Stand from Cyclops fans?
James Marsden: They didn't like it. Most fans come up and say Cyclops never got his due. I don't want to be the person in an ensemble film complaining and whining and I always knew the [plot] outcome—but I do think Cyclops was low man on the totem pole. People do like that character and that makes me feel good.
Box Office Mojo: What's the last movie you saw with your wife?
James Marsden: Casino Royale and I loved it. I was excited—just to see a movie with my wife—and it was a perfect moviegoing experience. It had great action, it wasn't ladled with computer effects, it had some good acting, and it was shot really well.
Box Office Mojo: Do you finally get the girl in 27 Dresses?
James Marsden: I can't say.
Box Office Mojo: Do you sing or dance in that movie?
James Marsden: I don't—oh, wait, I do—kind of. I'm drunk in a bar at some point, but it's not going to be a performance.
Box Office Mojo: There are several movie star centenaries this year and one of them is John Wayne's. What's your favorite John Wayne picture?
James Marsden: The Searchers.
Box Office Mojo: Your favorite Katharine Hepburn movie?
James Marsden: That's harder. The African Queen.
Box Office Mojo: Barbara Stanwyck?
James Marsden: Double Indemnity.
Box Office Mojo: Of those three stars, who's your favorite?
James Marsden: I didn't really grow up on John Wayne [movies] but I can't pick between Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn.
• Interview: James Marsden on 'X-Men'
• More Interviews by Scott Holleran