In 2001 Justin Theroux appeared in both Mullholland Drive and Zoolander. I feel like that sums him up better than any amount of words I could throw around here. A fine actor, Theroux has also been branching out into the screenwriting biz, with Tropic Thunder and Iron Man 2 to his credit.
This weekend you’ll get to see him in Your Highness, wearing tights and a hairdo very reminscent of Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, playing the role of the evil wizard Lazar. David Gordon Green’s stoner-infused fantasy quest comedy gives Theroux some room to be more than just a dandied up version of The Beast from Krull, though. Lazar is, in his own way, kind of endearingly pathetic.
Watching Your Highness I was very surprised that I felt sort of bad for your character, the evil wizard Lazar.
I know! He’s almost adorable in his own way.
He seems to have a really bad upbringing.
He was raised by not one dysunctional mother but three dysfunctional mothers. He had a tough road.
When you’re playing an evil wizard with that kind of background, how important is it for you to keep in mind his inner pain?
I think it’s what makes - hopefully - great villains. They have to have that pain, otherwise they have no reason for being besides being bad and mustache twisting. I actually love the trajectory of this guy, because he starts off much more menacing than he ends up. He starts off blustery but the more you know him he becomes more and more sympathetic in a weird way.
I just finished talking to David Gordon Green about the film, and he said that he wanted to create a world that had specific rules for the comedy, that it never went into spoof territory but always felt like a real fantasy movie. Lazar is a character who is right on the edge of being very broad; is there a whole different cut of the film where you’re being even weirder and bigger?
I think the DVD of this will be full of super deep cuts. There is much weirder and darker stuff that will be on the DVD extras somewhere. It’s not a spoof, which is what I love about the movie itself. It has a hard spine to it and if you stripped away the jokes it would still be a good quest movie underneath it. It definitely stays within the world.
You’re a writer who also does films that give you the opportunity to do a lot of improv. It seems like an interesting line there, because writers are very specific about language while improv is very much about being in the moment and trying something different and letting go. How does that work for you?
It changes from thing to thing and scene to scene. Look, if you want to have your words respected and be precious about the way you’ve written something then you should go write plays and novels, because that’s the only place you’ll get any respect. And even then you’ll get edited to death. With movies, so much of it is about action of what’s happening in the scene. As a writer what your job is is to give the actors and the director the highest platform to leap off of, to get them as close as you possibly can to what you think is the ceiling and let the actor try to smash through that. I’m not particularly precious of my own writing.
The structure usually has stay intact. A good improviser will always be aware of the structure and where the story is going; a bad improviser will always disregard it and just start trying to make fart noises with their armpit. You want them on the one hand to respect the structure and on the other hand top your jokes.
So there’s no sense of competition? When you watch scenes in Tropic Thunder you don’t think ‘My jokes were better?’
No, because a lot of my jokes ended up in that movie! And when someone can improvise something I couldn’t have thought of, I’m pleased as punch because it’s hysterical. You have to realize that the movie is the star of everything, and whatever will make the movie better is what you want. If you don’t want that, if you just want your jokes read out by someone, you’re an idiot.
How much of Iron Man 2 was something that was on the page versus something that came along during production. I know that Robert Downey Jr is very involved in reworking scripts -
How much of what we saw on screen was from your script?
Honestly, in the best circumstances it’s difficult to say. It’s a bit like doing a jam session and then mixing it down in the studio and then going ‘There’s three guitars - who was playing what when?’ Robert obviously has an enormous impact because he’s an improv baller, and he knows how to do that. It sounds like I’m being evasive, but I’m actually not - there are so many takes, and so many moments. And if there was something I was really proud of in that movie, I wouldn’t take credit. That’s such a bad habit to have, it makes you a bean counter. I’m not into that. I’d rather look at the overall movie and see whatever impact it has and let the chips fall where they may.
When you’re walking with someone like David Lynch what sort of room do you have?
None. He respects actors enormously, but… As a writer and as an actor I’m a big believer that no matter what you’re there to serve the director. If you’re improvising something and going off the rails you have to snap to it and do what the director wants. That’s your job. Your job is not to bring the material to something you want it to be.
With David that’s true in spades. He is very particular about word choice, and he has a very clear vision in his head of what he wants the dialogue to sound like. You almost say what David has written down to the punctuation marks. You can fill that with whatever you want, but you have to color inside the lines, otherwise you will really screw yourself.
Does having worked with Lynch impacted your writing at all?
Well, David has a wonderful way of letting the scene be what the scene wants to be. He’s really good at pivoting, when the scene isn’t working he lets the scene go the way it wants. Bad directors will strangle it, and say ‘No, it has to sound like this!’ You’ll go to him, ‘David, I don’t know about this scene,’ and he’ll say ‘Okay, well say this instead and go over there and have a sip of your drink.’ He’ll figure out something else for you to do that is more appropriate. He’s just a wonderful director. He’s very fluid. And very fun. He’s a very fun director, too.
You’ve said in the past that you wouldn’t want to do a full seven year run on a TV show. Has your time on Parks and Rec changed that for you at all?
I don’t mind doing four, five or six or ten episodes on something. But at a certain point if you’re doing something for two years you feel like you’re singing ‘Happy Birthday’ again and again in a crazy person’s living room. You start to go crazy. It’s too long. People shouldn’t be playing characters for that long. That’s what movies are for, and that’s what short arcs on television series are for. It’s better to be in and out, otherwise you get bored.