Several weeks ago, Justin Theroux joined his castmates in celebrating the end of The Leftovers, a consistently and surprisingly ambitious series that became a staple for HBO over the course of its three seasons.
Signing onto the series, Theroux had a handshake deal with creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, promising that the series would only last three or four seasons. Nonetheless, when the series began winding down to its conclusion, the actor had his share of “weepy moments.”
Hopping on the phone with Deadline while recovering from bronchitis, Theroux discusses the variations of Kevin we see in Season 3 and what he took away from Kevin’s final, moving exchange with Nora.
What were your thoughts upon reading the script for the series finale?
It was one of those things where we thought, “Oh my God.” It felt like, “How are you going to do steer this enormous cargo ship onto an ending?”
When I got the script, I was nervous, excited, but I have such high confidence in Damon and Tom and [writer] Tom Spezialy that I was pretty sure it was going to be something special. Sure enough, it was.
I love the way the storytelling just got extremely small, and then at the end, in the last scene with Nora, it got very expansive. But it was kind of that miraculous thing of feeling like they had landed this massive piece of machinery on the head of a pin. I really enjoyed it.
The world of The Leftovers is such that several actors have had the opportunity to return to the series, even in the event of an onscreen death. What has this meant to you?
Damon killed Ann Dowd on me three times, and each time, just personally, I’d become bereft, and then I’d immediately go into lobbying—”We’ve got to figure out a way to bring her back. It just can’t end.”
I was pleasantly surprised each time [she returned]. He did say, early in the season, “I’m really looking for a way to get Ann back.” He’s a very benevolent showrunner; he isn’t the kind of guy who’s just killing people if they start complaining about their trailer. He really has a grand view of the story that he wants to tell, so there’s always a purpose for bringing someone back. I thought he brought Ann back very elegantly, and in a way that served the story.
What has your approach been, stepping into the purgatory environments to which Kevin continually returns?
I think both of those purgatories or dreamscapes were exciting, but also baked into the script was an important story. If you watch superficially, it’s like, “Oh, we’re going on this spy thriller kind of thing,” but obviously that’s the less rewarding way to watch it.
In the first one, there was this incredibly beautiful story, basically shepherding Ann Dowd’s character Patti, to return her to the universe. The same thing was employed [in Season 3], which was to deliver Kevin from himself, figuratively and literally cutting out the thing that has been preventing him from finding joy in his own life.
This season, you get to play opposite yourself in “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)”. What were those scenes like to film?
I was blessed by having a really good actor who we basically hired to operate as my stand-in, who educated himself on the material and knew the story. It wasn’t one of those things where he just came in with a piece of paper and read lines off-camera.
At first, I thought, “Oh, maybe we should just have someone reading the lines monotone,” or put a tennis ball on a c-stand across from me so that I could project whatever I want. We ended up deciding, “You know what? It would actually be better to have someone saying the lines.” This guy ended up being exceptional. In a weird way, it was like having a great third scene partner in the scene with me and Ann.
He really helped make it easy. The rest was just practical things, deciding where to look, and what we could do, vis effects-wise. We only have, I think, two shots where it racks from me to him, and there’s one wide shot, which is just a split screen.
Your performance as an older Kevin in the series finale is done with a fine touch. What was your thought process in preparing for this transition?
That script, when I first got it, didn’t read like Kevin. It was a very lighthearted, “aw shucks” kind of Kevin, talking about, “I always wanted to ask you to the dance,” and “I never would have forgiven myself,” and “People hold candles.” It’s sort of the Andy Griffith version of Kevin, which I thought was interesting.
It kind of threw me. My take was that I had to play it way lighter than I’d ever played him, then, piggyback on the “International Assassin” episode. I had to take it at face value that he was a more realized person as a result of this journey he went on in the presidential bunker, and that he did probably come up on the other side having gained some wisdom, and the ability to be calm.
We’ve now gone 15 or maybe 20 years down the road, so aside from his never-ending search to find Nora, you have to believe that he’s come to a more realized place, and that shadow self that he basically murdered in Episode 7 was gone.
He had this kind of zen quality to him, which I really enjoyed, although when you get used to playing a character one way, it’s hard to play them more evolved. It’s jarring, but rewarding as well, because it was very well written.
Can you talk about a couple of the pivotal moments in Kevin’s arc this season, particularly with regard to Nora?
There were several moments where Kevin had to try and win her back. One was the tactic of pretending they were loose friends at the door when he sees her. But obviously, he’s just finished this quest to find his true love.
The second one is at the wedding, where he flirts with her. They’re a couple that largely communicated throughout their entire relationship on their mutual damage, which doesn’t create a very strong foundation for any couple, if you’re constantly saying, “Yeah, well, this is what happened to me, and this is what happened to me,” and using that as armor to keep the other person at a distance. It’s the first time they’ve been together where they don’t have the same bag of tricks to pull from to throw at each other.
The last thing was written beautifully, where if we do see a glimmer of the younger Kevin, it’s the absolute frustration of not just telling her that he loves her, and filling her in on what the f*ck he’s been up to.
What has it been like to say goodbye to The Leftovers?
I was very aware during the entire shooting that we were working on something I really loved and thought was special. There were moments that were difficult, but there was never a moment on set where I was like, “Ugh. I can’t wait for this to end.”
I was really the opposite, relishing every day I got to go to work and say the things that Damon and Tom and Spezialy had written. That feeling becomes far acuter as you get into the final episodes, where you start doing, “This is the last time I’m going to…”
It was kind of perfect because the scenes that we shot in the finale were very close to our last day of shooting, and all those personal feelings I had were easier to access, because of how much I love the show.
I was fine right after we wrapped, and had weepy moments with a few people, but was very proud of the work we had done. It was really only the day after a panel with Mimi [Leder, executive producer] that I started to feel like, “Oh, now it’s really put to bed.” Like, “Now it’s done, the world has the whole thing, and it’s over.” I had a mopey morning, going, “Oh god, what’s next?” But it’s kind of an exciting feeling, as well.
What’s your takeaway from working on the series? There are few shows on television as ambitious as The Leftovers.
Every now and then, you do a job where you think, “Wow, how do I top that?”
I think the real idea is not to try and top it. I’ve always been very “Go with your gut,” when it comes to my career or the projects that I want to do. I’ll just find something that I’ll enjoy. Usually, if you use that as your barometer, you’ll be in good shape.
There’s a lot to dissect in your final exchange with Nora. What is that moment about, to you?
I think as she starts to tell that incredible story, there’s enormous compassion there. This is such an incredible, fantastical story that she’s telling, that I think about three-quarters of the way through, he realizes it just doesn’t matter—not “I don’t care,” but, “I have the person I want sitting in front of me.”
When she says she’s worried I wouldn’t believe her, and I say, “Why wouldn’t I believe you? You’re here,” I think that’s the takeaway. Belief systems don’t matter; are you going to choose to believe someone who either created a story for herself that makes sense to her or created a story that she hopes makes sense to me?
It doesn’t really matter, at the end of the day. I think what matters is these two people found each other, and at least for the time being, they’re okay. I would like to believe they’re okay.
Do you have thoughts or hopes about the legacy of this series?
I think it will hold up well because the themes are pretty universal. The themes and subject matter is pretty ancient, so putting aside how many people watch it, that doesn’t really matter to me.
I really enjoyed the endeavor of making it and was challenged by that, but I’m not so much concerned with the overall reception, or continuing reception. The creators of the material deserve recognition for it because I think they created something very challenging and wonderful.