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Death at a Funeral – Zoe Saldana and James Marsden on working with comedic icons

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Death at a Funeral - Zoe Saldana and James Marsden
Elaine (Zoe Saldana) and Oscar (James Marsden) © Screen Gems

James Marsden has had an eclectic career starring in such diverse movies as the musical Hairspray, the comedy Enchanted and the psychological thriller The Box. In his new movie Death at a Funeral, based on the 2007 British farce, he portrays Oscar, the nervous boyfriend of Elaine, who mistakenly takes hallucinogenic drugs, thinking they are Valium.

For Zoe Saldana, who plays Elaine, doing a comedy is a breath of fresh air after starring in a string of genre movies including Star Trek, The Losers and the biggest grossing movie of all time, Avatar.

I spoke with both of them about their experience working together and acting with comedic icons like Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence.

Did working with all these comedians influence you?

Death at a Funeral - Zoe Saldana
Elaine (Zoe Saldana) © Screen Gems

Zoe Saldana: No, I don’t think I’m funny at all, and I don’t want to be. But I just knew this was going to be an amazing experience. Everything about the concoction of this project was appealing from (director) Neil Labute to Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan and Danny Glover.

I do remember asking my team who was going to be playing the crazy boyfriend that’s high on substances, and they said, ‘James Marsden.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ It just felt to me like something that I’d never done before and it was a challenge.

I saw the original movie and I loved it. I’ve seen it four or five times. The one thing the entire world has in common is funerals, and everybody has a crazy family member. And it didn’t matter if it was in England or if it was here in America to me, it was going to work and it was hysterical.

James, you were hilarious in this, how much was on the page and how much creativity did you bring to it?

Death at a Funeral - James Marsden
Oscar (James Marsden) © Screen Gems

James Marsden:I had to apologize to Zoe before every take actually. I said, ‘Zoe, I’m sorry but will you just indulge me, I’m going to try something.’ She said, ‘Stop it, stop it, you’re on acid, do your thing.’ The script was always really strong, and we always went in and did what was scripted because it was great and it was flawless.

Neil afforded me a certain amount of creative license to have this balance of going in prepared but also allowing yourself to remain relatively open to finding things throughout the day. It was a great environment to work in and I was definitely allowed to find things that maybe weren’t necessarily always there.

Did James ever surprise you with what he did?

Zoe Saldana: The funniest thing that Jimmy did, that wasn’t so funny, but it kind of was too, was that scene where he’s supposed to be completely naked on the rooftop and I’m supposed to open the window and go, ‘What are you doing, come back inside.’ He didn’t give me any warning that he had taken off his pants.

So I’m talking with Luke (Wilson) inside, and then Neil yells, ‘Action,’ I opened the window, and said, ‘What are you –‘ and I just looked at his eyes. I could have been prepared if I knew that he was going to be naked. It was awkward, you’re embarrassed; he’s embarrassed. Then they yelled, ‘Cut,’ and I yelled at him, ‘Next time if you don’t tell me, I’ll punch you. I just need to be ready.’ He said, ‘Thank you so much, you were such a gentleman, you kept looking in my eyes!’

Everyone loved your version of Amazing Grace, where did that performance come from?

Death at a Funeral - Columbus Short, James Marsden, Ron Glass and Loretta Devine
Jeff (Columbus Short), Oscar (James Marsden), Duncan (Ron Glass) and Cynthia (Loretta Devine) © Screen Gems

James Marsden:That was from Chris Rock, I think. I thought it was funnier if it really was a sincere offering of condolences to Loretta (Devine, who plays the dead man’s widow). I remember Zoe and Columbus (Short) sitting there going, ‘You’ve got a voice, man, you’ve gotta go for it.’ I was like, ‘Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t sing well.’

They were, ‘No, no, no, sing as gospel as (you can). Go for it.’ I was like, ‘Alright,’ and I did that on the last take (and it) became inspired.

Given that you’re naked for a lot of the film, did you catch cold?

James Marsden:No, they kept it nice and warm on the set. They wanted me to be comfortable. Yeah, that was fun. I’ve always said, nudity is not a problem for me, but it must be in a comedy. There’s something uncomfortable about asking an audience to take it really seriously and to get naked. If it’s for a joke I’ll do it.

Did you have any doubts about doing it?

Death at a Funeral - James Marsden
Oscar (James Marsden) © Screen Gems

James Marsden: No, because I knew it was funny. I read the script on a flight from New York to L.A. I didn’t know there had been a British film already made, so I just thought it was this great original piece that all this stuff takes place at this funeral. I thought the character was rich and I kept reminding myself what this guy has to endure, unbeknownst to him and involuntarily, which is always funnier to me, so I didn’t think twice about taking it off.

Was it hard to keep a straight face working with all these comedians?

Zoe Saldana: The good thing is that Neil is the kind of director that likes to rehearse on set. Awesome things happened on the set and it gave me a comfort level with my surroundings. I was able to get a lot of things out of my system, to laugh and break character so much that by the time we got to shooting, my outbreaks were minimal. But working with them was a little surreal.

Everybody went a step further with their characters. Neil was always there to make sure we didn’t go too far, but he allowed us to play and go to the outermost limits of our boundaries.