by Daniel Neman
TIMES-DISPATCH 2001

It took Justin Theroux four viewings to fully understand Mulholland Drive — and he is one of the stars.

But that is fine with Theroux. Mulholland Drive is written and directed by David Lynch, whose works are sometimes famously obscure. With such movies as Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart to his credit, as well as the television show Twin Peaks, Lynch’s large cult audience knows to expect a certain opacity.

“I think a lot of people go to the film and they walk out and they want to have it in their hand right away. It’s doing them a disservice to explain it right away,” Theroux said on the phone from New York.

“If you want to understand a movie, go see a Mike Myers film. The Spy Who Shagged Me is a wonderful thing. You’ll be able to get it all. It’s like a People Magazine crossword puzzle. You’ll feel proud of yourself for a minute. But pick up a New York Times and start doing it in ink. That’s closer to a David Lynch picture.”

At 30, Theroux is making a name for himself in the independent film world. Major roles include parts in American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol, both for director Mary Harron, with whom he will soon film a movie called Please Kill Me.

He is also active in New York theater, performing with Calista Flockhart in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters and with Philip Seymour Hoffman in a play that cannot be named here but which Theroux’s mother calls Retail and Reproduction.

Theroux’s mother is Phyllis Theroux, the writer, writing coach and sometime community activist who lives in Ashland (his father — his parents are divorced — is Gene Theroux, the brother of writer Paul Theroux). The actor grew up in Washington and went to arts-rich Bennington College in Vermont.

In Mulholland Drive, Theroux plays a supporting character, a movie director named Adam. Gangsters inform him that he is supposed to give a coveted role to a particular actress. When he resists, they pressure him in an indefinably menacing way.

“He’s sort of the one character in the film who doesn’t know what the [heck’s] going on,” Theroux said of Adam. “I think he’s the one guy the audience says, ‘I’m kind of like you right now. I don’t know why you’re being subjected to all this pain.'”

Theroux said he was “completely baffled” by the script at first, asking Lynch to explain its various elements.

The first question he asked, though, was whether the character of Adam was an extension of Lynch himself. Lynch said no, and Theroux believes him. The character of Adam works within the studio system, which is foreign to Lynch, and is beset by such humorous affectations as carrying a golf club wherever he goes.

“[Lynch] doesn’t have all the accoutrements of other directors, the Dockers and Prada shoes. When you’re around him, it’s sort of like hanging around a painter. He’s got that kind of a mood. He obviously has complete and total control over his set, but a lot of directors make a big show of having that control and they can indulge in that when they’re pretending to deflect it.”

Theroux’s look in the movie is that of a cool and somewhat pretentious hipster, which also does not fit in with the Lynch image. Lynch, who is proud of the fact that he was an Eagle Scout, wears khaki pants and button-down shirts. Theroux’s Adam, in contrast, wears black pants, a black shirt and black plastic-frame tinted glasses.

It happened to be what Theroux was wearing when he auditioned for the role.

He had gotten off the plane from New York to Los Angeles, having had too little sleep. He was wearing black, and his hair was messy. Lynch liked the look as much as he liked the actor, and took photographs then to be able to re-create it when it came time to film. The only difference, Theroux said, is the costume department upgraded the black clothes to make them nicer.

The audition was decidedly unusual. Lynch never asked him to read a script or perform a scene; he just asked him questions about himself. The director apparently hired him based on his gut instinct, though Theroux suspects he may have seen a tape of his performances.

“I truly thought he would be some sort of creepy recluse living on a hill with lightning bolts hitting his house every 10 minutes. But he’s not like that at all. He’s funny and calm, with a Midwestern sensibility, who makes these incredible movies.”

Thank you for your time, Mr. Theroux. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“My mom would kill me if I didn’t take some potshot at the Wal-Mart that is building in Ashland.”