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Justin Theroux on The Leftovers, David Lynch, and Why He Wasn’t Groot

Justin Theroux. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

On HBO’s The Leftovers, Justin Theroux plays Kevin Garvey, a small New York town’s reluctant and possibly crazy police chief who, three years after the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a good chunk of the world’s population, must contend with a divorce, his wayward children, a cultlike organization called the Guilty Remnant, and evil deer. Vulture called up Theroux to discuss the show, how it differs from his experience shooting David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive pilot for ABC, what’s going on with the Zoolander sequel, and why he’s never starred in any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, despite having a superhero physique.

What question do you get asked the most about your show?
“What’s up with the Guilty Remnant?”

Really? It’s not, “What do you have in your refrigerator that could be construed as leftovers?”
Exactly! [Laughs.] No, it’s not — although I have been asked that question cheekily by someone before. It’s usually something about the Guilty Remnant. And then a lot of “What the fuck’s going on?”

Do you understand where those kinds of questions are coming from? Many of the story lines on the show are still cloudy heading into episode seven.
I get that. It’s exactly the same question that I had when I would get scripts. I was getting scripts one at a time and at the beginning of the season [showrunner] Damon [Lindelof] asked me, “Do you want to know the super-arc of your character?” You know, there’s the arc of each episode and then there’s the super-arc of the season. And I think smartly, I said, “No, I’d probably rather find out in real time, in my own way.” That paid dividends in that, as we filmed it, I was able to watch the show [unfold] in sort of the same way everyone else is now watching it.

The series began with a glimpse at the Departure but has mostly avoided flashing back to that day.
I was just actually talking to Damon about where it has gone and where it is going, or where we know it’s going. What makes it different is that it’s kind of reverse storytelling, in that you’re given this cast of characters who for all intents and purposes you shouldn’t care about that much, other than that this miraculous event has happened to them, and then as the season progresses, you learn more and more about them, and hopefully, by proxy, start to care about them more. If it was just a family drama, you’d meet a family and the people that live in that neighborhood, and then you’d think, Oh, maybe their marriage is falling apart, and maybe you find a joint in the kid’s bookbag. We’ve kind of done the opposite, which is that we’ve begun with this shattered world, and as the season progresses, we’re reaching backward into their history to try and put together the pieces, which I find fascinating to watch.

The two episodes that stand out for me so far are the third, which focused on preacher Matt, Christopher Eccleston’s character, and the sixth, which followed his sister, Nora, played by Carrie Coon.
Yeah, it’s a cool little departure to zoom in on one person and their troubles.

It’s interesting that you say “departure.”

So, the big reveal at the end of this season is space clowns, right?
Space clowns? That’s just throwing a dart at something. I mean, it’s the old, do you want to know what’s going on? I don’t even know if I can tell you what’s going on. I can tell you what’s going on with my family but I think that’s about it.

I don’t actually want to know. I hate spoilers. Wait — you didn’t really weigh in on the space clowns thing.
What is the space clowns thing?

I don’t know! I’m just trying to figure out where the show’s going. Does it have anything to do with Aliens? Is it, like, a stealth tie-in with the Alien movies?
It might have something to do with it … Are we talking about the Departure itself?

I don’t know what causes it. A fever dream? Who knows? It’s one guy’s really horrible dream, yeah. You know, I dedicated a lot [of energy] during the pilot asking, like, What the fuck happened? Like we all do. But then, as the scripts started rolling in, I stopped. I really did in a genuine way. I’m not saying this as a misdirect, you know, [to be] like, “Please stop asking where the 2 percent went!” I really did stop caring about it in a genuine way as I got to know the members of the Guilty Remnant more and my own family more. And I don’t think that question will ever be answered.

Tom Perrotta has said that he doesn’t want the Departure to be explained, that the reason behind it isn’t the point of his book or the show.
Yeah. I mean, we all sort of go through real life in a nonextraordinary way, the same way the prose of the show sets it up. Loss and grief usually, thankfully and mercifully, are spread out over a lifetime, whether it’s the loss of a parent or, god forbid, a child. But when you have this sort of Earth-shattering event that’s on a global scale, that collective shock or trauma can make people incredibly weird. You see it in small pockets, when a town has a mass shooting, where they are forever changed in this way. It’s both incredibly sad and interesting, for no other reason than they share something, you know?

One thing the residents of Mapleton share is that there’s no possibility for a Perfect Strangers reunion anymore.
Yeah, definitely. They did leave us many, many great episodes to continue watching in Mapleton. Just as long as they don’t take the cast of, like, Seinfeld or something.

In a fantastic New Yorker article from 1999 about ABC’s baffling decision not to pick up David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive pilot, you’re quoted as saying, “I realized that the show is incidental to the ads [on network TV].” Could you contrast that experience with HBO?
Well, there’s so many differences. It goes way beyond just being able to say fuck or have sex or violence or whatever. It goes across the boards. HBO’s incredibly good at it. It’s hard to explain, but when we were shooting The Leftovers, you really get the sense that you’re shooting a ten-hour movie as opposed to relying on cliffhangers. You don’t have to rely on going out on a commercial break and coming back with whatever. There’s a lot less corporate pressure and no “Why is everyone driving Dodges?” I think there’s certain obligations a network has to its sponsors that a cable show or Netflix is not beholden to. They can take risks. I mean, even something as simple as smoking on our show is something most networks have a ban on. HBO doesn’t do that, obviously. And it enables you to tell a truthful story, because if eventually you start veering away from what happens in real life, you then are not telling a truthful story. As it relates to Mulholland Drive, that was originally a pilot for ABC, and I remember there were all kind of notes coming down from the network as we were making that, because my character smoked. And they kept saying, “Well, Justin can’t smoke in the show.” And David, in a wonderfully naïve kind of way, was like, “But people smoke!” That was his answer to it, you know. And then they said, “Justin can smoke but must reference trying to quit.” [David said], “He’s not trying to quit. Why would he say that?” And then they were like, “Justin can smoke but must have a cough, like a hacking cough.”

That’s amazing.
Yeah. So eventually, those kind of notes start to inform the actual content. The other one of interest was, I remember, they were violently opposed to a shot of dog shit, and I think David’s response was, “Bring me one person — and it could be anyone from age 3 to 100 — who has not seen dog shit, and I will cut my shot of dog shit.” And he’s just absolutely right. So all those pressures are relieved when you’re doing something for cable. And there’s also not the pressure to produce so many of them, which I think inevitably makes the quality skyrocket, because if you’re trying to write 23 of anything in a year, you’re just eventually going to go on autopilot, I imagine.

I recently re-watched Zoolander. I didn’t know that you were even in that, because your D.J. character doesn’t really look like you.
Yeah, the evil D.J., with makeup fully ripped off from Gary Oldman in True Romance.

Literally, put the pictures side-by-side and you’ll see. It was just like, “Hey, you know what we should do? We should do that crazy True Romance makeup.” That was scary …

Are you guys still doing a sequel?
Yeah, we’ve got a script for the sequel, and we’ve just been in talks again. We’re trying to sharpen it and hone it and, actually, I don’t want to jinx anything, but it looks like it actually might be starting to get up and running.

That’s great. It must be hard to coordinate everyone’s schedules.
It’s actually been a little hard with the show, but now I’m back full-time to dedicate time toward doing it. I met with Ben [Stiller] a couple times when I was in New York doing The Leftovers, and then I’m meeting again with him probably in September.

You’re going to direct it, right?
I don’t think I’m going to do it anymore. It really depends on whether the show gets picked up. If it gets picked up, then I don’t think I’ll have the time to do it. So it’ll probably get handed to Ben, which would be awesome.

So, you’re ripped as hell. Everyone knows that because you take your shirt off all the time on The Leftovers. Given that you have a superhero build and that you wrote Iron Man 2, why haven’t you starred in a Marvel movie yet?
[Laughs] There are younger guys than me that are better at it than I am. I’ll leave it up to them. But I can’t wait to see Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s going to be fucking cool. Have you seen it?

Yeah, it’s great. You could have been in that, totally. As Groot, even. Or the raccoon? Come on!
Exactly. I could’ve been Groot. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. It’s a weird thing. Maybe it’s a separation of church and state. I had so much fun making that movie with those guys. I felt just so happy to be a part of it. Those guys are just unreal at what they do. They just create such amazing films. You know, say what you want about superhero movies and how much they make and how much they hurt other movies. I don’t buy any of it. I just think they’re so good.

So, back to The Leftovers. Are those your tattoos on your back?
Those are my tattoos, correct.

Wow, you’ve really tatted up.
[Laughs.] I have. I’ve been concealing them for years. But it was really more a question of, Hey, you’re doing a TV show — do you really want to get to the makeup chair four hours before everybody else at five in the morning and go to the trouble of removing them all with makeup? Let’s just say that this guy has some tattoos and leave it at that. [Laughs.] Which actually worked out, because the kid playing my son is has tattoos, too, so thematically, it kind of works.

How many times do you think Damon Lindelof been asked about Lost during the run of this show?
I think he’s hearing it less and less now that the show’s been burst and people are going, Oh yeah, this is isn’t that. Which made the Is this gonna be fucking Lost? and that bullshit go away… I don’t think it’s too premature to say clearly now, anyone who’s watched it knows this is such a different animal than that. I mean, there’s still mystery and there are still threats that are thrown out, but it’s such — in a strange way — a realer and more sort of eye-level world than Lost was, you know? And it’s also more containable. It’s ten episodes, where you have an ensemble who’s just kind of also going through their own things. It just doesn’t feel [like Lost]. I mean, that was the thing when we were doing press and talking about the show before anyone had seen it, because that was the last real touchstone that they had of Damon’s television work. That was the sort of boring question, because we were all shooting the show and knew that it was not that, but we’d always have to entertain the question and go, “Ehhh, look, you know, blah blah blah.” Now that it’s out there, I’m finally relieved to hear that those questions have abated a bit.

Sorry, have to ask: Is there going be a polar bear?
I do not think there will be a polar bear.

I’m curious to see how the season ends. Only a few more to go.
There’s four more left, yeah.

And then we’ll see the space clowns and the alien?
Space aliens and space clowns will come down riding a polar bear.

And then there’s a cameo by the cowboy from Mulholland Drive?
Exactly! [Laughs.] The clown will be a cowboy by the end of it.

And his name is actually Clarence, played by you, and it’ll be revealed that this has all just been a sequel to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion?
Oh, yeah, and Janeane Garofalo will be there smoking in the Guilty Remnant.

That would be fucking amazing.

Oh my god, if you guys actually do that, thank you.
[Laughs.] I’ll put it in Damon’s ear.

Justin Theroux on The Leftovers and David Lynch