Choices, Left and Right

From starring on The Leftovers to writing and directing, the versatile Justin Theroux stays open to opportunity.

Graham Flashner

Is he crazy or isn’t he?

That’s what viewers have been asking about Justin Theroux’s character in HBO’s The Leftovers. Theroux’s unsettling star turn as small-town police chief Kevin Garvey was a highlight of the existential drama when it debuted last summer; it returns October 4 for season two.

“Kevin has to keep a mask on at work while his home life is in shambles,” Theroux says. “What I like is that he can never get his arms around his own life…. he can’t make his fingers touch when it comes to stability.”

It’s hard to blame him. A Rapture-like event known as the Sudden Departure has caused 2 percent of the world’s population to vanish. While trying to keep his traumatized town from descending into chaos, Garvey must contend with hallucinations and memory-zapping blackouts.

Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (Little Children) and created by Perrotta and showrunner Damon Lindelof (Lost), The Leftovers poses big questions about faith, love and loss.

“Damon’s writing is so brisk — it’s not the kind of writing I do,” says the actor, who is also a screenwriter and director — and a painter and a curator of antiques. “So I really appreciate the density of it, and the skill and care that he takes.”

In the new season, the series gets a creative reboot, with new supporting characters and a move from Mapleton, New York, to Jarden, Texas, the only U.S. city that has not recorded any departures.

“It’s a little more open sky, a little less claustrophobic, a little more blown out,” Theroux says.

Given his famous lineage, a career in the arts seemed all but preordained for Theroux:  his uncle is the acclaimed travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux; his mother, Phyllis Grissim, is a journalist and memoirist; another uncle and two British cousins are novelists and journalists.

Born and raised in Washington D.C., Theroux broke into acting with the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol and has amassed impressive credits, from the films American Psycho, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Zoolander to the HBO miniseries John Adams, in which he played John Hancock.

He’s looking forward to a breakthrough movie role, but he’s certainly not waiting around. He credits Ben Stiller — for whom he wrote jokes on award shows — with launching what has become a flourishing screenwriting career: “He was the one who identified that I could write comedy and dialogue. He taught me structure in spades.”

With Stiller and Ethan Cohen, Theroux cowrote the wickedly funny Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder. Costar Robert Downey, Jr., then recommended Theroux to Marvel Studios, which hired him to write Ironman 2 for director Jon Favreau (Theroux also cowrote Rock of Ages).

The actor-writer became a triple-hyphenate when he directed the 2007 indie feature Dedication, starring Billy Crudup, which he describes as “a pretty straightforward romantic movie about a f—ed-up guy who can’t get out of his own way.”

Lately, Theroux himself has been a presence in the tabloids, thanks to his marriage to Jennifer Aniston, whom he met in Hawaii while filming Thunder. Their L.A. home was the site of their surprise wedding, billed as a birthday party for Theroux and staged on a weeknight in early August. “It’s been fabulous,” he says. “No complaints.”

On the horizon is Zoolander 2, which reunites stars Stiller and Owen Wilson, and is scripted by Theroux, Stiller and Nicholas Stoller.

“As an actor, it can all go away — it’s a freelance position,” Theroux observes. “Someone still has to give you permission to do it. Luckily, I can supplement that with my writing. I’ve worked very hard trying to create choices for myself.”