James Marsden: Would your mother approve of your Facebook self-celebration?

James Marsden talks to us about his film Welcome to Me, and what it tells us about the self-obsessed social-media age.

James Marsden with Kulap Vilaysack in Welcome to Me. Courtesy Universal Pictures
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Welcome to Me is ostensibly the story of Alice (played by Kristen Wiig), a woman, who attempts to very publicly exorcise her mental-health demons through a self-indulgent TV show.

However, co-star James Marsden (X-Men, Hairspray) says it also offers a timely warning for humanity in the increasingly self-obsessed internet age.

“Alice’s mental illness reveals an unsavoury part of human nature, which is how narcissistic and self-centred we can be if we strip away all the social things we’ve learnt when we were raised,” he says.

“I find that sort of narcissism and egocentric behaviour running rampant nowadays, with the birth of social media and so on. All of a sudden it’s OK to share pictures of every part of your life. We live in a very self-­celebratory world right now, and there’s a very fine line between that and clinical narcissism.

“I sometimes just ask myself: ‘Would your mother approve of this behaviour?’ And as I get older, I really don’t have the patience for people who lack empathy and only want anyone to hear their story.”

Of course, Alice has the excuse for her behaviour of a personality disorder, though Marsden – who plays the TV studio boss who produces Alice’s show – points out the cast and filmmakers were very careful to ensure they were not making a dogmatic “issue film” or, a disrespectful “laugh at the crazy lady” comedy.

“Shira [Piven, the director] was very keen not to make it heavy-­handed or preachy,” he says. “It has an odd tone – it does challenge the viewer to ask, ‘What am watching here? Is this a comedy?’

“We all approached the movie from the direction that as odd as all these characters are, you have to approach it seriously. It can’t be a goofy, OTT, winking-at-the-­audience thing. We tried to let the bizarre things that unfold in the story be where the humour came from, not the characters themselves, who we wanted to play with conviction and sincerity. As crazy as the characters are, you have to believe they really exist.”

Key to that sense of reality is Wiig’s nuanced portrayal of Alice, who uses her lottery winnings to fund a chat show presented by, and entirely about, her. She was praised for her performance when the movie had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, and Marsden is among her biggest fans.

“I love the way Kristen plays Alice,” he says. “She’s completely unaware of how messed up she is – she says these ridiculous things and makes these ridiculous decisions but she’s not aware of it.

“I think that’s Kristen’s strength as an actress – she gets the genius in the crazy and delivers a performance that’s layered with tragedy and sadness, even as you might giggle at it.”

Marsden also seems to be increasingly attracted to more meaty roles. He made his breakthrough in 2000 as Cyclops in the original X-Men trilogy, and also appeared in 2006's ­Superman Returns. More recently, though, his films have increasingly been more on the indie side, including roles in the American/Belgian mystery The Loft (2014) and Lee Daniels' epic The Butler (2013).

Marsden says this is not a conscious change of direction. “I’ve never had some ‘five-year plan’ for career choices,” he says.

"When your star rises a bit with a movie like X-Men, that's cool, and your choices expand and you can put a bit more thought into what kind of things you want to do. It's just been a bit of a ­maturation process, in terms of what sort of films appeal. Some of the more indie films, and some of the stuff on premium cable, is more what I'm responding to at the moment.

“The actors that keep their longevity are those who really seek out talent in terms of directors and interesting stories.

“Those smaller movies without the budget that you do because you love it are what fills the artistic side of the equation.”

•Welcome to Me is in cinemas now

cnewbould@thenational.ae