Justin Theroux wears all black. Black jeans, black t-shirt, black leather jacket, heavily black-rimmed glasses. He smokes cigarettes he rolls himself. He's sort of hipster-punk, exponentially cool and more than a little wary of the business he's in. All this makes sense, if you know that he came up in and around Washington DC's punk scene, listening to Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Fugazi. Nowadays, the Bennington College graduate is a New York-based actor, probably best known for his work on CBS's The District, but more inclined to talk about his other work, on stage in NYC and in films, for example, Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho.
Theroux isn't eager to be a movie star, and so he picks parts that appease his restless sense of art, for instance, his latest, in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. As Adam, the film director within the film, Theroux plays essentially two roles, the first a hapless victim of Lynchian circumstances, the second a skuzzy Hollywood player, sleeping with his leading lady, Rita (Laura Elena Harring), egged on by his insider mom, Coco (the alarming Ann Miller), and resented by his girlfriend's girlfriend, Betty (Naomi Watts). Though Adam has some of the stranger scenes in the film (see especially, his encounter with The Cowboy), it is focused on and through the women's perspectives. And that's where Theroux and I started.
Cynthia Fuchs: What's your take on Lynch's "women characters"?
Justin Theroux: I know he gets flack for the way he portrays women, but if anything, I think he puts them on pedestals. He loves women. I think he's of the school of say, a Fellini, in that he realizes that he is male and has a strong libido, and so he's exploring that. It's all done very respectfully, and in the case of this movie, it's two women who love each other. He's very disappointed at the fact that it's getting all this "hot lesbo" press, because that's a really boring way to think about the film. I mean, the number of times I've been asked, "Hey, were you on set for the girl on girl action?" For chrissakes, it's so boring.
CF: That might play the other way too. The second time I saw Mulholland Drive, was with a queer film festival audience, who seemed to appreciate the strong characters and at the same time, the camp aspects of the film.
JT: I think that people have gotten over themselves since the Basic Instinct days, especially in the gay community, as far as being oversensitive not sensitive: there's room for everything at this point. To me, this is a tragic love story, between one character who's very powerless and another who's very powerful. I think it's an interesting set-up, whether it's male-female, two women, or two men.
CF: These two women seem especially aware of their embodiedness, their own relations to their bodies and the ways they are perceived as bodies.
JT: Exactly. And Lynch gets flack for having these dolled-up, red-lipsticked women, but if you look at his films carefully, you see that they're not just that. They're sweater girls, big fat girls, Laura Dern, a whole gamut of women in his movies. Same again, as Fellini, the mothers, prostitutes, and nuns, a whole spectrum.
CF: How did this movie happen for you?
JT: I'm not a big Lynch-head, and my house isn't covered with Lynchiana. But I obviously was a fan, and so I was excited. But it was a circuitous route to get the job. I had to be put on tape in New York just sort of answering questions, like "Where'd you go to school?" "What do you read?" General interest, boring questions. Then they sent him that tape and months went by. And I almost didn't even make that tape, because I thought, they're looking for a personality, you don't even audition. Then I got this call to go to LA, the next day, to meet him at his house. And I thought, well, if nothing else, I'll get to meet David Lynch. We had coffee, and it was the most wonderful meeting, because there was no one else, no casting directors, no other actors, just literally, coffee with David Lynch. We didn't even talk about the film, but about his painting, because I used to be a painter in college (I was a double major in drama and visual art). He showed me his photographs, and then he gave me the job. It was completely stress-free.
CF: And at that point had you read the script?
JT: Yes, I had read it on the plane going out. Knowing his canon, I wasn't fearful about how it would turn out. I knew it would be something wonderful. His scripts themselves are kind of flat, they don't leap off the page. What he does is sound, tempo, color, that's where it fills in. And after I had the job, I got to ask all the questions I wanted to ask, which he just didn't answer. And I like that about him: it's your job to figure it out. I thought, as an actor, that you'd be let into that door, where he'd help you figure something out, but no. He actually does the actor a tremendous service, because in life, we don't know what's going to happen or how you might react to something. In a perfect world, David would probably not even let us read the scripts ahead of time. He'd just give us the scenes that day. All the intellectual aspect of making a film is stripped away. I mean, he'll answer questions that seem really pertinent when you're shooting, but for questions like "Who is The Cowboy?" or "Is Adam making a good film?" , he won't necessarily answer those. It's all whittled down to sort of Acting 101: just be in the scene, play the emotion, and react to what's being said. If he had been a first time director I might have been a little skeptical, but again, there's nothing courageous on my part about being in this film. I imagine that for the guy in Eraserhead [Jack Nance], that was a courageous performance because he didn't who the hell David Lynch was!
CF: There's a perpetual sliding in Lynch's films, between male and female characters and characteristics. Here that takes a structural form, because at first, it looks like it might be Adam's story.
JT: Right, and it ends up being the women's film, and more specifically, Betty's film, from her perspective. And, it takes this turn at the end that leaves everything leading up to that, which is the majority of my work, in question. So it's not just David projecting his ideas on what Hollywood is, it's really David projecting through this girl, her ideas of Hollywood, the City of Dreams. There's a communion back and forth between the audience, David, the characters. It's a never-ending rotation of moods and impressions.
CF: Do you have a different process as you work inside that than for a straight-ahead narrative?
JT: I think actors protect themselves, especially when they're working with bad directors. They want to have as much control over their performance as possible, to clearly express certain things, because they're not sure what's going to happen in the editing. With David, you trust him so implicitly, that all that can kind of fall away. And you can just trust that whatever he edits in or out is going to be valuable. So it was a totally different way of working. It was like working with a painter, or just an artist, because at the end of the day, that sort of what he is, an auteur, a composer. Most directors are technicians, they come from the world of music videos or car commercials, or the stage. So they're good at getting the right angles and finishing on time, which can be frustrating. Whereas David really takes his time and doesn't let any of the technical end infect the creative part. He's on such a one-to-one basis with everybody on the set, there's no pecking order, none of this big trailer, small trailer, or "You're the prop guy," and "You're the PA," or "You bring my coffee." Everyone is on the same footing, and he tunes everyone into that frequency. He's an incredibly calm presence, and is able to focus people, as to what we're all doing together, to the point where the film almost makes itself. It really is an amazing process. It's almost like, when you do see the film, you're impressed, that you were part of making it. And it doesn't really ring true to what was on set, you know, you see and think, "That's really dark!"
CF: But it doesn't seem particular to Hollywood, the darkness in this film.
JT: David doesn't have an axe to grind. He's a very Zen guy, he meditates a lot, he's very in touch with who David is. So what he's really exploiting , I think, with all the aspects of his films -- violence, love, compassion, lust -- are things that take place in his subconscious. When he writes, he dictates into a recorder. He tries to clear his mind and catch ideas, that's how he puts it. Like, "I'm a fisherman and I put a net into the water, and I pull it. Sometimes there's fish and sometimes there's nothing." He really is kind of culling his subconscious. His films move like dreams. There's a logic to dreams that doesn't necessarily follow linear narrative. You don't know why things happen, it's your subconscious pushing you, to give you information. David's films, like dreams, do tell you something with incredibly powerful imagery. Mulholland Drive in particular, is this woman's take on Hollywood, and the way in which Hollywood moves her around and the way she moves Hollywood around. And at the same time, there are scenes you could call non-sequiturs or Maguffins, if you're sort of being cynical: what is the blue box, who is the woman in the veil? But these are just symbols that your subconscious gives you all the time -- not these particular symbols, but the general sense of symbols. Although they don't necessarily add to the narrative content, they do add to the tonal content of a dream life.
CF: His films and the performances in them also seem very economical.
JT: That's true. In terms of just practical direction, he's very simple. He won't create massive back story and doesn't want you to do it either. He's more like, "In this scene, your film is being taken away from you, and you'd be really angry." Or you can get even simpler: "David, on a scale of 1 to 10, how angry am I?" And he'll think for a minute and say, "You're 8 and a half, maybe 9." Which is perfect, if I'm thinking, "Who is the Cowboy?" the scene isn't going to play. CF: Not everyone would feel fine with that kind of minimalism. How did you come to this sense of yourself, as an actor?
JT: Well, I grew up in DC, was tossed out of several schools, and then I found this great sort of liberal arts boarding school in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a chop-wood, carry-water kind of environment, a wonderful socialist environment, where the students made the meals and cut the grass. And then I went to Bennington and studied drama and visual arts.
CF: Did you know early that you wanted to act?
JT: No, I sort of did my first sort of professional-ish job in Washington, a play, when I was about 14, and then at this high school in Williamstown, we did a lot of plays and toured with them. Great plays, not Lil Abner type shows, but Gogol and Rhinocerous, pretty highbrow. We'd take them to Washington and to Mexico City. And I was interested in painting, so in college I decided to pursue both. Then when I got to New York, I thought, I have two very useless talents, I'll see which one sticks. And actually, painting was paying the bills first. I was doing murals and billboards. Then I got a job in a play and that started taking over my life.
CF: I have to ask you at least one question about The District, which, on its face, seemed like a really bad idea when it first aired. And while I still have doubts, I have to say, when you started sleeping with Ensign Ro [Michelle Forbes], the show took a turn for me.
JT: [laughs] Well, I've been released from my contract, but in a good way. It was mutual . I'm doing six episodes this year. It's fun to work at that pace, in tv, but it's frustrating, because there's a glass ceiling as to how creative it can be. So quality-wise, it suffers a lot. It has to do with where my interests lie. I'd much rather be doing a good play for $300 a week than episode television for a bazillion dollars a week. I did it, I made some money last year, and the show's good, but it meant uprooting from New York and going to Los Angeles, and they didn't really know what to do with my character. So I was sort of standing in scenes holding cups of coffee, saying, "I can't spin this," or, "You may not want to hear this, Chief," and I sort of became high-paid furniture. So I think it's better that they have me on an episode by episode basis, because then when they do use me, I'm used in a way that's more meaningful.
CF: So it sounds like you're not looking for the next Jim Cameron movie?
JT: It's such a tightrope that you walk, as an actor, because you have no choices, until you are Jim Carrey or someone like that. Even then, when you're at a certain height, the fall can be even greater, so you start choosing really safe projects. It's just because, film is an expensive medium. So I'm getting by right now on a lot of faith, thinking, okay, I'll be all right, hoping that something will always materialize.
CF: It also seems like there are options that aren't mainstream, on cable or wherever.
JT: And that's just beginning to be cracked, there's more room to grow there, as the medium hopefully will become less and less dependent on commercial breaks, and more on subscriptions. Which would mean less money for actors and producers, but at the same time, quality can skyrocket. It's a terrible thing -- I'm pointing out the obvious, but -- when soda companies determine content.
CF: How can you tell when you look at something that you want to do it? I mean, with Lynch, you see his name and you sign up.
JT: Right, because he always has control over his material, you know there's quality control. But 99.9 percent of the time, the script is nothing to go by, because it's all subject to change, and will change. You do one week on The District and get seven drafts of the script before you shoot. It's mind-boggling, the things you can and cannot do. We had one line that was about Starbucks, that you couldn't say, and I had a line where I was supposed to say "NRA," and I couldn't say "NRA," and it wasn't clear if it was going to piss them off or make them happy or piss off anti-gun people. I don't know what it was. But anything that might alienate anyone is removed from the script. And you can't really make good art without alienating people. Any strong or good or worthwhile art movement alienates people first, and then sort of includes them. People have gag reflexes first, they're resistant to change, especially when it comes to art.
CF: And that raises the next question, what does it mean to "sell out"? Is there an identifiable line that you cross?
JT: I grew up in the punk scene in DC, which was a pro-active movement. It was fun and you felt like you were being edgy and you were sort of weird -- this was when Mohawks and piercings were sort of the norm, you know. But eventually, they get found out, these good things, by corporations, by MTV. I remember when I used to go over the water, from DC to Virginia, and the kids would change. There would be mullets and Iron Maiden t-shirts, just a 20-minute walk over the bridge could completely alter the environment. Now, when I go around, in airports and malls or on the streets, it's all completely the same. The corporations have figured out a way to link them all, make them all want the same thing, but still think that there's choice. We used to take great pleasure in taking our white t-shirts and a big magic marker and writing "Dead Kennedys" or whatever on them, then putting them on and marching down the street and pissing people off. And if someone had actually gone out and bought a Dead Kennedys t-shirt, it would have been heretical. Now, kids look at that and say, "How could you make a shirt? It looks like shit." So now, kids have these $45 shirts, and my mom bought it for me. So there's a difference. Even the alternative kids love a brand new pair of Nikes. It's unfortunate: unless you hit your television with a sledgehammer, you're not going to be able to be an individual.
CF: Do you think it'll swing back at any point?
JT: All the stuff with the WTO, the kids in Seattle throwing a bricks through Starbucks windows -- I see it as a good thing. It's saying, like "Fuck you." As long as no one's killing one another, I don't think there's nothing wrong with throwing a brick through the window of McDonalds. Obviously, it's against the law and you go to court, if you get caught, but at the same time, I'm sort of inspired when I see people thinking like that. Obviously you don't want them to be hyper-violent, but any time you can bite at the ankles of people who are dictating your lives… You need to be reminded. It happens to me. I live near SoHo, and when you walk around, you're advertised to a thousand times a day. And now -- you might not know this -- but they're advertising on the urinals in men's rooms in New York. It's the thing you piss on, saying, like, "Piss on me, but buy me!" They're willing to literally be defecated on in order to sell a product.
CF: And of course, the kids who protest the WTO know how it works too -- they get themselves on TV.
JT: Yeah, they know! Really the only way to do it is to have, in essence, a publicist. And that means you're reduced to a sound-bite. I remember at one of the conventions at the Staples Center in LA, they had a "riot area" -- like they say, "You guys can riot there," and they bring the cameras over and say, "See, there's the rioters." It's Brechtian. You've got to put on a show, to make people believe that they're "the best." It's all choreographed. That's why I say, kill your television, because you can't not be influenced. No one has a powerful enough mind. When you watch tv, you're on that ride. It becomes more real than reality. I think that's why the World Trade Center bombing upset people, because there were six different camera angles of the plane hitting the building, and within a day, they had theme music to it. And then they shelved the Schwarzenegger movie, right away. You know, I'm not a fan of shelving movies -- I mean, I'm a fan of shelving that movie -- but I'm not a fan of shelving movies that have that content. So what? I think we need to tell stories that reflect our world. It's the old story of Michelangelo meeting the Pope, who was upset at the images of "Hell," and Michelangelo said, "My job is to paint the world, yours is to change it." We can be reflective in movies and television, but we can't be irresponsible.
CF: So, there is a function for what you do.
JT: Yes, I take it seriously. I don't take it over-seriously. It's not going to feed starving nations or quell riots, but I do take it seriously when I choose roles. Obviously I've made decisions that could be considered "sell out" decisions, to do television, and those are things that I didn't think I would ever do when I was graduating college. It came down to: do I eat or do I not? But more and more, I'm starting to think, "No, just don't eat." If a role doesn't come along, generate something for yourself that doesn't just feed into the rest of the system. I've been fortunate to be part of movies that I'm proud of, like Mary Harron's movies: I did two already and I'm in her next one. I've done numerous plays that I think are important. So I don't feel like I've completely compromised, though, I've contributed to selling numerous products that I don't necessarily subscribe to. I've sold cheeseburgers. But it's a question of how bad a sell out you are; there are degrees. It's the system we have, capitalism.
Read Elias Savada's review.