You could be forgiven for thinking that there was some kind of insider trading going on when Justin Theroux was announced to play the lead in The Mosquito Coast, a seven-part Apple TV+ series based on a book written by his uncle: it’s a project, literally, with his name written all over it. But the 49-year-old actor, who has a few years on Harrison Ford from when he starred in Peter Weir’s 1986 adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel, insists that it came to him just like any other opportunity. “It was really just the normal channels,” he shrugs.
Today, Theroux seems especially nonchalant, taking a Zoom call in his New York kitchen and looking disconcertingly like Super Mario with his black woolly hat and furry Magnum ’stache. “I heard about it, I tracked it, and I asked to read it,” he remembers. “I liked the script a lot, and it just worked out. It wasn’t some grand scheme I’d cooked up or anything.”
But then, uncle Paul’s book is hardly the material for a sure-fire hit. Weir’s film flopped in the States and was a rare commercial misfire for Ford, who plays Allie Fox, a disillusioned American father who takes his family to the wilds of Nicaragua and Honduras to escape the urban jungle of the USA. Adapted by screenwriters Neil Cross and Tom Bissell, the Apple TV+ series adds more urgency to the situation: where the original Allie was an emigrant, in the revamp he is a fugitive, a man of many identities and surprising hidden talents who needs to uproot his wife and two children fast when the police finally come calling. In sharp contrast to the novel, Allie’s wife Margot (Melissa George) and daughter Dina (Logan Polish) aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty in the tense adventures that follow.
Although the book’s approach to storytelling is as episodic as the show’s is, Cross and Bissell turn the heat right up. Like the ’60s TV show The Fugitive, it’s a story that jumps from cliffhanger to cliffhanger as the family make their journey south, with an especially tense episode involving a Mexican cartel. Surprisingly, this wasn’t in the original pitch. “When I signed up for it,” says Theroux, “it was only the first two episodes [that were] already written. But the way that Neil had pitched it to me was that, yes, we were going to have this fire on their backs through the first season, to essentially get us to the Mosquito Coast.”
With this, Theroux just about confirms that the first seven hours of the show are effectively a warm-up for the events of the recently commissioned Season 2. “Obviously, once we get to whatever Allie’s Shangri-La is, we’ll still take some liberties. But once we’ve landed, I think that’s when we’re really going to be able to crack it open. I don’t want to spoil anything or say anything, because,” he laughs, “I actually don’t even really know myself!”
Interestingly, though the show’s opening episodes alternate between empty expanses of desert and claustrophobic interiors, these were not stylistic choices imposed by the COVID-19 lockdown. “We were dead center in our season when it hit us,” he says. “It was the beginning of episode five, I guess. We were in Mexico City, shooting in an incredibly large open-air meat and goods market. One of those places that has people shoulder to shoulder, and pigs hanging in the aisles and in the stalls. It was an incredibly uncomfortable place to be when you’re learning that there’s a fast-moving pandemic moving through the world. And then I went out of the frying pan and directly into the fire by coming back to New York, where I spent the majority of the lockdown pacing my apartment like the rest of us.”
After that, getting back into Allie Fox’s world was not a problem, he says. “We were one of the first productions going back into a production. And to Apple’s credit they did a fabulous job of really creating as bulletproof a bubble as we could’ve possibly created, by keeping everyone in location and doing rigorous testing. I was thrilled to be there. I loved working again and throwing myself back into it, because I’d been sitting on my hands for months.”
Theroux freely admits that he had not been especially productive in those intervening months, which is surprising given that his impressive writing credits include Zoolander 2, Iron Man 2, Tropic Thunder and, most bizarrely, Rock of Ages. “I definitely wasn’t wanting to write during the lockdown,” he says. “As you know—or maybe don’t know—everyone thinks they’re going to come out of the pandemic with their great novel or their best screenplay. And the truth of the matter was, we were all terrified, certainly to write comedy. Every idea you dust off, you think, ‘Maybe I’ll write about that…’ But you can’t, because you’re just constantly thinking you’re having a tickle in your throat, and you need to disinfect the door knob. I’d love to say that I was very productive. But what I was productive at was embracing my presence and having that monastic lifestyle that a lot of us had, which was: wake up, cook food, walk the dog, and be in the present.”
It’s this low-key attitude and philosophical approach to life that explains how Theroux managed to marry and separate from Jennifer Aniston with the minimum of media attention. In short, he isn’t a showoff. “I wasn’t one of those kids that was doing impersonations and saying, ‘I’m going to go to Hollywood,’” he recalls. Born in Washington, he went to liberal arts schools and had a “well-rounded education”, and after moving to New York in the ’90s, he graduated with a double major in visual arts and drama. “So, I decided to pursue both,” he says, “because both are such unsteady fields. I thought, ‘Well, if I can strike a little rich in each one then maybe I could cobble together a life for myself.’ And that’s a wonderfully naive thing to do when you’re 20 or 21.”
Theroux worked in clubs and restaurants, doing big anime and graffiti-style murals. “I would do anything,” he says. “I would do t-shirts for bars and clubs. Flyers, a couple of billboards, things like that.” Completely by chance, his first film role was set in that world: I Shot Andy Warhol, about Valerie Solanas, the rogue feminist who tried to assassinate the legendary pop artist in 1968. More film roles followed slowly but steadily and very unpredictably: his next film was the klutzy Romy And Michelle’s High School Reunion.
When did he realize that he had a career? “I still haven’t,” he laughs. “It sounds a little cheeky, but, honestly, I’ve been very lucky. I describe it as just tripping upstairs. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, there’s certainly no plan. If I’ve done anything smart, it’s been by trusting my gut, which has led me astray many times. But overall, it’s served me well because I’ve been able to have a very varied career.”
That serendipity led him to David Lynch, who cast him as a Hollywood director in 2001’s trippy thriller Mulholland Drive. “Someone threw a horseshoe and I got hit in the head by it,” he laughs. In a spooky foreshadowing of the future, his character is being pressured to cast an actress, played by his Mosquito Coast co-star Melissa George. “David is the most gloriously unplugged person,” says Theroux. “You can mention the most famous actor working and he’ll go, ‘Who’s that?’ You’ll be like, ‘His name’s George Clooney. He started on ER.’ He really exists in his own universe in the most wonderful way.”
Theroux returned five years later for Lynch’s last feature film to date, the willfully bizarre Inland Empire, a psychedelic story in which a cursed film production leads to murder, hip-swinging musical numbers and people with rabbit heads. Did he understand it? “I don’t think it’s even a question of understanding it,” he grins. “I have theories, of course, but I’ve often thought of most his films as like great jazz records, like John Coltrane or something. You don’t ever go, ‘Do I understand that record?’ You go, ‘No, but I loved it.’”
Surprisingly, Theroux has only directed once, with the 2007 Sundance entry Dedication, in which Billy Crudup plays a disillusioned children’s author. Will he direct again? “I’d like to,” he says, “I really would. At one point, I was going to direct Zoolander 2, and then I ended up doing The Leftovers, and that got in the way. It’s really a question of timing because in order to do it, you have to clear the slates for at least a year and-a-half. I’ll either write something that I really adore and feel like I have to direct, or something will come to me.”
In the meantime, it seems Theroux won’t exactly have any spare time on his hands in the near future. We speak on Memorial Day, during a break from filming the upcoming HBO limited series The White House Plumbers, a comedy set in the early ’70s Nixon era that he’s currently shooting with Woody Harrelson. “That should take me until, I think, October,” he muses. “It’s about the Watergate break-in and the masterminds who came up with it. It’s really just a hilarious retelling of the actual true story of how they came up with the idea—the execution of it and their ultimate downfall.”
“Hence the terrible moustache,” he explains apologetically. “It’s not a moustache you choose to put on. I guess some people do. If you’re Tom Selleck maybe.”