- The Washington Times - Friday, October 12, 2001

Justin Theroux, born at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington in 1971 and raised in Chevy Chase D.C. until he departed for boarding school at the age of 14, lives in Lower Manhattan, roughly below 14th Street and above Canal Street. He was at the Toronto Film Festival to help promote his new movie, "Mulholland Drive," David Lynch's alternately baffling and bemusing fable about amnesia in Hollywood, when New York City was victimized by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
The festival wound down very quickly in the aftermath. Mr. Theroux, who returned to Washington recently for a day of press conversations at the Four Seasons Hotel, joined a group of friends in heading home as soon as possible in a rental car.
"We got back that night," he recalls. "We came in over the George Washington Bridge and got as far as 14th Street. I got out and walked with my luggage the rest of the way to my apartment. We were in sort of a marginal area for a week and a half. If you had your ID, you could go in. Fortunately, my place was a little above the severe damage. At first you were mostly aware of tons of smoke damage. Even now the air is sometimes saturated with that acrid, smoky smell. It was surreal, with neighborhoods cordoned off and no traffic at all on Broadway."
Mr. Theroux reflects on the possible repercussions for movie content in the future.
"I'm very pessimistic," he says. "I think it's going to go back to business as usual. I think the studios will find a way to slip back into the old habits, even if they seem totally obsolete right now I hope all these events will help to weed out all the [stuff] I want to see weeded out, but I wouldn't bet on it."
* * *
Mr. Theroux, whose mother, Phyllis Theroux, was a writer with The Washington Post's Style section in the early 1970s, attended Lafayette Elementary School in Chevy Chase D.C. and Annunciation School on Massachusetts Avenue NW before his prep school years. He graduated from Bennington College in Vermont with a double major in visual art and drama. Although he had been active in school dramatics since his teens, he found it easier to make a living with illustrative talent when first pursuing a career in New York.
"I do figurative stuff," he says. "I specialized in murals for a while and painted walls in several restaurants. Some kind of cartoony. Others more abstract and graffiti-influenced. I did billboards, ads, T-shirts, whatever came along.
"I had done a lot of acting at school, but it was painting and other illustrative work that kept me going for a couple of years. I got my first acting job by a fluke, in a play called 'Hide Your Love Away,' about the Beatles' ill-fated manager Brian Epstein, and it did quite well. From then on, acting started taking over. But I still keep a sketchbook handy and paint when I get the chance."
Movie roles for Mr. Theroux began with another biographical project, Mary Harron's "I Shot Andy Warhol." He was cast in her subsequent feature, the movie version of Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho," playing a professional colleague and rival of the psychopath impersonated by Christian Bale. Miss Harron evidently is completing a new script that includes a role for Mr. Theroux.
While performing in a revival of Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters," the actor was introduced to director Ben Stiller by fellow cast member Jeanne Tripplehorn, Mr. Stiller's consort at the time. Mr. Theroux and Mr. Stiller became cronies and collaborators. They're working on a pair of comedy screenplays, and Mr. Theroux has a cameo role as a disco club disc jockey in Mr. Stiller's farce "Zoolander."
* * *
Working for the habitually engimatic David Lynch proved a satisfying experience for Mr. Theroux, the closest thing to a leading man in "Mulholland Drive." The movie revolves around a couple of aspiring and endangered actresses a breathless and ingenuous blonde portrayed by Naomi Watts and a sultry, amnesiac brunette portrayed by Laura Harring. Cast as a film director named Adam, Mr. Theroux seems to be confined to a separate subplot until the threads get weirdly entangled during climactic episodes.
Unlike Woody Allen, Mr. Lynch does not conceal script pages from his actors to protect the secrets of the plot. The joke is that knowing them may not be revealing anyway.
"You get the whole script," Mr. Theroux explains, "but he might as well withhold the scenes you're not in, because the whole turns out to be more mystifying than the parts. David welcomes questions, but he won't answer any of them. You work kind of half-blindfolded. If he were a first-time director and hadn't demonstrated any command of this method, I'd probably have reservations. But it obviously works for him."
What did he ask that Mr. Lynch declined to answer?
"Things that seemed very elementary at the time," Mr. Theroux replies. "Who's this strange character I meet called the Cowboy? Is this a fantasy? A dream? Is my character an extension of you? Actually, he did answer that one. He said no, it was definitely not an extension of him. I don't think he wants anything he does to be mistaken for autobiography."
Was Adam perhaps a portrait of someone else in the movie business?
"I asked that as well," Mr. Theroux says, "but David is so wonderfully unplugged from the whole Hollywood scene that he might find it difficult to name one or two directors, let alone borrow any aspects of their lives or personalities.
"Here's an example. Ben Stiller came to visit me on the set one day. David thought he was an extra. He even offered him a job as an extra when we explained that Ben was just a friend and wasn't really looking for movie work. It shows you how completely in his own world David is."
* * *
Mr. Theroux summarizes the Lynch directing technique on the set as "very simple, nuts and bolts." Mr. Theroux felt confident enough to try out his own "bare-bones theory" of the movie's curious plot reversal on the writer-director. At about the two-hour mark, "Mulholland Drive" takes a very drastic turn for the sinister that leaves the leading ladies in a topsy-turvy state, playing acutely diffferent characters from the ones to whom we have grown accustomed. Mr. Theroux is a little luckier. His identity doesn't change when the plot suddenly turns decisively morbid and inexplicable.
The Theroux interpretation can be summarized as follows: "It begins in fantasy and ends in reality." Relatively speaking.
"There's a person who lives on the fringe of Hollywood," Mr. Theroux explains, "and you sort of enter the movie midfantasy as she gets to L.A. She gushes over being able to use this beautiful apartment owned by her aunt and encounters only sunny days. She gives brilliant auditions. She meets and charms powerful directors. She takes in this lost soul and gets involved in a kind of Nancy Drew mystery that allows her to fashion the other girl in her own image. Then, when the film turns dark, gets turned on its head, we see things as they really are: The sunshine girl is a desperate, weak-minded hanger-on who lives on the fringes of power and celebrity and everything.
"If you're familiar with L.A., it's not that far from the truth. You see it all the time. There's an incredible desperation that is mirrored in this film. People who are close to celebrity in superficial ways but nowhere near to achieving it for themselves. They're the people you see in clubs or at parties who may be standing near famous people but are really thousands of miles away."
How did Mr. Lynch react to this ingenious and poignant analysis?
"He said that it was fine if that's what I wanted to believe," Mr. Theroux says. "I think he's genuinely happy for it to mean anything you want. He loves it when people come up with really bizarre interpretations. David works from his subconscious. It can be fun to give yourself over to that."

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