'The Leftovers' Star Justin Theroux Compares Damon Lindelof to David Lynch

"There’s kind of a dream logic to both of them," he says of the two filmmakers he's worked with.
Courtesy of HBO
Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers'

Justin Theroux is finding new hope in the second season of The Leftovers.

The writer-actor may have only appeared in the final few minutes of the HBO drama’s season opener, but his character, Kevin Garvey, finally got some substantial screen time in episode two of the sophomore series, which explores what happens when 2 percent of the world’s population inexplicably vanishes in a mysterious event known as “The Departure.”

The episode sees Kevin — along with his new partner, Nora (Carrie Coon), his daughter (Margaret Qualley) and a recently adopted baby — leave the town of Mapleton behind and relocate his hodgepodge family unit to a special city in Texas that was spared from the tragic event that took place three years earlier.

“In a weird way, it allows us to leave the themes of the first season — grief, loss, the unknown — behind, inject a little hope and also start taking a different road to a different means to an end. That way we don’t feel like we’re plucking the same guitar chord over and over again,” Theroux tells The Hollywood Reporter of the drama's new landscape.

The series, which hails from Lost creator Damon Lindelof and novelist Tom Perrotta, is heavy on mystery, leaving many elements of the narrative open to interpretation. The enigmatic storytelling style reminds Theroux of another filmmaker he's worked with: David Lynch.

"Damon is not dissimilar," he says, comparing the showrunner to the director, with whom he worked on the twisty 2001 neo-noir Mulholland Dr. and surreal 2006 thriller Inland Empire. "I think in a weird way, they want either some of the imagery or the themes to wash over you subconsciously. There’s kind of a dream logic to both of them."

But Theroux, who penned the Zoolander 2 script and is hoping to be around for most of the postproduction of the Ben Stiller-directed comedy, doesn't seem to mind the ambiguity, and actually finds it to be a more accurate representation of real life than most other shows and movies.

THR sat down with Theroux to talk about the Lindelof and Lynch comparisons, plus the bold way the new additions to the cast were introduced in episode one, the impulsiveness of his relationship with Nora and whether or not Kevin is a "nut job."

Were you surprised when you found out that you were barely going to be in the first episode of the new season?

Damon held his cards close to his chest until a couple months before shooting, and then we went out to dinner and he pitched the overall concept, like, “Here’s the first episode and then it shifts.” We were all desperately curious to find out where we were shooting. Like, are we going to go back to New York? Because there was some scuttlebutt of, “It could go here or there.” But then when he pitched the show — he didn’t pitch that opening scene specifically — but he said, “I want to begin where there’s sort of two houses now. There’s Miracle and all the rest of it, but I want to start in a new point of view." I think it’s a really smart device, which he uses effectively in other ways that he bangs up the form, like when he does those sort of specialty episodes [that focus more on one character], because it allows you to get intimate with a group of people before the people you already know show up. I thought it was very smart. Otherwise, if it began with us pulling up and getting out in this town, you’d have to do that terrible thing, which sometimes TV does. The, “Oh, this is so-and-so, they work at the da-da-da.” You get terrible, pipe-y dialogue. But this allows them to act in a natural environment and slowly lay out who these people are, as opposed to trying to jam it in the cracks of what the Garveys are doing.

Lindelof has been open about the fact that he wasn’t even sure he wanted to move forward with a second season. Were you aware those conversations were happening?

I think Damon was so fried after season one, and obviously they had gone through all the source material. The mantra he kept telling me was, “I only want to do a season two if we have an idea.” Once you’re sort of led out of the yard of the source material, it’s intimidating because you don’t want to do something that feels sequelized. I think he definitely felt like Mapleton had been sort of shot out. There was no real reason to stay in that place. And I don’t know if he would say this, but at least for me, thematically, it’s not just pulling a geographic [move] and going somewhere else. He chose a specific place that I think allowed him to explore themes that are intensely interesting to him. In a weird way, it allows us to leave the themes of the first season — grief, loss, the unknown — behind, inject a little hope and also start taking a different road to a different means to an end. That way we don’t feel like we’re plucking the same guitar chord over and over again. And he did it, I think, pretty masterfully. And at the same, it’s completely true to all the things that came before and happened before. They still exist in this world, but Damon's really good at just going, “And now we’re going this way.”

Were you ready to leave the cold behind and move production to Austin, Texas?

I love Austin. I love locations in general — they don’t intimidate me at all, unless they’re in extended periods of time in horrible locations. If Damon said we were going to Orlando, I might have had other thoughts. But I was excited about Austin. I had never really spent any meaningful time there, but within a week, I was in love with that city. It’s just great. The summer was a little hot. It won’t translate on film — but boy, you think slower, it’s so hot.

We pick up with Kevin leaving his town, job and ex-wife behind. What do you think he's looking for in Jarden?

In the season finale, he’s presented with this miraculous person who’s dying and there’s this bizarre confessional scene. He goes to a toilet and someone offers to let him make a wish and he wishes for something, and I think it’s safe to say that what he wished for was his family because that was sort of the arc of everything he wanted. Now, he has a family, and it’s a unique family in that it’s a cobbled-together one — one’s a found baby, one’s a pretty recent girlfriend and, of course, his daughter, who he loves more than anybody. I think it’s just the human thing of being hopeful that they can begin again, and shed some of the psychology shrapnel that they were experiencing in the first season. Obviously it being The Leftovers, it’s not necessarily the case because even though you’ve moved geographically, you’ve brought everything internally with you and things don’t go necessarily according to plan. It’s always a different vision of what he would probably be hoping for.

And now he also has to deal with these haunting visits from Patti [Ann Dowd], who committed suicide last season in front of him. It must be great for you to continue to work with her as an actress.

I love working with her more than anything on the planet. She is just stunning. But it will be interesting what people take away because it’s left ambiguous. She’s obviously there either in real terms or in psychological terms or in spiritual terms. So, is she an angel? Is she a figment of his imagination? Is he just flat-out schizophrenic and talks to people? Or is there some greater purpose for her? I can’t give away what does happen, but Damon really did something miraculous with that character that is far beyond just a device to torture my character. He did something wonderful. I can’t say what it is, but by the tenth episode [you'll know]. It’s one of the most beautiful relationships or love stories that I get to play in the series. I’ve always sort of thought of their relationship as a weird love story, even last season. Me and Ann often talked about it in those terms, a dysfunctional love but loving nonetheless.

Kevin also has this new partner in Nora. But the reality is that they don't actually know each other that well.

It is one of those impulsive decisions. I mean, she’s proven herself impulsive in the storyline as far as getting shot in the chest by hookers — and I think he’s wanting to be impulsive. He’s thinking, “Well, you’re as good as it gets right now.” They kind of have an abrupt conversation that’s like, “Here’s the things you should know about me before we do this crazy thing.” And she does the same, and then they sort of begin on equal footing. They compare their damage, but then what they get there — I realized this even just in the shooting — like, what a crazy thing to do with a woman you’ve really only been on a couple of dates with and been sleeping with to do that. And I think it’s the baby that links them. That’s the common desire for both of them, to create a family — though probably more pressing for her.

But are we beginning to see a bit of tension developing in their relationship. What's at the root of that?

As far as their relationship is concerned, I think you learn by the end of the second episode that he has a secret and it’s a pretty sick one, which engenders a lot of fear in him. I think if you have a partner, anyone can sort of tune in to that or catch that frequency. Unless someone is willing to be very honest and say, “Hey look, I’ve got this problem,” things aren’t going to go swimmingly. He’s also acting very erratically, not necessarily being himself. So the scales fall from her eyes a little bit and she realizes that she might be with a complete nut job, but she doesn’t know why. And she, on several occasions, is pretty blunt about wanting to know, but the stakes are, I guess, too high for him to feel comfortable doing so because he feels like the thing that he wished for would evaporate. And he’s a bit of a eunuch in this season because he’s got no badge, no gun, no authority, so in a strange way he’s, with this extra burden, being forced to Mr. Mom it a little bit. I think he’s also unsure of having a new infant in the house. He’s done this twice already with kids and it’s not his first rodeo, so I think there’s something to have that spread of an age gap between his children. He might be questioning whether it was the best choice.

Surely you don’t think Kevin is a nut job, right?

I don’t judge him, but what I can relate to — or what I think anyone can relate to — is his level of fear. Not to be too dramatic about it, but the idea that you have an intruder in your brain is a terrifying idea, and the fact that you act out in your sleep, as was proven in the first season, is another terrifying idea. It’s like being a schizophrenic blackout drunk. You’re constantly waking up going, “Oh, what the f— did I do?” And constantly being zinged or surprised by this other force that has settled on you and been terrible to you. So the stakes just remain high for him but in a totally different way — and again, in a very satisfying and beautiful way. I wish I could describe it, but it’s just one of those things where I was reading the scripts as they were coming down the pike and then when that one came, I was like, “Ugh, dammit. That is good. That’s just beautiful.” There’s an incredibly human relationship that takes place.

How much dialogue do you have with Lindelof throughout the filming process?

Last season, we had more because we were trying to find the tone of the show. I feel like we eventually found it. But this one — obviously, just by the nature of how much time we’ve spent together, there’s a sort of built-in trust — so now I only hector him if I feel like I have a line that needs a little tweak. But again, I don’t do what he does, so I’m the last person to question it. I do write, but I could never write the way he writes. My brain just doesn’t think that way. The last thing I want to do is try to redesign the living room because I would do it so poorly.

As an actor, does it frustrate you at all to have so many mysterious elements to the story?

I like it. It doesn't make me uncomfortable in any way. I was able to do two movies with David Lynch, who is arguably one of the masters of that kind of mystery, and I remember he used to have a great thing that he used to say when I would be like, “Why is this happening, and what’s this blue box? Who’s that person? And is this in real time or am I dreaming?” His answer would always be, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” And even when we were doing press for his films, he would always say, “Don’t ruin it for people. If you have a theory on something, shut up. It doesn’t matter.” And Damon is not dissimilar, though it’s totally different styles. Because I think in a weird way they want either some of the imagery or the themes to wash over you subconsciously. There’s kind of a dream logic to both of them. So if people following [it] going, “What does that mean?” I think it will be a frustrating experience because in life, that’s just not the way things are. Things aren’t explained. You can walk outside and there’s a bird hit by a car in front of you, and you can take it as a sign that something bigger is happening, or you can walk right by it and think, “Huh, a bird got killed.” Things like that carry different meaning for different people.

Right, and it's not like Lindelof to necessarily affix meaning to these particular events in the story.

There’s a kind of neurotic imagery that keeps showing up in Damon’s stuff, but I have to say, even in the second season, he does a really artful job of explaining some of the bigger questions people had last season. “Why don’t they talk? Why do they smoke?” Things like that. He’s never going to write a scene where Patti gets up at a podium and says, “Hey, here’s why we’re smoking and here’s why we don’t talk. Join us.” He’s going to embed it under something emotional and it’s going to come out of a conversation, as opposed to some sort of ham-fisted explanation. He’s going to find the right circumstances to carefully lay it out. And you have to tune your ear to it a little bit. Even in some of the first reads of the script, I’ll be reading something and I’ll be like, “Oh my God, he just explained the da-da-da.” And if you weren’t paying attention, you didn’t catch it. And then there are other things that I think are purely just jazz, a riff on something that doesn’t need to be explained. I think for whatever reason, people like answers. But that’s the beauty of this show is that life presents itself to these characters in exactly the same way, slightly heightened, but in a way that we can all relate to when it comes to fear and the unknown.

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