Jennifer Aniston's better half on Karl Lagerfeld's hatred of Zoolander, the mystery of David Lynch, and why his cousin Louis is the superior Theroux
“I’ve always found it funny in life when you meet people who are incredibly stupid and incredibly confident at the same time,” Justin Theroux is telling me. “Actually, there is nothing funnier,” he decides, a discreet gurgle giving way to one of the wild bursts of laughter that punctuate his otherwise calm conversation. “I mean, Donald Trump is a perfect example: he’s essentially a seven-year-old on a podium. And that’s very entertaining to watch – although hopefully the joke will wear off before things get too serious, because I wouldn’t want him running things.
"But certainly many of the people in and around the fashion world are some of the funniest – and they’re not that dissimilar to Hollywood people, or any other industry that takes place in front of a lens.”
There aren’t many industry insiders self-aware enough to laugh so easily at the absurdity of Hollywood. Then again, until recently, Theroux, a 44-year-old actor and screenwriter, had always kept himself at one remove, circling the movie and fashion worlds and poking fun at their supersized egos in satires such as the 2001 hit Zoolander – in which he had a guest role as an “Evil DJ” – and the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, co-written with best friend Ben Stiller.
Even now, with a leading role in the hit HBO series The Leftovers, another coming up in the film adaptation of the thriller The Girl on the Train and a series of “best dressed” accolades from men’s magazines, Theroux is only really a Hollywood player by marriage, and he won’t do much “playing” at that. Because unless you’ve just touched down from Planet Tharg, you’ll know that Theroux tied the knot with Jennifer Aniston in August last year, in a secret ceremony held at their $21 million Bel Air mansion.
Thanks to the long-running will-they-won’t-they? gossip magazine mania, you’ll also probably know more about their three-year courtship – which began on the set of the 2012 David Wain comedy Wanderlust – than you need to. Which is just as well, because it doesn’t seem likely that Theroux will be volunteering anything more about their relationship during our interview, and I’ve been firmly “dissuaded” from asking.
Pre-interview “off-limits” clauses like these can lead you to expect someone defensive, closed off – possibly even mildly antagonistic. Theroux is none of these things. A handsome, wiry figure, dressed in black and wearing more gold and leather hardware than 50 Cent, he stands – smiling and jangling – to greet me and proceeds to spend much of the next hour in fits of laughter.
Which was perhaps to be expected, given we’re here to discuss Zoolander 2 (which he co-wrote with Stiller), which catches up with the dim-witted male models, Derek (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson), a decade on from the first film. “There was a lot of wetting ourselves involved in the writing of it,” says Theroux. “Because there is just so much about those two men that makes you laugh. I mean, Derek and Hansel are essentially sexualised seven-year-olds living in an adult world.
"And I ride a fine line with fashion between on the one hand really liking going to [catwalk] shows – which are basically like Cirque du Soleil with no silks or ropes – and at the same time finding some of the people in and around it the funniest on the planet.”
Although Theroux can often be spotted on the front row, his visit to Paris Fashion Week’s 2015 Autumn/Winter shows in the company of Stiller turned an already humour-rich occasion into comedy gold – both for them and audiences at the Jardin des Tuileries, where Stiller and Wilson stormed the runway in custom Valentino. “In a weird way fashion, which is frivolous to the core, shouldn’t be taken seriously,” says Theroux, “but thank God people do: it makes for great people watching.”
Because the industry is taken deathly seriously by its elite, however, the firstZoolanderwas noticeably free of celebrity cameo appearances – and producers were forced, in its opening sequence, to depict famous designers in silhouette only. “They couldn’t get them to agree to be in it at that point, because people thought they would just be made fun of, so they just had to turn up on red carpets and get people like Natalie Portman to say how much she liked Derek Zoolander.”
Fifteen years on, with Zoolander having achieved cult status, “people were literally lining up to be involved,” Theroux tells me. “They’d say: 'Please can you just put me in the front row? I’ll do anything.’ And a handful of them were essential but then there were others who were fun but basically interchangeable.” I’m guessing Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, Tom Ford, Donatella Versace and Benedict Cumberbatch (who sparked fierce criticism when he appeared as a transgender model in the Zoolander 2 trailer) were among the essential, but rumour has it we can also look forward to appearances from Ariana Grande, Susan Sarandon and Lewis Hamilton.
“The good thing is that the people we’re satirising in character never think that they are the butt of the joke. I learnt that when we did Tropic Thunder. So people will say: 'Oh that was such a great send-up of so-and-so,’ and you’ll be thinking: 'But it was you!’ ”
One person who didn’t want in on the joke was Karl Lagerfeld. Asked what he thought of the Valentino prank, the Chanel designer snapped: “I didn’t like it,” adding, “I didn’t want to be in the movie.” Which provokes more hilarity from Theroux. “Maybe Derek and Hansel were so good at Valentino that they eclipsed his show on the same day,” he shrugs. “Who knows?”
Distinctive for an unusually consistent quality of work, Theroux’s career has followed no discernible pattern. His mother, Phyllis – an author and journalist at The Washington Post – had no problem with her son “getting the f--- out of conservative DC” and moving to New York to become an actor.
But Theroux’s lawyer father, Eugene – the brother of author Paul Theroux and uncle of documentary filmmaker Louis and novelist Marcel – was concerned. “I remember him saying: 'It could go really badly. You could end up in porn or something,’ ” he says, smiling. “But I don’t think you can tell someone what to be – and I was so bad at everything else.”
The cousins remain close, and despite having had a good working relationship with Tom Cruise since Tropic Thunder, Theroux is curious to see Louis’s sceptical Scientology documentary, My Scientology Movie. “He’s proven himself to be a very good and fair filmmaker, so I’m interested to see it.”
Growing up, comparisons with his literary cousins were stark, he says. “I never felt bright. I was always conscious that Louis, who I love and adore, was riotously funny along with his father, Paul. But I was sort of the red-headed stepchild. Louis and Marcel would sit around reading Chaucer at a young age and Louis tells this story of looking up at one point to see me eating a styrofoam cup.” When his cousin asked him why he would do such a thing, Theroux blithely responded: “Why wouldn’t I?” “I think I did then throw it up,” he says. “And in a weird way that sums up our different career trajectories.”
The reason Theroux found school so challenging was only discovered once he had been transferred from a Steiner school to a state school – where he was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. “I had this chronic hyperactivity and an inability to focus, so I was forever being moved to another class, with a much smaller group of children – some of them about 18. If I was asked to read a paragraph this white wall would go up in my head. Still now, I read very slowly and can rarely work out a tip.”
Which makes his subsequent achievements all the more remarkable. Having mastered Mandarin alongside visual art and drama at Vermont’s Bennington college (“because it’s a musical language and the writing is visual, it made a lot of sense to me”), Theroux signed with an agent.
The scripts that were offered to him were a far cry from the Shakespeare and Beckett plays he had enjoyed performing in as a student. “I was happy to be mainstream but I had to be interested in what I was doing, so I either turned down or didn’t go to a lot of the auditions for night-time soaps I was being offered. And thank God, in retrospect, because often the people who ended up playing those parts skyrocketed and found it difficult ever to do anything different, whereas I was always conscious that I wanted choices and options. Because when you’re young there’s often only one option, a s--- sandwich, and you’re starving hungry.”
After some off-Broadway theatre and film and television roles in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, I Shot Andy Warhol, Ally McBeal and Sex and the City, he got a breakthrough part in David Lynch’s 2001 neo-noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive, playing golden-boy director Adam Kesher.
“I don’t know what Lynch saw in me,” he says of the king of art house, who went on to cast Theroux again, five years later, in his heady, surrealist drama Inland Empire. “His casting is always a mystery. I’ve never read or auditioned for him – David just kind of chats with you and decides you’re right.”
Along with Damon Lindelof, co-creator of The Leftovers, Lynch is one of the most talented people he’s ever worked with, says Theroux. “But curiously not dark at all. In fact he’s one of the breeziest and brightest men you’ll ever meet: a real Boy Scout.” Both Lynch and Lindelof have a habit of keeping their stars in the dark when it comes to plot lines.
All these years later, Theroux still hasn’t “tacked down every piece of symbolism and dream logic in Mulholland Drive” and admits to having “no clue” where The Leftovers, whose story began with the disappearance of two per cent of the world’s population, is going. “And I enjoy that. Because in life we don’t know where we’re going either – so I just let myself turn into the skid a bit.”
It was Lindelof who once said of Theroux: “He could be much bigger than he is in terms of notoriety. The reason he’s not is by design. It’s his choice.” He may have lost elements of that choice when he married one of Hollywood’s biggest names, but professionally Theroux is as uninterested in celebrity as ever. “If you chase fame, you make bad choices. Being famous isn’t interesting.”
Because of the accompanying silliness? “Yes,” he nods. “And the frustration. Because then you get into this quid pro quo with the public: they’ll always say, 'Well you wanted this,’ and I think, 'No I didn’t.’ And by the way, I never saw people chasing John Updike down the street and wanting selfies.”
That he should reference a writer rather an actor here tells you a lot about Theroux’s priorities. Because for all his current on-screen projects, it’s the writing and directing (he already has a feature film and a TV pilot to his name) that he’s most interested in. “I have a skull on my desk which I like to look at,” he tells me. “Rather than it being macabre or dark, I see it as a very optimistic thing in that seize-the-day way. And I am actually really optimistic about life. Because although I’ve always been pretty happy, right now I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”