Justin Theroux first got attention when he was one of the characters in David Lynch’s Mullholand Dr. But though he worked successfully since then, his collaboration on the script for Tropic Thunder brought him new life as a screenwriter (he got sole credit on Iron Man 2). He’s currently co-starring in David Gordon Green‘s Your Highness - with Danny McBride, Natalie Portman and James Franco – as the evil wizard Leezar who has an evil plan for Franco’s fiancée (Zooey Deschanel). Check out our talk.
Note, his character’s plan is called “The Fuckening,” and we talk about some aspects of the finale, so that section could be considered a spoiler. It appears at the end of the interview.
On Writing Vs. Acting
You’re a successful screenwriter, when it comes to a good role versus a good script, would you have trouble chosing?
Justin Theroux: I would always choose the script, but you get more creative control that way. But in a situation like this where everyone’s really funny and you want to do it, it’s a chance of a lifetime. I think a script has longer legs than a performance, so in the end it’s more satisfying. Harder but more satisfying.
What’s going on with your screenwriting career at the moment?
JT: I’ve got a couple pots simmering. Ben Stiller and I handed in a draft of Zoolander 2 we’re excited about, and so we’re just waiting for that to happen, and that’s pretty much where that stands.
Do approach Zoolander differently now that Ben Stiller’s a huge star and director versus when the original movie came out when he was known but not a superstar?
JT: You mean where he’s at? No, because he knows the character’s the same, you’re not writing for Stiller. He not that different between when we made the last movie. Ben’s such a smart screenwriter, he’s good at cutting away fat and creating material, he’s kind of a genius when it comes to creating a screenplay. As is evidenced in Tropic Thunder.
You were a screenwriter on Tropic Thunder, which gave Danny McBride a breakout role, and he’s writing this script, was there a dynamic shift working on this film?
JT: No, I was a huge Danny McBride film from The Foot Fist Way, so when we were doing Tropic, Ben said “I think we should get Danny McBride” and I was like “Yes, that guy is super funny.” I think that gave Danny entre to say “hey do you want to do this with me?” I think we’re both fans of each other. He’s got this immitigable style as a writer and performer, this blunt force way of writing jokes, which is super funny and I can’t do, so I’m happy to say whatever he can come up with.
Green Vs. Lynch
David Gordon Green looks like David Lynch a little bit, how would compare working with the two of them, are there similarities?
JT: David and David? When I worked with the Davids… (laughs) They’re different, but if you had to find a similarity they both have very good senses of humor and both create a really fun working environment. I know when I worked with David Lynch on Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, I was shocked at how serious they were because when you’re on a David Lynch set it’s like you’re making a comedy. You’re having so much fun, and you’re laughing and David’s laughing, and then you watch the movie and they’re like (imitates a Lynchian drone) and all of sudden these weird glances. The movies are the sign of a good artist, and he keeps the set and the filmmaking experience light and accessible to the actor and then he goes into the lab and does his mix, and it’s like “holy shit, that’s something totally different than what I thought we were making.” And the same is sort of true for David Gordon Green in that he keeps it real light, real easy, but knows exactly what he wants – and so does David (Lynch) as well. But in as far as approach goes they’re very different guys.
So it must have been fun collaborating with this David?
JT: Yeah. Those guys have such a particular way of creating jokes, and being a fan of comedy it’s unique and in their own voice, I was stoked to be able to participate. They’re great at coming up with stuff on the fly.
Was there a lot of improv?
JT: There was, but Danny must not be giving his screenplay the credit it deserves, because it was a really funny screenplay. Any good movie or script – if they’re doing their job – it’s giving the highest possible platform for an actor to leap off of. That script was very high up there – it was a smart, tight script. And there was a lot of improv once we got on set, but a lot of the script was in there.
Playing a Ringer
How does it feel to come into a role where you’re a ringer?
JT: It’s the fun part because you don’t have any heavy lifting to do. You just get to shout and chew scenery and be awful and say a few jokes, and you don’t have the romantic story line or the quest part of the story, you just pop up now and again.
Did you have any input into your look?
JT: Yeah, we stole Gary Oldman’s Dracula hair, but just enough so we wouldn’t get copyright infringement. In Zoolander I stole his True Romance look when I’m playing the evil DJ. Me and David and Danny watched a lot of villains from the era. Labyrinth, all the movies I watched growing up. And then the performance I took from was Merlin in Excalibur – that slightly drinky English take, and the weird chrome helmet thing. That performance made me laugh so hard, cause it always looks like he’s been drinking all morning. I took my lead from that performance. And then a little bit of makeup from David Bowie from Labyrinth, we took the teeth from Willem Dafoe in Wild at Heart. A Frankenstein of other villains.
How game was Zooey for some of your madness?
JT: We all respected each other enough where we’d say “please don’t make me say this to Zooey Deschanel, it just feels wrong.” And Danny had a similar thing with Natalie and she had a similar thing with Danny, but we just got in to it, because of the world we were in and the stupidity of the world we were in, it was fun to say those sort of ridiculous things to each other.
On His Character’s Evil Plan
Your character has some difficulty completing his revenge, do you think your character had performance anxiety, or do you think he was forced into this?
JT: I asked David and Danny “what’s the deal with my character?” And David said “He’s nineteen years old.” I thought he was four thousand years old, no he’s nineteen. And that makes so much sense because he’s a nineteen year old virgin. He’s a guy who’s never had sex who’s been raised by three demented women who are much, much older, and he has to perform under two moons in front of his parents.
Though you said you got to chew up the scenery, what was great was there was an insecurity and vulnerability – not just in the moment.
JT: Well he has this backwards trajectory. Normally the bad guy grows more and more powerful, and my trajectory was coming in horrible and you think “oh this is a guy to be reckoned with” and as he goes on he grows more and more neurotic, so he has this sort of downward spiral. “oh god this guy’s unraveling.”
Did you consciously sketch that out, or did it come out organically?
JT: I think it came out of knowing that he was a virgin, also the idea of his whole life being about The Fuckening, and making this moment happen. Why on earth would you put this on a platform in the middle of a huge room in front of your parents? That would be the worst way to lose your virginity. So I think it came out of – weirdly enough – the reality of our fantasy movie.
It feels like all these medieval sword and sorcery villains try to dance around what they’re going to do, how did it feel to conspire to “The Fuckening?”
JT: That was a conversation I had with Danny and David earlier. With these kind of movies there’s always an event called “The Darkening” or “The Awakening” or the whatever, so I said “how about we called it ‘The Fuckening’?” and they were like “oh my god!”We weren’t mincing words. “I’m going to take her and have my way with her and put a dragon in her womb.” I’m sure it will be on the DVD somewhere, but the plan did come to fruition at one point and because it went so haywire, I ended up laying an egg with a dragon in it, and I shot this sequence where I gave birth to this pustulated and horrible whatever… maybe it was a bridge too far. The Fuckening was consummated in a completely perverted way where I gave birth to this half baked dragon that was manned by some wonderful little person.
Your Highness comes out April 8. Check it out.