The public profile of Justin Theroux has increased substantially in the last few years thanks to his lead role in the love-it-or-hate-it HBO series “The Leftovers” — oh yeah, and being married to Jennifer Aniston, too.
But what many don’t know is that the actor is also an accomplished screenwriter, with credits including “Iron Man 2,” “Rock of Ages,” and Ben Stiller’s war comedy “Tropic Thunder.”
He recently teamed with Stiller again to write “Zoolander 2,” the long-awaited sequel to the 2001 cult hit that opens in theatres this weekend. Theroux also reprises his small role as the “Evil DJ,” which is just one of many familiar faces returning from the original (Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and even Billy Zane come back). There are also abundant cameos by Justin Bieber and real-life fashion legends.
Theroux talked to Business Insider about the challenges of making a sequel to a beloved comedy, what’s in store for the final season of “The Leftovers,” and how he came up with Tom Cruise’s hilariously vile studio head, Les Grossman, in “Tropic Thunder.”
BI: You didn’t write the original “Zoolander,” so how did you and Ben connect for the sequel?
Justin Theroux: I’m a huge fan of the first one, and we had just finished another movie together and when we were finishing I was like, “Hey, are you ever going to do ‘Zoolander 2’?” And at the time he was like, “Yeah, we’ve been rolling it around. We have one script for it.”
BI: And the movie you guys had just finished was “Tropic Thunder?”
Theroux: Yeah, we were finishing “Tropic,” and I just sort of casually said, “Look, if you ever do do that, please call me because I would love to work on that with you.” And about a year and a half later, he called and he was like, “I think we’re going to try to do it.” So we got together with [fellow screenwriters John] Hamburg and [Nicholas] Stoller and just figured it out.
We needed a reason to make a second one. We didn’t want to phone it in. So we struck on this idea, which is what is now the movie, going international with it and doing this historical conspiracy-type story dating back to Adam and Eve. So I went to Hawaii for about a month with Ben and wrote it.
BI: Well, that’s not a bad gig.
Theroux: Yeah, it was great. Though there is something cruel about being in Hawaii and you have a computer in front of you the whole time.
BI: Looking out the window and wishing you were out there.
Theroux: Yeah, it’s worse.
BI: So was the challenge upping the ante so it’s not a carbon copy of the first movie?
Theroux: I think we were all like, let’s not try to beat the first one, let’s not think about it like that. Let’s think about where the characters would be historically 10 years later and see if there’s a funny idea of them being aged out. We basically decided to run right at the fact that, yeah, they are older, instead of trying to pick up the movie one day after or one week later. We thought it would be funny if they were washed up and had to come back into the industry.
BI: With all the cameos, were there times when Ben would call you and say, “Write something quick for so-and-so.”
Theroux: That happened. A lot of times it was something that came together on set. But there were definitely a couple of must-have cameos. We definitely wanted real designers, but we didn’t know who would agree to do it. Bieber and a few others were baked into it from early on, so if they said no we were going to be bummed. It would have made things difficult. But for the other ones it was about scheduling them and getting them to Rome. It wasn’t cheap to get these people, and I mean we weren’t given them their quotes —
BI: And they weren’t going to fly commercial.
Theroux: Yeah, exactly. Logistically, we had to fly them out and put them up.
BI: The way you get these writing gigs, are they different every time? Like for “Iron Man 2” or “Rock of Ages,” do they call you or are you going after those?
Theroux: “Iron Man 2” was after I worked with Robert [Downey Jr.] on “Tropic” so that was his idea. And same thing with “Rock of Ages” — Tom [Cruise] was doing it so I came in and worked with him. People requesting and obviously some self-generated stuff.
BI: What’s ironic is your writing credits are so different from most of the movies and shows that you star in.
Theroux: I know. [Laughs] It’s weird. I wouldn’t know how to write the stuff that I have been currently acting in. Like “The Leftovers,” it’s not my comfort zone writing that kind of thing. I don’t think I’m at all bright enough to write those scripts. I feel more comfortable writing firmly comedic or slightly comedic stuff.
There was a time when doing “Zoolander 2” that I was literally flying between the “Zoolander” shoot and “The Leftovers” in Texas and at that point, I was getting comedy whiplash. It was a relief, though, to get to Rome and be like, “Oh my God, I get to laugh on set.”
BI: You don’t have to cry for a whole scene.
Theroux: Yeah. Find old memories and figure out how to weep. I forgot what it was like to giggle.
BI: So what’s your favourite joke you came up with for “Zoolander 2”?
Theroux: We really wanted to give Mugatu [played by Will Ferrell] a big entrance. I don’t want to give it away, but his entrance and the buildup to the end of that scene, that was one of those scenes that when we figured it out, it was like, “That’s the way to do it.” I’ll say it’s a Hannibal Lecter homage.
BI: I’m a big fan of “The Leftovers,” and not just season two. I really liked the first season.
Theroux: I’m with you. I do, too.
BI: But are you shocked by the reaction people had to season two? It was a total 180.
Theroux: I feel once Damon was free of the source material, and when I say that I don’t mean that in a bad way, but when he was let off the leash, he and [co-creator] Tom [Perrotta] — I think he was able to take more daring chances and run at the themes he wanted to deal with, which were basically meaning-of-life questions. And I think once he was free of the book in season two, he was able to bring in new characters that didn’t exist. He was able to play harder in the sandbox, I guess.
BI: If you were calling the shots, how would you like to see the show end?
Theroux: Oh God, that’s the last thing I want the responsibility of. I really don’t know if it’s going to go out with a whimper or a bang. And Damon hasn’t told me and I really don’t want to know. I’ve talked to him at length, even before we started the show, when we were just filming the pilot. He was like, “Just so you know, this is not a six-season type of show, this is going to be two, three, or four. We have to see what this is going to look like.” So from the get-go, it wasn’t like, we’ll be able to milk this for nine years. And I think he always saw this as a trilogy.
BI: And I have to know. How did you and Ben Stiller create Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman character in “Tropic Thunder,” and what was Tom’s input?
Theroux: That was one of those amazing experiences. We were talking to Tom about maybe doing Ben’s part — we wanted him to be in the movie. We thought it would be a real coup to get him in the movie. And he had said, “What if there’s a studio guy or a producer?” And Ben and I thought that was a great idea and I went back and started working on it and sketching it out and basically creating the most vile character I could create. And there was a moment of going, “Oh, shit, eventually Tom is going to see these pages and he’s going to be like, ‘What the hell are you doing?'” But he got totally into it, and not only that, because he knew we were writing toward a hard R [rating], he was like, “Go further, go crazy, I’ll say whatever you want.” He came in and just blasted through the material with such commitment that it was so exciting to see Tom in that makeup and saying those words.
BI: Was that the look you guys came up with for Les or did Tom have suggestions?
Theroux: It was scripted that he looked chubby and balding, and then we started doing screen tests and he wanted these prosthetic hands — big, chubby hands — but he was just down. It was really cool.
BI: There have been rumours forever of a sequel that’s focused on Les. Would you be game for that?
Theroux: I would totally be game for that. We’ve talked about it, but it’s one of those things where we go, we don’t want to jam anything, we just want to make sure the tone is right and it would be the right story.
“Zoolander 2” opens in theatres on Friday.
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