The enviable life (and style) of Justin Theroux
The Hollywood bad boy image of a leather-clad, tattooed, motorbike-riding bachelor evaporates as soon as you meet him.
On time, friendly, open, and giving more eye contact than even a journalist feels comfortable with. We are shooting Justin Theroux on the 15th floor of the Foster+Partners’ exclusive West Chelsea residential project, 551 West 21 Street in New York City.
Boasting 360-degree views of the Hudson River, and valued by Christie’s International Real Estate for $36.5 million, we collectively worry as we hear the pitter-patter of the actor’s beautiful pitbull, Kuma, enter the property by his side.
Theroux looks embarrassed. The production team look on edge. The Esquire Middle East team laugh. Today is going to be a good day.
Justin Theroux is known for his acting, his love life, and even his impressive gene pool. Theroux is the nephew of the famous travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux; novelist and poet Alexander Theroux; author Peter Theroux; and the novelist and educator Joseph Theroux. As if that wasn’t enough, his cousins are the British journalists and documentary filmmakers Louis and Marcel Theroux. On lineage alone he was always destined for great things.
In the industry, he is admired for his versatility. Whether it’s playing an Irish mobster in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003), or his role as Tom, opposite Emily Blunt in the intense drama Girl On A Train (2016), Theroux comfortably splits his success across the big and small screen.
“TV is great because you get to take very deep dives into character, story, and themes whereas films are limited to 120 page scripts. There is something about TV that doesn’t feel like a soap opera or procedural, you know.” This sentiment is probably tied to the success of hit HBO show The Leftovers.
“It feels like you can take really big swings in television that you can’t do in film and you can’t take on network television,” adds the actor. He continues with a clear admiration for the bingeable, multi-episode format that underlines streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. “That 10-episode, or whatever number it is, format seems to be the zone for storytelling, but film is nice because you can get in and get out and just tell a simple story. Well, a simpler story.”
Theroux’s style of acting, while versatile, is a healthy dose of professionalism. He manages to keep a good work-life balance, never letting a role take over his life. “I am not method at all. And I don’t particularly like working with method actors and fortunately, I haven’t. I think it’s a myth you become more like the character than yourself,” he says. “I found playing such a dark character in The Leftovers for so long was sort of cathartic. I was actually more myself at the end of the day playing him because it’s so far from me.”
The Leftovers has been a real success story for Theroux — the acclaimed HBO TV series has risen to true cult fandom levels worldwide. Set three years after 140 million people disappear from earth without a trace, the residents of Mapleton, N.Y., try to maintain an equilibrium when the notion of “normal” no longer applies. Intense grief has divided families and turned faith to cynicism, paranoia and madness, leading some of the traumatized to join a cult-like group.
Theroux plays Kevin Garvey, a police officer who must keep peace between the townspeople and the cult. The show is based on the best-selling novel by Tom Perrotta, who is one of the series’ executive producers. Perrota created the show alongside US writer and producer Damon Lindelof (who was also the co-creator of Lost) and Theroux comments on how the two made quite the formidable team.
“Tom had to really trust Damon to remain true to his vision. I think Damon did some very big changes in the first season from the book. He made my character a bit younger, from a mayor to a police officer which Tom — who has done films before — was very open to.” When quizzed on his most challenging role to date, Theroux claims it has to be his Leftovers character Kevin Garvey. “Challenging does not mean painful or difficult to do. I just had incredible writing staff that kept putting that limbo bar lower, or the pole vault bar higher,” he explains.
Getting a real taste for the small screen, Netflix has just sunk its teeth into Theroux, recently unveiling his new series, Maniac. The dark comedy miniseries premiered in September on the streaming platform. Based on the Norwegian television series of the same name by Hakon Bast Mossige and Espen PA Lervaag. “Maniac is a meeting of two incredible minds, Patrick Somerville and Cary Fukunaga. It is such a mind-bending, wonderful concept.” Theroux explains, clearly still buzzing from the project.
Helmed by True Dectective director Fukunaga, and novelist Somerville, it is clear that Theroux is enjoying being on a bit of a roll, his pride and passion for Maniac is very evident. “On its surface it’s just two lonely depressed, mentally ill people who find their way to a drug trial that promises to rid their psyche or brain of trauma,” he explains. “I play the doctor who administers the drug.”
While the concept of the show is hard to explain, he captures it in a typically articulate way, that after spending the day with him, we come to expect. “They come to a deeper realisation that the best medicine is actually human connection as an antidote to loneliness.”
Although the hype of the show is on the Hollywood names tied to it, it’s the universally emotive sentiment that should give it the longevity Theroux’s projects often boast. “You definitely have to see it, the visuals are so stunning and the performances are so incredible from Emma [Stone] and Jonah [Hill].”
The Superbad duo reunite to star alongside Theroux in the show, and he seems a little in awe of his famous co-stars. “They are great. Everyone was fabulous. That’s such a cliché isn’t it? For actors to complement each other’s on set behaviour? They are just so good! Every time you hope for a well-matched tennis partner, and I think the performances from us reflect that.”
Sure, hit TV shows seem to now be a regular occurrence for the actor, he still flinches at the thought of a career-defining role. “I don’t think I have a career-defining anything. I don’t think anyone has really. The moment you get that career-defining role you’re kind of f**ked!” he says matter-of-factly. “For those young actors with huge roles, you kind of start with Mount Everest and I mean…where do you go from there?” His take on his own ups and downs regarding his past projects remains articulate and refreshingly grounded. “I think of it like they are all strokes on a massive canvas and, hopefully, by the time I croak there will be something left on that canvas.”
Although he shies away from the cameras and publicity side of Hollywood outside of his contractual requirements, his personal life has still managed to amass quite a bit of interest. His divorce from Hollywood megastar Jennifer Aniston after two and a half years of marriage — and seven years as a couple — dominated tabloid headlines for years. Handled by both as dignified as expected, a joint statement at the time said “This decision was mutual and lovingly made at the end of last year. We are two best friends who have decided to part ways as a couple, but look forward to continuing our cherished friendship.”
He certainly doesn’t resemble a heartbroken divorcee as he swoons over his dog and enquires when we are breaking for lunch. Again, we get a glimpse of someone who is almost too grounded for this Hollywood malarkey, and maybe someone who is learning from his past experiences.
“I think it’s wise to not put expectations on things. That goes for life in general, be it personal relationships, or even how your day is going to go,” he says through a smile, a sigh and a small shoulder shrug. He ponders when quizzed on the importance of him starting a family and having children, but answers in his usual direct and honest fashion. “I don’t think about it that much. If it shows up great if it doesn’t show up… that’s also great.”
Justin Theroux is not a man who buckles under the pressure of delivering on these roles, he has a balanced outlook, and a clear stance on what matters to him, and what doesn’t. His perception of his own success is as articulate as he is. “If you gauge your success by eyeballs on it, yeah I would get nervous about a lot of the things I do. If you gauge your success by people appreciating your work, then I usually don’t get too nervous because I make sure I choose things carefully, so I don’t worry about that reaction to it,” he says.
Theroux is a true New Yorker. No doubt about it. He puts his love for the city down to one main trait: spontaneity. “In Los Angeles, it is difficult to be spontaneous. You’re going have to find your keys, go down the driveway, have made a plan a week before, drive miles and spend an hour in the car.”
Anyone who has experienced that rush hour LA traffic slow can relate, but of course, his beloved New York is a whole different ball game. “In New York, you can take your dog for a walk, see your friends you haven’t seen in ages who are on the way to an art show, pop in to that with them, meet someone else, drop the dog home and go out for dinner. You don’t need an itinerary.”
Although primarily known as an actor, Theroux has some pretty impressive credentials behind the camera too — a testament to his lineage. He was a screenwriter for films such as Tropic Thunder (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010). “I have been quietly writing things for some time.
I have one feature idea written, that I want to break into ten episodes and see if I can bring to a streaming service, and I have a TV show idea I can turn into a feature.” Clearly, he has developed a taste for the small screen. His writing sees as dedicated an approach as his acting does. “With writing, you have to spend an inordinate amount of time really getting it right, so it’s much more time consuming and solitary. You have to get big cushions for your chair, sit your ass in it, and write.” A sentiment we can appreciate, Mr Theroux.
He claims there was no stigma attached when he first entered the world of writing. His ‘actor’ tag line did not stop any doors from opening. “I kind of backed into it in a weird way,” he recalls. “I showed someone some writing stuff and I was very lucky, the first big thing that I wrote, people really responded to so that gave me a calling card. If I did have a stigma, I was never aware of it.”
As with much of Hollywood, there is a darker side to the industry and he has been stung in the past accepting scripts from people on the streets. “People try and shove scripts in your hands all the time that you just can’t accept,” he continues. “A couple things I have written people say ‘oh, hey that’s my idea’ and it actually wasn’t, but if you have accepted a script… so now I say ‘I don’t want that’, because even if it’s something like a character name, or loose plot point, you have to be so careful. It always needs to go through agents.” These agents are the ones who keep the good stuff on the top of his pile and if his show reel is anything to go by, they are doing a good job so far.
The latest evidence of this is Theroux’s next film release, On the Basis of Sex, is set for a December release. The film picks apart a few chapters of Supreme Court judge Ruth Ginsburg’s life. Theroux describes the film in an animated fashion: “Her husband spotted a case, which was a tax law case, to up-end sexual discriminatory law on the basis of sex, and she decided to take the case to defend a man who was being discriminated against, knowing it would have a domino effect for women in precedent law. She weirdly cut her feminist chops by defending a man,” adds the actor, with a clear admiration for Ginsburg’s work.
Throughout the day, as we wander through the seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms of the vast property, Theroux starts embracing the shoot, especially the style side of things, although he claims fashion isn’t something he takes too much notice of. “It’s nothing I wake up or go to bed thinking about,” he admits, although he does seem far too well put together for this to be true.
For the record, see-through floral pink onesies aren’t his thing, instead leaning to a more natural style. “In New York, London, and Tokyo they put consideration into what they have bought, and how they wear it, that street style vibe. It’s not off a runway, or a catalogue it’s just a vibe, it could be influenced by music or athletics. That’s the most organic type of fashion.”
The star’s personal style seems to be more formulaic, the old ‘, if it isn’t broke don’t fix’ ideology, seems to be his personal wardrobe motto. He assures us his well-styled looks really are just thrown together and haven’t changed much over the years “My style hasn’t changed since I was 14 – jeans, boots, t-shirt and a good jacket,” laughs Theroux. “Now, I just have a few more of them! I can’t tell you the number of times I have bought an incredible jacket, and then realised it looks just like one I already have.” We hear you.
Aside from pieces from Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent, a black shearling jacket from Ermenegildo Zegna has caught his eye. He repeatedly tries it on, admiring himself in the mirror. His personal style is unquestionably laid-back. “I collect tonnes of vintage t-shirts. I could wear three different shirts for every day of the year. It’s almost like being a sneaker head,” he explains. “Some are so insane that I don’t even want to wear them, I just like to have them. It’s like collecting comic books or something.” He flicks through the clothing rail with minimal fuss.
A few bits make him worried — one bright blue textured suit even has us worried — but he is game, and little seems off the table. He knows his own mind and doesn’t at any point, appear to not be in complete control. He directs his team, and as they worry about asking him to agree to a shot of him submerged in bath that we are pushing for, he casually agrees to it. “Yeah cool, let’s do it end of the day?”
Theroux’s shopping habits seem to mirror his organised approach to life. “I am an incredibly efficient shopper if I am ever going shopping.
I know exactly what I want, I can walk in, find something on the rack, go to the register and buy it.” The simpler approach. “I would never pull a huge rack of clothes and say: okay, I want to try all these on. No sales person is ever going to sell me on a baggy red sweater, they often try. ‘Do you know what would look really nice on you?’ No, actually, thank you, I don’t want to know,’ sniggers the actor.
It isn’t just how easy it is to work with him that is earning him brownie points on this shoot, his dog Kuma is upstaging him a little. We get a glimpse at the softer side of Theroux through the PDA with his dog. “There are people who just get certain animals. For me, it’s dogs and more specifically pitbulls,” says the actor, who is an ambassador for a number of local dog charities. “While not an authority, I feel I have known pitbulls very well and I lobby on their behalf. I have had such good ones, and ones who are not-so-good but totally rehabilitatable.” An animal lover after our own hearts.
As the day draws to an end and we sit with Theroux to go through the images, he is as easy-going as he has been all day. He tells us how excited he is for a bit of time off he might have coming up soon after Maniac’s launch. So how does Justin Theroux switch off and relax? “Vacation. Somewhere warm,” he laughs. “I get a bit antsy sometimes when I’m just in heat, doing something bijou. Although, I also love just going round NYC, with an iced coffee and the dogs, to be honest.”
It seems despite the fame, workload, impressive CV, or rich family lineage, this Hollywood bad boy is really much more of a New York nice guy.