Writing His Own Headline
It’s an unseasonably warm January afternoon and Justin Theroux is holding court at a dimly lit restaurant in downtown Manhattan filled with creative types noshing on kale salads and quinoa pilafs while ironic ’90s pop (Hanson’s “MMMBop”? Really?) pours over the speakers. He has ordered breakfast (scrambled eggs doused in hot sauce) and lunch (a green salad topped with grilled chicken) at the same time and eats at a speed befitting a UFC fighter, pushing eggs onto his fork with his fingers and talking as he chews. He’s dressed in his unofficial uniform of gray jeans and a tight black T-shirt, a gold Rolex Submariner on one wrist, a black leather bracelet on the other. Three medallions hang on a chain around his neck—a gold revolver, a hobo nickel, and a St. Christopher medal. A gold ring that reads justin adorns his right ring finger, while his wedding band from wife Jennifer Aniston occupies the valuable real estate on his left. His right middle finger is wrapped in a cast. “I snapped my tendon,” he says, raising one of his obscenely expressive eyebrows in annoyance. “I don’t know how. I think doing a stunt?”
This is a guy who rides Ducatis around Los Angeles and fixed-gear bikes around New York, always clad in a black leather jacket, like it’s a second skin. His body is littered with tattoos—a grim reaper, a Black Flag logo, a dragon. He’s married to America’s favorite Friend but looks about as friendly as a tarantula in the paparazzi shots of the two of them together. Smiling isn’t his thing. On the critically adored HBO drama The Leftovers, which returns April 16 for its third and final season, he plays a small-town police chief who shoots wild dogs from a moving truck, digs up a buried body, and willingly drinks poison so he can assassinate an imaginary adversary in the afterlife.
So it comes as a bit of a shock to discover how cheery and forthcoming Theroux is. Even Leftovers costar Carrie Coon was surprised when she first met him. “You can’t help yourself—you’re going to have expectations,” she says. “He can seem very armored. And I think what’s so striking then is how incredibly sensitive and generous he is. He just defies any stereotype of how somebody with a life the size of his might be.”
Right now, it’s a very big life. Last fall, he tried to kill Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train, which pulled in $172 million at the box office, and later this year, he’ll star opposite Paul Rudd in Mute, a futuristic thriller from Duncan Jones. It was The Leftovers, which premiered in 2014, that really landed him on Hollywood’s A list. And being married to Aniston landed him everywhere else. The two started dating in 2011 after hitting it off on the set of the comedy Wanderlust, and a year later, he traded his Greenwich Village
apartment—lovingly decorated with dumpster detritus, like a giant red S from a Firestone warehouse in Brooklyn—for a $22 million, 8,500-square-foot Mid-Century home in Bel-Air.
Married life suits him, he says, though the In Touch and National Enquirer stories that say otherwise drive him crazy. Practically every day, there’s a new headline about the two of them—none of them true or newsworthy. I mention the latest, from one gossip rag reporting that they did not, in fact, have a fight the night before, and he lets out a loud laugh. “I’m so glad they did not go at each other’s throats!” He shakes his head and sighs. “I think it would be funny to do a compilation of those headlines. Let’s assume these characters we play in the tabloids are real people. I would love to take them to a shrink and have them analyzed. Like, are these people insane? Yes, they fight every day, they’re constantly getting divorced, they’re hoarding children at this point. Imagine what those people would actually be like! They’d be f****** bananas! They’d be the most bipolar people on the planet. Constantly storming in and storming out! Devastated! Crying! Rage! Someone should give a clinical diagnosis of one year in our lives. It would be super funny. What medication would you give these people to help them out?”
Before taking up with the former Mrs. Brad Pitt, Theroux was about as likely to appear in the tabloids as he was Highlights magazine. He was famous, sure—he had starred in Mulholland Drive, written Tropic Thunder and Iron Man 2, popped up on a handful of TV shows like Six Feet Under and Parks and Recreation but his under-the-radar, very un-Hollywood lifestyle didn’t command salacious headlines (or GQ covers or Tonight Show invites, for that matter).
He grew up in Washington, D.C., with a lawyer dad and journalist mom, bouncing from school to school (“I was fearful, terrified, and slightly bullied—and, yes, I was also a rebellious and pissed-off kid”) until he finally ended up at a bucolic boarding school in Massachusetts, where he chopped wood and didn’t receive grades. His uncle is the travel writer Paul Theroux, who only once took his nephew out on an adventure, and a minor one at that: kayaking from Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard. But for the younger Theroux, it was “a death-defying experience.” The fog, the horns from passing ships, what lies beneath—he shudders at the memory. “I was just terrified,” he says. “Being in the water in such a small boat? I’m just afraid of water in general; I like a cement bottom.” He laughs. “I’m sure on [my uncle’s] scale of adventures it’s like a .0001. To me, it’s like a nine or nine and a half.”
For Theroux, acting was adventure enough. At Bennington College, he learned he wasn’t very good at it, but that he could become good, thanks to one teacher who, he says, “tore me apart. It was an interesting thing, realizing [that acting] is not a completely personal, therapeutic journey—it’s something you actually have to translate to someone else,” he explains. “Like someone saying, ‘I have a great book in my head, you should read it.’ So that was a big light-bulb moment for me: It’s not about me. It’s about servicing the playwright and servicing the director and really just trying to take the hard work they’ve done and be the copper cable between the audience and them.”
New York—and being an artist, not just an actor or a celebrity—was his end goal. He wanted to experience the “do whatever I want” vibe the city emanated. He did theater (Three Sisters on Broadway), he painted (murals on the walls of clubs like the Palladium and the Limelight), and he wrote (scripts, sketches, jokes for his buddy Ben Stiller to use on Letterman). His best writing advice came from his Uncle Paul: “He told me, just go every day and write from 10 to 4, or whatever your time frame is, and then do it the next day and the next day. It’s like scything a wheat field,” Theroux says. “Eventually you’re going to finish the whole thing if you just pick up the scythe.”
He tried to avoid Los Angeles as much as he could, never going out for pilot season or to hobnob at très exclusif parties in the Hills. “LA is a terrible place to go as a young actor who’s just got nothing,” he says, pouring a second cup of green tea. “You’re, like, tearing tickets for people to see the movie. You’re not a part of anything. I got a really good piece of advice early on: Don’t ever fly yourself to LA. Only go if you’re invited and someone bought you a ticket. And I kind of stuck to that, and it worked.”
Of course, now the actor sees the benefits of living in the land of sunshine. What does he like most? “All the clichés, of course,” he says, rolling his eyes in mock embarrassment. “It’s healthier, the weather is unquestionably 1,000 times better. I like the pace of it—it’s slower. I think when you’re in your 20s, you’re constantly trying to redline on things, and New York is great for that because it’s burning the engine very hot. Now, I need little breaks. I need to pull my foot off the gas, and LA is a great place to do that.”
You can’t blame him for needing a break after The Leftovers. It’s heavy stuff. Based on the book by Tom Perrotta and created by Lost’s Damon Lindelof, the show begins with a Rapture-like event during which 2 percent of the world’s population up and disappears. People lose their children, their parents, or no one at all, but they’re all traumatized just the same. Why were they left behind? Theroux’s character, Kevin Garvey, spends the first season trying to reunite his family and keep his town from falling apart. He can do neither, and season two finds him starting a new life with a neighbor (Coon), their adopted baby, and his teenage daughter in a Texas town dubbed Miracle, since not one of the 9,261 residents “departed.”
While the first season was good, the second was astounding—the kind of show that leaves you in tears or eyes-wide shock at the end of each episode. The New York Times called it “transcendent television.” The Daily Beast declared it “a miracle.” And Theroux’s character is at the center of it, trying to rebuild his life while slipping into schizophrenia and literally dying again and again and again in order to start fresh and realize that who he is—and the family he has—is enough. In the season finale, he’s forced to sing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” at a karaoke lounge in an afterlife that looks remarkably like a Marriott in order to save his life. His voice quavers and tears trickle down his cheeks, as he finally understands the magnitude of what’s at stake. It’s one of the most profoundly moving moments in recent television. Expectations for the final season are, to put it mildly, high.
For all three seasons, Theroux preferred to remain in the dark as much as possible so he could be as surprised as his character when events unfurled. “Damon was nice enough to give me the haiku of what the season was going to be, but I didn’t want to know really what was coming week to week,” he says. Of course, if he had known what was coming he might not have been so into it. “Justin was put through more than anyone else—getting dunked, sliding around naked on bathroom floors, dying…” Coon says. “I have this theory that Damon actually really hates him or is resentful of Justin for being attractive and so therefore writes heinous things for him to do. But you can’t rattle him. He never complains, even when the conditions of the show are really challenging.”
Spending three years working on a show about death doesn’t mean the actor feels any comfort about his own (hopefully very far off) demise. “I’m terrified of it,” he says, eyes wide. “Aren’t you?” It also hasn’t changed his thoughts on religion (he identifies as an atheist and thinks “all religions are a weird mix of superstition, obsessive compulsive disorder, and wishful thinking”), but he admits that he does “go back and forth” on the idea of an afterlife. “Sometimes I find myself saying, ‘Maybe there is something in the afterlife.’ But I think that’s just me trying to create comfort for myself—like I’m going to cross over, and my dog is going to come bounding across a bridge. Nobody wants that more than me. The rainbow bridge has brought a tear to my eye many times.”
The final day on set for The Leftovers was very emotional, Coon says. “Damon read aloud a beautiful email Justin had written to him about what it meant to be cast in the show, and the process that Justin had to go through with Damon to earn the part. He really had to fight for it,” she says. “There was no bravado. Justin knew Damon was going to challenge him, and he was completely willing to take that on. And Damon was very grateful for Justin’s willingness to go fully into his vision, and that was beautifully, painfully on display that last day of work. It’s something I won’t forget.”
Unsurprisingly, Theroux says what he’ll miss most about The Leftovers is the people. “I’m not going to miss the discomfort that Damon put me through, the directors put me through,” he admits. “It was uncomfortable shooting a lot of things.” He jokes that he’s looking forward to seeing the friends he made in “a civilized setting … not waking up with them at four in the morning and throwing ourselves into cold water.” But right now, what he’s most excited about is a little time off to kick back with that wife of his. “Marriage makes the small things much smaller and the big things small,” he tells me, lifting one eyebrow and offering a little shrug. “You have an ally. It’s good to have someone have your back.”
Two weeks after our interview, another celebrity rag publishes a cover story declaring “Jen’s Worst Nightmare: Dumped on Her 48th Birthday.” Meanwhile, on her actual birthday, Theroux posts a selfie of the two of them celebrating in Los Cabos under a crown of palm trees, his wife blowing a kiss at the camera. “HBDJ XO” reads the caption.