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  • Photography by Mr Blair Getz Mezibov | Styling by Ms Ashley Furnival
    Words by Mr Sanjiv Bhattacharya

For years, Mr James Marsden wasn't considered a funny guy. The actor, who played President John F Kennedy in The Butler and stars in comedy sequel Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, doesn't exactly have the look, after all. Preparing for a shoot on a crisp Friday morning in downtown LA, he looks more like one of those all-American cheekbones types, the kind who make excellent screensavers for 14-year-old girls.

But then six years ago it all changed.

"I don't know what happened," he says, as a make-up guy lovingly blow-dries his hair. "I guess I got funny all of a sudden!"

Ever since the camp musical Hairspray broke the seal in 2007, Mr Marsden has become a go-to guy for dromedies, romcoms, sitcoms, all kinds of coms. There was Enchanted, then 27 Dresses, then Death at a Funeral, Bachelorette and a handful of episodes of 30 Rock.

And now, he's in the biggest comedy of the year, Anchorman 2, sparring with comedy gods such as Messrs Will Ferrell and Steve Carell.

"I play Jack, the cocky hotshot news anchor who has a bit of a competition with Ron Burgundy at the network," he says, inspecting his reflection. "It was such a blast. Those guys are such masters of improvisation. It's amazing how unselfish they are."

The real challenge was just keeping it together and not laughing. The big prize was getting Will [Ferrell] to crack. I did it twice!

The prospect of mixing it up with the funniest men in the US might intimidate some, but Mr Marsden felt at home.

"I got the jitters a bit at first, but Will and Adam [McKay, Mr Ferrell's producing partner] are very welcoming of new talent. They encourage you to come up with your own jokes. Huge safety net. The real challenge was just keeping it together and not laughing. The big prize was getting Will to crack. I did it twice!"

Mr Ferrell knew Mr Marsden from Bachelorette, which he and Mr McKay produced. Mr Marsden played "an unapologetic douchebag", a part that saw him humping Ms Kirsten Dunst against the wall in a toilet. Clearly, Mr Marsden had a blast there too.

"I like playing characters who think they're great, but they're not, you know?" he says. "They're misguided, but they don't know it - that's a goldmine for comedy. Their confidence is misplaced."

And yet Mr Marsden's confidence has never been more well founded. After 20 years in the business, his life looks increasingly accomplished. A father of three, albeit divorced (from fellow actor Ms Lisa Linde) he turned 40 this year, a milestone that he rather shrugged off. "I knew it was coming for so long, it was as if I'd already dealt with it. I'd already grieved!"

Nevertheless, 40 is when men are supposed to accept themselves, and finally come into their own. And it looks as if it's happening. Professionally, his batting averages are better than ever.

So far this year two of his movies have opened at the No.1 spot - it'll be three if Anchorman 2 fulfils its promise. And they demonstrate something that every actor longs for - range. It turns out the funny guy with the cheekbones can do all kinds of things.

In the action feature 2 Guns, for instance, he played a crooked naval commander who tangles with both Messrs Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. "I remember squaring off against Washington for a scene, and acting all tough," he says. "But inside, I'm thinking, 'Oh shit, it's Denzel. I'm going to get squashed.'"  

Then in The Butler, a worthy picture about the civil rights struggle in the US, he plays President Kennedy, and nailed the accent, it must be said. He'd record President Kennedy's speeches in his home studio and send them to the director Mr Lee Daniels for notes. Mr Daniels was thrilled.   

"I was always a pretty good mimic as a kid," says Mr Marsden. "At school I used to do bits of Eddie Murphy stand-up and Saturday Night Live skits - that was how I got my validation when I was younger."

He was a confident kid too. It takes brass to just up and move from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles at 19 to try to make it as an actor. But Mr Marsden had no doubt. He literally went from doing impressions at school in Oklahoma City, to booking auditions in Hollywood.

"It was a bold step, looking back, but at the time I was just too excited to be scared," he says. "When you're young, you don't think about things too much, so you take chances that you might not take later in life."

To be fair, he had his father in his corner. A renowned scientist, he offered to pay Mr Marsden's rent for his first year in LA - "He said, 'Don't worry about waiting tables, just keep your schedule free.'" And he passed on a priceless contact - a family friend who'd become a casting director, and who introduced Mr Marsden to his first manager. Within a week of moving into his little apartment in Universal City, he was being sent out to read for a line here and a line there.

And it was all uphill from there?

He thinks for a minute. "It's more like hills and valleys," he says. "Getting the X-Men was a peak for sure. Starting to do comedies, that was another peak. And this year of course is big for me. But I never get too comfortable. Because there are down years too, and you've just got to keep going after it."

He taps the table, thinking of a name. "You know the actor Frank Langella? He once told me that this business is like a card game. Sometimes you get a great hand. Sometimes it's shitty. But you've got to stay at the table. That's what matters. Staying at the table."

His nose powdered and his hair coiffed, he stands up and shakes my hand.

"Now I think I need to take some pictures."

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is out on 19 December in Australia and 20 December in the US and UK. The Butler is out now in the UK.