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As One Of 'The Leftovers,' Actor Justin Theroux Explores Loss And Spirituality

Justin Theroux plays a former police chief who has moved from New York to Texas and is trying to create a new family in the second season of the HBO series, <em>The Leftovers.</em>
Van Redin
Justin Theroux plays a former police chief who has moved from New York to Texas and is trying to create a new family in the second season of the HBO series, The Leftovers.

In the first season of the HBO series, The Leftovers, actor Justin Theroux played a police chief trying to hold his small town together after the sudden disappearance of 2 percent of the people on Earth. Based on a book of the same name by author Tom Perrotta, Theroux says he wasn't sure if the series would have a life beyond its initial season.

The creators "had run out of the source material ..." Theroux tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "The book had been played through to the end."

That's when Perrotta and co-creator Damon Lindelof came up with the idea of Miracle, Texas — the setting of the series' second season.

Miracle is a small Texas town that was untouched by the mysterious "departures." No longer in law enforcement, Theroux's character moves there to make a new start with his girlfriend, his daughter and a baby left on his doorstep.

As the actor explains: "The first season was about loss and grief and mourning, and now we're sort of into this much more spiritual territory, which allows the creators of the show to ask some bigger questions about spirituality and faith."

Interview Highlights

On whether The Leftovers audience will gain any insight into the larger mystery of what happened to those who vanished

Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta were very clear that they were not going to answer this question and the people watching were going to have to live in the same unknown that the characters are. So in that sense, everyone is kind of in real time together, which I thought was a great way of sort of keeping people in the present while watching the show.

On co-writing the forthcoming sequel, Zoolander 2, with Ben Stiller

I got to write it with Ben [Stiller] and he knows those characters very well. They're his creation, and he, at one point, said, "We're basically writing 9-year-olds. There's no super deep psychology to them. They're, kind of, not formed people yet, but they, sort of, live in this adult world." So that was very instructive. And then it's about ping-ponging what we think makes them funny or what we like about them and what makes us laugh. For me, what I really like about those two characters is they have the combination of two things that I think are extremely funny, which is supreme confidence and total stupidity, and in life I think that's just funny, when you see someone very dumb who is completely confident that they're smart, maybe smarter than everybody, that kind of forward-footedness I really think is great for comedy.

On struggling with dyslexia as a kid

My mom is very well read. I had a much more difficult time. I was not a great reader. I don't know how to put it any other way. I tested as dyslexic and I was an unfocused child, so I didn't read a lot early on in my life, and don't read that much now, if I'm being honest. I mean, I read a lot for me, but I'm not one of those people who gets The New York Times Book Review and runs out and buys 10 books and is done with them and is passing them out to friends two weeks later.

I just had a really difficult time reading. I remember ... between school years when they would give you your list of eight books to read before you got back to school, it always felt like someone had just handed me the [Mount Everest's] Hillary Step and it was unclimbable, and it oftentimes was, so I had a series of bad experiences at schools just not being able to do the work. ...

The first time I was ever called on to read I could not. I was called on the first or second day of this public school to read, and I remember looking down at the piece of paper that I was supposed to read and the first word was "the," which I could read because it's the first three letters of my last name, but I couldn't read a single other word. It was like just looking at Greek and ... I made up a bellyache excuse and went down to the nurse and was like, "I gotta get out of here. This is not going to work out." I remember calling my mom and being like, "I gotta go. We gotta get out of here. This is terrible."

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