FIGHT YOUR FORTIES
Justin Theroux is a man with good instincts – both in life and in his training. MH caught up with the actor-producerwriter to find out why patience, tenacity and calm focus are the keys to going the distance, whatever you’re up against
Boxing With Justin Theroux
I’m feeling an excessive amount of eye contact,” says Justin Theroux. So he punches me in the face. For the record, I wasn’t staring into his hazel eyes – I was watching his boxing gloves, positioned just below his eyes to protect “home base”, the point of his jaw. The funny thing is, though I do make excessive eye contact with those gloves, I never see the jab coming. It’s a quick right; he tags my left eye and nose with a sharp sting. He pops me again a few times. He’s punching at will now, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Before today, the closest I’d come to boxing was when I was nine years old and watched Muhammad Ali spar. I’d never had my hands taped, put on headgear, or stepped into a ring with anyone. For the 47-year-old Theroux, on the other hand, boxing is his primary workout.
We’re at Gotham Gym in New York’s West Village, not far from where the actor lives. Sunlight streams through the front windows, but the dozens of boxing gloves hanging from the ceiling announce: “This is where people come to work.” Despite the chasm in ability between us, Theroux is quick to offer reassurance. He recounts a story about sparring with a female trainer who was about 6in shorter than him. “I hate getting hit,” he says. “But she’s so fast, far better than me. A couple of times, she really rang my bell. I was a combination of hurt and pissed… Am I gonna cry, or knock her head off? But I couldn’t touch her. She was too quick. I see that a lot: people get emotional, and that’s the point. Just keep breathing, remain loose, not tense.”
Both in and out of the ring, Theroux handles himself just fine. He’s cruising through his forties looking strong and engaged. Crucially, he has figured out how to engineer his life so that work is more rewarding than it is soul-crushing. A lot of this comes down to his range: he’s an actor, writer and producer. He played a douchebag director in Mulholland Drive, a psycho with a six-pack in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and Evil DJ in the Zoolander films. He also co-wrote the sequel – and was a screenwriter on Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2 and Rock of Ages. That “full retard” speech in Tropic Thunder? All his.
More recently, Theroux has gone heavy, headlining HBO’S post-rapture drama The Leftovers for three seasons and taking parts in The Girl on the Train and the underrated Netflix movie Mute – a neo noir that meandered through a sleazy, Blade Runner- inspired dystopia. Which explains why he was grateful when he was
“I gravitate to what I’d enjoy, as opposed to ‘good career decisions’”
offered a part in the new comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me. “I can tell you I am a spy, and I do dump someone,” he says. “This little bonbon popped up, and I love Mila [Kunis] and Kate [Mckinnon], so I was like, ‘ Yeah, let’s go to Budapest and do this.’ I get to shoot things, blow things up and be a spy for a while.”
Ask him about his formula for life and work, and Theroux offers a simple platitude: “I’m lucky.” Yet there’s evidently more to it. In the early 1990s, after completing a drama and visual arts degree, he became a stereotypical young New York artist, bouncing between acting jobs and painting murals in nightclubs, then expanding into minor film roles and, eventually, bigger parts. “When I was in my early twenties, I was impatient,” Theroux says. “I always wanted things to happen the way I wanted them to happen. And that has gone away. Not completely, because there are still things I want to happen in the time I want them to happen. But I don’t lose sleep over things the way I used to.
“I gradually learned that if you do the things you want to do, you’ll produce better work,” Theroux says. “When you’re doing things you don’t want to do, the work suffers. How could it not? You’re not interested. I gravitate towards the next thing I think I’ll enjoy, as opposed to things I think would be smart to do, or a ‘good career decision’.”
He has also learned to have enough patience to engage in what might be called deliberate spontaneity – the art of positioning yourself so you can take advantage of opportunities. “I was talking to someone recently about bucket lists, and I was, like, ‘I don’t have a bucket list.’ In ideal circumstances, [whatever is on] the bucket list just starts to happen, if you’re leading your life well. For instance, I happened to be driving by a skydiving school once and decided to go skydiving. A split-second decision: it wasn’t anything I’d planned. I always wanted to ride a motorcycle across Europe. I’ve done that three times now.”
Perhaps the best window into Theroux’s mindset might be his attitude to tattoos. He has quite a few and is open to the idea of getting more, but his approach is different from what you might expect. “I don’t put a lot of thought into it,” he says. “I never had a stage when I was, like, ‘I want to get a tattoo, it has to be meaningful, it’s also got to have a yin and yang in it, and be a homage to my mother.’ There are a lot of people designing their own tattoos who are frustrating the tattoo artists. I’m real easy. I’ll say, ‘ What should we do?’ And they’ll say, ‘I dunno, what do you wanna do?’ So it’s a matter of when the mood strikes.” Theroux recently got some sizeable ink on his back as a tribute to his deceased pit bulls – a rat for one dog and a pigeon for the other, two denizens of the New York parks. Theroux’s is a life of diversity by design.
Take It Easy
If it sounds like he glides from one success to the next while thinking golden thoughts, that’s not quite true. Yes, he wrote Iron Man 2 and Zoolander No 2, but neither sequel will ever be mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather Part II. Theroux has been juggling projects since decades before the gig economy existed. An actor and writer lives the life of a freelancer, with all of its pitfalls. Does he ever have doubts?
“Sure,” he says, “though I think doubt is a good thing. We all doubt ourselves whenever we set out to do anything new. But that motivates us to make it good. It can be destructive if you let it creep over the entire process, but I don’t dwell. I doubt things, but I hope things, too. That’s when you give whatever you’re doing the best chance of success, by working harder or practising or rewriting. That’s how I deal with doubt.” Then he smiles. “Or I just pretend I’m not doubting myself.”
Theroux also understands how to handle situations that aren’t working. “I get up and do what I do,” he says. “When I’m in a bad situation, I’m still aware there’s something to be gleaned from that experience. You just have to find some nugget that makes it worthwhile. Otherwise, you’ll give up. Bad work experiences are instructive: first, they tell me what I shouldn’t repeat. Second, they remind me how things are done wrong and how I could do them better.”
Outside of work, Theroux fills his life with the things he loves: motorcycles and dogs, among them. If you ask him about his favourite bike, he’ll rattle off a paragraph in one breath. (It’s a BMW F800 GS, by the way.) He is also partial to pit bull terriers, and is taking custody of a new rescue a week after our interview. He tells me he is drawn to the companionship they offer, but there’s clearly something bigger than that, too. “Dogs drive you crazy,” he says wistfully. “It’s like having a toddler that’ll never speak. Then, towards the end of their life, they get very sweet and tender, and break your heart.”
There are many reasons to envy Justin Theroux: the good looks, the varied career, the attractive paramours, the comfortable lifestyle. But, as our interview ends, it strikes me that it’s his easy peace of mind that is perhaps most aspirational in our dizzying, high-pressure world. “There’s nothing I’m dying to do – nothing gnawing at me,” he says, before laughing. “There are things I know I will do. I just don’t know what they are yet.” Keep moving, remain loose, not tense. Theroux’s latest film, The Spy Who Dumped Me, is in cinemas now
THOUGH EASYGOING TO A FAULT, THEROUX PULLS NO PUNCHES TO SUCCEED