“My major contribution was making him a crier,” says Justin Theroux of the sensitive, swashbuckling geode magnate he plays in Michael Showalter’s The Baxter. “I thought that he should be someone who has no problem weeping at inappropriate times in front of people. One of the most awful things about these ‘perfect’ guys is that they seem emotionally available to women. It’s even more frustrating when women feel sympathy for a guy who’s being totally manipulative.” The 34-year-old Theroux’s most memorable film roles—the psycho mobster in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and the thwarted auteur in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive—have blended leading-man bravado and character-actor freakiness. As The Baxter‘s hilariously thin-skinned and self-absorbed Bradley, his performance ranges from exquisite
microgestures to broad physical comedy—a riotous breakdancing battle flashes back to his Evil DJ cameo in Zoolander—but his general technique was, he says, “to be as dead serious as possible. There’s a hysterical line where I say, ‘I don’t know what to do with my life, maybe medicine or soccer.’ That’s hilarious, if you do it with a totally straight face, which I actually couldn’t for many takes.”
He may have ruled out soccer and medicine, but as a means of gaining “some control over the creative endgame,” Theroux—who studied at Bennington (with Baxter co-star Peter Dinklage), used to be a painter and a D.C. punk kid, and is the nephew of writer Paul Theroux—is expanding his résumé to writing and directing. “I know it’s an actor cliché,” he says sheepishly. This fall, he’ll direct his first film, a “simple three-hander” called Dedication: “It’s not particularly heavy lifting. I don’t want to try and make Magnolia, which I think a lot of first-time directors do.” He’s also co-written a screenplay with Ben Stiller for DreamWorks, a comedy about actors making a Vietnam War movie.
Currently, he’s dividing his time between the sets of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (playing “the fourth banana to Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx”) and Lynch’s self-financed DV project Inland Empire. “I don’t know which is more surreal,” Theroux says, laughing. “I’m not a big fan of Miami—it’s a really sinister place. And it’s a big movie, you know, with these big wheels in motion that you feel the material gets crushed under. The amount of back-and-forth about my hair alone has been infuriating. You’ll be in the makeup chair and they’re like, do you mind if we pluck your eyebrows, you kind of have a unibrow, and I’m like, I don’t know, would my character pluck his eyebrows? And six memos go back and forth, and they decide yes, he would pluck his eyebrows . . . ”
He’s much more enthusiastic about Inland Empire, though the Lynch process apparently isn’t any less baffling the second time around. “You’re so used to directors who have a clear idea what they want, but with David, you have to be flexible enough to just trust him—and it’s more fun, it frees you up from all that actor bullshit baggage.” As for details, Theroux says, “David’s playing his cards typically close to his chest.” He reveals that the movie contains “some completely bizarre sex scenes,” but adds, “I couldn’t possibly tell you what the film’s about, and at this point, I don’t know that he could. It’s become sort of a pastime—Laura [Dern] and I sit around on set trying to figure out what’s going on.
“I do know that something David really liked about Mulholland Drive was that it had this previous life as a TV show—he equates it to doing a painting that’s shelved, someone gives you money to finish it and says, here’s three more feet of canvas. With this one he’s just giving us scenes—and me, Laura, and Jeremy [Irons] have to justify and make sense of whatever that is. Sometimes someone will show up on set you didn’t even know was in the movie. Julia Ormond showed up two weeks ago and David hands me a scene where she’s my wife! I’m like, I wish I’d known that! But in a weird way you’re glad you didn’t.”