by Sibella Giorello
64 MAGAZINE 2001

Justin Theroux is driving like a bat out of hell in a blue Volvo from Hertz, flying 80 miles an hour up Route 1 from Ashland. Lou Reed sneers on the stereo about the dirty boulevard — Lou wants to fly, fly, fly away and Justin heeds the call, taking flight on this bucolic four-lane rollercoaster of a road that weaves through Hanover County farmland.

His mother Phyllis Theroux sits in the passenger seat talking about words, the power of words. She’s a writer of books and meditative essays for magazines such as House Beautiful, and she’s wondering about the name Zazu Pitts. From the time she was a child she’s wondered about that name, the very sound of it. “It’s like what Reynolds Price said,” she continues. “Writers are hard-wired for language.”

And then lights. Flashing blue police lights shatter the pastoral scenery. With a heavy sigh, Justin pulls over. He curses under his breath. Phyllis seems oddly giddy at this confrontation. This is his mother’s personality: New experiences of any kind are greeted with happy anticipation. She has said the reason she writes is because it means lunch with interesting people.

“Call him ‘sir,'” she tells her son. The cop exits his cruiser and slams the door, walking toward the Volvo. Phyllis’ hand twitches to smooth down her son’s cowlick. “Tell him you’re taking me to confession.”

Justin takes off his aggressively nerdy glasses, monstrous black frames with tinted lenses. His coal-colored hair riots in acute angles. A black leather jacket tops black sweater, black pants and black boots. Truth is, he looks like a bat out of hell. Yet when the glasses come off, everything shifts. Clear hazel eyes leap from a pale narrow face. These are good eyes, lit from within. They sparkle with intelligence and humor, and something sharp, like green glass. Each time Justin turns his head, radiating irises illuminate his face. The effect is not unlike the moment his black-clad cowboy character in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion emerges from pitch-dark shadows, stands in the spotlight, gazes into Janeane Garofalo’s eyes and says, “You’re right, I was a brain-dead redneck asshole.”

The officer leans toward Justin’s open window. “You were going 82 back there.”

“No,” Justin says. His dark eyelashes bat once with incredulity.

“Oh, yeah.”

“It’s a rental car,” he says. His hands open in plaintive motion. “I didn’t realize I was going that fast. It didn’t seem that fast.” He pauses exactly one beat. “82?”

“Oh, yeah.”

The cop briskly takes license and registration, walks away. Justin leans back and starts telling his mother a story, about the time he was in a hair salon in Beverly Hills. He watched a wealthy woman call the police because she didn’t like her haircut.

“She called the police, for a bad haircut?” his mother says. “What were you doing in a place like that?” Her tone makes it sound like her son was hanging out with deadbeat drunks. For years, Phyllis has verbally strafed the upcoming Wal-Mart in Ashland, mounting local resistance to Big Business. She’s not impressed that her son — the lead in David Lynch’s latest movie, Mulholland Drive, a film that puts Justin on the cusp of stardom — was rubbing shoulders with millionaires in Beverly Hills. No, Phyllis is appalled.

“I had to do some thing for a project,” Justin says vaguely, waving graceful hands through the air. He doesn’t want to talk about that. That wasn’t his point. She’s interrupting his pace. “But you know what?”

“What?”

“That hairdresser is doing 20 years.” He smiles devilishly, charming his mother to laugh.

The cop returns. Justin Paul Theroux, 145 pounds,  hazel eyes, gets ticketed for reckless driving, and is required to appear before a Hanover County Court judge.

“I can’t do that,” Justin says. “I live in New York. What if I don’t show?”

“You’ll lose your license.”

“Just here, in Virginia. Right?”

“In New York, too,” the cop says. “I know you think you have a jet here but–“

“No,” Justin interrupts, “it’s just that it’s so god-damned beautiful down here.” He shoves the astro-nerd glasses back on, takes the ticket and crumples it in his hand.

“Did you just ball up my ticket?” the cop asks. “I’m gonna tell the judge you did that.”

Justin laughs — the cop giving it right back amuses him — and smooths out the ticket, then places it in the glove box. The cop walks away shaking his head. Justin leads the Volvo off the shoulder, checking the rear view. As soon as the cop is out of sight, the speedometer tilts toward 70… 75. His mother’s voice rises an octave. “Justin, slow down!”

He complies, but his irritation is evident. He’s genuinely pissed off. At the ticket, yes, but actors look deeper at behavior. They examine subtext. They ask, What’s my motivation? Why, after a serious reprimand, does this particular guy still feel the need for speed?

Well, let’s just say this is a guy who’s been going hard, pressing toward some distant horizon. For 10 years he’s been taking parts to put Ramen noodles on the table — some of the parts not what you’d even want listed on your resume. He’s got an eventual goal in mind and then finally he starts gaining some momentum. The parts get bigger, the budgets fatter, peers more professional. Now people don’t say no to him; they say yes. People like David Lynch and Ben Stiller and award-winning playwrights who want him in the lead of their productions. So this hard-driving guy’s finally cresting the hill, finally on his way, when he’s suddenly forced to slow down. Take it easy, man. Act like everyone else. Stay in bounds. Yet every molecule in his honed body begs to do the opposite — to break every rule of speed and law and decorum, to explore life at the edge. In his ear Lou Reed chants a subversive subconscious, seducing him to walk on the wild side.

Jaw clenched, Justin Theroux abandons his trip to Boone’s Antiques in Caroline County. He wanted to buy furniture for his new Greenwich Village apartment, an unfurnished space made more affordable in part due to his decorating the delirious dreamscape of Mulholland Drive. The role has caught the attention of the public and producers; people are saying this could be the actor’s big break. If that happens, everyone will call his role of “Adam” the one that launched Justin Theroux into leading man status.

Steering the Volvo onto I-95 South, back to his mother’s house in Ashland where he’s visiting for Christmas, Justin punches the engine to 80 mph. Phyllis gives him a sidelong look — the look mothers throw favorite sons who disobey. “I’m going with the flow of the traffic,” he tells her. He’s smiling now, feeling better, happy again because he’s going places, going fast. And law enforcement aside, one wonders if anything can hold back Justin Theroux.

Collapsing into a slipcovered chair in his mother’s living room, Justin’s blade-thin frame cuts against the pretty cloth like a scythe leveling an English garden. His pit bulls, Pooma and LouLou (a nod to Mr. Reed), lie down beside the man who saved them from the pound.

Justin’s ink-dipped appearance seems alien in Ashland, but it helped win him the role of Adam in Mulholland Drive. After watching a videotaped interview with the 30-year-old actor, director Lynch flew him to Los Angeles. Justin was dressed as he is now, bespectacled, devoid of color. They drank coffee at Lynch’s home, chatted about life and painting (both are more than hobbyist painters), and then Lynch pretty much offered the job that’s put Justin among the A-List possibilities. Lynch also costumed the character of Adam with Justin’s real-life garb — except the movie threads were more expensive.

Justin won’t disagree that Mulholland Drive, in which he plays a put-upon studio director dealing with Mafiosi and other feral elements of the Lynch imagination, is a career high. The dark tale won a bevy of best movie honors — the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle, to name two. The New York association has often proved an indicator of Oscar potential (although at presstime, nominations had been announced), and the momentum seems to be with the film. Mulholland Drive was nominated for four Golden Globes, including best director from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. But Justin, whose performance was singled out for praise in reviews, is not about to indulge in the idea of “overnight success.” For 10 years he fought in the thespian trenches.

“The media’s always talking about overnight success,” he says. “There’s no such thing. My friend Calista Flockhart [the star of TV’s Ally McBeal] is a good example. She was doing plays for years — 11 or 12 years. Nothing overnight success about her.”

Justin’s career began quietly, almost a secondary notion. At Bennington College in Vermont, he double-majored in painting and theater arts, then moved to New York. To make ends meet, he took mural commissions and went on auditions. According to family friends, these were lean years for the DC-raised boy, physically and spiritually. “He called me up once and asked me to pray for him,” says Debbie Kendrick, a Glen Allen resident who’s close with his mother. “It was a genuine request for help, and it really endeared me to him.”

In 1993, a role in an off-Broadway play, Hide Your Love Away, drew him favorable reviews and won representation from a big-time agent. After that, better roles came with some regularity. Still, those early years stay fresh in the actor’s memory.

“I figured I’d take acting and painting to New York and see which one won out,” he says, putting his feet up on the coffee table. “I only had these two things in my tool belt. Initially, painting worked out. It was paying the bills. Now the other is working out better. But I’m perfectly happy if the acting goes away to start painting again.” He pauses, reaches over, and knocks on a wooden end table. He smiles.

“If you’re a painter you can sit home and do it,” he continues. “You can practice your art, even if you’re not having an exhibition. Acting, at least initially, you’re asking for permission to do it. Those early years were humbling. I was an extra on soaps. I mean, you’re the bottom rung on the bottom rung! The goal in acting is choice, to make enough money to have the choice to do what you want to do.”

Being poor was no picnic, but he sees some honor in the experience. He points to his parents as an example (they divorced when Justin was a boy). While his mother rides the financial ebbs and flows that confront even the most successful freelance writer, his father, Gene (brother of writer Paul Theroux), never worries about his bank account balance. He’s a corporate attorney in Washington. Of the two, Justin would choose his mother’s struggle. “My dad was a very good painter, but somewhere around his mid-20s he got worried he wouldn’t have enough money. He went to law school and now he’s had 30 years of zero artistic experience. He’s a very wealthy guy, but, man, is that sad because you have to really climb down deep and kill something inside you to do that. I’m not slamming him. It’s just instructive to me in the choice I don’t want to make.”

Slowly, he’s climbed from scenery on the soaps to leading man in successful films. Now he’s almost famous. Before Mulholland Drive there was American Psycho (he played a coke-snorting cohort of Christian Bale) and I Shot Andy Warhol (a gun-supplying anarchist). TV also proved productive — an attorney on Ally McBeal, a public relations flack on The District, and two appearances on Sex and the City as two completely different characters, a testament to his ability to transform his appearance in subtle but shocking ways. See him in one role, you might not recognize him in the next. “I’m really into all the disguises — mustaches, clothing, hair changes — if it works,” he says.

But lucrative work aside, Justin’s voice goes taut discussing television. Leaning forward, he extracts a bag of Drum tobacco from his leather jacket and rolls a cigarette.

“If I was roped into a seven-year TV contract I’d probably hang myself,” he says. “Take The District. The role was so formulaic and not very interesting in that it offered no opportunities for me to take chances. It’s a TV show — selling cars, cereal, soda pop. TV is like that. The shows are incidental to the commercials. I always laugh when TV shows pat themselves on the back for being cutting-edge. I mean, an interracial kiss on Ally McBeal is cutting-edge? I’ve never been shocked by anything on television, except the news.”

Rather almost famously, he turned down a reading for the pilot of Friends — twice. He thought the idea of a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around talking to each other would never fly. In his perfect world, it wouldn’t. But the other trouble with television is an over-reaching interest in “nice” looks. Justin’s angular face, which he describes as “not bad looking but not good looking either,” is one reason he’s offered to work on television, though he would prefer a mug like Kevin Space’s — some wide plane upon which any crop of emotions might grow. TV wants everything normal and known — while on The District he was approached by the producers about his bushy eyebrows. The producers wanted him to wax the brows down to some telegenic standard. Justin dug in his heels. He didn’t think his character would do that; it wasn’t in the guy’s soul to step out for a wax job.

“I lost that battle,” he says, laughing. “Eventually, it’s not a fight worth having. But that shit really pisses me off.”

On the other hand, the stage uplifts him. While performing in Chekhov’s Three Sisters off-Broadway (which also starred Flockhart), the director reprimanded Justin for propping his feet on a table. The director insisted no one in Chekhov’s world would ever put up his feet. Son of an attorney, progeny of an essayist, Justin jumped in: You mean to tell me nobody, ever — ever — put their feet up in 19th-century Russia? That battle he won.

“I’m more comfortable on stages,” he says. “You have more control over your performance. In film, it’s edited and you don’t know how it’s going to come out. It’s like you paint your canvas and somebody comes along, rips it to shreds and frames it. Once, they took out all the pauses in a monologue of mine because of time constraints. It sounded like I was just rattling stuff off instead of being contemplative. On stage you can take as long a pause as you want, provided it works.”

On cue, there’s a sudden knock at the front door, stage right. The dogs leap and bark. An older woman opens the front door, gets an eyeful of charging pit bulls and screams, “Heaven help us!” She slams the door.

Justin calmly gets up, telling the dogs to be quiet. Holding Pooma’s collar, he opens the front door. “It’s all right,” he says. “They’re going to be friendly.” His voice is soft, apologetic. More notably, he sounds unaware of himself, rather than an actor driven to self-consciousness by his own celebrity. Friends say that’s been his hallmark.

“Justin’s sincere and he values sincerity,” says Jerry Romansky, an author and syndicated columnist who lives in DC. Romanky’s known Justin since he was a young boy. “He’s always had an artistic temperament, very sensitive. He’s an actor because he’s an artist. And whatever I’ve seen him in, there’s never a high affect or over-acting. I don’t think he’ll ever be into the glitz and pretension. He’s a highly authentic person and, from what I can tell, he values privacy.”

No matter what Justin says, the woman won’t set foot inside the house with the wild beasts of New York City. So Phyllis leaves with the woman for the local ice cream shop. Justin drops back into the slipcovered chair, rolls another cigarette and sighs.

So what about celebrity? What about a time when getting ticketed and saying anything even remotely unpleasant winds up in the National Enquirer, when answering his mother’s door won’t mean talking down dogs but fending off panting fans?

“It’s the greatest Catch-22 in the world.” He’s thought about the situation often. “Your greatest asset as an actor is your anonymity. For instance, I watched the movie Cast Away. It’s a perfectly fine movie. But you can never fully believe that movie. How can we believe this man is being cast away? We know it’s Tom Hanks and we know the color of his couch in LA because we saw a picture of it in People Magazine. His celebrity has corrupted his art form. That’s why old French films are so fun to watch. You don’t know who these people are and you can completely believe who the people are purporting to be.”

Already celebrity is encroaching on artistic sensibilities. Mulholland Drive was an initiation into the full-court press of media promotion — everything from newspapers and morning TV with fluffy little local anchors uttering inanities (“Boy, that David Lynch sure is weird!”) to Entertainment Tonight. Justin didn’t care for any of it but realizes the deal. Do the big flicks with the accomplished directors, and that hefty salary comes with a price tag: You agree to feed bits of yourself to the public appetite for celebrity. Recently, people have begun to recognize him on the street.

“There’s something nice about people coming up and saying they enjoyed a performance. I like that,” he says. “But there’s also something sycophantic and stupid. You have to check yourself because it feels good. You want it to stick around. That’s why people get addicted to fame. I’ve seen enough of fame to know there are aspects of it I do want and aspects I don’t. Fame gives you choices in your work but…” His voice trails off, his hand flips back and forth, as though balancing the dilemma.

Pointedly, his latest project has been writing a screenplay with buddy Ben Stiller (Justin can only say it’s a comedy about Vietnam. “It sounds heretical,” he admits, “but it’s not.”). Everywhere they go, people interrupt them to talk to Ben Stiller — and to tell somebody later that they talked to Ben Stiller. In order to get any work done, the writers are forced to hide out in Stiller’s house, cut off from the very world that is their material. In Justin’s view, this is a Faustian predicament for an actor. Celebrity opens as many doors as it nails shut.

And right now, as he skates the ridge between almost famous and hiding from tabloids, between working actor and fawned-over celebrity who nurtures some unhealthy need for approval, he wonders about the future. He weighs the cost of stardom against the practice of his craft, and right now he seems inclined toward integrity over some success. The truth is, if there is anything that can hold back Justin Theroux, it just might be Justin Theroux.

“A friend of mine, Mary Louise Parker, has a painting in her apartment,” he says. “It’s of this very frail woman. She’s all gray and emaciated. But she’s holding this very bright coin. She’s got it between her fingers, holding it up like a treasure. The coin glows against her gray body. It’s so bright. And at the bottom of the painting there’s one word.” Justin Theroux’s almost famous face breaks out in its best ironic smile, the one that makes his eyes sparkle. “And that one word is fame.”