“I Have A Front-Row Seat To What Makes This Town So Bananas”
Mr Justin Theroux on poking fun at Hollywood, his much-scrutinised marriage and why he doesn’t touch sugar
The sun is shining down on Hotel Bel-Air at just the right temperature. Here, everything seems controlled by iPad: the coy blush pink of the walls, the water gently sprinkling on the hydrangeas, even the swans gliding in the moat. But there is one rupture in all of this pleasantry, and he’s sitting in a booth at the hotel’s Wolfgang Puck restaurant, a devotee of New York punk, Grim Reaper tattoos and nicotine (taken orally and frequently), who once headed up his own motorcycle gang, Satan’s Hooves. The wall behind him is bedecked in candles as if were his own private crypt.
The anomalous one, Mr Justin Theroux, is describing the decor of his home office, with key mood-setters that include waxwork models of gonorrhoea-afflicted throats, bowls of human teeth and grisly dental equipment. He keeps a skull, Hamlet-like, on his writing desk “just as a reminder, you know, of the impermanence of it all. Oh, and I have a print of a Victorian-era lithograph of a little girl with syphilis on her face. You know, just like every other house in Bel Air.”
Mr Theroux is the actor and screenwriter who recently wrapped on HBO’s third and final series of the critically acclaimed drama The Leftovers. He is an outré satirist of the po-faced worlds of Hollywood and high fashion (he co-wrote Tropic Thunder and Zoolander 2 with Mr Ben Stiller), a man of many beardy cameos and, at 46, the ripped and inked torso du jour. Oh, and he’s half of one of Hollywood’s most photographed, not to mention scrutinised, couples.
His Chapman Brothers-esque collection of medical curios has been, for the most part, banished from his home (an expansive mid-century modern affair designed by Mr A Quincy Jones) by his wife of two years, master of rom-comic timing Ms Jennifer Aniston. It’s hard not to wish to be a fly on the wall just to catch some of their domestic banter. Didn’t she find the gonorrhoea throats amusing?
“That’s why they’re in my office,” says Mr Theroux. “When it’s not funny, she calls me out. She says, ‘That’s not funny.’” Does she allow fart jokes in the house? (Mr Theroux is not above such things.) “Of course she would allow a fart joke, but I think she actually has a more refined sense of humour than to crack a fart joke. I think she’s funnier than that.” He rolls out the sentence, low and chilled-out, punctuated with chuckles. As if he can’t help but see the ridiculousness of it all.
Mr Theroux doesn’t do things by halves (he’s drinking iced espresso and iced green tea in tandem). His screenwriting can earn actors Oscar nominations, as it did for Messrs Robert Downey Jr and Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, a film in which he asked Mr Downey Jr to black up in parody and supplied the most politically incorrect joke in Hollywood history (“You never go full retard”). And his own performances always pack a surprise punch. The darker part of his opus includes playing a suicidal twice-murdered schizophrenic cop-turned-messiah in a new world order of cults in The Leftovers. He played the lead in Mr David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), and the psychopathic boyfriend in Girl On The Train (2016), who manipulates Ms Emily Blunt’s commuter into believing she’s crazy.
Then there are his comedic roles. “My favourite thing to play is stupid and confident,” he says. He’s been Derek Zoolander’s dreadlocked nemesis Evil DJ, a murderous Irish gangster with a mohican in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) and a hippie Don Juan, leader of a free-love commune, in Wanderlust (2012), which co-starred Ms Aniston along with his friend Mr Paul Rudd. “It’s a very bipolar career,” says Mr Theroux. He pops a Cinnamon Surge Nicorette tablet, having wolfed down his poached egg and grapefruit. “There’s no strategy or logical sense, and I think my Wikipedia page proves that.”
As with his friend and sometime mentor, the reportedly sunnily dispositioned Mr Lynch, there is a dark-and-light paradox to Mr Theroux. In the words of his wife, “At first you think he could be like a serial killer, but he is actually the nicest person in the world.” Today he has abandoned his standard love-child-of-The-Ramones-and-The-Beastie-Boys uniform (lots of skinny black, leather and gold jewellery), for a grey woolly hat worn Rocky-in-training style, a ripped grey T-shirt, jeans and a 1971 Rolex Submariner. He’s all laid-back levity in macho armour. In fact, Mr Theroux is so amenable, I’m struggling to reconcile it all.
And this is when I pull out the ultimate, unbluffable test of any man’s mettle. Mr Theroux makes me laugh, mid-mouthful of Coke, and I spray most of it in his face. I’m beyond mortified. He’s hysterical. Rolling-around-the-booth hysterical. “It was a full-on aerosol,” he says, leaning into the Dictaphone. “Full coverage. It was like movie rain. You know how movie rain is bigger than actual rain?” Oh God. But the Mr Nice Guy analysis is tried, tested and water-tight.
The grinning, wet face under the widow’s peak before me is angular, Italianate, expressively browed and up there with the best of today’s leading actors. But, rather than exploit it, Mr Theroux has often camouflaged it in an ingenious range of hirsute disguises. “He’s a Ken doll,” Mr Damon Lindelof, executive producer of The Leftovers, has said. “But he’s Every-Ken. Astronaut Ken. Interior designer Ken. But in terms of what he can do as an actor, say his name and people are like, ‘Oh, that sounds familiar.’ He could be much bigger than he is in terms of notoriety.” Instead, Mr Theroux has, rather like The Leftovers, preferred to be a sleeper hit after 25 years of working quietly in the business.
The Mr Tom Perrotta novel adaptation, about the spiritual vacuum left after the Rapture-like disappearance of 140 million of the world’s population, has slowly garnered cult status over its limited run. It was heralded by The New York Times as “transcendent television”, yet was largely omitted from this year’s Emmys list. (Despite his friend Mr Jimmy Kimmel and his wife conspiring to hijack Mr Theroux’s black Mercedes and spray-paint it with a campaign poster of his naked body. “I was pissed off,” he says, chuckling. “Like, take it back. Fix it.”). Is it because he went full mental illness? “No,” he says. “I think we went full classy. I think it’s because we weren’t particularly a zeitgeisty show. We didn’t have any big sell.” What about his oft-seen ripped and tattooed torso? “Maybe in the last poster, I guess. Existential grease doesn’t necessarily rank high. It’s tough to tweet about it.”
But tweet they did, with sheer outrage at Mr Theroux’s bizarre exclusion from the nominations. And they will again, given the cult kudos and secrecy surrounding his next project, directed by Mr Duncan Jones (responsible for critically acclaimed sci-fi movies Moon and Source Code, also the son of Mr David Bowie). In Mute, a dystopian neo-Noir set in futurist Berlin, Mr Theroux redeploys his comedic talent for cloaking his identity, this time, to dark and menacing effect. It sounds like a win-win situation. The Blade Runner-ish premise alone is enough to stimulate the saliva glands of the sci-fi agnostic: a mute Amish bartender (Mr Alexander Skarsgård) searching for his missing girlfriend becomes embroiled with two sinister black-market surgeons played by Mr Theroux and his old friend Mr Rudd. “I’m wearing a shaggy blonde wig,” says Mr Theroux. “It’s definitely not my standard look. It’s a bit of a cheap shot, I know. But I’m a very shallow actor. I’m not going to put a pebble in my shoe and limp around on set. But I do like a good prop.”
Mr Theroux is not one to moan about first-world Hollywood problems, from the broken bones he sustained on The Leftovers (“hardly coal-mining injuries”) to the loss of anonymity he had formerly enjoyed, thanks to his marriage to one of the least anonymous women in the world. It’s a relief that he hasn’t turned into one of the pious, self-involved actors he once parodied. “If nothing else, I have a front-row seat to the insanity, to what make this town so bananas,” he says, emphasising every syllable of “ba-na-nas”.
But there are some things, even greater than a face full of Coca-Cola, that would test any man’s good nature. When he began dating Ms Aniston in 2012 – they fell in love on the set of Wanderlust and at weekly karaoke-offs at Mr Rudd’s house – he was unwittingly sucked into the tabloid maelstrom. They married in 2015, but in the multiverse of cyber-speculation, Ms Aniston and Mr Theroux just keep splitting up, getting back together, splitting up, often because of the villainous character that has been thrust upon him in “this never-ending operative narrative on the pages of a magazine week to week”.
He calls that other Mr Theroux his avatar. “It’s just not a part of me,” he says. “There’s this slightly insane person running around on the covers of tabloids who is mentally ill, clearly.” It’s all rather Lynchian. And Perrottan. Spoiler alert: the penultimate episode of The Leftovers revolves around Mr Theroux’s character assassinating his own doppelgänger. That must have been very satisfying. Was it a cathartic expression of how he feels in real life? “I don’t even have any choice in the matter so, if I did, I would only frustrate myself by saying, ‘Yeah, I want [the other] him dead,’” he says, matter-of-factly.
It sounds enough to induce mental illness. “I think it does drive people insane and you can tell who those people are in the world,” says Mr Theroux. “You have to be the guardian of your own senses. If a tree falls in the forest and you’re not there to see it, you know. But for the most part, it’s not as pervasive in our lives as people think. Occasionally you’ll get whacked by something. It’s definitely something you have to analyse and come to terms with. Which I think [my wife] has done very elegantly and pretty effortlessly.” But, he adds, “I think I came into our relationship the same person as I am now.”
Mr Theroux grew up in Washington DC, the son of Ms Phyllis Grissim-Theroux, a journalist and author, and Mr Eugene Theroux, a corporate lawyer of half Italian, half French-Canadian descent, who is the brother of novelists Messrs Paul, Alexander and Peter Theroux. (I test his Italian accent and it is spot-on.) His cousins are the Cambridge-educated British writers and broadcasters Messrs Marcel and Louis Theroux. Highbrow was the family epithet, but the young Mr Justin Theroux struggled with reading. He was eventually diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. “My cousins were super nerds,” he says. “They would sit down to learn Russian or play chess and I would be like, Oh, I dunno.” (Mr Louis Theroux recalls an occasion when, upon looking up from a Chaucer tome he was reading, he saw his American cousin eating a Styrofoam cup.) But he doesn’t want me to labour the point. “It sounds a little victimy to say that I really had to struggle,” says Mr Theroux. “It was a pain in the ass. There were definitely times where I didn’t feel bright, a belief I sometimes still hold. But I wasn’t Oliver Twist either. I just wasn’t great at reading.” Instead, he listened. And cultivated an ear for dialogue, which he credits as the underpinning of his screenwriting today. “I’ve made some progress pushing that boulder up the hill,” he says.
Then he discovered The Ramones and Suicidal Tendencies, and acting at school, and yearned to move to the punk capital, New York. (He was also “a pretty decent artist”, who, on occasion tattooed himself and his friends.) Upon graduating from Bennington College in Vermont with a drama and visual arts degree, and a little Mandarin on the side, Mr Theroux was given a good talking-to by his father about his ambitions. “He said, cocking a brow at me, ‘I saw something on people who try to become actors. A lot of them ended up in porn, you know.’ And I was like, ‘Have you even met me?’”
Mr Theroux moved to New York in 1993 and ensconced himself in Greenwich Village, where he skateboarded, painted murals in Palladium and The Limelight nightclubs, rehearsed Chekhov and didn’t turn up for sitcom auditions, including one for Friends. “No, I didn’t bother,” he says. “I slept in that day. I wouldn’t have been prepared for [the fame].” He made his film debut in I Shot Andy Warhol in 1996, and his breakthrough in Mulholland Drive in 2001. It was in New York that Mr Theroux met his lifelong buddy-collaborators Messrs Stiller and Rudd on the acting circuit, as well as members of the Stella comedy group and close friends Ms Amy Sedaris and Mr Will Arnett. His CV attests that those who work with him want to stick with him. “The key to continuing to work is don’t be a jerk,” says Mr Theroux as he pops another piece of nicotine gum. “Because you’re infinitely replaceable.”
Now that he is part of the Hollywood establishment, he is known for lampooning. Are people suspicious around him? “Not really,” he says. “But I’ll never forget there were a couple of producers who asked me who the Les Grossman character in Tropic Thunder [played by Mr Cruise with full-blown histrionics] was based on, because they thought it was them. So many people who were satirised would literally point the finger at someone else.” Not everyone has always laughed with him, however. Mr Karl Lagerfeld saw Zoolander 2. He was not amused. “He’s a wonderful designer,” says Mr Theroux, deadpan. “And a very fickle man.”
None of his Tropic Thunder or Zoolander buddies were ever part of Mr Theroux’s biker gang. In fact, Satan’s Hooves is no more. “We had jackets and everything with rocker patches,” he says, wistfully. They rode together on “brochelorette” bike trips to western Texas, France and Switzerland, preferring roads with lots of chicanes to the flat-out German autobahns or Route 66. “Then we changed names, which was a big mistake from a branding perspective,” says Mr Theroux. “We were first Satan’s Hooves, and then we were Die Fast, and then we just fell apart.” Does that make him feel old? “No, I still ride. I’m still hoovin’ hard.”
He can be spotted around Bel Air on his Ducati in his stalwart West Village black-on-black attire. He’s unlikely to convert to casual LA dressing. Ever. “The clothes that are designed to make you the most comfortable, like flip-flops, cargo shorts and oversized T-shirts, are the ones that give me the willies,” says Mr Theroux. “I will wear a fleece as a layer for warmth, but not to anchor a look.” Is he aggrieved by the normalisation of the rock ’n’ roll tattoo? “Actually, there’s been this cool evolution,” he says. “When I see people with tribal tattoos that are all bled out, I think, Oh that’s hysterical. And ironic. And cool. And now there’s sort of this thing of getting lazy, boring, terrible tattoos, which I also find hysterical and which I have a few of myself.”
His only Californication is perhaps his allegiance to trainer Mr Jason Walsh. The secret to a Mr Theroux-ready physique is “doing weights quickly, in a cardio kind of way”. And he doesn’t eat any sugar. He’s all about salt (pink Himalayan). He cooks Italian at home and despite, at times, looking like the kind of guy who might sacrifice fowls to Satan, is the proud owner of six chickens. Then there are his dogs. “I’m obsessed,” he says. “Talk about avatars, they are the best thing to have around the house. Ever. We have one mutt dog named Clyde. We always joke that he’s half garbage. He’s constantly vying for first place in my heart.” He pulls out his iPhone and proudly shows me a photo of Clyde – think Oscar the Grouch in Sesame Street – lolling on a cream carpet next to their pitbull terrier Sophie during “morning cuddles”.
Otherwise, Mr Theroux can be found writing in his home office (but never with bare feet) listening to vinyl (“Buy a record and commit to it”), sketching in his flip-pad, scouting for more finds for his graffiti art collection (he has a Mr Phil Frost and a Mr Stephen Powers, aka ESPO) or playing with his godchildren (“I think I’m godfather to all my friends’ kids”). And presumably, chuckling to himself. And with others. All his relationships, including his marriage, are based on “comedy one-upmanship”. Not all men, I point out, would want to be married to a woman who has the potential to out-banter them. “Why would a man be intimidated by a funny woman?” he says. “In a perfect world, a relationship is two people laughing together.”
And so, in Therouxworld, his next career move makes perfect sense – from the dark metaphors and purgatorial hotel of The Leftovers to The Lego Ninjago Movie. “It’s maybe one of my top five jobs ever,” he says, all schoolboyish again. In fact, he’s off to record a scene for it now. But not before a little recap. “Let’s circle back to the spitting,” he says. “Let’s table it. It’s like the bucket-list thing you never knew you had on your bucket list. Oh, the awkwardness. The awkwardness was hysterical.” And he’s rolling about laughing again.