by Shelly Ridenour

With his quirky charm and hint of a dark side, it’s no wonder straight-talking actor Justin Theroux is the thinking girl’s heartthrob.

As the original Lollapalooza generation cruises into their 30s, they might dye their hair from blue back to its natural brown. They might remove the nose rings. They might trade in their Nine Inch Nails shirts. But those godforsaken tattoos aren’t going anywhere (well, not without some major lasering).

“Look at this. You’re going to laugh. I did it myself when I was 14.”

I peer under the table as Justin Theroux slowly lifts his pants leg to reveal a fading black X on his ankle. The mark of a onetime straight-edge kid! A sure sign that Theroux — who grew up in DC, ground zero for the straight-edge hardcore movement — moshed to Minor Threat and kept his body a temple. And while it may seem pretty idealistic looking back, how cool is it that he doesn’t have a “tribal” symbol or Japanese character — emblems too often meaningless to those who wear them — forever marking him? It’s yet another reason why he is the thinking girl’s celluloid crush, a role he has been expertly cast in since starring in the David Lynch modern-noir thriller Mulholland Drive. With his young-Morrissey pompadour, unwavering gaze, and wry sense of humor (not to mention his literary family background), Theroux appeals to those who find Brad Pitt pretty, but… eh.

Even his less-threatening portrayals — like French-horn player Joe, the third prong in the Nate-Brenda love triangle on Six Feet Under — are imbued with an appealing outsider’s darkness. But playing a street thug in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (“I thought it might be silly, but I could do that movie 10 times over, it was such a blast”), the scuzzed-out “Evil DJ” in Zoolander (“Going unrecognized is the best way to succeed in a role — it helps the audience stop thinking about where they’ve seen you before”), and a chain-smoking rebel in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion has put him in the bad-boy role again and again, though Theroux says he doesn’t feel typecast.

“I get scripts for everything from leading guy stuff to character stuff, but I prefer the character roles. Oftentimes it’s the smaller part that you can have more trust in,” the 32-year-old says. “I’m a big believer in a sort of socialist or group effort for art-making. I think once it gets star-heavy, it gets a little dangerous. I’m more than happy to be a smaller cog in a bigger wheel.”

Of course, that’s assuming the cog fits the wheel. A couple of years ago, Theroux had a “horrible experience” on the CBS cop drama The District. “Those shows are formulaic, and they do not want you to break out of that at all,” he says, shaking his head. “Maybe one or two episodes a season, they’ll give you a storyline where you get mugged or some shit like that — and that wasn’t enough for me as an actor.” It didn’t help that the show filmed in LA. “There are two times when LA is bad — when you’re working on something you hate, and when you’re unemployed. I only go when I really want to be working on something there, and as soon as I’m done, I leave. I don’t want to spend a minute looking for a job there. It’s a company town, like a coal-mining town. Everyone’s sort of in this mineshaft, and you can’t get away from it. The conversation’s always going back around about work, and, God, it’s tiring.”

Theroux is much happier at home in New York, where “it’s very easy to sort of forget you’re an actor, in the best way.” Don’t worry, he’s not totally forgetting. Besides venturing to this summer’s Williamstown Theatre Festival to star in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Theroux is working on a script with pal Ben Stiller. He’ll also stretch his comedic muscles in the IFC film The Baxter, costarring Michelle Williams and Michael Showalter. Or you can catch him, alongside his pound pup, in a PETA TV spot about animal neglect and abuse. And though he’s all for using his public voice to talk about something like that, don’t expect to find him preaching politics any time soon. “Like the Academy Awards,” he says, “where more often than not, when someone makes a political statement you kind of just go, ‘Oh God, you’re in a tuxedo, dude. You’re at a privileged event that, like, .001 percent of the population gets to attend. Do you honestly think you’re appealing to the everyman right now? Have some perspective.’ If actors are going to pretend to be radical at the Academy Awards, they should actually show up at Starbucks or the WTO conference and create a human barricade. Just do something more hardcore.”

Maybe that black X on his ankle isn’t so faded after all.