By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan play a star-crossed couple that rekindles their love affair 20 years after they went their separate ways in the romantic drama “The Best of Me,” the latest weeper based on a Nicholas Sparks novel.
The drama, set in Louisiana, finds the former high school sweethearts returning to their rural hometown for the funeral of a friend. Their reunion is bittersweet as Monaghan’s Amanda is now married to someone else and a mom. Marsden’s Dawson works on an oil rig but has never gotten over his first love. Their unexpected and long overdue reunion reignites the passion they once had but soon the forces that drove them apart years earlier pose an even bigger threat in the present.
The film also stars Aussie actor Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato (“Trust,” “Trespass”) as the younger versions of Amanda and Dawson, as the story volleys back and forth between the early 1990s and today. Directed by Michael Hoffman, “The Best of Me,” is based on a script by Will Fetters and J. Mills Goodloe, which they adapted from Sparks’ bestselling book.
Marsden and Monaghan, who play the couple in their late 30s, spoke about making the romantic drama and what they find special about doing a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.
Q: Is it possible to go back to an old relationship and rekindle it?
Monaghan: Well, I haven’t personally done it, but sure, why not? I think people change over the course of their life. I don’t think you’re the same person when you were 16 or 17. People change and adapt as a result of life experience. So if you have that opportunity, if you have that second chance, you might be able to find yourself in the position to do that. I’m a wishful thinker.
Marsden: Sure. Nowadays with social media and how interconnected everybody is, it’s much easier to call up your high school sweetheart or contact them via social media. You’ll find a lot of people doing that more nowadays. As humans, we like to look at the road not traveled and fantasize about what might have been. Would your life be richer or more fulfilled had you taken a left instead of a right? That’s what the movie explores.
Q: You two have such a great onscreen chemistry. What was it like to work so closely together? Did you do anything off set to build that back story?
Monaghan: It was just easy.
Marsden: We had a good time. Some people think it has to be miserable to shoot a movie; it has to be a tough experience. It can really be an enjoyable on, especially on a movie like this where it really is all about the chemistry. I’m going to speak like she’s not in the room right now, but Michelle shows up and she’s like this beacon of light. She’s got so much energy, and cares so much about the material, but she also cares so much about the process, and wants to enjoy it. And, just like my character, you’re drawn to that. It was very easy being around her. Michael, our wonderful director, created such a nice tone on set. He allowed us a couple weeks of rehearsal time to get to know one another, but also to get the scenes up on their feet, and see how they feel. That was invaluable, so I thank him for that. It was nice to have a good dynamic with my co-star, and have that bleed into our performances.
Q: Michelle, your character has had a lot of complications in her life: she’s lost a child, she lost the love of her life and she’s in a bad marriage. Can you talk about your emotional journey in this and what did you think when you first read the script?
Monaghan: When I first read the script, it touched me. That’s the wonderful thing about being an actor. You get to insert yourself in a character, and go on this emotional journey, whether it’s reading something that’s 300 pages, or going to the theater and watching something for two years. You’re able to escape and go on this emotional journey. I love this character because she was complicated and she was conflicted. There’s this part of her that she’s lost, and from the outside, it looks like she’s got the ideal life, but truly there’s something missing inside as a result of all this life experience.
Q: Was it a challenge to have someone else playing the same character as a younger woman?
Monaghan: I loved what Liana (Liberato, who plays the same character as a teenager) had done, in terms of her performance, and what it created and established for the role. It really gave me the opportunity to go on this emotional journey of having to rediscover those aspects and those characteristics. So it was nice for the character to be a little lost, and be a little restrained, and be emotionally impactful because of being reunited, and being confronted with her life, and having to make some difficult decisions.
Q: James, did you coordinate your performance with Luke? How did you coordinate your physical characteristics?
Marsden: (He laughs.) I kept trying to get Luke to stop working out. (I told him) “Enough already! You’re making me look bad.” I would haze him. I told him, “Now, Luke, when I take a drink, I like to put my pinkie up.” And made him think he had to echo that. Actually, Luke and Liana came in early and did most of work…
Monaghan: …which was most of our work.
Marsden: They went in and set the characters first so I just followed what Luke did. Michael was a real advocate of getting the voice to sound similar and maybe a few mannerisms here and there, but I don’t think we got too hung up on being a carbon copy of one another. As Michelle said, in 20 years you do change a little bit. We were lucky to have a couple of weeks of rehearsal, which for a lot of movies you don’t usually get. We were able to work all that out so it was really helpful to us.
Q: James, this is your second film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, after appearing in 2004’s “The Notebook.” How big a fan of Nicholas Sparks are you?
Marsden: I try to work my way into a Nicholas Sparks film every decade. (He chuckles.) It’s a great career move. What he does so wonderfully is he tells these unapologetically romantic timeless love stories, and I think that never gets old. It’s always something people want to see and he does it so well. He keys into the desires of women. He has these male characters in these stories that adore these women. That’s one of the several elements to their success. For me, it’s nice to be part of a film that’s about human connection and emotion and loss and heartache and joy and all these things that you don’t always get to explore in films these days when you’re wearing a superhero costume, surrounded by giant green screen.
Monaghan: They’re very rarely made—an adult drama, a love story. To be honest, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to be in a love story. They just don’t make them anymore. Who better to go down this road with than Nick Sparks? It was perfect.
Q: Michelle, have you finished filming the comedy sci-fi film “Pixels?”
Monaghan: Yes. It’s coming out July 24, 2015. It was amazing.
Q: How was it working with Chris Columbus who, of course, directed a couple of the “Harry Potter” movies?
Monaghan: He is an absolute dream. That is a man who loves making movies and infuses the set every day with his joy.
Q: You co-star with Adam Sandler. Do you played a married couple in it?
Monaghan: No, I’m not married to anyone. Adam, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage—it’s a wonderful cast. I play a weapons expert. I work for the government. I play a nerdy sassy type. She essentially helps save the world.
Q: After doing the TV series “True Detective,” are you interested in doing more TV work?
Monaghan: I’m truly open to it. But I’m not doing anything at the moment. It’s a matter of finding the right material and finding the right project that I can get excited about. Frankly, it doesn’t matter if it comes in a cable form or independent or a big movie like “Pixels.” As long as it’s something interesting and challenging and something I haven’t played before, I’m game.