While writing Maniac, creator Patrick Somerville and director Cary Joji Fukunaga invented an ordinary enough character: Dr. James Mantleray, a doctor who oversees a mind-bending pharmaceutical trial that aims to cure mental illness, until it all goes terribly wrong. Then, they decided to cast Justin Theroux.
“They admitted, ‘We really want someone with a point of view and a take on it,’” Theroux told Vulture ahead of Maniac’s premiere, adding that aside from the basic story line, Mantleray wasn’t very defined on the page. “So, of course I was like, ‘I want some glasses, I want to be bald, and I want a weird wig.’”
Still, Theroux admits he did “tiptoe” Fukunaga and Somerville into making his character the raw bundle of tics and mommy issues that he became on the Netflix limited series. Mantleray’s toupee was born out of a wig-fitting for a hairpiece that looked way too much like an actual wig — “It was so bad I thought, Wouldn’t it be funny and good for the character if we just played it as an actual wig?” — and his glasses were chosen to match the wire frames worn by his colleague Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno), as the two are “supposed to be a reflection of each other.”
At various points throughout the series, Mantleray appears in instructional videos for Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech, the company conducting the experimental drug trial. For those, Theroux deployed a deliberately awkward speaking voice, and requested a teleprompter so it felt like he was, well, reading his lines off of teleprompter. His first work on Maniac was actually shooting those goofy scenes, but “as we found the character and the voice and the attitude,” he says, “we ended up having to go back and reshoot the instructional videos because it wasn’t the same guy.”
As Maniac goes on, it becomes clear that Mantleray’s anxieties developed thanks to his toxic relationship with his mother, Greta (Sally Field), a famed, insufferable pop-psychologist who represents everything that he opposes. “When I first met her, she immediately launched into our backstory,” Theroux said of working with Field. “How I was probably too coddled … I probably slept in bed with her until I was far too old to be sleeping in bed with her. She really likes to go deep on that stuff.”
Nearly all of Mantleray’s anxieties on are display in Theroux’s first big scene in the third episode, where Dr. Fujita interrupts some virtual-reality sex he’s having with a blow-job robot referred to as the “Sucktube.” (His Oculus-like VR headset is called a “Suckulus.”) In his fantasy, Mantleray has giant, anime-style hair, which Theroux credited to the character “trying to assimilate” into his Japanese company’s corporate culture — and, of course, his great anxiety about his baldness. Once Fujita makes her presence known in Mantleray’s slobby apartment, the robot hangs against his pelvis as they carry out serious conversation about a former colleague’s sudden death.
According to Somerville and Fukunaga, the idea of a fantasy sex experience came from writer Mauricio Katz, who heard a woman talking about erotic fantasies about Atlantis. Then, Maniac’s specialty props designer Steven Brower built the actual Sucktube device, while the writers had to clear the name itself to make sure some actual company hadn’t branded it. “Sucktube was the easiest thing to clear,” Somerville said. “We just thought we should get the name now, too,” Fukunaga added.
The Sucktube continues a trend of dick jokes about Theroux’s TV characters, after the third season of The Leftovers included a scene where his penis unlocked a door. But that’s just a coincidence, he insists. “It wouldn’t be a Justin Theroux vehicle if it didn’t have some sort of …” He trails off. “No, it was one of those things. All of this was just so wildly different and insane.”