Justin Theroux blows into the lobby of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles like a breath of subway-tunnel air. A study in New York street style, he’s wearing black boots, lean jeans, a vintage leather jacket over a cashmere sweater, leather bangles on tattooed wrists, gold aviator sunglasses, and a fedora tipped at a rakish angle. “I like it here,” he says, taking a seat in a worn mohair armchair in the lobby. “It’s intimate,” the actor-writer-director adds, settling in and ordering a very L.A. lunch: cranberry juice, green tea, and mixed greens with shaved Parmesan on the side. “And the lighting is delicate.”
It’s an observation made with a wink, the downtown New Yorker goofing on Hollywood vanity. It’s not like the handsome 40-year-old, most easily recognized by the best widow’s peak since Eddie Munster’s, needs to hide in dim corners. For nearly two decades now, Theroux has flown so far under the radar that his face and name usually elicit one uniform response: Who is that guy?
Art-house patrons might know his 2007 directorial debut, Dedication, and comic-book geeks couldn’t help but notice Theroux’s screenplay credit for Iron Man 2. Yet, aside from a couple of big-screen blips—playing the shirtless, tattooed bad guy in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and the bespectacled director in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive—the chameleon-like Theroux has built a largely unheralded career as a character actor. Popping up in a variety of guises in some two dozen films (including Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and American Psycho) and watercooler TV shows (Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Parks and Recreation), Theroux exudes an unusual outsider charm—equal parts hip intellectual and sexy wack job—that hasn’t yet translated into mainstream fame.
But his latest role, in the comedy Wanderlust, produced by Judd Apatow and directed by David Wain, might change that. Though he appears, almost unrecognizably, in a full beard and longhair wig, the third-billed Theroux pretty much walks off with the movie. “I do my own facial-hair stunts, and that beard was intense, its own being,” says Theroux, who had a double for guitar playing and capoeira but lends his own voice to a song in the film. Fueled by bong hits and bawdiness, the R-rated Wanderlust gives the actor a larger-than-usual part as Seth, the charismatic leader of a Georgia free-love commune that becomes a refuge for a couple squeezed out of Manhattan by the recession. “I was thinking of him as a David Koresh–type figure, a comic cult leader who is so sincere in his insincerity,” Theroux says, wolfing his salad. “It’s hard to play that douche-y a guy without cracking yourself up.”
Paul Rudd plays Wanderlust’s beleaguered yuppie husband. Jennifer Aniston plays Rudd’s wife. For those who haven’t browsed a tabloid rack in the past year, Aniston is also Theroux’s girlfriend. The bicoastal couple have a house in Bel Air and a three-month-old named Sophie—a boxer-pitbull mix. “She’s the most adorable little cookie you’ve ever seen,” Theroux says, scrolling to a picture of the black-and-white-faced pup on his phone. “She looks like she just smoked an exploding cigar.”
Theroux knows only too well that his relationship with Aniston is not just making him more famous but is also a selling point for Wanderlust. “I understand the curiosity, but other than saying I am happy, I am not going to indulge it,” he says. “That’s building your own torture device.”
Having spent so many years successfully navigating the industry, taking small roles in big movies to earn the freedom to appear in plays, write scripts, and direct films, he acknowledges that this is a strange time to be Justin Theroux. “The first thing fame asks you to trade on is your personality,” he says. The word Theroux uses to describe his new notoriety is “bizarre.” The man who, for fourteen years, quietly dated a stylist in New York, arriving at fashion-industry parties on a motorcycle, is now driving a Mercedes through L.A. followed by paparazzi.
Such is the cruel but usual punishment that comes with this new level of celebrity, which Theroux compares to “having shoes that are slightly too heavy—it can slow you down and make you more cautious. I have to be okay with the fact that there’s a narrative that’s going to get written regardless of what is the truth. Right now, there’s a whole other me out there walking around, and I do everything in my power to avoid that guy, because that’s not who I am.”
So who is he? It’s not surprising that the Hollywood hyphenate, who recently co-scripted this summer’s movie version of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages, became a writer. His mother is a journalist and author; his uncle is acclaimed travel writer Paul Theroux. Justin is the youngest of three children born in 1971 to Phyllis and Eugene, an attorney in Washington, D.C. Justin was a music-loving skateboarder who first set foot on a stage as a young student at a progressive school based on the tenets of Rudolf Steiner, founder of the spiritual movement known as anthroposophy. “It was a Christmas version of Peter and the Wolf,” he remembers. “We were probably all in smocks with rubber shoes and holding copper rods. And being hypercreative, we probably also wrote it.”
After boarding school in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Bennington College, where he majored in drama and visual arts, Theroux moved to New York and found work bartending and painting lofts. He was discovered in a 1994 Off Broadway show playing the lover of Beatles manager Brian Epstein and made his film debut in the 1996 indie I Shot Andy Warhol. After a cameo in Zoolander, Theroux gained a mentor in Ben Stiller. “He was the first person to read half-started screenplays I was writing as a hobby,” Theroux says. They collaborated on the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, which co-starred Robert Downey Jr., who recommended Theroux to write the Iron Man 2 screenplay. If the stars align, Theroux says, he’ll direct Zoolander 2 from his own script.
“Writing provides great cover, so I can do the acting jobs I want,” says Theroux, popping a fresh piece of Nicorette gum—Hollywood dessert—into his mouth. “It’s harder and takes so freaking long, but to me it’s more satisfying. As a writer you’re the architect; as a director you design the interior; as an actor you are nothing but the leg of a table.”