The sleeper hit “Jury Duty” documents a trial, focusing particularly on one juror, Ronald Gladden. Except it’s not a real documentary; the cameras are real, the trial is fake, and a cast of actors surrounds Gladden, who is unaware of the ruse. But Gladden is not being set up as a mark; the Freevee limited series makes him a hero. And it turns juror-actor James Marsden into a petulant, spoiled Hollywood star.
In reality, executive producer Todd Schulman says, “James Marsden the person was basically the antithesis of James Marsden the character on the show.”
Co-creators Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (“The Office”) worked with their writers to create outlines and scripts that would provide the springboard for improvisation, designing the show as a comedic “12 Angry Men.” Filling a shuttered courthouse in Huntington Park with hidden cameras in addition to the “documentary” crew, they enacted a fake civil trial from jury selection to deliberations. Early on, Eisenberg thought of including a celebrity, since in L.A., actors serve along with everybody else.
Marsden was initially suspicious of the offer. First he worried that the show would be pranking him. Then he worried that it would be cruel to Gladden, says Schulman, speaking by phone along with executive producer Nicholas Hatton (both of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”). “He grilled us. He did not want to do the show if it was at all mean-spirited.”
As if to prove their point, Marsden shows up for an interview in a Hollywood hotel lobby without an entourage, helps find a quiet room to talk, and when that quiet room is empty of furniture, carries in armchairs. And then carries them out again afterward. The guy is thoughtful and game, qualities that proved essential for his role.
But even after taking the job, Marsden called his agent to try to back out. “I was just panicking, because after 30 years of doing this, you know what to expect. I didn’t know if I could do this.” At the same time, he has longed to try improvisational comedy, citing “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and Christopher Guest movies as touchstones.
So he took it on, while voicing his concerns daily when the cast gathered (without Gladden) to rehearse the obstacle course of sorts that they would put the unsuspecting Gladden through as he interacts with an assortment of eccentric jurors. “I was a thorn in their side for the whole thing,” Marsden says. “They were probably like, ‘Oh, my God, here’s Marsden again, worrying, worrying, worrying.’” Au contraire, mon frère, says Hatton. “James would analyze each beat — he really put himself into Ronald’s shoes. A lot of people have responded to the heart of the show, and it was a collaborative effort from everyone, but James was a big part of keeping us on track in that way.”
The only aspect Marsden didn’t worry about was playing himself as a big baby. “I’ll make an ass of myself all day long. I enjoy it; I’ll send up the cliché Hollywood petulant brat.”
On the show, his character tries to get out of serving by secretly alerting the paparazzi to his whereabouts to prove how disruptive his presence would be, which ends up causing the sequestration of the entire group. And then he gets out of sequestration by pleading stardom and throwing his cash and clout around. “He really did encourage everyone to go in at him, and to heighten his cartoon villainy,” Hatton notes. Our hero, Gladden, was generally forbearing (even when it came to Marsden’s bathroom jury doody) but stood up to the actor’s more asinine antics.
As much as he agonized, Marsden started to believe that the show might work when Gladden befriended juror Todd, actor David Brown playing an odd duck intended to weird him out. “When I learned that he showed Todd ‘A Bug’s Life’ ” — to make him feel better about his idiosyncratic ways — “and then gave him a makeover, I was like, this guy is like an angel,” Marsden recalls. “If we are going to succeed in creating a hero’s journey for someone, we found the guy, and now we just have to get him to the finish line.” That was a big “if.” The stakes grew exponentially higher with every passing day of the shoot. “Everyone was terrified. No one wanted to be the one to screw it up.”
After Gladden was let in on the joke in the finale, and headed back home to San Diego, Marsden called him to see how he was holding up. “I was like, ‘How you doing; you feeling it?’ And he’s like, ‘Are there still cameras around?’ I said, ‘No sir, there are not. I know you shouldn’t believe me, but it is all done.’” Gladden and the cast kept the show a secret for a year.
Marsden had one final concern. “I thought maybe three people would see it. That line where I said, ‘I’m in mourning for my career,’ was half-real.” The morning after “Jury Duty” premiered, he was in New York, “and I walked across the street to a coffee shop, and every other person pointed at me and was like, ‘The jury!’ TikTok got a hold of it, and it just exploded.”
Within weeks, Gladden signed with a management company and made a Mint Mobile ad with Ryan Reynolds. And he’s still friends with the cast. Marsden can stop worrying now.
Studio Photoshoots > Photoshoots from 2023 > Set #004