“Oh man, this . . . I’m so sorry, but this is fucking crazy. It’s just … It’s so compelling.”
Justin Theroux is halfway through answering a question about the price of fame before he raises his eyebrows, and, as surreptitiously as humanly possible, turns his head to glance at the person behind us. We’re sitting outside a Sullivan Street cafe within spitting distance of the 49-year-old writer-actor’s apartment, on what feels like the first real spring day New York has had in eons. He’s wearing his “uniform,” a signature Theroux-chic mix of stylishly scuffed leather boots, a necklace made out of an old subway token, an olive-green bomber jacket, and jeans that are Nineties-supermodel skinny. The usual vintage, so-overly-ironic-it’s-now-sincere concert tee, familiar from a million Justin-around-town photos on the internet, is absent today. Instead, he’s sporting a plain blue shirt that appears to have gone through a gajillion laundry cycles. (“If you want to be fashionable,” he says, “buy 50 T-shirts on Canal Street and wait 20 years.”)
What’s currently distracting Theroux from talking about his career, or his experience in the eye of a celebrity storm, or the seven-part Apple TV+ adaptation of The Mosquito Coast that he’s starring in (premiering today), is the single most New Yawk caricature imaginable. A man who looks to be in his early sixties is standing in a doorway and yelling down the street at passersby, his accent what you might expect from a movie character credited as Mob Wiseguy No. 3. Theroux’s friend Nicolas Heller — a film director and Instagram star under the handle New York Nico — strolls by and confirms the guy can be heard from several blocks away.
“Ask him about his jacket,” Theroux says sotto voce to Heller.
So Heller walks up to the guy and asks him about his letterman-style jacket decked with the logo of The Twilight Zone and a collage of characters from the 1960s TV show circled around a sketch of Rod Serling. “I got this on eBay!” the man bellows, as Heller earnestly inquires about how and where he can purchase one. Theroux is now staring straight ahead again, a massive smile on his face as he eavesdrops on the conversation. It’s a warm day, and he’s got plans to meet up with Heller later in the park. He’s surrounded by the characters who populate a neighborhood where everyone knows him and no one hassles him, and there’s not a paparazzo in sight. It’s the look of a man in his own personal paradise.
A happy place — an idyllic, faraway Shangri-La — is what Allie Fox, the “hero” of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel, The Mosquito Coast, is looking for, and if you’ve read the book or seen the 1986 Harrison Ford movie of the same name, you know how his quest ends. The film, about an inventor who, disgusted with Reagan-era materialism, drags his wife and son deep into the jungle to live in a self-made utopia, wasn’t a huge hit. But it still casts a large enough shadow to make it, as Justin himself says, a “property” that a studio might want to revisit. (“God, that’s a term I hate,” he adds with a cringe.)
Given that it’s also based on a novel written by Justin’s close relative, it’d be easy to assume this was a family affair Theroux engineered. “I mean, I’d love to tell you some big nepotism story about how Uncle Paul and I were having coffee and it was something we cooked up together,” he says, laughing. Instead, the actor was approached by Neil Cross after the Luther showrunner (and superfan of the book) had been tapped to develop Mosquito into a limited series. The two hit it off, at which point, Theroux says, he “was weirdly in the position of being able to call my uncle up and go, ‘Hey, guess what? I think I’m doing your book!’ ”
“I was a little intimidated, because this was someone who not only knew the book,” Cross says of Justin, “he knew the real people that Fox and his family were based on.” Cross’ Mosquito Coast would update the novel’s living-off-the-grid mentality for the 21st century but also radically change elements of the story, adding characters and subplots involving cartels and mysterious underground networks, and drawing out the tale of a father who goes from a would-be Robinson Crusoe to a modern-day Colonel Kurtz. Which, it turned out, was in sync with what Theroux wanted to do with this character as well.
“It’s more of a family drama,” Theroux notes of the Apple version, before confessing, “It always sounds like I’m describing some ABC show when I say that, where a kid comes home from playing basketball, Dad hands him some Sunny D from the fridge, and then they talk about drugs. But when I asked my uncle, ‘What was the reason for writing this character?’ he talked about how, prior to writing the book, he’d become interested in [Peoples Temple leader] Jim Jones. Allie’s not based on him, but [Paul] became fascinated by this guy from the Midwest who gets people to drink the Kool-Aid in the jungle and [as he put it] ‘created almost like a cult of family.’ I loved that angle.”
“The only point of disagreement we ever really had,” Cross says, “was to what degree is this guy an asshole in any given episode.”
The fact that on an Asshole Scale from one to 10, Theroux’s Allie hovers steadily around seven and you still root for him is a testament to the actor’s ability to sell a variety of unvarnished bad-to-worse guys. He’s played Asshole Villains (the indestructible Irish thug in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), Asshole Gurus (his New Age narcissist in Wanderlust), Asshole Suits (American Psycho), Asshole Authors (Sex and the City — not to be confused with the premature ejaculator he played in a different SATC episode), Asshole Scientists (Netflix’s Maniac), and Asshole Husbands (The Girl on the Train and the horror movie False Positive, due out in June). Even Kevin Garvey, the grieving Everyman hero of The Leftovers, had his share of less-than-stellar moments.
“I’d get auditions in my twenties,” Theroux says, recalling his early theater days in New York, when he palled around with Philip Seymour Hoffman and sometimes played to near-empty off-Broadway houses. “And it was: Enter guy, he grabs woman by the hips, tells her he loves her, leans over, gives her passionate kiss. It was like climbing a waterslide: There was nothing to attach to. I kept thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do this. That’s not my fucking wheelhouse.’ ”
Instead, Theroux tried to parlay his good looks and dark sense of humor into smaller roles he could subvert, or that let him play in weirder playgrounds. He lucked into a brief but key part in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and still considers the filmmaker a friend; he’d add tweaked grace notes to recurring characters on TV shows like The District and Six Feet Under. He worked. He colored outside the lines where he could.
Theroux also began writing his own scripts on the side, hitting pay dirt with Tropic Thunder, a star-filled 2008 comedy about actors who think they’re making a war film, only to find themselves in the middle of an actual civil war. Its perfect combo of smart-stupid showbiz satire (see the now infamous speech about going too far down the Method-acting rabbit hole) nabbed Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar nomination and helped integrate Theroux into a group of zeitgeist-surfing comedians unafraid of extreme raunch or absurdity. “I still get asked if Tropic Thunder could get made today,” he says, referring to some of the movie’s more outré gags. “I don’t know — but Tropic Thunder couldn’t have been made in the 1950s, either! We just hit it at the right moment.”
Theroux suddenly found himself in an enviable yet odd position: a matinee-idol handsome dude with a warped wit, a moonlighting gig as a screenwriter-for-hire (Zoolander 2, Iron Man 2), a lot of movie-star admirers and friends, and the ability to play outrageously funny or seriously fucked-up. And yet he still felt like a cult actor Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what to do with. He was neither an acquired taste nor on the A list; more like A-list-adjacent, which seemed Theroux’s ideal speed.
When he finally did find himself playing the lead in a major TV show, it was in Damon Lindelof’s offbeat 2014 drama The Leftovers, about the unexplained disappearance of two percent of the global population and how those left behind attempted to pick up the pieces of their interrupted lives. Never mind that it was HBO; this was a series that thought nothing of devoting an entire episode to Theroux’s small-town cop suddenly being transported to an alternate universe where he’s inexplicably become an assassin singing karaoke in a chain-hotel lounge. “And I got to cry a lot,” he adds. Game of Thrones this was not.
Still, Theroux’s profile had also changed slightly by that point. It had nothing to do with his career, really. He’d fallen in love with another actor, someone who’d been on an extremely popular sitcom in the Nineties and who also made movies. That got the media’s attention, and, well, if you picked up a magazine or watched TV or lived on Earth in the mid-2010s, you know the rest. The courtship and marriage and divorce of Justin Theroux and Jennifer Aniston has been very well-documented, courtesy of a million stone-faced photos of the couple trying to go about their daily lives. It’s the sort of deer-in-the-celebrity-spotlight experience that could put someone off of fame altogether.
“You know, it’s interesting,” Theroux says, when the subject comes up. “In ideal circumstances, you’re known for what you do, or for the contributions you make in the arts, literature, movies, whatever. Even if it’s a negative review, OK — that’s fair play. But there are people who are only curious about the private lives of other people, and … I think the best thing to do is to train your eyes away from it. It creates a preconceived notion of who you are that’s inaccurate. It’s frustrating, because you think, ‘Well, John Updike doesn’t have to put up with this shit, and he’s in the public eye, and . . . ’
“I mean, look, I’m not comparing myself to John Updike,” he adds with a chuckle. “It’s just one of those weird things. Ideal circumstances: People are paying attention to your work. Imperfect circumstances: People only give a shit about your private life.” He shrugs. “Who knows?”
He breaks out his phone and scrolls to a picture of an open market in Mexico City; it’s where they filmed a final chase scene for The Mosquito Coast, a year ago to the day, and just before the very moment that the production shut down. “Maybe not the best place to find out that a global pandemic has been declared,” he notes. He was on a plane back to New York the next day.
Other than a brief jaunt upstate last summer, Theroux has been here in the West Village ever since, cooking a lot and taking Kuma, the Instagram-famous pit bull he rescued from Texas some years back, for long walks. (“I almost brought her, but she gets crazy around skateboards, so… hard to have a conversation.”) He’s even dug up an old script he’d started, a comedy, and is considering giving that another go. “The actor is the waiter that brings the meal, the writer is the person that makes the meal,” Theroux says, when asked why it’s taken him a while to start writing again. “So, it’s a lot more time in the kitchen if you’re not just delivering the entree.” But he has time now, so why not?
In the meantime, Theroux is curious to see how The Mosquito Coast fares, and to safely see friends, and to get back to work. Things seem a lot calmer in his orbit, even if you count the guy in the Twilight Zone jacket screaming about the deli down the street tripping the breaker and losing power. “Complicated men are great to play,” he says, as he heads into Washington Square Park. “Maybe it’s a lead, maybe it’s a supporting part, whatever. I like complicated. Someone like Kevin Garvey — he was so tortured, and that’s what made it so fun and so cathartic. It’s the same with Allie Fox. He’s not an easy person. He’s not an easy character. He’ll be loathed by the audience at times and loved by others. But that’s what I like about him. That’s the line I want to find.”