by Jennifer Armstrong

Justin Theroux has removed his geeky black-framed, tinted glasses — if you saw him as befuddled director Adam Kesher in Mulholland Drive, you know them — revealing hazel eyes rimmed with lush lashes. His sinewy arms — if you saw him as buff villain Seamus O’Grady in Charlie’s Angels 2, you know them — flex beneath his plain white T-shirt as he rolls a cigarette.

He’s sitting at an outdoor cafe in New York City, struggling to describe his Six Feet Under character, French-horn player Joe, who’ll appear as Brenda’s neighbor-turned-boyfriend when the new season begins June 13 on HBO. “He’s sort of a deep, cool drink of water,” Theroux says, stating the obvious — but then he adds, “I don’t mean, like, you know, ‘a cool drink of water’ in that way. Joe’s just a classic oasis in the storyline.”

Theroux names Paul Giamatti and Harry Dean Stanton as his role models, and so far the 32-year-old Washington, D.C., native’s career choices reflect those actors’ aspirations: He’s disappeared into a wide range of roles, in indie fare like American Psycho and popcorn flicks like Zoolander. He’s done English accents (in a two-episode stint on Alias) and Irish accents (Charlie’s Angels 2). He turned down a screen test for the Friends pilot. (“Who wouldn’t want to be a bazillionaire, but I don’t really regret it.”) He guest-starred on Sex and the City twice as two different characters. (Unfortunately, neither Jared nor Vaughn were around for the long haul.

“He’s handsome enough to be a leading man, but he’s interested in playing more complex characters,” says Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, who sought out Theroux to play sweet-but-kinky Joe. “He’s got a long career ahead, but he’ll do more interesting work rather than be a matinee idol, which he could be if he wanted to.”

Theroux started his career wanting to be an artist. When he moved to New York City after graduating from Bennington College in Vermont, he put his visual-arts degree to good use, painting billboards and nightclub wall murals. On the side, he pursued acting, something he had been doing since age 13 in local productions. He ditched his art career after landing a part and critical acclaim in a tiny Off Broadway play called Hide Your Love Away. “I got a fancy agent out of it, and one started eclipsing the other,” he says.

Several small movie roles and a regular part in Season 1 of CBS’ cop show The District (as crafty police-department PR officer Nick Pierce) followed. “I get very nervous of those television contracts,” he explains. “You could end up spending seven years in the salt mines.” He lost that reticence for his follow-up gig (and breakthrough role) as Adam Kesher in Mulholland Drive, a twisty drama plot that David Lynch shot for ABC and then retooled as an Oscar contender. “I would have done that show, of course, forever,” Theroux says.

Now he says he’s happy to be back on TV the way he likes best — with a short-term deal on the un-salt-mine-like Six Feet Under. “A lot of television characters have this invisible ceiling where they can only evolve so much, but this show’s ceiling is very high,” he says. “I don’t want to say it’s just because they can say fuck and have sex, but that helps.”

So any chance he’ll ever put those cheekbones to use in a regular leading-man role? He’ll come closer than before with the upcoming indie romantic comedy The Baxter, in which he pursue an engaged gal played by Elizabeth Banks. He’ll also lighten up a little, cowriting a script with Ben Stiller for DreamWorks (he declines to give details) and appearing in pal Amy Sedaris’ feature-film version of her Comedy Central riot, Strangers with Candy. (“He’s good-looking, and he’s funny,” Sedaris says, “which is rare to find in a guy.”) After that? He demurs: “As far as a career plan, I have no clue what I’m doing on Wednesday.”