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[Warning: The following story contains spoilers about the Girl on the Train movie and novel.]
In The Girl on the Train, Justin Theroux’s Tom Watson initially seems like a doting, protective husband to his second wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). But it ultimately becomes apparent that Tom is far more dangerous than he first seemed, as he’s revealed to have been gaslighting his first wife, Rachel, whom he also physically threatens, and sleeping with his nanny, Megan (Haley Bennett), whom he kills when she reveals she’s pregnant with his child.
It’s this twist that’s central to the character of Tom and the larger story and, according to Theroux, Tom’s seemingly “normal” first impression and complex psychology were what drew him to the role.
“What attracted me was how normal he was and how kind of un-extraordinary he was on the day-to-day, and then, obviously, you see how extraordinary he becomes as a personality,” Theroux says. “The psychology of him became very interesting as I got deeper into the script and the book.”
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Theroux delves further into Tom’s mentality and the motivation behind his actions. The actor — who has also written films like Iron Man 2 and Tropic Thunder — discusses which craft he prefers and how he feels about the poor reaction to one of his recent writing projects — the Zoolander sequel.
Did you read the book before you got involved with the movie?
No, I had been told to read the book by many people and was working.… And then I ended up getting the script and offer for the job and thought it would be better to read the script first, because obviously that was the thing we were going to be doing, and then read the book afterwards to familiarize myself and see if there were any tidbits there that I could find.
You mentioned that “normal” quality of Tom and how he changes as the story goes on. I knew that twist was coming with Tom, but when I watched the movie I felt very sucked in by his initial impression. He seemed like a very doting, protective husband. Were you trying to tease some of that darkness earlier?
No. It was more about trying to figure out what his psychology was, because he’s not a sociopath. He commits a crime of opportunity that presents itself because a situation has presented itself that he doesn’t like. So I saw him more as a complete narcissist. He’s a bad guy in the sense that it’s laid out for the audience: Oh, his wife was depressive and she was drinking too much and making his life hard. When in reality he was gaslighting her and supplanting memories into her that didn’t exist. In reality he was doing horrible things to her. So it was psychological abuse. He then did it to his second wife, or his current wife in the movie, and then of course we know what happens to the babysitter, whom he was also having an affair with. So those behaviors struck me as very narcissistic, people who cannot take on any blame for their own actions, and in fact, when they’re accused of blame, they project it onto someone else and accuse them of making him do the things that he had to do. There was a chilling line. When Megan says that she’s pregnant, I think expecting the reaction of like, “Oh my God, that’s great!” or something. [Tom] says, “Well, get rid of it,” like that’s the first thing out of his mouth, pretty much. [Director] Tate [Taylor] and I talked about that line, and he said just throw it away. Don’t make it a big thing. And I think that was correct direction, because anything else would be cartoon-y to present. So I just saw him as a guy who could justify all of his actions, and he was psychologically abusive to everyone he came into contact with.
Was there any part of what Tom does or says — I know you mentioned that “chilling line” — that gave you pause or made you hesitate?
In the earlier scenes, I made the choice to just play him as a victim. He’s a victim of other women messing with his life or in fact ruining his life and making his life more difficult. There’s obviously nothing I relate to in him really, thank God. And he is a guy who is ostensibly trying to get on with his life and thinking, I can have it all. I can do whatever I want. It’s a huge ego that can say I’ll sleep with whoever I want and I’ll have my wife and sort of browbeat her occasionally. It shocked me how little he cared for people he should be loving, even an ex-wife in trouble.
In addition to your acting career, you also do a lot of writing. Do you enjoy one more than the other?
I enjoy them both enormously. Writing is harder than acting. I enjoy acting for just the brevity with which you can be in the experience of doing it. Writing is kind of more satisfying in that you’re creating a world and doing something that feels bigger, but it’s very time consuming and has a higher threshold for failure. I take it harder when something I wrote doesn’t do well or isn’t received well. But it’s two different things. One’s an entree; one’s a dessert, I guess.
What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about Hollywood?
My favorite thing about Hollywood is the potential to always be doing something new and working with creatives, and the business lives in a state of perpetual hope and ability to achieve something, not in a business sense but in a creative sense. The worst thing about the business is it takes too long sometimes because there is a financial element to it. Sometimes you have to wait for stars to align in ways that they may never align. Sometimes it happens very quickly, sometimes it happens very slowly. So if anything that’s the only frustration. Many people could be more prolific if it wasn’t so difficult to get things made. It’s a lesson in patience a lot of times.
Do you have a dream project that you’re trying to get made?
No, not really. I mean, I have a bunch of projects that I’d love to start and get made, but it always takes the time that it takes, and this TV show that I’ve been working on has been taking a long time and prevents you from doing films from start to finish as far as writing and directing, things like that.
This movie and the book are very twist-filled. In your own life, how do you avoid spoilers in terms of movies and TV shows that you watch?
I try not to — in a perfect world there wouldn’t even be trailers. I think just the way things are advertised and marketed, you can oftentimes, it’s a cliche, to feel like you’ve seen something before it’s happened. Even certain funny moments and dramatic moments, you kind of don’t want to see them. You can’t un-see them, so inevitably you’re sort of dog-earing moments that are trailer moments as you’re watching the film, which I don’t want to do. So I try to avoid trailers. And I try and avoid critics. I just don’t want to be told what the story is. Some of the best movie experiences I’ve had are when I just walked by the theater and decided to see a movie I hadn’t heard anything about and bought a ticket, because that’s really the first time you can experience it untainted. I understand the purpose that Rotten Tomatoes and things like that serve, but I’ve seen wonderful films that don’t rate high or score on Rotten Tomatoes so I think when people sort of grade things in that way, it can taint. Often you’ll hear people say, like, “But it’s only got a 60 on Rotten Tomatoes.” Well, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to see a great performance or a good story or a decent script. It’s not my favorite way of quantifying. If there was a Rotten Tomatoes for museums you’d be like, “What?” Just go to the museum. Experience it, and then tell your friends if you like something.
You talked about writing things and the investment that goes into that. One of the movies that you recently wrote was the Zoolander sequel, which may not have been as well received as you might have hoped. I was just wondering how you felt about that.
I think it’s that thing where you go — I usually try and not pay too much or grade myself too much on the reception of anything, because I know I’ve done stinkers that have been well received or things that I think are great that have been poorly received, either financially or critically or whatever. But I’m also a big believer in that the experience is the thing. That’s the reason why you’re doing it is to have that experience. If we all did things just for the reception, we’d make shit. So obviously you want to keep an eye on it because there is some — no one’s going to let you keep doing what you do if everything sucks — but like Zoolander, for example, from start to finish, the experience of that, was some of the happiest experiences I’ve had from sitting down with Ben and breaking it to the writing of it to the shooting of it was all fabulous. Three to five years of fabulous memories of that movie. Obviously it can’t be defined by a weekend. That movie I thought was just beautiful. Of course it sucks when you feel like people aren’t liking it. If you drop your kid off at school you don’t want every bully in the class to start taking shots at him. So everything I get to work on, I like when people are kind to it, but it’s not the thing that defines it.
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