“PAPARAZZI. CORNER ON THE RIGHT. See him? See him?”
Justin Theroux isn’t pointing. But his gold-rimmed Oliver Peoples aviators are aimed at a man on a bike with a backpack across the street. Theroux is gripping the handlebars of a chrome-gold single-speed bike at the corner of Carmine and Bleecker on a blustery late fall day in lower Manhattan, near the steps of Our Lady of Pompeii church. Until this moment, the actor and screenwriter had been unraveling the story of how the Theroux clan, a family with a long lineage of artists and writers (his uncle is author Paul Theroux) came to New York. His great-grandparents, immigrants from Italy, got married in this church. He and his father found the marriage certificate several years back in the church basement. It’s edifying, he says, to now live just a few blocks away.
But with the intrusion, Theroux aborts the story and we start pedaling with traffic up Sixth Avenue. The stocky pap, hammering in a low gear, overtakes us, pulls over to the sidewalk on the left, and in what must be a practiced, fluid, and habitual motion, yanks a camera out of his backpack, stabilizes himself against a filigreed light pole, and readies to shoot through a telephoto lens.
“Your move,” I call out, and Theroux floats out of the bike lane, drifts and weaves across the six lanes of Sixth Avenue, then ducks onto Waverly, a side street, against traffic. The acoustics shift. It’s quieter. His crank-shaft slows.
For Justin Theroux, this is just another Wednesday. And ever since he dated, then wed, then split with America’s Sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston, the number of lenses trained on his every move has multiplied. Theroux left L.A. and the pair’s $21 million Bel Air pad in late 2017, and the couple announced their separation via a joint statement in February 2018. There are hundreds of tabloid articles that speculate as to why. Theroux and Aniston have been relatively silent about it. In the New York Times, Theroux called it “kind of the most gentle separation” and regretted saying even that. On this day, he refuses to talk about the relationship. But the cameras remain.
Despite the relentless coverage, and despite major roles in some of the best movies and TV series of the past few decades, from Mulholland Drive to The Leftovers, to blockbuster writing credits, Theroux manages to evade being defined by any one gig. No one shouts lines at him on the street. He escapes in plain sight.
BEFORE OUR RIDE, THEROUX ATTEMPTS to explain the wildly varied nature of his résumé. We’re sitting in the corner of a West Village bistro, the kind of place where the clientele have expensive haircuts and glowing skin. Theroux has been here before. He’s wearing a chain-link-inspired necklace that matches the gold of his glasses, a vintage long-sleeve tee, and form-fitting, faded black denim jeans. He orders a double espresso almond-milk cortado and starts chain-chewing Cinnamon Surge–flavored Nicorette. He looks much younger than his age of 47, and clearly like a star, but no one gawks until he rips out his baritone laugh, which has a kind of soft-sounding windup, like the split second before a lawn mower’s pull-starter shudders to life.
One of the key tools in Theroux’s kit is an expansive, expressive forehead, that, along with some gymnastic eyebrows, is able to transmit a wider register of emotions than most actors are capable of. Your next opportunity to see the pairing is in On the Basis of Sex (December 25), a biopic that follows the future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) as she and her husband (Armie Hammer) take on a 1975 U.S. Court of Appeals case that would create the precedent for courts to reconsider more than 100 gender-biased laws across the U.S.
Theroux plays Mel Wulf, the animated, ball-busting legal director for the ACLU, who swings his corduroy-jacket-clad elbows, jousting and parrying with RBG until he agrees to put her brief on ACLU letterhead. The film is Oscar bait, yes. But it is also fascinating—no matter your party affiliation—to watch, if only for the fact that it’s a Hollywood movie that turns the litigation of an arcane tax law into a seriously compelling plotline.
Theroux’s character is complicated, of course. “He’s one of those guys who was obviously on the side of what RBG was trying to accomplish, but also has his own ingrained ideas of equality,” Theroux says. “I don’t think he understands—at least in the script—how clever she was being.”
Theroux’s character gets called a relentless prick—but also provides comic relief. On the Basis of Sex director Mimi Leder, who also directed Theroux in The Leftovers, says Theroux was the only guy for the role. “He draws from the deep well of his own life, and what he cares about, and reads between the lines on the script,” says Leder. “And he’s just funny.”
Asked what he thinks of the added pre-science the film has in light of recent battles over the future of the Supreme Court—namely, Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment—Theroux laughs. “It’s so strange, I wanted to be in Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s head during those weeks,” he says. “I would love to wander through what she was thinking.”
“I mean, we’re going through this thing where the country just feels like it’s a washing machine in a broken spin cycle, getting crazier and crazier. Parts are flying off.” Theroux leans forward and covers his forehead in his hands. “We still haven’t had our Network moment. Of, like, I can’t take it anymore!”
Despite growing up in D.C., Theroux didn’t steep in politics at home. His parents, who divorced when he was young, worked outside of government. His mother, Phillis Grissom-Theroux, wrote for the Washington Post, taught public school, and published several books. “I remember her always at the typewriter with a pack of cigarettes,” Theroux says. “A badass woman. Still is.” His father, Eugene, was a corporate lawyer—despite studying to be an artist. I tell Theroux about a 1978 New York Times profile of the Theroux clan, where Eugene says he decided to study art at Pratt as the result of conversation with strangers in a bar.
“Ha! Clearly my decision-making skills are genetic,” says Theroux. “He keeps a diary to this day—every day is an illustration, each page is a day in his life. It’s pretty incredible.”
The actor describes his teenage years as largely depressive and anxious. Dyslexia hampered his ability to read. He didn’t make it through a book until the ninth grade. “I don’t know,” he says, popping another Nicorette. “Maybe I was eating fuckin’ paint chips at home. But I had a legitimately hard time in school.”
I’m definitely stumbling upstairs. I do gravitate toward the surreal or the absurd. I like projects that generate lobby talk. Stuff that’s not easy watching.
In his teens, Theroux found solace in skateboarding and the burgeoning D.C. punk scene, where hardcore bands were recasting rock & roll with the DIY ethic. Theroux dabbled with it all, catching shows from bands like Fugazi. He entertained becoming an anarchist, flirted with the booze-free straight-edge lifestyle, gave himself a few tattoos. Some of it stuck. He still plays his Minor Threat records. “It was that great age where you know you’re being lied to—someone’s lying, somewhere—but you can’t make it through the New York Times magazine to figure out who or how. I love that about teenagers—the suspicion that someone’s not fuckin’ telling the truth.”
Buoyed by finding a supportive crowd, Theroux experimented with theater and art. His mom was cool with it. “She was in dire straits trying to find whatever would make me happy,” Theroux says. “I clearly wasn’t going into politics. Or Goldman Sachs.” Theroux graduated from Bennington with a double major in theater and drama. After a few stints in China—Theroux can still speak some Mandarin—he made a go of it in Manhattan.
At night, he bartended at Von, a downtown bar that in the mid-1990s had CBGB and a methadone clinic as neighbors. “My life took a massive leap in quality,” Theroux says. “I was finally in a position of power—not power, really, but there’s some equity in bartending. People are nice to you or you have the right to stop serving them.” During the day, he auditioned for roles, flying out to L.A. only when someone else would pay.
Theroux had minor breakthroughs in late-’90s flicks I Shot Andy Warhol and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, but a casting by David Lynch would change the course of his career. In 2001’s Mulholland Drive, a kind of gothic film noir—named by critics in a 2016 BBC poll as the best film of the 21st century—he thoroughly haunts the character of Adam, a creepy young Hollywood director losing control over both his career and his marriage. It gave Theroux a taste for the off-kilter narrative, stories that traffic in a psychological undercurrent. Lynch recast Theroux in 2006’s equally weird Inland Empire as a philandering actor.
“I’m definitely stumbling upstairs,” says Theroux about his career trajectory. “But I do gravitate toward the surreal or the absurd. I like projects that generate lobby talk. Stuff that’s not easy watching, necessarily.”
His latest role in this enigmatic vein is in Maniac, a new series on Netflix, helmed by True Detective Season 1 director (and Theroux buddy) Cary Joji Fukunaga. Theroux plays Dr. James K. Mantleray, an oddball who administers an experimental drug aimed at ridding mental trauma to characters played by Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. Mantleray loses control of his experiment: The patients skitter across their minds as Mantleray loses his.
Says Patrick Somerville, who wrote Maniac, “[Justin] has this gift of using his comic gifts for dramatic purposes, and vice versa. It’s a strange mixture. You know, he’s known to be this incredibly attractive jack-of-all-trades actor. But now that I know him, I see him as a sort of weirdo artist who loves these unusual projects.”
The closest that Theroux has come to a career-defining lead role is that of Kevin Garvey Jr. in the The Leftovers, the HBO series that ran for three seasons; critics hailed its final season, in 2017, as one of TV’s best-ever dramas. The show adapts a Tom Perrotta novel in which 140 million people—2 percent of the world’s population—simultaneously vanish off the face of the earth, at random, without explanation. Theroux is an unstable cop trying to retain some semblance of normalcy as collective grief makes society go bonkers. Executive produced by Damon Lindelhof, the co-creator of Lost, the show gathered steam over its lifetime in spite of the obtuseness. As with Mulholland Drive and Maniac, reality, in The Leftovers, is a slippery thing. Theroux digs that.
“I was attracted to the not-understanding of it all,” Theroux says. “Stories by nature are supposed to be these sort of wrapped-and-bowed things that have a kind of a conclusion. But The Leftovers kind of lived in the discomfort of not knowing what’s going to happen tonight or tomorrow. Which is what life is—we just don’t know. Are we going to jump on our bikes after we leave this restaurant and get smashed by a truck? We don’t know. People are hung up on getting answers. But life is about not having them.”
LUNCH WRAPS, AND WE GO INTO THE cold to find the answer to another mystery, one endemic to biking in New York: finding out if our bikes still have front wheels. They do. We begin meandering around the West Village—an anomaly for Theroux, who doesn’t mess with meandering. He’s a point-to-point guy, who usually steers his bike directly where he needs to go.
Conversation turns to the flip side of Theroux’s résumé: the funny stuff. Ben Stiller was among the first in Hollywood to notice Theroux’s comedic gift, casting him as “Evil DJ” in Zoolander, in 2001. Stiller also played a role in launching Theroux’s screenwriting career, after the actor showed Stiller a script he had been toying with.
“It was some terrible thing I had written.” Theroux says. “Some kind of beginning to a movie. I didn’t know how to write a script. I will still just write the one scene that makes me laugh, to show where a movie will live—in this zone, in this tone. He complimented my dialogue, thought it was funny. That’s what led to our relationship and collaboration.”
A few years later, that would lead to Theroux co-writing one of the wrong-est, right-est movies in recent decades: 2008’s Tropic Thunder, a sendup of Hollywood narcissism in which Robert Downey Jr. plays a five-time Academy Award winner in blackface, delivering the infamous line “You never go full retard.”
I wish I was one of those people who could create a four-year plan for themselves. But I’m just not. I feel like when you start making plans, you’re just screwed.
So could Tropic Thunder get made today, given the climate? He says that question is starting to come up more often. “The target was Hollywood and douchey actors,” he says. “That’s what we were sticking our forks at. I’d like to think that it could get made again—but I do worry, and want to protect satire. Because banning language is the first sign that you’re in a scary country to live in.”
I ask Theroux if he’s ever felt like he’s flown too close to the things he’s parodied. “Of course! I had that feeling all the time when we were making Tropic Thunder. We were in the middle of Hawaii, loading in all these enormous trailers through the mud, ripping down the rain forest to do it. We were eating brie, or whatever, in the middle of the jungle. The whole thing was ridiculous.”
AFTER BEING THWARTED BY THE unwanted paps, we rerouted toward the East Village. Earlier I had joked about Theroux’s propensity for wearing tight vintage T-shirts—they often appear in paparazzi shots—that for most of us would be considered one to three sizes too small. For Theroux, who forges his physique with high-intensity boxing and weight-heavy workouts, and rips off the sleeves to feature his deltoids, the fit works. But still, I wonder—what’s too tight? What’s the correct opacity, the right level of beat-to-hell sheen that a vintage T-shirt should have? Theroux is game for a window into his particular obsession, so we hit a store on Third Avenue called Metropolis Vintage. Theroux takes his bike inside and leans it against a rack. He then begins dropping some graduate-level knowledge on the vintage T-shirt market, circa 2018.
“Here’s one,” he says, pointing to an “Air Bart” Michael Jordan shirt hanging from a pipe near the ceiling. “A Bart Simpson knockoff. That’s already part of a Bart Simpson subset. And there are subsets of the subset. I have one with Bart Simpson in dreadlocks wearing Gucci, there’s Bart Simpson wearing a Chanel tracksuit. I can go into K-holes with this stuff.”
We flick through a rack of currently-in-vogue 1990s rap tees, but most of them are oversize. “A great wide-neck vintage shirt looks great on some 24-year-old model, but it’s not going to look great on me” Theroux says. “I don’t like an oversize shirt. I like to keep it high and tight. Nothing drapy. But I can appreciate it, for sure.”
Up in the corner, Theroux sees a black T-shirt he’s into from hip hop group Onyx, which says “Back da Fuck Up.” But he deems it not worth the going price of $65. “I’m wondering if we should be investing in Drake shirts today, as an investment for 2030,” he says.
We roll our bikes out of the store and ride a few blocks north to a store called Stock Vintage, where everything is at least a half-century old, and the racks are hung with original World War II flight jackets, and tank boots, and 1930s Spalding sweatshirts.
But Theroux is more interested in the shop’s dog, a pit bull named Hazel. Theroux is a devotee of the breed and is on his fourth one, a Hurricane Harvey rescue named Kuma. Across Theroux’s back is sprawled the tattoo of a rat, in remembrance of an old dog that would kill them in Washington Square Park.
We depart from the shop on bikes onto a shadowy 13th Street. As we pedal with traffic, I ask Theroux if he missed New York during his years in Bel Air.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “For sure. I’ve been spending time on the West Coast now for 20 years—it’s part of the job. But New York has always had this gravitational pull. When you see the Manhattan skyline coming into JFK…I mean, I love L.A…but I don’t get that warm and fuzzy feeling when I’m coming up La Cienega.”
We turn south on Fifth Avenue, and I ask if he sees 2018 as a transitional year. “I don’t really think of it in terms of that,” he tells me. “I think of it in terms of…an unspooling.”
And is there a road map for what’s next?
“I don’t know,” he says. “The next stretch will be just as weird as the last. I have no idea. I wish I was one of those people who could create a four-year plan for themselves, or a five-year plan. But I’m just not. I feel like when you start making plans, you’re just screwed. Plans just don’t work out.”
We came to the arch of Washington Square Park, back to a spot where Theroux tells me his great-grandfather Dittami, fresh off the boat, had slept in the park upon his arrival in America. On the edge of the square, he finds another paparazzi, waiting. We part ways, and Theroux ducks around the corner onto a sidewalk covered in scaffolding, disappearing in plain sight.