updated 08/13/2013 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 08/17/2013 AT 6:15 PM ET
Sure, James Mardsen has marquee good looks and a big-budget acting resumé, but don’t let that fool you.
Deep down, the Oklahoma native says he’s simply “a goofy drama nerd.”
“I m actually less comfortable being the smoldering hot guy,” Marsden tells Out magazine (only semi-convincingly) for its September cover story.
“I know I have a face like a model, but I’m actually just a goofy drama nerd underneath,” he insists.
Marsden, who turns 40 on Sept. 18, is putting all his assets to good use for his role as President John F. Kennedy in the historical drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which costars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and opens this Friday.
“I saw a thespian waiting to bust out from his big tent-pole movies,” Daniels told Out, a reference to Marsden’s previous roles in films like X-Men, Enchanted and The Notebook. “I picked him because I think he embodies the youthful side of Kennedy that gave so many people hope.”
Having left college to pursue an acting career nearly two decades ago, Marsden befriended Kirk and Candace Cameron on a Hawaiian vacation. With some help from them, and a move to L.A., he soon landed guest-starring roles on such major ’90s shows as The Nanny, Party of Five and Ally McBeal. His first leading role was in 1998, in the MTV cult hit Disturbing Behavior.
In real life, Marsden married Lisa Linde, daughter of country singer songwriter Dennis Linde, in 2000, but the union ended in divorce in 2011. They share custody of their two children: Jack, 12, and Mary, 8. He also has an 8-month-old son William Luca, with Brazilian model Rose Costa.
Now, at nearly 40, he says that despite a few bumps he’s a very fortunate guy.
“I’m lucky,” he insists with a smile.