‘The Leftovers’: Justin Theroux on His Character's Fate, the Series' Future and the Fight That Shut Down Production

"It was one of those deaths that was on point story-wise," says the actor. "It wasn’t just some random killing for the sake of killing."
Van Redin/HBO
Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers'

[Note: This article contains spoilers from the eighth episode of The Leftovers’ second season, “International Assassin.” Proceed with caution.]

On Nov. 15, The Leftovers shocked viewers by ostensibly killing off its biggest star, Justin Theroux.

The unexpected move — which saw the HBO drama’s top-billed actor out cold after downing a Mason jar full of poison — sent shockwaves through the Twittersphere, with fans and critics alike debating just how dead (or not) Theroux’s character, Kevin Garvey, was.

But the plot twist also raised another question: Why in the world of serialized television are so many characters dying unconvincing deaths these days? Following the buzzy demises of Jon Snow (Game of Thrones) and Glenn Rhee (The Walking Dead) — whose fates still remain more open to interpretation than sealed — it appeared as though The Leftovers was just the latest drama to attempt the ruse.

It’s a trend that The Hollywood Reporter’s own Tim Goodman weighed in on recently, arguing that the sequence in The Leftovers was the least “bait-and-switch-y” of the three. “The allure of a major character death is great for writers,” he wrote. “Shock value is a commodity, and used wisely, it invigorates a series.”

Wisely is exactly how Theroux contends Leftovers co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof utilized the device. Shutting down comparisons to the other series’ deaths, the actor points out that his character’s actions were entirely in line with both the present narrative and the DNA of the enigmatic series.

“It wasn’t, ‘Oh, this will really mess with people.’ I don’t think that was the intention when Damon and Tom wrote it,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter of the surprising scene. “It was one of those deaths that was on point story-wise. It wasn’t just some random killing for the sake of killing — it was a guy who really was trying to get his life in order and rid himself of this massive mental anguish.”

Needless to say, his death (spoiler alert!) wasn’t a permanent one. While the vast majority of this Sunday’s hourlong installment took place in what’s best described as an alternate reality, the final seconds of “International Assassin” flashes back to Earth, where Kevin is seen gasping for air as he climbs out of his freshly-dug grave.

The Leftovers is, by nature, deeply abstruse, with supernatural elements often at play. Which is to say there’s a rationale for a death like Kevin’s that goes beyond simple shock value. Adds the actor, “There are religious themes in the show and at a certain point you have to get out of our reality, go to the other side and start biting down on the afterlife.”

Theroux took a break from post-production on Zoolander 2, which he penned, to hop on the phone with THR and discuss what Lindelof told him of the death ahead of time, whether or not he thinks there’s a third season in store for the series and how he ended up with a broken nose and ten stitches during the shooting of the episode.

Have you been keeping up with all the online speculation this week? Potentially losing a leading actor in a series will do that to the internet.

No, I mean, it’s not my show — it’s such an ensemble. So it’s plausible that I could be killed off easily. I don’t think the show would be lacking. You might miss the character, but it could easily trundle on. There’s enough great storylines to go around. Damon told me that people were bugging out, and I think that’s a good thing. But it was also one of those deaths that was on point story-wise. It wasn’t just some random killing for the sake of killing — it was a guy who really was trying to get his life in order and rid himself of this massive mental anguish.

There’s been several examples lately of TV shows killing off major characters ambiguously, most notably in Thrones and Walking Dead, as if to tease the audience. Was this another instance of that?

I don’t think it is because, to me, it was all in story. It wasn’t, “Oh, this will really mess with people.” I don’t think that was the intention when Damon and Tom wrote it. I think it was on story for them. There are religious themes in the show and at a certain point you have to get out of our reality, go to the other side and start biting down on the afterlife, which was set up in the first thirty seconds of our pilot: “Where do people go?” And that’s not to say that episode eight is the answer to where people go, but it’s one possible version. Or, it could be that Kevin drank some poison, his heart stopped for a minute (or a couple minutes or twenty minutes, whatever) and that’s just the dream he had during that time. It’s like people who take Ayahuasca and go away for eight hours and come back healed from post-traumatic whatever. To me, it’s a really cool device.

So, assuming that you read the script for episode seven — in which you die at the end — without knowing what was in store for episode eight, what was going through your head?

When I read seven, I was like, “Whoa!” Of course, the question is, “Am I dead dead? Or am I not? What’s happening?” And Damon just said to me, “Don’t worry. You’re still in the show.” He said, “You’re not dead dead — but I definitely want to play it like you are.”

It was quite the cliffhanger — it could have easily gone either way.

Well, one of the things that Damon’s really good at (in both seasons, actually) is making sure that people have no clue what it’s going to be. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re going to pick up this cliffhanger with this.” He’s very good about not even doing cliffhangers necessarily. And he definitely doesn’t want people to be able to anticipate what the next show is going to look like, or even who it’s going to be with.

I suppose that applies to you actors as well, no?

Yeah, when I got the script for eight, I was just floored. To me, it was such a bold move to just go there. Literally and figuratively, to go into that hotel — or into some form of purgatory — and revisit all these old characters that died in the first season… Then when I read the Patti (Ann Dowd) arc, I was gutted because, for all intents and purposes, it looks like she does die. I was weeping at the end of it. The speech that she gives about Jeopardy (just in reading it, to say nothing of when we were shooting it), I thought it was one of the most beautiful [things]. It was where I really saw Damon at the height of his powers. I think he must have had lightning bolts shooting out of his fingertips at his keyboard when he wrote that scene because I just couldn’t believe how satisfying an arc that relationship took, and how artfully he explained several things — Patti’s intentions, Patti’s use of silence, Patti’s damage, Patti’s literal inner child made real. He completely humanized her, in a way.

He just made the audience wait for it…

It’s that wonderful thing when you sort of reverse storytelling. Typical storytelling, at least for “villains,” is where you start with, “This is what f—ed them up in the first place,” and, “This is why they’re so damaged,” and then you just see them be horrible villains throughout the rest of whatever it is, a TV show or movie. But in this, Damon did the reverse. Patti was a monster in the first season, a really unlikable character, and then she had this moment where she killed herself in the first season, and then she returns — still rattling cages and being [altogether] horrible — but then you get these beautiful moments where you’re seeing the child Patty, the damage inflicted on her as a kid and then as an adult by her husband Neil, and you realize that she’s been around to help Kevin conquer… or, at least, I always thought she was around to serve some sort of purpose in Kevin’s life. And the fact that he ended up being the person that has to service her and deliver her to a better place is just heartbreaking.

It’s the interaction that you were hinting at in the beginning of the season when you said, “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.” Correct?

Yeah, and I just found it so touching. It’s weird because when me and Ann would talk about it, we’d always talk about it as some sort of love story, and we would think of our scenes as love scenes. There were all those scenes in the cabin and obviously they were sort of a couple, and the fact that by the end of episode eight he has to do this mercy killing to put this person out of her pain and to deliver her to some other higher realm or higher version of herself, I just thought was complete masterful storytelling. It was beautiful what Damon did with these characters and you wouldn’t be able to predict something like that. Him and Tom are so good at really fleshing these characters out. All of them, whether its Nora (Carrie Coon) or Laurie (Amy Brenneman), the time he’s spent with them. He really puts the hours in to make sure that these people are realized people in this heightened reality or world. It’s so grounded for what’s technically sci-fi.

You’d categorize the show as sci-fi? Or is that just the assumption from others?

I guess so. I mean, I’ve never thought of it that way. It’s always kind of baffled me actually. To me, there is nothing sci-fi about it. I guess maybe it’s just high concept, if anything. In a great way, it sort of defies any category — it’s religious television? I don’t know what it is. When I read the scripts, it just feels like high art.

Before you got to the end of episode eight, how did you see yourself coming back to life?

I had no clue. It’s in the script, “The minute you kill Patti, you’ll be able to come back.” And so there’s the scene where I kill her once thinking it’s her, and it’s not. So now, I’m just stuck in purgatory for the rest of my life. I think I’m going to be just like everyone else, and then I luckily meet Neil in the hallway. But I still didn’t know how I was going to get out. When you’re reading the scripts, when you don’t know anything about them, you’re essentially a viewer. So I was on the edge of my seat going like, “How? The f—? What? Holy Wayne? What?” That weird lie detector test with the Windex. I mean, it’s just like, “What the f—? What does this have to do with anything?” But it really rounds the corner nicely in the end with that kid.

I’m assuming there was a lot of dialogue between you and Lindelof with an episode this complex. What were the most significant questions you had for him?

We had a couple conversations, and I had to read the script several times. There were many tricky corners to turn in the episode, like that scene where I finally get to meet Patti in the presidential suite and she’s explaining about a baby that got left with her at a campaign. She’s essentially describing herself when she says, “That baby is going to be detached from the world.” It’s a very emotional scene because Kevin’s getting a window into the way Patti sees the world and how damaged she is. And then to add to that the Neil of it all, who’s constantly telling her to shut up, that she’s stupid, that she’s such a cunt, all that stuff — it’s such a beautiful unfolding of Patti, an unwrapping where you really get to see where all her damage came from. And it’s four-dimensional in a lot of ways because you’re playing in this weird purgatory playground, having to play the role of assassin, and you’re having to make sure you’re objective is completed as far as killing Patti, and then she’s also not the real Patti — she is an imposter. At least, I think she is an imposter, one who has studied Patti. There were so many tricky things to just plot out for all the actors.

Did you get feedback from anyone else?

A lot of the conversations were with Craig Zobel, too, who directed the episode. There were a couple of those scenes where we had to have real long conversations during the rehearsal of them to make sure we didn’t veer off. When you get a script that good, you don’t want to color outside of the lines too much — so we were just trying to respect the material and play it straight.

What was the most difficult scene for you to film?

Some of the fighting scenes. I actually got my nose broken and had to get some stitches in my lip. I was so banged up.

In the initial fight scene with the bellhop?

No, that one worked out just great actually [laughs.] It was the one where the guy puts a gun to my head near the elevators. I got ten stitches and a broken nose in one maneuver, so we shut down shooting for a little bit.

Wow, that’s some dedication.

Yeah, we were going for it. They were all tough scenes. Pushing the girl down the well was a tough scene. You’re also working with a child actress so that’s just a hard scene to do in general.

Speaking of little Patti, what do you think was the significance of that character?

Not to be trite, but I think she’s just Patti’s inner child. I think she’s the purest form of Patti, which is what we all are when we’re young — our purest selves, the most ourselves. So Kevin’s getting to see her as opposed to this screaming, smoking, white-wearing woman. He’s seeing her true self, which is just a beautiful thing.

And it’s evident that Kevin has so much compassion for her when he does finally push her.

Yeah, I think it dawned on him that he has to move her forward. And the only way to do it was by killing her, to advance her through some sort of spiritual plane. There’s so many cool religious things — the afterlife, rebirth, etc. It’s interesting because you could easily fade to black after he pushes her into the well, but then you hear that agonizing, “Kevin, help.” It just kills you. It killed me. And then shooting that scene sitting across from me when she tells that Jeopardy story was one of those incredible days of filming where you’re getting to act with someone who’s just a maestro. It’s like you’re just an audience member getting to watch her do it. That was a difficult day just because Patti dies (I think) and it was also difficult because we were sitting in a bunch of water on the rocks all banged up. Physically and emotionally, it was difficult — but it was also one of those days I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Interestingly, the Jeopardy question Patti brings up is one about geography, a topic the show has been exploring this season. Did you read into that at all?

Those are the kind of Lindelof-ian flourishes that you can probably dig down on. I didn’t need to really read too much into it. She was telling the story about Jeopardy and just happened to mention that geography was a strong suit. But there’s all that Australia stuff with my Dad and those bread crumbs that have been dropped along the way. It’s such a dense episode for the fans of the show: Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) showing up, the bird getting killed. I mean, are those birds that were flying around the birds that Regina King’s character was burying? There’s so many little references to whatever is above ground, and also references to Dante, of course, with Virgil (Steven Williams) being my guide. It’s so jam-packed with religious references, references to the show, self-reference. To me, reading it was extremely satisfying. And even the casual explanation of the Guilty Remnant, and why they don’t speak, when she talks about the contestant backstage that wouldn’t speak to her. Also, just the heartbreak of her winning Jeopardy and losing life. Going, “I won $65,000, more than enough to leave Neil, and I didn’t.” Her own lack of courage in her real life, and her inability to leave her abusive husband.

Like you mentioned, we see a lot of dead characters in the hotel, which makes sense if it’s a version of purgatory. But what’d you think of Mary (Janel Moloney) being there?

I think it’s a window into where she is in her head. Maybe when she’s sitting in that wheelchair, she might not actually be there. She might be where I was. She’s physically breathing, but her soul is somewhere else.

With two more episodes left in the season, what does this all means for Kevin, now that he’s presumably been able to move past his psychotic break, if you will?

Obviously, I know what’s coming in episode nine and ten, and it’s hard to talk about it without spoiling anything for you or anyone else. But I think our finale (although I haven’t seen it yet, just read it, of course) is a very powerful hour of television. We had nine episodes that are basically these elements orbiting Miracle, Texas, different people and so many different storylines, threads and mysteries. What I was impressed with was the way that they all started to coalesce in the finale. All the stories started to circle each other in this wonderful sort of supernova. In time, we’re able to get them orbiting closer and closer, and then there’s this super, white hot, supernova moment, where I felt enormously satisfied. I was like, “Oh my god, what a great way to end the season.” I say this because in viewing the season, you could think, “Oh, this is very disjointed. We’re spending different episodes with different people. How is this all going to come together?” And it’s hard to describe, but Damon really did a great job of getting it all to go down the wormhole together. It felt like a wonderful bookend and a great last turn of the page.

Do you see the series continuing on after this?

I do, of course. I would love it to, and I think it definitely could. It’s a question of whether people respond to it. I definitely think that there’s other areas to explore. I don’t know what they are — it’s up to Damon and Tom. But I think they’re very smart about only wanting to continue anything if there’s a reason for it. It’s about knowing what’s the best last stroke to leave on the painting. When do you want have it stand alone, just being itself? And that’s their decision to make.