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Justin Theroux stares out from a current GAP ad of familiar but not quite famous faces. Unsmiling, arms crossed, wearing gray-tinted, black-framed glasses, he looks aloof, if not outright bored. Like the insufferably smug director he plays in Mulholland Drive or his upper-class cutup with a death wish in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Theroux exudes attitude. He spikes his hair, rolls his own cigarettes, and lives with a pair of pit bulls. He gets around by motorcycle or on a battered black bicycle, and he wears shades and fingerless black gloves indoors.

Yet for all his cultivated cool and downtown demeanor, “Justin’s a genuinely good person with a whole lot of talent,” says David Lynch, who directed the actor in Mulholland Drive, a surreal indictment of self-delusion and pretense.

“He’s phenomenal” as an actor, says Lynch, the master of macabre movie-making. “He’s kind of golden to work with in terms of his attitude — his professionalism, his humor. And he’s very smart. That comes across.”

Hence Theroux’s appeal, in Lynch’s opinion. And hence the reason that the 30-year-old actor’s breakout performances in Lynch’s film and Observe the Sons are making directors, critics, and audiences sit up and take notice.

Theroux is the most luminous member of a stellar ensemble cast in Nicholas Martin’s stunning production of Observe the Sons, in its final week at the Wilbur Theatre. He plays the charming but eccentric Kenneth Pyper, the pivotal character in Frank McGuinness’s antiwar drama.

“Justin is a natural,” says Martin, who has known Theroux since he was an undergraduate at Bennington College in Vermont in the early 1990s. The director, who was teaching at Bennington in those years, urged him out of the sculpture studio and into an acting class when he was a freshman. And he’s delighted to have cast the actor as the Anglo-Irish sculptor Pyper in Observe the Sons.

Theroux likes to describe his privileged, socially sheltered, and sexually conflicted character as a “Sarah Lawrence trust-fund girl in an army barracks.” But the role is incredibly complex, particularly for a young actor, Martin says.

Pyper enlists in a World War I army division hoping to die. He finds himself in a deep and erotic relationship with another soldier, David Craig, as their platoon marches to almost certain death in the Battle of the Somme. The part requires a nuanced depiction of clowning, callousness, and despair.

“Justin can look at a play as complex as [this], understand the history, recognize the poetic and thematic things that are going on, sift through all that artistry, and connect,” says Jason Butler Harner, the compelling actor who plays David Craig. “He’s an actor other actors love to work with, because at any moment, you can look at him, and get the truth.”

“Justin has always been an actor’s actor, but he’s becoming an audience’s actor now, too,” Martin says.

Lynch would agree. “He makes it real at a deep level — a level that people can sense,” Lynch says. “And that’s called a great performance.”

Theroux’s success in Observe the Sons and Mulholland Drive mark a signal leap in what has been a steady but less-than-startling performing career.

After graduating from Bennington with a double major in visual art and theater in 1993, he moved to New York, where he decided to pursue “both of my unstable careers.” For a while, painting murals and interior design paid his bills.

But a part in Hide Your Love Away, a 1995 off-Broadway hit about the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, led to more acting jobs at such places as the Hartford Stage and the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Theroux landed his first movie role in 1996, in I Shot Andy Warhol, directed by Mary Harron, who cast him four years later as the smooth-talking Timothy Bryce in American Psycho and recently, in Please Kill Me which is in preproduction.

American Psycho and The Broken Hearts Club, both released in 2000, led to more and better TV work in shows such as The DistrictSex and the City, and Ally McBeal. 

But “the stage is where the fun is, even though we [complain] about it when we’re doing it,” Theroux says. “Most television is innocuous. When I see what it is this country is watching, I mourn it. It’s all about 20-somethings drinking Chardonnay in their living rooms, and dealing with things like interracial kissing.”

He continues: “As an actor, the survival instinct wins out sometimes. I’d love to be virtuous, and move to a socialist country, and do Brecht all the time.”

But there’s the mortgage to cover on his Greenwich Village brownstone, which once belonged to Diane Arbus. And there’s a long-time girlfriend.

The notoriety that came with Mulholland Drive, Theroux says, “gets me into better rooms with better directors.”

It also allowed him to develop a relationship with Lynch, a man he describes as “shockingly normal.” When he went to Los Angeles to audition for the pilot TV series that the director eventually turned into Mulholland Drive, he said, “I fully expected a recluse living in a house on a hill that was hit by lightning bolts every 10 seconds.”

“But he came to the door, with a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette, and said, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?'” Theroux recalled, mimicking the director’s northern Montana accent.

Since working with Lynch, Theroux did a memorable cameo in Zoolander as the “evil DJ,” and acted alongside Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore in Duplex, due out in the fall.

He’s also “trying to write a script with Philip Seymour Hoffman,” who has been a close friend since the two appeared together in the off-Broadway play Shopping and …, whose full name can’t be printed in a family newspaper, but which Theroux’s mother calls Retail and Reproduction.

“I’m not a writer in my bones,” says the actor, who’s related by blood to an impressive array of scribes. His mother, Phyllis, once a feature writer for The Washington Post, is an author, editor, and activist — and an “awesome” mom. She is long divorced from his father, Eugene, a corporate lawyer in Washington, who grew up in Medford with his two rather famous writer-brothers, Paul and Alexander.

The young actor is off to Dublin this summer, where he’s making a movie, She Died on Canvas. (He’s a bit worried about doing an Irish accent in an Irish film.) He’s in negotiations for a feature role — as a villain, he says with relish — in a major Hollywood film he can’t discuss just now.

Still, Theroux has no interest in living in Los Angeles, or in spending time with the sort of character he played in Mulholland Drive.

“If you’ve been in Los Angeles for five minutes, you’ve met the guy,” he says.

As for the trendy GAP ad, Theroux professes to regard it with as much irreverence as do fellow cast members in Observe the Sons. They blew up the picture and tacked it to the wall of his dressing room backstage at the Wilbur — a place that resembles a rowdy boys’ locker room while the all-male Ulster cast is in residence. The ad is now liberally decorated with jibes and off-color jokes — and Theroux is responsible for as many of them as anyone else, Harner says with a laugh.

Attitude aside, he adds, “Justin is a nice young man who really doesn’t want the world to know it.”