Don’t tell Justin Theroux you’re tired.
It’s the lunch rush at a crowded spot in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood and Theroux just doesn’t have any sympathy to spare. Downstairs, where it’s easy to escape the counter crush but not so much the noise, Theroux is relaxed and cheerful, which is surprising given that he’s in the middle of shooting season two of the HBO drama The Leftovers, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta.
It’s an emotionally taxing show at its best and hopelessly grim at its worst–and Theroux is in the thick of it again reprising his role as Kevin Garvey, chief of police of the fictional town of Mapleton, New York, where so many residents mysteriously vanished on October 14. If that’s not enough, Garvey’s mental state is thoroughly dissolving, sending him into sleepwalking fits of rage and causing him to have hallucinations that are erasing the boundaries of reality.
As exhausting as that sounds for an audience to watch, imagine how draining it is to live it.
“You’re tired? I’m tired!” Theroux jokes. “I hate being one of those people who’s like, ‘This is the hardest job…’ It’s not a coal mine. Last season was hard, but this season really took its toll in a crazy way.”
To recap: two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishes, leaving grief and misery in the wake of family and friends. Season one ends with Mapleton scorched after tensions with the chain-smoking, fatalist cult Guilty Remnant violently explode into a riot. Season two hints at the possibility of a fresh start when Kevin Garvey and his new family move to Jarden, a Texas town where, miraculously, no one has disappeared. Everyone feels safe until the end of episode one sends distress signals of misery to come.
“Playing that heightened level of anxiety or fear or loss or grief for a sustained period of time really can zap you,” Theroux says. “But it’s also a thrilling challenge.”
Same goes for the audience watching the show: It’ll scrape you hollow, yet somehow leave you richer for the experience. The Leftovers has some of the sharpest writing of any show on TV, executed with expertly crafted, tightly coiled scenes of tension and searing performances from the cast that includes Ann Dowd, Liv Tyler, Christopher Eccleston, Carrie Coon, and Amy Brenneman.
So why does The Leftovers feel like David dodging feet in a field of Goliaths?
Compared to HBO’s colossally successful dramas like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, True Blood, The Wire, or True Detective (season one, anyway), The Leftovers hasn’t hit that flashpoint yet. It’s certainly not the easiest show to watch–the words “dour,” “somber,” and “bleak” have been tossed around in reviews–and there’s no payoff or resolution for the audience in terms of uncovering that all-too compelling mystery of 140 million people around the world “departing,” but give Theroux 30 minutes (and a cup of green tea with almond milk and a shot of espresso) and he’ll get you to see why watching The Leftovers is enlightening exhaustion–and drop a little career advice along the way.
“It’s interesting now that the show is out because when we were trying to describe what we were going to be presenting before anyone had seen anything, people would ask, is it religious? Is it about the rapture? Where do they go?” Theroux says. “Thankfully, [showrunner and writer Damon Lindelof] was very up front and said, we’re never going to answer that question.”
If you were to break down The Leftovers by thematic structures, season one hinged on grief and loss while season two focuses on faith and belief. But Lindelof isn’t primarily concerned with spiritually, Theroux says–what he’s exploring in season two is much bigger.
“He’s doing something miraculous. It’s this very slow burn into almost extreme agnosticism,” Theroux says. “He’s taken a global phenomenon and he’s ant-farmed it–it’s all going to happen here in this one particular, very special place. So whatever is up there with the magnifying glass pointed at that ant farm can really hit some pressure points on the people living in it.”
The town of Jarden, Texas may have survived the departure but, as it’s constantly repeated throughout the series, no one is ever really okay. “They live in a town of people who believe they were saved for a reason,” Theroux says. “Some people believed they were saved because it was their wedding day. Some people believe they were saved because they tapped their dashboard three times. So people keep doing those kinds of things in this OCD kind of way.”
They’re trapped not in a prison of grief like the majority of the world, but in a prison of belief. The unaffected are still affected, clinging to what they believe saved them in the first place and, in some cases, flinching at the axe to fall. That pervasive sense of the unknown transcends the supernatural event of millions of people suddenly disappearing and enters into everyone’s trepidation, and sometimes anticipation, of not being able to see around the corner. The Leftovers pulls that fear out and forces the audience–and Theroux–to look at it squarely in the face.
Opting to receive his scripts episode by episode, Theroux is essentially left in the dark as to what’s coming next in the show–and he prefers it that way.
“Anytime you get to do different stretches or sort of emotional yoga poses, I think you’re sharpening your skill set in a way,” he says. “[Lindelof] really put me out of my comfort zone in a lot of scenes. He physically put me out of my comfort zone in that I’m naked in the woods or I’m drowning, things like that. And emotionally, to have to sustain that level of anxiety, grief, fear, it’s difficult and uncomfortable sometimes.”
Theroux’s “que sera, sera” attitude has guided him through quite a varied career which, most notably, includes writing credits for Zoolander 2, Iron Man 2, Rock of Ages, and Tropic Thunder.
“I try not to plot where I’m at. I’ve been very lucky and fortunate but I try and always do the next right thing–it’s a gut thing,” he says. “I feel that people who aim at something are usually going to miss the mark. You create frustrations for yourself when go like, ‘by this time next year I want to have a studio movie under my belt,’ or whatever the hell it is. Inevitably, business doesn’t work like that. You have to just try and be good at what you’re doing, work very hard at doing it, and that’s it.”
Now if Theroux could only life-coach Kevin Garvey into the same line of thinking.
The character of Kevin is one of the most emotionally complex heroes on paper, but it’s Theroux’s agility in tightrope-walking his way through Kevin’s guilt, hardness, vulnerability, and, most frustratingly, his repression, that is astounding.
What The Leftovers shatters so brilliantly, and Theroux portrays so well, is the illusion of “moving on.”
“Once you turn the gravity off for a minute and turn it back on, no one is ever the same again,” Theroux says. “If you know that gravity can go away in a second, no one would ever walk around comfortably in their skin again.”
You can make peace with something but are you really healed? You can’t scrub your mind clean of what happened, nor should you. Grief can only be suppressed for so long before it begins to manifest in other ways. It’s okay to remember. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to hope. Experiencing loss is traumatic, and having it writ large on a TV show that pulls zero emotional punches may be too much to bear for some. But The Leftovers has crafted a truly unique reflection on the human condition that, fingers crossed, will break through in season two in a bigger way with audiences.
“There’s always going to be an itch in the center of your spine that you can’t quite get at with everybody and that continues into season two as well. And there are also very cathartic moments where certain things are put to bed,” Theroux says. “Damon’s done a really good job–he’s just done it really deftly and beautifully and grounded it in an emotional line.”
Season 2 of The Leftovers begins Sunday, Oct. 4 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.