Alternate Reality

10.01.15 5:00 AM ET

Justin Theroux: Beyond the Tabloids and to ‘The Leftovers’

The star teases Season 2 of his HBO drama and explains how he weathers the intense scrutiny of a life played out on tabloid covers.

For being one half of one of the most photographed and recognizable couples in the world, it’s remarkable that Justin Theroux is such a chameleon.

There’s his “avatar” life, as he calls it. It’s the one lived out on the tabloid covers, an experience we all shared while walking down the grocery store cashier aisles and soaking in the details of his wedding to Jennifer Aniston. (That honeymoon in Bora Bora, my gawd!)

But the alternate-reality world depicted in glossy pages, the bipolar one that projects a fairy tale as often as it does some sordid soap opera, rarely offers so much as a glimpse of authenticity when it comes to the person in the photographs.

Sitting in the basement of The Smile restaurant in the East Village, Theroux is every bit as heart-stoppingly hot as he is in those pages, sure. Dressed in a blessedly snug-fitting tee with his aviators dangling from his collar on his perfect chest and sporting a Pharrell-style ranger hat, the actor would seem like an L.A. asshat idiot if he wasn’t so devastatingly handsome and far more genuine, earnest, and at ease than a person who has achieved—and even been a bit abused by—the level of fame that his romance has attained him.

We’re there to talk his riveting turn in The Leftovers, the eerie HBO drama that depicts the aftermath of a global calamity in which 2 percent of the world’s population mysteriously disappears. Season 2 premieres Sunday night on HBO, and Theroux is excellent in it: raw, vulnerable, masculine, complex. We dig deep talking about his performance; it’s a visible respite from the incessant fascination over his personal life.

“It was frustrating earlier on when we first got together because I didn’t understand it,” Theroux says, when I ask how’s he dealt with the tension between seeing his face on magazines because of who’s he dating, when the truth is he’s consistently been one of the most surprising and engaging Hollywood players of the last 15 years.

He broke out with a supporting role in American Psycho before graduating on to the twisty Oscar-nominated drama Mulholland Drive. Memorable roles that followed in Six Feet Under, the John Adams miniseries, and Inland Empire combine to make his recent reign over the comedy world, with scene-stealing work in Parks and Recreation, Your Highness, and Wanderlust, all the more surprising and impressive—especially when one learns that he wrote the screenplays for Tropic Thunder and Iron Man 2 as well.

His work in The Leftovers is dark and intense; that it follows a string of comedies proves Theroux’s ability to slip into an astonishing range of roles, even that of the Hollywood tabloid prince, although that may be the one he least identifies with.

Episode 12 (season 2, episode 2): Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux, Margaret Qualley. photo: Van Redin

Van Redin/HBO

“I’ve said this before, but it’s almost like having an avatar born, or a clone,” he says, before laughing. “This clone that’s completely insane. They’re out in this world doing their own thing and it has no bearing on my life or what I do or what happens in my house or my life. And so I maintain a completely healthy distance from that, because I don’t know that guy.”

And should there be any confusion about his sense of humor over the whole phenomenon, he gives off a hearty laugh again. “He’s the most unstable, emotional person on the planet—you know, constantly storming out, getting furious, crying,” he says.

Then flashing a smile to make you swoon: “He’s worse than Kevin Garvey.”

Kevin Garvey is the name of the police chief Theroux plays on The Leftovers. It’s a complicated role to pull off, befitting the show he stars in.

Few shows on television were as challenging—to the point of being torturous to watch—as the first season of The Leftovers. “Grief porn, I’ve heard it called,” Theroux laughs. But, as critics gradually learned over the course of the HBO drama’s slow-burn, ultimately transfixing season, the show’s difficulty was its biggest asset. Call it tortured gratification.

“Damon does what’s best and correct for the show, not necessarily what will please an audience,” Theroux says. “In a great way. It’s a virtue.”

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Theroux is talking about Damon Lindelof, the mastermind behind Lost, another series known for testing its audience’s patience and trust. Lindelof and his co-conspirator Tom Perrotta debut the second season of The Leftovers with one of Lindelof’s “virtuous,” as Theroux would call it, twists in structure.

Truth be told, it couldn’t be more gratifying.

When we last saw Theroux’s Police Chief Kevin Garvey, the town of Mapleton, New York, was in riot mode, with the survivor’s group the Guilty Remnant marking the anniversary of the Sudden Departure, forcing those left behind to confront their grief—which they violently revolt against.

Season 2 begins with a record-scratch of sorts. Following a hypnotizing, totally weird, and ultimately worthwhile (the Lindelof way) opening that takes place hundreds of years ago, the action is transported from New York to a Texas town that’s been renamed Miracle, because none of its citizens were victims of the Departure.

We’re introduced to the Murphys, a family similar to the happy unit we met in the Season 1 episode “The Garveys at Their Best.” In fact, we spend so much time getting to know the Murphys that it’s nearly 45 minutes until Theroux’s character appears... and with him, a narrative jolt of a twist.

“Damon’s taken whatever that more global sense of grief and fear that permeated Season 1 and sort of shrunk it down and ant-farmed it, putting it in this very particular, very hopeful place where nothing has happened,” Theroux says.

If Season 1 explored the universality of grief, resonant especially after one clues in on the haunting parallels between the Departure and the 9/11 attacks, Season 2 deals with an even harsher truth: acceptance. Garvey and his family head to Miracle for a divine new start. But the real world cuts in.

“You can take the person out of the mental ward, but you can’t take the mental out of the person, whatever that analogy is,” Theroux says. “There’s no such thing as leaving everything behind.”

Listening to Theroux discuss The Leftovers, it becomes obvious that he knows how rare a project like this is for an actor. He’s stepped in shit before. When you work in television, they’re around like land mines.

He remembers when he was first starting out and getting cast in a cop procedural on TV. It was a network show (he doesn’t name it, but a scan of his IMDb makes it pretty clear that he’s referring to The District). The script changed after he signed on. The actors changed. The set was moved from New York to L.A. He uses it as an example of a lesson he learned early on, to not sign up for projects he isn’t passionate about. There’s nothing worse than being on set for a project you don’t believe in, ruing the fact you’ve signed your life away.

“I was very young,” he says of the experience. “It was like putting your foot in dog shit and you’re like, ‘It’s warm,’ and then you realize, ‘Oh fuck, it’s dog shit.’ I didn’t know any better. I think when you’re starting out acting you don’t think you get an opinion. You’re just trying to get a job. You’re just trying to eat some food. It’s only eventually you realize, ‘Oh, I’m allowed to have taste. I’m allowed to do what I want to do.’”

It’s a mantra that does wonders explaining the genre schizophrenia that’s defined his acting career.

He’s an unusual case: an actor with chiseled-from-stone good looks who somehow escapes typecasting. Rather than a career as the milquetoast leading man, he’s finagled a way to use his good looks as a curio in a series of character actor parts, all stepping stones on his way to The Leftovers and Kevin Garvey—a male lead that required an actor who’d resist the temptation to play him as the ho-hum Everyman.

“Whenever I tried to pick a spot on the wall and walk towards it, it never really works out,” he says. “I ended up getting frustrated.” His genre flexibility has been both his greatest asset and his greatest liability. “In a weird way it served me because I’m a bit of a moving target,” he says. “I’m not necessarily considered for a lot of dramas and I’m also not necessarily considered for a lot of comedies. It’s a slower burn to getting what I want.”

The Leftovers, he seems relatively unequivocal about, is what he wants, and he’s made peace with the other elements of his life that have threatened to take over on his way there.

He’s recognized as a great actor, sure. But he’s also known for being really, really famous.

Fame “has never been a motivator for me in any way,” he says. “I’ve always had a pretty pragmatic attitude, which is ‘work hard.’ And then I happened to fall in love with someone who is also a hardworking actor. And that was it.”

He knows people are interested in that love, and he doesn’t begrudge them for that. “If they want to be interested, they can,” he says. Then going back to that “avatar,” whose life so histrionically and hysterically does not mirror his own: “But I don’t want to chain myself to an idiot, so I don’t follow it.”

We end our conversation talking about his show, and how polarizing it is—in the kind of way that a daring show should be. “It’s like listening to a jazz record,” he says. “The expectation is different listening to Taylor Swift than John Coltrane. It’s not that one is better than the other. There’s not going to be the same breaks, there’s not going to be the same hooks.”

And he’s well aware that there are people who don’t like jazz… or his show. He remembers Damon Lindelof giving an interview in which he said that if people didn’t like Season 1 of The Leftovers, then they won’t like Season 2. “I love that kind of honesty,” he laughs.

He also understands that going along for the ride of a Damon Lindelof series is a trust exercise for viewers, particularly those who felt a bit like crash-test dummies during the erratic twists and turns of Lost. Maybe it’s the freedom of HBO, or maybe it’s the source material, but there’s something about The Leftovers that makes you feel certain, even though you don’t often know where you’re going, you’re going to arrive safely.

“[The Leftovers] is very him,” Theroux says. “And free of that baggage of whatever the fuck happened on his last show. I understand the pressures of that, and I almost don’t want to give any oxygen to it. Because this show is not about leading up to a finale. It’s about exploring the emotional depths in every character and what experiences they go through.”

At least for this hour we’re talking, Theroux is free of some baggage, too, the baggage that comes with being a part of one of the most famous couples in the world. A chameleon once again, he’s slipped into the role I don’t think I’ve fully seen yet, and it might be my favorite one: Justin Theroux.