Not too many actors have been able to successfully make the transition from actor to director and back–Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, and George Clooney are but four–but these days, there seems to be a noticeable migration of actors to behind the camera, trying to be taken seriously as filmmakers. The latest and maybe one of the most surprising shifts comes in the form of Justin Theroux, whom you may remember from a variety of character roles including Drew Barrymore’s angry Irish ex in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and as Brenda’s neighbor/boyfriend Joe on the fourth season of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” Having appeared in movies for more than ten years, it would make sense that the New York based actor would finally try his hand at directing.
His first movie Dedication is a strong and surprisingly sweet film, traversing normal indie romantic dramedy lines to create something unique as it tells the story of neurotic children’s book author Henry Roth (Billy Crudup), who’s forced to work with a pretty younger artist (Mandy Moore) after his long-time illustrator and mentor (Tom Wilkinson) suddenly dies.
Recently, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Theroux to talk about his first movie as director and other things he’s got going.
ComingSoon.net: There’s a journalist who asks every single actor whether they’d want to direct a movie. I’m sure you’ve been asked this question many times, but “Dedication” seems to have come from out of nowhere, so was directing something you’ve always wanted to do?
Justin Theroux: Yeah, of course. I think every actor who’s had good and bad experiences ends up wanting to direct something, mostly out of not having been in control before, or having been in situations where you desire more control, that’s what usually makes people want to direct, and that’s what it was in my case as well.
CS: Some actors who’ve wanted to direct will try their hand at a short film or something smaller first, but you decided to tackle someone else’s script and actually got some name actors involved.
Theroux: Yeah, I didn’t want to do a short because I just felt like I could do something in the long form and that would be more satisfying, but again I didn’t overreach as far as material goes. I went exactly where I thought I could be effective, you know? I went with that.
CS: How did you convince the producers in whose movies you’d been acting to let you direct?
Theroux: We just kind of had a good thing, a good vibe, like shorthand you know? I was working creatively with the directors they were working with, I was making additions to scenes and sort of helping out on some of the movies I worked on, so they saw what eventually ended up being true, which is that I could think bigger picture as far as the way a movie works, so they trusted that. I was very lucky.
CS: Is this an interest you’ve always had or did it develop over the last few years as you’ve worked with your friends on their smaller films?
Theroux: You know, you go through that period early on in your career where you’re just anxious about everything and then you go through that period where you’re finally comfortable doing what you do, and then there comes a period where you think “I could be doing more than what I’m doing, I could be shouldering more,” so that’s what you end up wanting to do.
CS: It’s funny you should use the term “doing what you do” because I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do the same role in two movies.
Theroux: When I do something in one I usually try and not repeat it. I don’t like to retread tires, so, yeah, now I’m in that incredibly lucky place which is really just trying to do stuff that I only want to do personally and not make financial decisions, you know, not make decisions that are motivated by what’s going to make me the most financially secure. I’ve got my little apartment, I’ve got food, shelter and once that happened I was like alright now I can start making choices that make me happy.
CS: That’s hard to do, though. There’s a lot of strong actors–and I won’t mention names–who still do any movie that comes their way because they feel like they need to keep working all the time.
Theroux: I also have zero desire to really be famous so there’s not that, as well. You know what I mean? You see really good actors who all of a sudden wind up on TV shows and don’t really need the money; maybe you do, I don’t know, but why are you showing up doing that show? Sometimes, you should just be happy doing the stuff that you’ve done before.
CS: Do you think a lot of actors actually get into it the business because they want to be famous?
Theroux: I think they do, yeah, of course. When I think of all the people I was coming up in New York with, like Phil Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, none of them had the desire to be famous, you know what I mean? They just had the desire to be good actors and do good work and lo and behold, fame is something I think happens as a result of trying to do good work. If you’re trying to be famous, your work usually suffers.
CS: When the producers approached you with this script, did you ever look at it as an actor and think that you might want to play the role Billy plays?
Theroux: No, it was always a directing thing because I knew that I didn’t want to do that thing of, like, I’ll act in it too. It takes so much focus and so much of your time; maybe someday I’ll be able to perform in something that I direct, but if I was not behind the monitor for a lot of those takes, I can’t imagine, there’d just be this running back and forth. It’d create a vortex of self-doubt and loathing. I didn’t want to muddy the process. I knew I was being given a gift, something really special, in being allowed to direct it, so I didn’t want to have to compete with myself.
CS: What made you think of Billy? Did you already know him?
Theroux: Yeah, I’ve known Billy for a while. We did the play “Three Sisters” together and he’s just a wonderful actor. When I read the part I was like, “Oh God, Billy would just murder this part. He’d be so good in this” and he did. He was just phenomenal.
CS: He seems to have a similar attitude about taking roles that are truly good parts. Was he the first person you approached and gave the script to, and was there a lot of convincing involved?
Theroux: He was and there wasn’t. The hardest part was tiptoeing up to it, having to basically preface it by saying, “Don’t feel awkward if you don’t want to do this. You know better than I do there’d be nothing more weird if you were saying yes out of loyalty or saying no out of being terrified by what it would do to our friendship,” but he said, “No I love the script and I trust you as the director,” so it was great. It was a perfect fit.
CS: Where did you go from there? Did you know any of the other cast members, like Dianne Wiest, from your time doing theatre?
Theroux: I didn’t know Dianne Wiest. I knew Tom Wilkinson, but not well. I wanted him so badly, so I went right to him. I met a couple girls, but Mandy I met early on and she was the one that I wanted, and then Bob Balaban I knew from around and I said hey would you mind doing this and he said no, sure I’d love to, and then Amy Sedaris came and did a bit part and Bobby Canavale came and did a bit part. There were all these great little cameos by really wonderful actors who rounded it out. And that was really me spending my artistic capital that I accrued living in New York for almost 20 years. I was basically calling in those favors.
CS: Mandy Moore was your first choice to play the part, even though it’s a very different thing for her to do?
Theroux: Yeah, she was. There are a million ways you could go with that role. I wanted someone who was very grounded and centered and not flighty or bubbly. She has a real grounded side to her that I knew if I could capitalize on it, it would be very valuable to the movie and we did. We got her in and she came in and just wowed me, she was just so present. You needed that for someone who was playing against someone who was so frenetic.
CS: There was a good balance. One of the things I liked about the movie was that I see so many Hollywood romantic comedies that try too hard, but this seemed very natural. Did you have to work on it to get it away from the cliches?
Theroux: I didn’t want it to be adorable; I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted the stakes to be higher than a normal love story. I didn’t want it to be about some douche-y guy who’s just like, “Aw shucks what should I do?” and some desperate girl who’s dying to be with some horrible guy. I wanted to get away from that.
CS: Did you do any research into the world of children’s books?
Theroux: My family’s all writers and my mom’s written a couple children’s book so I know a little bit about that. [I did the exploring] mostly just for numbers and stuff like that, but also I didn’t want it to be that pastel children’s book world. I wanted it to be slate and grays and much more cold, a hard numbers kind of thing.
CS: Did you do any of the artwork for it?
Theroux: I didn’t, but we got this great guy who did a bunch of stuff for us.
CS: Did you learn anything from your experience working with David Lynch? I definitely noticed you trying a bit of experimental stuff when it came to showing Henry flying off the rails.
Theroux: The thing I learned from David Lynch is really more behind the camera, which is to just try and be calm. Be calm on set. He’s the calmest director I’ve ever worked with. You never feel rushed, you never feel panicked, and you never feel like there’s only a certain amount of money. You always feel like you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the takes in the world and all the rest of it. He really protects his actors and the work environment. I tried to do the same for my actors.
CS: What about your other experiences, working on “The Baxter” and other movies by actors turned directors?
Theroux: Every actor-director brings their own sort of style and flair to the way in which they work. If anything you bring an actor’s vocabulary so you have shorthand with performers that you don’t normally have, which is really valuable. You have a way of speaking that just makes more sense to an actor’s sensibility. A lot of directors come out of music videos, so they’ve been directing Lamborghinis and rock stars. They don’t know to elicit a performance.
CS: You’ve talked a lot about the music and your decision to use the band Deerhoof as the score; did you already know those guys?
Theroux: Yeah, I was a super fan of theirs, I loved them and I interviewed them for a magazine and then when I got the script I thought they fit perfectly for this story. Their arrhythmic un-syncopated rhythms and vocals I thought would be great to underscore Henry’s state of mind.
CS: Did they write original stuff for the movie?
Theroux: They took a lot off their records and they wrote a bunch of stuff that was really great, really beautiful. They worked with Ed Shearmur, the composer, and it was hand in glove, a really rare experience.
CS: With your love of music, you’ve never tried to direct music videos?
Theroux: No, I might do a music video for Deerhoof. I’d like to, but I’ve got to find some time.
CS: I missed the movie at Sundance and the next thing I knew, it was picked up by the Weinsteins, so how has it been working with them on getting this movie out?
Theroux: Great. They’re phenomenal. Harvey’s a really smart f*cking guy. People can say what they will but he’s a f*cking smart dude. He knows his films, he knows how they operate, and he knows an audience. We had a couple disagreements but they were purely artistic, not ever aesthetic. He never once made me feel like I was being infringed on as a filmmaker. He’s really supportive and he loves films, and he loves the films that he buys, so he supports them. You really can’t ask for anything more. I’ve heard of other people who have gotten locked out of their film companies. Really, they’re just stuck in someone’s back pocket and thrown out the day of release. Harvey really supports the film.
CS: What do you think about the smaller late summer release the movie is getting?
Theroux: I think it’s appropriate for the movie. We’re not blowing up any cars. It’s not a summer movie, it’s a good back to school The logic is to get the end of summer buzz and then capitalize on the kids going back to college and all the rest of it. It feels like the right release for this movie, and it doesn’t feel short-changed.
CS: You also co-wrote “Tropic Thunder” which Ben Stiller is directing, so what’s that about?
Theroux: It’s a Vietnam comedy, it’s contemporary. It’s about a bunch of exceedingly stupid actors: there’s like an action star guy, there’s like an overly-serious Irish best-of-his-generation guy, a rap star, a fat fart comedy guy. They all go to make this incredibly big budget Vietnam movie in Vietnam and they get lost in the jungle, and they end up having to rely on their shoddy knowledge from boot camp they did for a week. They actually run into a real guerilla drug army, and they think they’re extras basically, so they end up fighting a real war, not knowing they’re fighting a real war.
CS: How did you end up writing that script?
Theroux: Well, we came up with an idea when we were watching “Platoon” DVD extras, and Ben thought it’d be funny, he was like, “All these guys in this movie go to the same boot camp for two weeks, and they’re very serious…” The actors were like “We went to this boot camp, it was pretty intense.” It was really kind of pretentious, and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they did a movie about a bunch of actors who go to a boot camp and come back and have post-traumatic stress disorder in Hollywood?” So that was the germ of the idea, and then we just kept writing from that idea.
CS: You wrote that for someone else to direct, while “Dedication” you directed from someone else’s script. Have you thought about writing something for yourself to direct?
Theroux: Yeah, I just want to get a hole in my schedule and sit down and type something.
CS: You don’t have any ideas that have been lying around for a long time?
Theroux: Well I have a couple ideas, not formulated yet, but I do have some ideas ready to go.
CS: What’s going on with your acting these days? You certainly have been appearing in more indie films in recent years.
Theroux: This year I did “Broken English” and “The Ten,” “Inland Empire,” and then I just finished this “John Adams” thing, which is coming out on HBO.
CS: Paul (Giamatti) was here yesterday and Laura (Linney) is here tomorrow, so we’ve spoken to a lot of the cast of “John Adams” lately, all at the same hotel for different movies.
Theroux: Get out. That’s interesting. Yeah, so that’s what I’m doing, that’s what I have coming out next, and after that I have an open slate.
CS: You talked earlier about how you do different types of characters. Would you consider yourself a character actor?
Theroux: I do. I’d like to, just because it’s a more interesting sort of lifestyle, living as a character actor. You just get better parts usually. There are very good lead roles, but most of the time the roles get thinner, the higher the altitude, the thinner the material.
CS: I’ve interviewed Paul Giamatti and Phil Hoffman before about that. Back in the ’40s and ’50s character actors would be the leading man, and there seems to be more of a shift in that direction, where people realize there are great actors like Paul and Phil so they write stronger material for them.
Theroux: There will always be your Matthew McConaugheys and Salma Hayeks and all that, but people do like seeing surprising performances. It’s more fun.
Dedication opens in New York and Los Angeles and then expands into more cities on September 14.