James Marsden is having a moment

But right now, on a weekday morning in the Santa Monica Mountains, Teddy Flood is welling up.

James Marsden, the actor who plays Flood, has just shared some heartfelt thoughts about family and fatherhood, and his eyes are moist. “Sorry, I get emotional when I talk about this stuff,” he says.

He could blame the location-the small lake we just passed in Franklin Canyon Park is where the nostalgic opening for The Andy Griffith Show was filmed, with Opie and his Pa going fishing. We’re technically in the middle of Los Angeles but, as Marsden notes, it doesn’t look like Los Angeles. “That’s such an L.A. thing to say!” he says with a laugh.

Welcome to Marsdenworld, where a leisurely morning stroll lets an actor take stock of his resurgent career and a tumultuous personal life (now steadied and satisfying). He pinballs from stories of penis socks to musings on love and loss, and throws in a spot-on Ron Burgundy impression for good measure.

It’s clear that an intelligent sense of humor has served Marsden well in his career, now at the quarter-century mark and humming along nicely. His Westworld character-a seemingly good guy with a secret - has “died” several times at the malevolent bemusement park where his robot “lives.” He’ll die some more, no doubt. He may or may not end up with Dolores, and his past could remain a mystery for several seasons if the popularity of the show continues.

After having so many bullets and knives pierce his faux skin, Marsden knows what it takes to get through the bleak world his character inhabits.

“It makes us look at behavior, and we see some very dark behavior on this show,” Marsden says. “I have to wash it off afterward, and then physically I have to wash it off to get the blood out of my ears and body orifices. You just have to learn to roll with the craziness.”

Cue Ron Burgundy. Marsden and his costar, Evan Rachel Wood (that’s Dolores), try to retain some sanity on the set with laughter, pretending they’re in a musical, say, or a comedy. Between takes, they’ll do Leslie Nielsen in Airplane or Naked Gun. If a scene gets too grueling, they’ll rehearse in the voice of Will Ferrell’s character from Anchorman(Marsden joined the cast for Anchorman 2).Marsden then gives me a sample: “Doesn’t look like anything to me!” he says in flawless Burgundy, reciting a line spoken by Dolores in a crucial moment.

Speaking of skin, robot Teddy spends much of his downtime naked, meaning Marsden shot a scene with Sir Anthony Hopkins while completely nude. Well, almost. “Yeah, it was just me and this little sock over my thing,” he says. “You know, it feels vulnerable. There is nothing gratuitous about it. But it’s strange.”

The nudity means the 44-year-old Marsden works out five days a week during shooting. And all year he stays on a diet he calls “consistently moderate.” When he’s not working on Westworld, it’s two or three days a week of running and weight training. His goal is not to get bigger but to delay aging. His previous Men’s Health cover was in 2007, after a couple of X-Men movies as Cyclops and just before his turn as a Disney prince in Enchanted. (For this cover, he admits that he restricted his diet for 11 days.)

Marsden calls exercise the “cheapest antidepressant ever.” He’s done half marathons and triathlon sand broken 20 minutes in a 5K. But he acknowledges that he may sometimes go too far: “When I’m in really good cardiovascular shape, people think I’m not well. They look at me like,‘You need to eat something,’ because I do get thin and gaunt sometimes.”

Hence the weight training and, yes, some carbs.“We are going a little overboard with the shrink-wrap thing. We dehydrate the shit out of ourselves to keep carbs out of our system so we can have a 14-pack,” he says. “It’s getting out of control. It doesn’t look healthy. I will never do that.”

We dehydrate the shit out of ourselves to keep carbs out of our system so we can have a 14-pack.

Today, in a mismatched track suit, his shaggy hair protruding from a baseball cap, he looks like a cross between a friendly gentleman and a vulnerable jock. He offers his hand as we cross a barrier to sit down at a picnic table. “You warm enough?” he asks. “I like the cold. But you can have my jacket.”

Much like his Westworld character, Marsden is well-intentioned yet imperfect, his idealism sometimes undone by emotion. He’s a social type, but he likes to be alone. In high school, he would come home in the afternoon and watch old Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor stand-up bits. He’d memorize SNL sketches from the ’70s and reenact them for people.

“I wasn’t your prototypical anything,” Marsdensays. “I didn’t care about how I dressed. I wasn’t voted most likely to succeed; I wasn’t prom king or the captain of the football team. I wasn’t the popular kid.”

When Marsden was about 9 years old, his parents split up. He and his two brothers and a sister lived mainly with his mother in Oklahoma. His father saw them part-time. “I guess I was good at compartmentalizing when I was young,” he says now, a realization he reached in adulthood after some therapy. “Whatever life dealt me, I dealt with it. Then you realize when you’re older that it was a sort of defense mechanism. I was a kid trying not to be scared of something and deal with it in a way, maybe not the best way, but the only way I was capable of at that age.”

In his early teens, a drama class gave him confidence and a new passion. “It wasn’t until my senior year that girls started going, ‘Where did he come from?’ And I looked in the mirror and said the same thing to myself, like, ‘Whoa, yeah. Who are you? You’ve got balls now, and a personality. You have an identity.’ I’m grateful for finding the stage and a place to feel like, ‘Oh, you are finally good at something.’”

After some modeling (JC Penney ads in the Sunday paper) and some college (three semesters), Marsden moved to Los Angeles at the age of 19. He did not, as the Internet claims, begin his career as a Versace model. “Everyone thinks I was a famous model for whatever reason,” he says. He landed on TV, eventually with a role on ABC’s Second Noah, and okay fine, spent one afternoon posing in Versace clothes for a four-page spread.

Since then, Marsden has been swooned and ogled over in such diverse roles as Cyclops, John F. Kennedy in The Butler, and Rachel McAdams’s fiancé in The Notebook. Westworld, based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film, revolves around a violent, erotic theme park populated by android “hosts” like Marsden’s Teddy. The park’s guests pay to hang out with rage-filled gunslingers and sexy saloon girls amid lots of bloodshed, sexual violence, and death.

I wish I could think like [Kanye West], telling myself I’m awesome all day long

He takes his craft seriously - to a point. “You do want to be great,” he says. “You want to affect people, but I don’t always come home from work thinking, ‘Wow, I really nailed that scene today.’ I can be hard on myself. I have to train myself to stop being cerebral about it. To stop overthinking it. Sometimes I go home thinking, ‘Ah, am I a fraud?’”

Marsden leans in, pausing. “The people who are like, ‘Oh, that was great. I’m the best,’ are usually the ones who aren’t. Unless you’re Kanye West. I wish I could be that confident about myself. I wish I could think like him, telling myself I’m awesome all day long. I wasn’t raised that way, or to think or speak that way. But it’s impressive.”

Beneath his openness and wit, there’s sadness. His wife filed for divorce in 2011; he said it was “by far the hardest thing. I love her,” he says. “I did say to myself, ‘Oh my god, am I repeating what my parents did?’ You know, you don’t want to feel like it’s a failure.”

After 11 years of marriage, Lisa Linde, the mother of his two children, Jack and Mary, filed for divorce. The two began their relationship when they were in their early 20s-“really young,” according to Marsden. They grew into two different people, he says, and drifted apart. He had a third child, William Luca, with Rose Costa, born after the divorce.

The divorce was necessary for growth, he says now. “It’s sad and heartbreaking,” he says. “But this time I went through it and didn’t avoid it, like my parents’ divorce, and that’s vital too. I was separating not only from my wife but also my kids and the bonds of home and family. Those are things you’re painfully reminded of every day. It’s like, shit, what lesson is this? What’s to come from this?”

One thing to come of it: a close if unconventional family unit. “I’m very lucky,” Marsden says. His ex-wife, his kids, and his current girlfriend, 29-year-old U.K. pop singer Edei (a.k.a. Emma Deigman) all go on vacation together. “Someone on the outside looking in is like what is this weird, hippie-dippy commune?” he says, laughing.

That works? “When you have people who care about each other and care about these kids and just want to give love, how can you not welcome that?”

Marsden credits Linde for teaching him how to parent. “A lot of shit went well for me my whole life and came easy to me. Being a white male, you’re born with certain unearned privileges. My life hasn’t been filled with sorrow and deep struggle. When the divorce happened, it was the first time I felt I lost my equilibrium. It was scary and sad and made me pull everything into focus. I needed to focus on what was important,” he says. “So that’s who I am now because of that. I know regrets can be catalysts for good things. Not to talk like a Hallmark card, but it’s true.”

Being a white male, you’re born with certain unearned privileges. When the divorce happened, it was the first time I felt I lost my equilibrium.

Marsden’s late grandfather showed him how to make the best of a situation. “I was really close with him. He was like a mentor,” he says. The death hit him hard. “You just assume they will be around forever. He was instrumental in taking over when my parents were splitting.”

His grandfather took him on fishing trips as a child, and demonstrated how to be a loving, funny, and patient man. “He spoiled my grandmother. He took care of her for 20 years because she was ill off and on. He would wait on her hand and foot until his last days and sneak her chocolates in the hospital. It was like The Notebook,” he says. “It taught me a lot about love.”

Marsden carries one bit of wisdom from his grandfather with him. “He told me, ‘Do the right thing, even when no one is looking.’ You know, it’s like the testament of character,” he says. That’s when he wells up. “He taught me to do the right things and be a good person. You know, to want to be someone of substance and have real character, especially for my own children.”

And being a good father is something Marsden always wanted. “I learned all these great things that come from having stuff not be about me, having it be about somebody else, and what you are willing to do for them.”

His eldest son Jack, 17, made his catwalk debut during fashion week last year, wearing a velveteen robe with a fur collar.

“I’m so proud of him,” Marsden gushes. “Is it weird to say my son is the person I wish I was more like?”

Marsden looks at children wrestling in the dirt nearby. “At some point you have to release them into the wild,” he says, laughing. “And at that point you just have to think, ‘Jesus, I hope I did it right.’ But of all my achievements in life, being a father is the one thing I’m most proud of. It is the most fulfilling. I’m always self-deprecating, but I don’t have a problem saying that I am a great dad.”

Part of that means showing the kids how to respond to a screw-up. “It takes seeing the hero mess up or fail at something to become a man,” he says. “That, to me, has become more important than being this superstar, movie star, or an actor. It’s integrity and substance of character - it’s like when shit happens to you in hard times, who do you become because of that? Your kids look at you and that’s how they define who and what they’re supposed to be.”

Marsden feels safe knowing that when he tries, even if he fails, the effort is still a kind of success. “I’m very proud and very lucky to be doing what I do. I want to move people. I love it when people stop me to say they love my work or thought I was funny, or that I made them cry. That’s always important to me. But if I couldn’t do this anymore, my happiness is knowing that I’m a fully realized person and my happiness isn’t dependent on being a success within Hollywood. I want to be able to step away and be fulfilled. There is so much more to life like giving love and being decent. I want to lead with my heart,” he says, pausing. “This is getting deep. I have to stop now. I’m getting too emotional.”

Marsden jokingly thanks me for the therapy session. He hasn’t explored this in some time, he says. “My heart and my mind go into places I haven’t been in a long time. And then I think, ‘Oh, shit. I’m getting emotional.’ But it reaffirms how you feel about things.” He thinks it’s “unnatural” to have conversations about death, divorce, and personal growth all the time. Everyday life makes these topics “easier not to think about.”

Walking back on the dusty path, Marsden muses that confronting himself and his past is “like scraping old scabs.” For a moment, it looks like he’s going to cry. But he pulls himself together, drawing from the pain and the love in his life.

“When you try to block it out or go around it or avoid problems,” he says,“that’s when you are not living life. I’ve screwed up, I’ve been hurt. I’ve had fun. I’m learning from it.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 2018 issue of Men's Health Magazine.


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