This week in theaters James Marsden stars in Hop, the story of how a man became an Easter Bunny. James Marsden stars as the would-be bunny, who becomes friends with E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand), who is supposed to become the new  Easter Bunny, but wants to be a drummer instead.  Marsden has had a number of careers, as a TV star, as Cyclops in the hit franchise X-Men, and more recently he’s been an ace comic performer wtih a number of supporting turns in films like Enchanted and Hairspray. We talked about Hop, and some of his possible future and past projects, along with how his children have influenced his career. We also talk about his rumored involvement in the upcoming Three Stooges movie.

Did you always see yourself as a comic leading man? It seems a change from James Marsden, Superhero (or Superhero support).

James Marsden: What’s really nice is how my comic career has gone. For a while there after X-Men no one would see me for a comedy. People who knew me knew that I was capable of doing “character work” – I guess that’s how you’d put it – so there was this slow education where my agents got me together with a number of comedic writers and producers and went after the auditioning process to prove I wasn’t just the guy in the red glasses who could fire lasers out of his eyes. The last five years have been great, and the fans seem to like it. Now I find myself reminding people that I can do the other stuff too. Now it’s “Oh James, he’s the comedic actor.” I don’t want to come off like I’m complaining, but they really only remember you from your last movie. Hop was one specifically for my kids. I just finished Straw Dogs – which was about as dark as I’ve ever gone – and my thought was “wouldn’t it be nice to go do a family movie for my kids?” I was hesitant, though – I didn’t want it to be too soft. But Illumination (Entertainment, the animation production company who also did Despicable Me) bring a level of sophistication to the humor, and knowing Russell Brand was on board… I thought it was a pretty subversive – but still family friendly – take on the Easter Bunny. Illumination is good at gearing it so the adults will be entertained as well.

With a film like this it’s obviously effects heavy, as your co-star is a cartoon rabbit. What did you have to perform against? Did they give you a puppet or a green ball?

JM: I knew I’d be pretty much alone on set. It’s one thing to be on a set with green-screen and you’re reacting to claws coming out, it’s another thing to have your co-star in a buddy comedy not be there. So I got together with Russell beforehand in the recording studio and we figured out our dynamic and improvised a lot, so I got a taste of what he was going to do with the character, downloaded as much of that as I could to my brain and on set I’d try to remember. Every day I had to remind myself “just pretend like you’re acting opposite Russell Brand. That you’re not talking to a rabbit, or something that’s not there. Just imagine Russell.” To look at, there were little pieces of green tape that would represent his eye-line, which would sometimes move so I’d have to remember on what line the rabbit moved. And then there were takes where there was a stuffed animal. If you can imagine all the life and charisma that comes from a stuffed animal. It was an exercise in imagination.

Does that get easier?

JM: No, it was always hard. I never went home thinking a scene really worked. It’s like singing a duet without hearing your own voice. But I knew that was going to be the process on this, so I had to put my brain in a specific gear and I knew we were creating a puzzle and I was just a piece of the puzzle. But we’re just there for my stuff, so you really get the attention of (director) Tim (Hill) and the creative team. Creatively the focus was on me while shooting. And the Illumination guys were open, so I got to fool around and they’re always open to being different. You’ve got to be flexible. I know, I’ve watched a lot of these movies because I have two kids, and when I’ve seen movies that mix live action and animation, sometimes I feel a disconnect. How they’re looking at the characters, or the separation. So I was always asking to hold the rabbit, because I felt that it brings the two together more. I got into the technical part of it, but you have to remember to be a good actor too. It was a technical process, but I knew that it was going to be. It was probably my most challenging film to date. Here you go piece by piece by piece, without the other actor there to help you bring it to life.

I really appreciated your enthusiasm in the musical number.

JM: That was one of the funnier moments in the script when I read it. My character being dragged into these situations by a rabbit, and being forced to cope. Fred (his character) is a bit of a straight man – Russell’s got the more outrageous character.

What was your favorite part shooting the film, or your favorite completed scene?

JM: Well, when the film is finished, you’re getting to see another movie, because what I imagined the animation looking like finally comes together. I love the opening sequence in the chocolate and candy factory, because I loved Willy Wonka growing up – I could taste the screen, it was so engaging. You want to dive into a chocolate river. It’s a unique experience because are a cog in the wheel of this massive production, and when you see the film you feel like you’re seeing something you weren’t really a part of, so it’s great that it all came together the right way.

Are you signed on for sequels?

JM: I don’t know. That sort of stuff I don’t pay attention to – I should – but I just think about my contribution as a character and let my agents take care of that.

Films for (His) Kids

You felt with Hop your kids were picking the role?

JM: That was one of the main reasons. Doing a film I could take my kids to the premiere and share. I have a ten year old and a five year old and these are the types of movies I get to see. I have to set aside time once a month with my wife to see an Oscar movie. I know Illumination, I know Pixar, I know DreamWorks, I’ve seen these movies over and over and over again, and I think there’s few people doing them well, but they’re revolutionizing animated films. They’re real films, with Toy Story nominated for best picture this year, that’s a huge statement. Illumination is doing the same thing with their animation. I got to be a part of something I get to share with my kids.

What did they think of the premiere?

JM: They loved it. They weren’t too happy about kids surrounding me for photos and autographs – they got a little protective – but they loved the movie. When they were younger it was harder for them to see me on the big screen. In a five year old’s brain, when they see a movie it’s very real to them, and when my son was younger he struggled with that concept of seeing me on screen and then me sitting next to him on the couch. My daughter, same thing, she’d fast forward through my parts in Enchanted. She didn’t like seeing her dad on TV.

So she’s not up for watching The Box just yet.

JM: No, if there’s anything bad that happens to my character, that’s definitely not a good thing.

On Future and Stalled Projects, and Superhero Movies

Can you say anything about The Three Stooges?

JM: No, not really. All I can say is it’s interesting the power of the internet. How things can spread so quickly. I can’t comment other than it would be a fun transformation, and I would enjoy it. It’s one of those things where you don’t want to say something that can come back to bite you on the ass.

Can you say anything about Nailed?

JM: I can’t say what the future is, we haven’t finished the movie, and it’s been so long I should have made myself forget about it. It was so disappointing because it was a brilliantly written script by David (O. Russell) and Kristen Gore, and I had a blat with, it was another comedic role. I was very inspired, and now I look at it as a personal experience for me, and not putting any expectations for the movie to be finished. It could happen.

It’s all about getting the band back together at this point?

JM: It’s even more complicated than that. The movie was plagued with financial issues. I heard it tested on the internet. That’s where actors get their information. It doesn’t make it fun to talk about it, but I’m not much for looking backwards. I don’t wait for things to come together, I think about going forward.

Like with X: Men: First Class or the new Superman?

JM: I know so little about First Class. I’m still happy they’re making the X-Men movies, and Fox is smart they can keep making these movies with the wealth of back story – you could do a spin-off of every character. The challenge of the first was having ten to fifteen characters and having enough time to establish who they are, especially with the years of back story. But I don’t look back and feel any disappointment. I’d love to come back and do a new one with the original group, but they’re busy. As for Superman, I’m glad they’re doing it. And I just read that Amy Adams was cast as Lois Lane (his co-star in Enchanted), which is perfect. I look at every movie as its own thing, and they’re going for a totally different tone. I can only look at it as a fan’s perspective, which is why I wanted to be a part of it the one I was in. Now I look at it as a fan of the character, and I’m excited there’s a new one.

On Sex Drive

Let’s talk about Sex Drive, which I think is really underrated.

JM: That was a really selfish choice for me, it was a coming of age script, and I was 34-35, why should I do this? But the character just leapt off the page for me. I knew guys like that growing up.

Can you tell if that film has a cult following yet?

JM: It feels like it does, I have more people come up and talk to me about that then I would suspect for a movie I assumed nobody saw. I get more responses about that movie now then when it came out. To me it feels like more people are discovering it now. There’s people I’m meeting now, directors, where I ask “what do you think makes me right for this movie?” And on comedies, most often they reference Sex Drive. The people who have seen it, they’re really responsive – it’s been a help. And it’s turned into a real asset in terms of getting work in similar types of roles.

Hop opens Friday, April 1. Check it out!