Sex symbol with brawns and brains

Justin Theroux and Jennifer Aniston arrive at season premiere of HBO's "The Leftovers" in New York.

Justin Theroux had, until recently, a solid if low-key Hollywood career, making a name for himself as a character actor, successful screenwriter and, in a drama scripted by the tabloids, Mr Jennifer Aniston-in- waiting.

But as he heads the cast of the new existential series The Leftovers, which is airing in Singapore, he is fast emerging as a full-fledged leading man and sex symbol.

The 42-year-old may be in a spot of denial about this, however, as Life! found out in an interview with him last week about his show.

He arrives at the press event looking every inch the star in his sharply tailored suit and skinny tie, but with not an ounce of "I'm a celebrity'' attitude as he chats and jokes, warmly and earnestly, with reporters.

Asked if he feels there has been a trade-off in taking centre stage and the actor hems and haws politely as he downplays his position in the cast - despite the fact that his is the only face (and chiselled torso) to be seen on the promotional poster.

"I always think about things from just a character perspective and I try not the judge the size of the role. I always think of it as a character piece," he says of playing Kevin Garvey, a police chief in a small town that is one of many communities dealing with the "Sudden Departure", or inexplicable disappearance of 2 per cent of the world's population three years ago.

"With The Leftovers, I think of it as essentially an ensemble. Even though I was the first one cast, when the rest came on, I was relieved to be able to distribute the weight across, especially when you have such talented other actors," he says of co-stars such as Amy Brenneman, Liv Tyler and Christopher Eccleston.

"And the minute you start thinking about it in terms of 'This is a leading- man part', you start making dumb decisions. The expectations somehow become different. And some of my favourite performances always feel like character parts as opposed to starring parts."

Yet expectations of Theroux are undeniably different these days.

Starring roles in two of David Lynch's most acclaimed independent films - the 2001 postmodern film noir and psychological thriller Mulholland Drive and the 2006 mystery Inland Empire - established his indie credentials early on.

But he would juxtapose this with a string of character-actor parts in comedies big and small, including the 2003 blockbuster Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, in which he played the villain Seamus O'Grady in a hilarious send-up of Robert De Niro's 1991 turn in Cape Fear; and bombs such as Your Highness (2011) and Wanderlust (2012).

Aniston was his co-star in the latter, and the two began dating shortly afterwards and got engaged in late 2012. With Aniston's fame from her long-running stint on the sitcom Friends (1994-2004) - and notoriety from a divorce from movie star Brad Pitt - their relationship has been the subject of endless "will he ever marry her?" type speculation ever since.

This has often overshadowed Theroux's other accomplishments, which include several well-received stints as a screenwriter. Hailing from a family of well-known writers and journalists - he is the nephew of novelist Paul Theroux, and cousin of British documentary maker Louis Theroux - he penned the script for the Marvel comics blockbuster Iron Man 2, one of the top-earning films of 2010, as well as co-wrote the action spoof Tropic Thunder (2008).

But whereas other celebrities often complain about tabloid scrutiny in terms of a loss of privacy or feeling unsafe, Theroux's critique is mainly literary.

In an article in last month's Elle magazine, he is quoted as saying, of the celebrity press: "I can't get over how terrible the narrative is, just how poorly written it is… It's so dramatic. Like, 'They've broken up, they're together, they're storming out, storming in, rushing out, rushing in.' They make every celebrity look like a schizophrenic."

His take on The Leftovers, whose metaphysical themes and ideas about grief and loss have been hotly debated among fans, is similarly cerebral. And he is obviously much happier talking about these than how important he is on the show.

Asked for an interpretation of what the chain-smoking, all-white-wearing post-Departure cult known as The Guilty Remnant represents, he says: "I think there's a nihilism that they've embraced; it's almost dadaist in its simplicity."

Then he restates this as people simply going "ah, f*** it, the world's done, all efforts at health and appearance are gone".

Like many, he sees parallels between the story and real-life collective trauma of the terrorist attacks in New York on Sept 11, 2001, which inspired the novel the show is based on, Tom Perotta's The Leftovers.

"The things that (the show's creator) Damon Lindelof is digging at are faith and spirituality - how individuals deal with grief and loss.

"The closest thing I can relate it to is Sept 11. It was the softest, most wonderful, loving time in New York," says Theroux, who splits his time between New York and Los Angeles.

"People who didn't know one another were embracing; you'd go to the deli and the ATM wasn't working and they'd say, 'Pay me back later.' It became a small town just like that."

The actor also grows passionate on the subject of the proliferation of television series such as The Leftovers on HBO and other pay-cable networks in the United States, where many critics feel some of the best work on screen is to be found right now.

In comparison to the freedom that TV allows - the time and space to explore characters in greater depth, and flexibility with narrative structure - "movies are just so hard to make", says Theroux, who is slated to write and direct a sequel to Ben Stiller's popular big-screen comedy Zoolander (2001).

"We've got a script for Zoolander 2, which I think we can agree is a movie that people would go to - and it's taken us years. There's just many, many, many moving parts," he tells Life!.

By contrast, "television is this fast track to getting great ideas out. I've been in several meetings these last months where we've said, 'Well, why don't we just take this great movie idea and split it into eight episodes?'"

He believes it is ultimately good news for those trying to create compelling stories on screen.

He says: "That long-form thing is appealing to writers, and also daunting, because the quality and the bar is so, so high.

"And it's a wonderful thing - a renaissance period in the truest sense of the word, where all these great writers and showrunners are being unleashed to create really great, funny, dramatic shows."

This article was first published on August 07, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.