Q&A with Justin Theroux
JUSTIN THEROUX ONLINE — SEPTEMBER 2003
I’m just going to ask this right off the bat because everybody is dying to know: where did you get those sunglasses?! They’ve become a part of you now…
I bought them about seven years ago at a place on Lafayette near Bleecker St., here in New York called Marty’s Cool Stuff, for four dollars. They were a sample pair in an old Italian salesman’s case. I have had several duplicate pairs made since then, but I usually wear the original pair. I am wearing them less and less, because they are too recognizable to the film [Mulholland Drive]. The lesson there I guess is to never use personal items you love for props. In this case however, David [Lynch] was dead set on them, so they became a part of the film.
What was your childhood like? Were you exposed much to your uncle’s growing success and did you ever feel pressure to be a writer, considering your mother is one as well?
I had a relatively normal middle class upbringing in Washington D.C., like anyone I guess, it got more angsty as I approached my teen years. As I started to form a bit more, I guess I began to gravitate towards a more Bohemian lifestyle. Well, not Bohemian in the traditional sense. Not like front room Salon parties where we all did opium and eurythmy, but I was the typical 13 year old who was beginning to suspect that something was terribly rotten with the world. I think I still carry those suspicions around today, although it’s a lot less angry. As for being a writer, I never really thought I would be. I had no real love of it, although needless to say I enjoyed reading. There are many more writers in my family too: my Uncle Alexander, Uncle Peter, Uncle Joseph, Uncle John… As a result of my mother being a writer, I saw how difficult it was even when one was succeeding at it. It’s the same for anyone in the arts really. The blank page, canvas, piece of sheet music… It can all be very intimidating. It is why I enjoy acting I suppose. There is something more active about it, once someone let’s you do it. My only lament about acting is that one cannot sit at home and act. Someone must let you. Writers, musicians, painters – all have the luxury of doing it at home. Actors do not, which I guess what accounts for all the full acting classes around the country. As for my Uncle Paul, there really was no reflected glory in all his successes.
How old were you when you discovered punk, what was your family’s reaction?
It sounds so cliche it’s almost embarrassing, but I, like many others can remember literally putting needle to vinyl for the very first time over a Ramones album. I was made really happy by it. I guess I was around twelve? Thirteen? I had heard the Sex Pistols, The Clash, some of the more mainstream punk, but after the Ramones, my learning curve for punk became steeper. I became pretty obsessed with it. I started to gravitate towards more politically motivated punk, because it spoke to my idea that my country, and the moral values it pretended to practice somehow amounted to the fact that I was being lied to (a notion I still basically maintain). Minor Threat, Crass, Dead Kennedys… Although I could get into bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Murphy’s Law, even then, it sort of seemed like we were simultaneously witnessing the birth of Jock Rock. The people at those shows seemed a little more interested in hurting one another and getting fucked up than any kind of sincere, directed angst, if there is such a thing. I just didn’t think they were that smart. I think the same thing about the Sex Pistols. Although recognizing their importance they didn’t really do much for advancing an idea any further than “fuck ‘em.” At least not my idea of “fuck ‘em.” D.C. at the time was a great place for music, and one got the idea that something was really happening. It was. I don’t want to over romanticize the time, but enough to say, and to quote D. Boone, “Punk Rock changed my life.” Even if it didn’t change much else. I can’t help but think it didn’t hurt. I’m gonna start sounding like one of those guys that was at Woodstock, but as for punk now, it’s pretty crap. It’s not really even punk now, it’s just kinda Bubble Gum Orange County shit. The minute Skateboard Culture and Frat Culture (inexplicably linked in my mind) and Punk culture collided, it got pretty nonsensical. I have to laugh when I see “punks” nowadays with store bought patches of their favorite bands and brand new 80 dollar Vans, or DC skateboarding shoes. In my day anyone with something other than a homemade band t-shirt, arm band, patch, what have you, woulda been laughed out of town. I know I am starting to sound bitter, but change, and especially change for the worse, always makes one at least a bit sad. As for my family, they just sat back and marveled at the variety of hairstyles and piercings. At the time, everyone that didn’t look like me was just a “tool of the government, parroting the words that the Lying New York Times told them to say.” Now, and ironically, I do movies like Charlie’s Angels… So who knows where I stand on that stuff now… God knows how many B.K. Broilers and McRibs I sold with that one. I’m still pretty conflicted about it, I guess. Not terribly punk rock I know.
What’s your opinion on the present punk scene, bands like Sum 41 and Good Charlotte being considered punk… Everybody seems to be more into fashion and outward appearance now. Is punk “dead”?
A lot of the punk I liked is dead. Sadly, literally. The party/drug addled element of Punk Rock is the one destructive ideal that it always did, and still holds up. If there is an ideal, Ian McKaye is it, not because he nibbles on nuts, and doesn’t allow stage diving. But because he is very good to himself, and the people that listen to his music. His longevity is proof that the slow road can sell records, and communicates larger ideas, while at the same time keeping itself alive. His creative life has had a quite beautiful arc. I don’t like Good Charlotte or Sum 41. I mean, how punk can you be sandwiched all over MTV by Vanilla Pepsi commercials? I think it speaks more to the desire to be cool, than the desire to be original or thought provoking. Make no mistake, I still think half of punk is being cool, but it truly is tougher and tougher to be cool in a commercial context. Selling “goods” is the goal. Not selling ideas. That’s why we see infomercials selling lawn blowers and not the texts of Carl Jung or DVDs of Martha Graham. There’s no real place for it. As for punk today, I kinda have a “poor Good Charlotte” attitude. I don’t know, they mean well I guess, I suppose if I was thirteen today I don’t know if I would be able to stand up to the barrage of commercial advertising. Just as a side note, and on the subject of music and advertising, I recently saw a Dr. Pepper commercial with LL Cool J and Run DMC that “honored” Jam Master J. After about thirty seconds of Hip Hop and soda drinking, came the tagline, “R.I.P. Jam Master J.” Jesus… If anyone ever “remembered” me like that, I would ask them to go dig me up, and shoot a couple of rounds into my coffin. How insulting. To be drinking fucking soda over a dead guy. I don’t really know what they were thinking. As for Hip Hop in general, thank God you can still buy P.E. [Public Enemy] and KRS-One records.
What are some of your favorite clubs to go to in NYC? I know you smoke too, does it bother you that you can’t in clubs/bars anymore?
I dunno, I don’t really have a favorite club. If the music, the sound system, and the crowd is good, any old place is fine. CBGB’s is a shithole, but if the band is good, the club rises to it. As for smoking, you can still pretty much smoke in clubs if you’re not an idiot about it. What I hate most about the new smoking laws is how draconian they are. It just seems odd, also that it pushes all the drunk, fat headed frat boys onto the street. I would rather they be smoking inside so I don’t have to listen to them whoop or crow. A male trait when drunk, I still have yet to comprehend.
What got you interested in acting, you started at a fairly young age, right?
I could sit here and spin some story of how I was an usher at a movie theater (I was) and used to sit in the dark and watch movies, and was in awe of the people on the screen. I wish it was that romantic. I did do my first semi-professional job at age 14 in D.C., and fell in love with acting. It’s pretty simple I guess. As for movies, and stuff, I am embarrasssed to admit that I really don’t go to them that often. Even good ones. I don’t like sitting in crowded places with people to watch movies. There is nothing I like less than hearing other people laugh or cry, when I am not, or vice versa. It’s slightly different for theater. I can make my point perhaps clearer by saying that if you’ve ever had the chance to watch a play in the final stages of a rehearsal with no-one else in the theater, you would know what I mean. It’s wonderful. The same as seeing a movie with no-one else in the theater I guess. It just somehow seems strangely more intimate, not less. I hate distractions. I hate sharing armrests.
The direction your career was going in began to veer toward art rather than acting after college though, can you describe the kind of artwork you did? Any specific pieces you’re proud of?
I graduated with a double major in Visual Art and Drama. I did, and do love both. After school, I was gonna throw both of them at the wall, and see which one started paying bills. Initially, art did. I did large (6 feet or so) sort of anime style cutouts, and would hang them away from the wall and create murals for clubs, restaurants… I did everything from designing logos and T-shirts to painting billboards. It was a great time. It was and continues to be very fulfilling. I have less time for it now, but I still keep a sketchbook, and occasionally pop out a painting or something. I am proud of all of it, even the failures.
Which artists do you find to be the most influential?
Influential to me? I like and am inspired by a lot of things, sometimes people that I don’t even know. Like I would love to know who designed the logo for Magnolia Condensed Milk, or Champion Spark plugs. As for established artists, I really like James Rosenquist, Sue Coe, Tamborini Liberatore and a bunch of graffiti artists like Espo, Phil Frost, Twist.. too many to name really. I’m pretty easy to please artistically. I can be inspired by a rusty length of chain, or a car battery if it’s the right color.
When did you get the tattoo on your back and what is it of? Do you have any others, or want more?
I don’t want any more. I have several tattoos: a black target on the inside of my wrist, a dragon on my back (something I thought was pretty meaningful at the time, but now serves only as a reminder of the fact that I was 17), and I have an “X” on my ankle, that I gave myself when I was 14. A remnant of my futile attempts to be Straight Edge. I should have stopped there. I still love that one, though.
What exactly urged you to be part of that lifestyle? Why do you think it’s mainly a youth-oriented movement?
I don’t know what initially pointed me in that direction, like I said before, I think that scene was an important confirmation of things I suspected were correct in a general sense, in regards to the waning Reagan Years. As far as it being a youth oriented movement, I guess sure, it is predominantly young, but like all formative movements, I have held onto a large portion of those beliefs today. Why that is the case is pretty simple. Youth are impressionable, in the best sense. Perhaps “open” is a better word than impressionable. But I don’t think that it goes without saying that when one gets older, one closes themselves off… That I think is a choice.
You appear to have some strong political values, what do you think of the current state of the US?
That’s a big one. It would be very easy to sit and rail on all the absurd contortions of US policy, and the policies of many other countries as well for that matter. But it seems to ignore the even larger issue, the worldwide spread of “anger” in a more general sense. The world now more than ever seems caught in this strange cycle of planting fear and sowing anger. The two are inexplicably linked. It’s a bit hard to write policy on general subjects like fear and anger, I know; and forgive me for sounding a little naive, but I think a lot if the ills of the world could be solved by taking a more loving approach to difference. There is plenty I am angry about. I am shocked almost every day when I pick up the paper. I count it one of the greatest ironies that the people in our administration and others around the world who appear on the surface to be the most brave, the most hawkish, are in the end the ones who simultaneously appear the most scared. Terrified in fact. One could even argue real pussies. I know there are dangers in the world, I’m not stupid either, but there are more constructive ways to deal with the fear than building huge walls and lobbing bombs over the side of them. History tells us that some of the bravest men of all pay with their lives. Martin Luther King, Sadat, John and Bobby Kennedy, Yitzhak Rabin, Ghandi, even the man George W. claimed was the greatest philosopher to ever live, Jesus Christ. Himself a victim one could argue of not only assassination but also capital punishment. If one was being cynical, one could also of course argue that they are all dead, but more accurately one would have to further observe that in death they created much more change than they ever could have had they not been cut down. It also doesn’t hurt to remind oneself they they are all largely remembered for their work in regards to peace, compassion, and non-violent aggression. In short, love. Pretty simple. Some of the greatest murderers and dictators in history died old, wealthy, and of natural causes. Being shot in a bunker a la Hitler is rarer than one might think. Sometimes bravery is actually cowardice in disguise. It’s just pretty damn sad when the Dixie Chicks have the appearance of being the greatest and most radical voice of dissent.
You seem to be friends with a lot of great actors, I would love to see you work with Philip Seymour Hoffman or Sam Rockwell in a movie together! Which actors/directors have you most liked working with so far? Are there any that you hope to work with in the future?
I have worked with Phil, but it was a play, so, it’s gone for good. I would love to work with those guys in any capacity. We talk about it sometimes, but actors are notoriously bad at putting stuff together for themselves. It’s a shame really. Right now we just sort of sit around hoping someone will put us in something together, wishful thinking I know, but maybe someday. Or maybe someday we’ll get our act together and find something we all want to do, and make it happen. Directors I would give my arms to work with again are David Lynch and Mary Harron, even McG, who has not yet made his Magnum Opus, but he was probably the most fun director I have ever worked with. All of them are truly wonderful directors for totally different reasons. There are tons of others I would love to work with, but it seems silly to go into it here. It would give me a false sense of having some sort of actual control over my own destiny.
Will you be working on a screenplay with Ben Stiller again?
Yes, Ben and I are hopefully reviving the Vietnam project sometime this fall, we don’t know how we are going to go at it though, or in what capacity. I think we are just gonna do punch up on the already existing script.
Is there anything you would refuse to do in a role? And how do you choose your roles, they’re all so unique!
Here we can have a little fun exposing a big Hollywood P.R. lie. Probably about .004 percent of actors choose their roles. I am not one of them. I always laugh when I see actors on Entertainment Tonight or whatever saying they “Chose the role because, blah blah blah.” Sometimes I know the role was offered to about eight other people before said actor chose it. It’s like they woke up that morning and called their agent and said, “Hey, I’ve decided to play Napoleon” or whatever. This lie can be proven simply by observing the large number of actors saying they are so happy to have chosen whatever crap sitcom they are doing at the time. The only control I or most other actors have is saying “No” to roles. After saying yes to a role, you can then only create a character, but even then it is only as good as your preparation, and the director who shoots and edits it. So in answer, I choose my roles, basically by saying no to bad ones, and sometimes by settling for ones I even think could be even better. I have also been very lucky sometimes. It really is a matter of taste or style. I think any role that is complicated is more interesting than one that is not. Simple formula I guess, but there have been roles that are not necessarily couched inside good projects that I have been drawn to that have been difficult to refuse. Like anything, a lot has to be weighed before saying yes or no to anything. As for what I wouldn’t do for a part, I really think I would do anything for a role if it was appropriate to the piece.
American Psycho is one of my favorite movies, was it easy playing a yuppie in the 80′s? The role of Timothy Bryce was practically the opposite of everything you stood for at the time the movie was supposed to take place, wasn’t he? And how fun was that dancing?!
The dancing was so absurdly fun. We all I think, with the exception of Christian for the obvious scenes, played it comedically, or at least rode that fun, fine line between comedy and drama. We all had so much fun. I think most actors have at some point or another gotten pushed around as dorks by guys like that, so it was fun to take the piss out of them.
I heard that Christian Bale is all about method acting, what was it like being on set with him as Patrick Bateman?
He took it very seriously, and stayed in the accent. I don’t know if it was method so much as just focused. Clearly he wasn’t chopping up girls on his days off, but who knows what he was doing in his head. Whatever he did, it was terrifyingly, and conversely, hysterically good.
So, what’s your take on the ending? Do you think he really committed the murders?
I like to think he did, but that might just be my cynical inclination to believe that bad people are often rewarded or at least unpunished for evil deeds, or at least do not suffer consequences. Intellectually though, there is a good argument to be made for murder and sexual perversions acting as metaphor for corporate or megalomaniacal greed. I think the success of the film is due in part to the flexibility of its either narrative or intellectual ending. As with a lot of good art, there need not necessarily be an immediately identifiable answer.
Are there a lot of people that recognize you on the street, especially after the release of Charlie’s Angels 2? Anything particularly interesting or… scary?
I get a lot of people thinking they might know me somehow, or think that they met me somewhere else. Sometimes they figure it out, I let them believe whatever they want. I’ve even had people stop me and ask me if I’m the guy from whatever movie or TV show, and then when I say yes, they don’t believe me, which makes for odd endings to conversations. I usually just agree with them, “Okay, I’m not then.” Mostly people who stop me or recognize me are really cool, and nice to me, a few freaky Lynch fans, but for the most part, I count it one of my many successes that I DON’T get recognized all that much. It hopefully indicates that I am being effective at being someone else in my work.