PRODUCTION: Process; Tom Gilroy and "Mulholland Drive's" Justin Theroux Talk Shop
by Justin Theroux and Tom Gilroy
(indieWIRE/11.07.01) — Writer-actor-director Tom Gilroy (“Spring Forward“) recently contacted indieWIRE about publishing a conversation in which he and a fellow thespian would hash out the nuts and bolts of the acting craft. After seeing David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Drive” multiple times, Gilroy chose to speak with “Drive” actor and personal friend, Justin Theroux, who plays a filmmaker facing a weird series of incidents during the casting of his latest film. In a conversation about the acting process, Gilroy and Theroux recently discussed the specific challenges and pleasures of working with Lynch, from dream logic and character background to line readings and rehearsal.
Justin Theroux: David’s whole thing is if you go back and tell me what you dreamt last night it will probably follow a certain kind of narrative. There will be themes; there will be symbols. There’s this dream logic that happens, which is usually like, “I went to high school and then I went to my Mother’s house, but it wasn’t my Mother. It was my girlfriend and she was trying to give me this rotten bologna, or whatever the hell it was.” He dictates. He likes to sit back and he has someone there and then he just says, “And than there is this. . . ” and he’s sort of half meditating and half fishing for ideas and it’s sort of stream of consciousness, but he is piecing together something that is whole and real and has themes and is narrative, as well.
Tom Gilroy: But he’s also steering it well. It isn’t just raw dream. You know what I mean? He certainly has an opinion about L.A. and what the film industry does to a person’s psyche and that has to be a conscious paradigm for the story.
Theroux: But again, whatever that is, it’s coming out of his subconscious, not out of his intellect. As a person, he is truly the most unplugged guy in the world. He doesn’t know who the fuck anybody is. He doesn’t care who studio heads are. He doesn’t know who Jim Carrey is. Ben Stiller came by the set at one point and he thought he was an extra.
Gilroy: (Laughs.) And the dialogue, he comes out of this same kind of dream session where he’s dictating? Because his dialogue is dead on.
Theroux: He’s not known for his snappy dialogue or witty banter. He’s really just coming out with stuff that is just moving the idea forward as opposed to moving a character forward. It’s not what we think of in a narrative way. There is no plot pushing characters. No character pushing plot. You know, it’s just: things are happening. The world is unfolding for people.
Gilroy: Does he talk to you? You know about this process because he tells you, “This is how I do it” or you just learn this by hanging out with him?
Theroux: I hung out with him and pieced it together and asked him a couple of questions. But working with him is like a whole other different ballgame. He just doesn’t give you any information you don’t need. Even simple things like, “You know David, in the boardroom scene, they’re telling me I can’t do the movie. Who are these guys? Are they studio heads, are they Mafia?” And he said, you know, “We don’t know. We don’t know who they are. They’re just, they’re really powerful guys.” And than you just accept that notion, “I don’t have to know who they are,” and then I say, “Okay, but David, the Cowboy? Who is the Cowboy?” And he says, “It doesn’t matter. We don’t know. He’s a Cowboy and he’s gonna tell you who to cast. Period.” In a weird and great way, he’s whittled away all the work that you have to do.
Gilroy: There are no options.
Theroux: There are no options. There’s really acting 101. Act and react and behave. And let things wash over you the way that they wash over you. As far as your character goes you have to create the inner life of your character and your character’s motivation and all the rest of that and what’s good and what’s bad and do I like the taste of this and the taste of that. But everytime I would try and get an answer out of him it would only deepen the question. You sit there and think, “Okay as an actor I can really just sit back and just sort of idle and let the actual scenes take place.”
Gilroy: But at the same time there is some preparation involved because you’ve read the whole script and you know what the other guy is going to say.
Theroux: Yeah, but he’s trying to erase what you already know about. I would say, ” Okay, but I do know David that I am going to meet the Cowboy and then I am going to cast the girl,” and he would say, “No, you don’t know that.” You haven’t made that decision yet. Again, you take it as it comes. Erase all the stuff that you know is going to happen. I think that’s what happens to good actors in general.
Gilroy: What I find interesting is that Lynch is somehow, by keeping it mysterious, keeping a freshness there for the actor because there are no answers. You must be thinking while you’re doing it.
Theroux: Totally thinking, but again it’s as improvisational as you can get without improvising. You know, he’s a stickler for dialogue, but you relax. I think actors get really antsy because they want to control their performance and they want to direct their performance.
Gilroy: And they want to protect themselves.
Theroux: Right. How simple it is to suck because a director sucks. So if you just accept the fact that David’s a good director, than you accept the fact that you can do anything in front of his camera. You adhere to the script and all that, but you can invent any kind of inner life, because every kind of inner life will be correct where as other directors will tell you, no, not every kind of inner life is correct and you know what I want you to be thinking here is this.
Gilroy: Right. But those kind of directors are coming from a standpoint of the film and the story and the performance and the visuals are already complete in their head. It’s just a matter of getting you to do it. It seems Lynch is more like, “What’s to discover? What’s going on here?”
Theroux: Yeah, he’s truly experimental. Which is not to say that other directors who have a complete vision aren’t good. Mary Harron, for example is very intellectual about her filmmaking. She’ll talk a character into the ground, which is also a good thing because than you have a very specific idea of what she wants. You know, she makes good films, too. With David, it’s more free form. He doesn’t have a set image in his head.
Gilroy: But what about characters, specifically? Does he ever say to you, “He’s the type of guy who does this; he wants to make films because. . .”
Theroux: No. My first question with my character was, “David, is this guy any extension of yourself? “No, he’s not. He makes films but he’s not like me at all.” I said, “Okay, well, is he a good filmmaker?” “I don’t know.” “What’s the movie he’s making?” “It’s about a girl who’s a singer.” He gives you really simple answers and he’s doing you a favor because he’s letting you answer the questions yourself.
Theroux: You are just one color in the thing and he will let you be orange and be as orange as you want to be, but he’s not going to let the orange dominate the fucking thing and he’s not going to let the orange not show up either.
Gilroy: So, in that scene when you’ve just cast the other girl and you turn around and give Betty that longing look and she runs away, does David tell you why you are looking at her then? It’s a big plot point.
Theroux: No. He just says, “We’re gonna do a really bango big shot, zoom in on her, and than you’re gonna look at her, we’re gonna zoom in on you, and I’ll say, “What’s going on?” And he’ll say, “You really love her.” The other thing that you should know is there are six thousand times a day when David is filming something and you don’t know where it goes.
Gilroy: How do you mean?
Theroux: This ties in with his process. Meaning like, he’ll say, “Okay, we’re gonna pan, we’re gonna be on you and than we’re gonna pan down to the phone and than we’re gonna pan back up.” Or after we’d shot the whole Cowboy scene, he said, “I want you to just look up into the distance,” and he would go through a megaphone, “Okay, now look off into the distance.” And I’m looking off into the distance and he says, “Okay, now maybe you see him, just a glimmer of him, and oh, is he coming back?” It’s not in the script, you don’t know where it’s gonna go and it wound up in the film, but it just looks like me looking mysterious. And I remembered thinking, “David where is this going?” And he’s like, “I don’t know. It will go in somewhere.”
Gilroy: Given that there’s that kind of wild card stuff, how does the finished version of the film resemble the script that you saw when you got hired?
Theroux: At a certain point, it doesn’t matter because the script that I first read didn’t make any sense to me. You get a David Lynch script and it’s like getting a box that you know is the engine of a car. You don’t know what car, you don’t know what kind of engine and it’s not put together and you sort of throw it out on the floor and you’re like, okay there’s all the parts and it doesn’t make any sense to me and only after you see the film do you go, oh, this is a beautiful 1965 Chevy 283 blah-blah-blah.
Gilroy: So, as an actor you read the script, and you see that you’re playing this character of a director in Hollywood. Now, did you not know until you saw the film that the director was in fact a figment of this woman’s dream or nightmare?
Theroux: No. I didn’t know until I saw the film.
Gilroy: Huh? You just played it as though you were a real guy. And that’s it?
Theroux: Yep. Yep..
Gilroy: So where do you get choices like not to punch the Cowboy in the face or like when you’re walking out of the house and you have the pink paint all over you. And you’re doing this very kind of not frenetic kind of determined walk.
Theroux: That’s just a life decision. That was the decision and that was okay. I just found my wife screwing a guy who has beaten me up in my own home and thrown me out of my own home. How do you exit that scene? Slowly. Because you’re completely humbled, just physically. Or for example, David said, “You smash up the windshield with the car and then you walk back to your car and you get in.” And I said, “No, I’m way more chickenshit than that. When you smash up the windshield of a car, you fuckin’ run back to your car.” Especially if they’re thugs.
Gilroy: You only walk away slowly as if you want to get in a fight with the people in the car.
Theroux: Right, exactly
Gilroy: By the way, what’s with the golf club?
Theroux: It was the one prop he endowed with all kinds of backstory. I don’t know why. That was the one fucking thing that he would totally talk about. He would say like, “This could be your father’s golf club and maybe you always keep it in the back.” “Should it be a three iron or a five iron?” He really agonized over that.
Theroux: The first day of shooting they were loading lights and all the cable and everything and I said, “David, after we’re finished shooting this scene, I want to talk about the part. I want to talk about what I’m coming home with and where I’m coming from,” and he said, “Okay.” He cleared out the whole fucking house of lights and people and we sat on that couch for like a half-hour, which in film time is an eternity. And we just talked. We walked around the house a little. And it wasn’t necessarily about the scene we were gonna shoot. It was just about the beginning of our process together.
And he took it so seriously that it was shocking to me. That he would sort of shut down production to talk to an actor and we rehearsed it alone like twice. You know, just sort of walking through and stopping and talking. He was just tuning me in to his frequency. And that’s truly where I think his gifts lie. I mean, besides being able to make the sound choices and all the rest.
Gilroy: And also letting you know that you’re not putting him out by having questions. Especially on a first day of shooting.
Theroux: Exactly. Talk to anyone that works on a David Lynch set and it all trickles down from him. You never feel panicked or rushed. He never loses his cool. It’s all just about we’re gonna get it, and it’s gonna happen. You know, that’s the way it’s going to be.
Gilroy: Is there much rehearsal?
Theroux: There’s as much as you want.
Gilroy: But it’s on the set that day. There’s no like, before we start shooting we rehearse for a week and a half?
Theroux: No, no, no. You can always go to him. He’s always available to talk. But he knows that his most important things are not just his actors, but his prop masters and his grips and his DPs. He’s one of those master orchestraters. It’s as if he is this beacon and sort of emitting this radio signal and everyone within a few hours of being on set is emitting the same signal.
Gilroy: I was really baffled in a lot of ways by the party scene because it seemed like a lot of stuff was trying to come together. Like when that woman kisses your fiancee on the mouth, you knew what was gonna happen because it’s in the script. And David doesn’t tell you anything like, “Oh, she’s a bisexual?”
Theroux: No, I kiss my wife and I said, “David, do I notice that my wife is kissing this girl? He said sure, but it’s not in the film. So again, it’ s really what David’s choosing to see. I’m incidental. My opinion is incidental.
Gilroy: And what about the scene where you’re announcing that you’re gonna get married? Does he tell you to laugh like that and stuff?
Theroux: Yeah. That was really funny because I said, “Camille and I are going to get….” and he’d be like, “Slow it down, slow it down.” And he’d be like, “Even more, slow it down.” So then he’s like, if you have fun than you can laugh and you can draw it out. You can do whatever you want. He was giving me that kind of direction.
Gilroy: What happens when you do improvise a line? Does he go, (imitating
David Lynch) “Now Justin, the line is blah, blah.”
Theroux: You just don’t.
Gilroy: Well, somebody must have at some point, no?
Theroux: The Cowboy, Monty Montgomery, he’s a producer; he’s not an actor. So we taped all the lines to my chest, taped them to my forehead, taped them to my chin and I just stood and there’s an over-the-shoulder shot and he just sat there and read it. And it was like one of the best performances in the film.
Gilroy: He was like Lecter. He’s incredible.
Theroux: David knew he had two things going for him. The look and the accent. That’s all he needed. He didn’t need an actor. He just needed someone with a look and an accent. David just said, you know. all the guy had to do was say it.
Gilroy: How did David end up casting him without knowing he could act?
Theroux: He just knew that. He said he was a friend of mine and this Cowboy idea came to my head and I thought of Monty.
Gilroy: And that’s it?
Theroux: That’s it.