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James Marsden: The D Train’s Big Plot Twist Is Not ‘A Cheap Punch Line’

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You’ve never seen a dysfunctional bromance quite like the one at the heart of The D Train, now in theaters. James Marsden stars as Oliver, a struggling actor and one-time high school hot shot lured back to his 20-year reunion by a former classmate (Jack Black) who’s still desperate to be cool after all these years. When a bacchanalian weekend in L.A. and Oliver’s homecoming don’t quite go according to plan, The D Train explores a side of male friendship not often seen on the big screen. “I thought it was one of the more subversive comedies I’ve read in a while,” Marsden says.

TIME caught up with the actor to talk about his high school days, awkward fan encounters and reuniting with Jack Black.

TIME: Did you go to your last reunion?

James Marsden: I’ve not been to one of my high school reunions! The 10 came up and I was in Toronto working, and then the 20 came up and I was in New Orleans working. It would still be fun to go back and look at how everyone’s changed, but then there’s this anxiety that comes with it, too. You actually just get pulled back into high school with that same hierarchy.

Where did you fall in that hierarchy?

I was a hybrid: I was a musical theater guy, but I also had a couple friends who were cooler kids in sports. I was always doing Dana Carvey sketches from SNL or Eddie Murphy stand-up pieces, so I was kind of goofy. I made the cool kids laugh so I was able to hang out with them. It wasn’t till my senior year of high school that girls started to look at me. Before that, I was kind of small and skinny, and in my senior year I started to grow into myself. Girls were like, “Hey, who’s that guy?” But I still had the bad style and the bad haircuts!

Your character’s claim to fame is a Banana Boat ad. Did you do any embarrassing commercials back in the day?

I went to a lot of commercial auditions when I first moved to L.A., but I never booked anything! They didn’t like me. My more embarrassing stuff is the guest spot I did on Saved By the Bell: The New Class or when I was in Oklahoma doing Sunday newspaper modeling for a local clothing store. Those were pretty priceless.

Have those photos been dug up on the Internet?

I think they’re lost in history, but my grandmother may have them in some album. I’d love to see those—there were some real gems.

In one scene, your character has an awkward fanboy encounter when he runs into a much more famous actor (Dermot Mulroney, spoofing himself). Did that moment ring true for you?

I’ve been on both sides, and it’s to a T. People act funny around celebrities and people they see on TV and in movies. They just want to find some common thread to connect with them to make them feel like not just your average person on the street that has no connection at all. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Hey, I saw you at the supermarket the other day—you were picking apples!” You go, “Okay! Great! Great to see you ol’ buddy!” I don’t know what to expect. It’s such an interesting human behavior.

You and Jack Black were in an episode of Touched By an Angel together 20 years ago. Was this movie a reunion of sorts?

I almost forgot and had to remind him of it—it was so long ago. He played a drug dealer and I was his liaison, if you could imagine Jack Black and I being drug-dealers! I remember him being funny. We were doing dramatic acting, but he was obviously still Jack Black at the time, doing his signature stuff between takes. I was like, “Who is this guy?”

I’m sure you didn’t imagine that years later you two would have a sex scene together.

Yeah, of course, that’s a given! No, I never would have thought in a million years that we would be going the road that we went down. He obviously was a guy I wanted to work with, and it was fun to sit back and watch his career explode, but I didn’t see this coming.

What did you think when you first saw the script?

I thought it was one of the most subversive comedies I’ve read in a while. It feels like everything’s been done in the comedy world—I know everybody says that—but it felt like a fresh take on the bromance, and a very bold, courageous take on it. It’s definitely a dark comedy, but to me it felt more like a drama in the vein of early Paul Thomas Anderson or early David O. Russell, these characters who were in real, and a lot of times uncomfortable, situations that make you laugh and go, “Oh my God, this poor guy!”

All the performances I’ve ever loved come from a place of true conviction and sincerity. One of the reasons Enchanted worked so well is because she believes this character’s plight. You’re not just sending it up and being silly. I just thought it really pushed the envelope in an intelligent way. It’s easy to shock people, but it’s harder to pull them into a storyline that has people invested in these characters and then get laughs from that.

What do you think of the critics who say it’s a cheap punchline? I thought the movie did a good job of not turning the storyline into a gay joke — it never makes fun of the experience itself.

I’m glad you said that, because I was confused by all of that. I really was. I mean, I know it’s tricky ground to walk on when you deal with this sort of subject matter, but I didn’t find it to be offensive at all, and I certainly didn’t find it to be cheap. We had conversations, Jack and I, about what this needed to be, and we were aligned when we decided that this can’t be Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon making out on SNL, a silly gross-out. This has to be a real character study on what’s going on in this guy’s life — the shocking lengths this guy will go to get this other guy’s affirmation and attention. So I didn’t find it to be a cheap punchline at all.

I see how it could have gone that way. I was thinking of other examples, like I Love You Man. That was a really good movie, but I don’t see it ever being possible for this movie to go to a place where they end up sleeping together because the guy wants to be Jason Segel’s character so badly or something. That would turn into a gross-out joke.

We could have played it silly — “Ugh! It’s so gross! We did this! Disgusting!” — that would be offensive. But I just found it funny that this guy is so enamored with this cool guy from high school. He has a wife and kids but goes to the places that he goes to to get him to come to the reunion. It had nothing to do with two guys getting together. It had more to do with the degree of desperation this guy feels. In our weakest moments, how far will we go for validation?

A version of this story appears in the May 18 issue of TIME, on stands Friday.

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com