Pulling no punches Primal 'Gladiator' goes for the guts James Marshall finds himself playing another sensitive role


James Marshall is not really a morose kind of guy.

He laughs a lot, smiles even more. And he's in love.

The young actor, who first gained fame as the sullen, sensitive James Hurley in television's "Twin Peaks," is playing a sullen, sensitive boxer from Connecticut in the new film "Gladiator." The movie is about the underground world of illegal boxing in Chicago and the ghetto youth that it exploits. It also stars veteran actors Brian Dennehy, Ossie Davis and Robert Loggia.

In real life, Marshall -- born in Queens and raised in New Jersey -- is a pretty upbeat guy, flushed with his fast-paced career and a new marriage. During a recent interview, Marshall, sitting at the edge of a bed in a hotel suite as his wife, Ana, listens nearby, talks about his new film and career.

Unshaven and slightly loopy from lack of sleep, the 25-year-old Marshall speaks with humor about his super-sensitive persona. "I mean I don't walk around going . . ." and here Marshall gives a zombied stare, a wicked parody of his lost-soul characters.

Marshall is also not the least bit testy about the hype that presents him as this year's new James Dean.

"Comparisons are cool," he says. "It's a little flattering, but it's also a little silly because everybody's their own person. But they say that James Dean thing about everybody new. It's like everyone wants to categorize you as this and that until you've made your own mark. And until that happens, I don't mind it. I feel that I'm lucky to be in the spot to be compared to people, so it's a cool thing."

"Gladiator" director Rowdy Herrington says that Marshall has "a tremendous look and a great face. And this is a business of faces."

Producer Steve Roth says that Marshall should not be compared with Dean, whom he describes as "sullen and neurotic," but rather with Steve McQueen because Marshall possesses "a magnetic, straightforward quality."

Marshall says that the image of being "morose and stuff" comes not from what he's like personally but from what is called for in the characters that he plays.

"In 'Twin Peaks,' they wouldn't let me do anything but that," he says. "I tried to do some things different. I would say, 'Hey, let's do this and open him up here.' (The character) was getting

boring. But they wouldn't let me."

In "Gladiator," Marshall says his character was originally more open, human and funny -- especially in scenes with co-star Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Boyz N the Hood") -- but that most of that was left on the cutting-room floor.

"What was finally used was me being very downbeat," says Marshall, somewhat disappointed. But he says he can justify the quietude of the character by saying that a kid from Connecticut who is transferred to a predominantly black Chicago ghetto would not naturally be all that outgoing.

"The first initial feeling [of that character] would be terror and fear," he says, "and so a natural reaction to that situation would be to shut down and put up a wall and simply to watch. He would always be watching and hesitant, which can come off as brooding."

Marshall says he took the role in "Gladiator" because it was a chance to star in a film (he was in Martin Sheen's "Cadence" last year). But just as appealing was the training the 150-pound actor underwent to become a believable boxer.

"I wanted to see if I could put on a lot of muscle and take it off and put it on again. Don't ask me why. It was like an obsession. I was a De Niro-esque wanna-be. I also kind of wanted to see how far I could go without wimping out, to see if I could really, really, really work my absolute hardest."

Marshall's hard work continues with two more films coming out this year.

He plays one of the defendants on trial for murder in "A Few Good Men," scheduled for an end-of-the-year release. Based on the Aaron Sorkin play, the Rob Reiner film stars Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore.

The other film is a movie version of "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," directed by David Lynch.

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