Justin Theroux has maybe one of the most challenging roles on television right now. As the ostensible lead of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” he’s also one of its most unstable elements. Kevin Garvey is a patriarch who’s lost control of so much — including maybe his own sanity — in Season 2, he’s looking to change his luck, but that’s easier said than done.
A few weeks ago, after seeing the first three episodes, Indiewire sat down with Theroux to dig into the challenges of playing Kevin as well as the joys of the role. Below, he reveals why he loves reading Lindelof’s scripts, why he doesn’t want to know anything about what’s coming next and how he relieves stress on the set (spoiler alert: fart noises are involved).
Let’s have a nice quiet little conversation, about a nice quiet little show.
Nothing really dramatic happens, there are no big dramatic turns. [laughs]
Just a very smooth casual work day.
A walk in the park, usually, for everyone on the show. No one has any dysfunction, they’re totally normal… It should be studied.
When you started off in Season 1, did you have a sense of just how far things were going to go over the course of the season?
No. I had no idea. Damon had kind of explained, roughly. As far as physically where the show went and the things that were going to happen, I wasn’t as concerned. But I was concerned with whether the character was going to remain interesting to play. Damon was very upfront about saying, “I think so, and you’re actually going to be very angry with me at times, with the stuff we’re going to put you through.” I was never angry with him, but he accurately described that yes, I did go through an enormous amount, and I will continue to in Season 2 as well.
I’ve talked to a number of actors lately, and the thing that keeps coming up is, how much do you want to know about what’s coming ahead of you?
In a weird way, you want to be just as surprised and shocked and moved as audiences hopefully are. I prefer to not know where the arrow is going to land and get the scripts as they come, rather than trying to read them all in one sitting or be told in short form. Damon’s scripts are really fun to read. He usually outlines things and sends the outline to production so they can start prepping shows and building sets. I haven’t read any of those, except in retrospect after I’ve read the scripts. They’re beautifully written outlines, but the scripts themselves have a kind of movement and pace to them that I love reading. It’s way more interesting than when he’s had to explain, “You’re shooting this scene and I can’t really explain too much.” A couple times we’ve shot scenes in advance of the script, and I kind of like that because it creates a more seat-of-your-pants style of working. So much of these characters exist in a state of not knowing and the unexpected twists their lives take, so the closer you can be to that as an actor is beneficial for the show itself — to be in as real time as possible.
So really the first time you’re experiencing the story is through the scripts?
Yeah, I’m trying to experience it as the audience would.
Had you read the book beforehand?
I hadn’t read the book. I started the book. This is my big confession that Tom [Perrotta] already knows: I started the book, but it kind of threw me off the scent because the character was so vastly different for the show; not just his occupation but the way he operated. I needed one source material to get it done so I chose the scripts. After this season, I’ll probably read the book and enjoy it more.
Both the book and the show, as constantly gets pointed out, can be hard to take at times. Do you find that to be true?
Yeah, I do. It’s a taxing show, but it is pretend at the end of the day. In the first season, we were really living in that space, even in between takes, just so we could honor the material. Second season, I was making fart noises with my armpit as much as possible between takes because you just needed some kind of relief from the oppressive emotional stuff you were doing. It’s a lighter set this year, but all the actors know each other so much better that it’s easier to break character and have more fun in general.
This season, you and Carrie [Coon] are working a lot more together. How has that been?
It’s been fantastic! Everyone on the show, we have a very deep bench of great actors so there are no weak links whatsoever. Working with her is phenomenal. She’s a beautiful actress. Working with Ann Dowd is always an education. Margaret Qualley is the most delicate, wonderful performer. It’s been fun.
When you say Ann Dowd is an education, what do you mean by that?
She is just such a toweringly good actress — not that other people aren’t. There are certain people you can sit across from in a scene and be completely transported by what they’re doing and it feels like a magic trick with no trick. She’s just such an enormous performer and actress. She’s just a powerhouse. She’s just so good, I can’t say it enough. You learn a lot by just watching her. It’s like playing with a tennis pro. They get you pivoting.
In general, when you come to a project like this, is there something in the back of your head about it being a learning experience?
I think every job that you take has to be that, even the bad ones. Even when you’re on something you’re not enjoying, you have to find something to learn about it, even if it’s just, “Why am I not enjoying this?” “The Leftovers” has really, more than any other thing, stretched me to different areas. It’s not stretching me to the same place over and over again. Damon is finding very particular pressure points to hit on this character. Whether it’s decisions [Kevin] makes or things he has to do, whether it’s grief, sadness, hope or despair, he really runs the gamut of all those things, and also in a more complex way than what I’ve seen written.
Talking about Season 1, is there something specifically that was particularly tough?
It wasn’t tough, but it took some understanding. The whole sleepwalking element of the character, and why he was committing crimes in his sleep and what comes out of that. Was it drug addiction? Was it schizophrenia? What is the disorder? Damon was pretty good about saying, “Yes, it’s sleepwalking, yes it’s that,” but Kevin also has the extraordinary pressures of having mental illness in his family. Much like in the reading of the scripts, he was kind of go with the flow, you don’t need answers to some of these questions. Just be in the moment and accept the turn the plot takes. Once you relax into that, it becomes a more satisfying thing to play because you have to be reactive and at times, active.
In theory, you have someone telling you, “This is what you’re doing?”
I got the scripts saying that I had slept-walked and kidnapped Patti Levin and taken her to a cabin and tied her to a chair, and then that conversation happens. The way that played out was just an incredible couple of days shooting in that cabin. I got to watch Ann Dowd do some amazing work, and we just had beautiful scenes together.
That episode just reminds me that the show feels so grounded, but there’s still this edge of unsafe-ness. Especially this scenario of three people hanging out in a cabin. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
Exactly. Damon is great at dangling this Sword of Damocles over everybody and at any moment these swords could drop, and frequently do. I often say it’s like a sci-fi show with no “sci” whatsoever. It’s a weird combination of psychological sci-fi, where people are being tested. It’s Biblical in a way because the whole Job theme that ran through Kevin last year; just constantly being put upon and trying to maintain some sort of hope or love or faith in his family. His desire to get that back is just fascinating for me.
One thing Damon has said is that crazy people aren’t the ones who are questioning whether or not they’re crazy. Is that a part of your conversations, in terms of approaching your character?
Yeah, particularly this season. The threat that hangs over Kevin is should he let people know about his problems? He runs the risk of losing the thing he wished for and he’s in this horrible situation where he has an itch on the center of his back that he just can’t reach but he needs to do it in order to complete his family and be present for his family. He’s constantly being steered in different directions by this force. That’s one of the things I love about this character is that he’s constantly in this state of discomfort with these little moments of hope. If he’s likable, I think the thing that helps that is he is constantly trying to make the right choice. He’s striving for the correct thing to do, the most noble thing to do, the most upright thing to do and constantly failing just when his brain fails him.
Watching Episode 2, when there’s the big fight over buying the house. I was kind of taken back a bit by how much Kevin was not necessarily on board with this plan. Admittedly, it’s a crazy plan, but you’ve already thrown your cap over the wall, so to speak.
It’s sort of like being caught up in a scrum; the crowd or your family is the one moving you. The minute they arrive, things start to go wrong for them: The house they rented wasn’t there. She spends all their money. For him, it’s all about loss of control. That’s one of the many things I like about this season, that in the first season, he had the appearance of control. He had a badge, he had a gun and he had a town to run. He was the sheriff, and he did that poorly. Now, in Miracle, this place they’re supposed to start over, not only has he brought this problem with him, he’s also essentially a eunuch when it comes to control. He has nothing to control. For any person who wishes for a family, when your baby is crying at night you say, “What have I done with my life? This wasn’t what I expected, this wasn’t how I planned it and this wasn’t how I saw it.” You become nihilistic in that way. Everyone else is trying to remain optimistic, saying, “It’s going to be great! It’s going to be fun!” The daughter who wants nothing more than to be that unit and Nora who is sort of blithely walking through it saying, “We’re going to get through this.” But again, he has this sickening secret so he can’t be fully himself in front of the people he ostensibly loves the most.
That ties into the loss of control then. Is that essentially the one thing he can control at this point? The way he behaves in front of his family?
I think so, at least having the appearance of being stable. There’s nothing worse for anyone than having a secret that you can’t divulge or at least feel that you can’t divulge. Those secrets start to fester and usually worsen. That applies to anyone in life. I think he’s constantly balancing that and if he confesses to this, he asks himself, “Am I my father? Is that my fate?” He’s definitely looking his father’s direction and wondering if that’s what awaits him; this sort of ring of hell he’s going to have to walk through.
That’s grounded in something pretty universal, which is all of us sort of looking toward our parents and asking, “Is that where I’m going?”
Exactly. We all cringe when we say, “I laugh just like my father.” But Kevin’s problems are considerably more than that. [laughs]
In Season 1, I loved how it took this unconventional structure and broke individuals out into their own standalone episodes. From what I understand, this season is that times a thousand?
I wouldn’t say “a thousand,” but I love that they’re playing with that 10-episode format. I think when everyone got into this cable sandbox, they could say, “We don’t have to worry about commercial breaks, we don’t have to have cliffhangers.” Now that we’re all familiar with the characters and their motivations, it’s really nice to settle with another character for another hour and see things from their point of view. I think if you sat behind Kevin Garvey’s eyeballs for 10 episodes, you’d feel crazy, too. It always feels like a breath of fresh air to see this entirely fresh narrative, I mean it’s all Damon and it feels of the world, but it’s nice to pop out and then pop back in. I thought it was really effective last year as far as giving minor characters really big episodes to tell their story. The Nora story, for example — when she goes to the hotel in New York — completely informs the season finale when she comes down and finds the dummies at the table. It’s way more impactful having had that episode. It’s nice to really dig into a character and take a look at them.
From your perspective — from a production standpoint, from an acting standpoint — how does that affect you?
It means I have a couple more days off, but we’re often shooting tandem stuff anyway. I’ll be shooting and they’ll be shooting that episode. We were cursed with some floods this past summer in Texas, these Tupelo-style floods. We got backed up, production-wise, because we got so much rain when the reason we went there was for big blue skies. We had stuff to shoot while they were doing that, from a production standpoint. It’s also nice to get a couple days off, a harrowing drama can be kind of difficult.
Going back to not wanting to know too much, did you read Episode 3 of the season [which does not focus on Kevin and Nora] when it came out?
No, I didn’t. When the subsidiary episodes come out, I’d sometimes skim them or start reading them and then start thinking, “Is this going to affect the way I perform anything else?” And it does. If that character pops back into my world, I don’t want to know any of the nefarious, or non-nefarious, things they’re doing. From an acting standpoint, I just take them at face value. I don’t want to know their darker sides because it doesn’t really inform me that much and it becomes more pleasurable when I get to see it cut together, which is rare.
In terms of your experience as an actor, it’s more enjoyable?
Yeah. I didn’t read the Chris Eccleston episode last year, and I had one scene in it at the very top. I remember watching it and thinking, “This is fantastic.” It’s a very refreshing way to tell a mini story, in the much larger story.
Do you have the sense from your fellow cast members that they do the same thing? Or does everyone have a different approach to it?
I don’t know, we haven’t really talked about it. We do know when one of us is doing one of those episodes because they’re really hard to do. You really get beaten to crap, while everyone else is enjoying Austin barbecue and laughing at you.
From what I’ve heard, when you’re on location like that it becomes a real community because you don’t necessarily know people outside of the production.
It’s a carny lifestyle. The tent goes up then the tent comes down. We have such a good crew, Texas crews are incredible. Our cast, I just fall more in love with them every day.
I asked Damon and Tom what they had planned for Season 3 and they said, “We don’t know.” When you heard about the changes in Season 2, what was your reaction?
I was ecstatic. Like Damon has probably told you, “Is there a reason to stay at Mapleton? What does that look like?” Does Kevin Garvey buy the cul-de-sac, start painting houses and refurbishing the neighborhood with community outreach? No, probably not. That town felt kind of shot out. Once the source material was shot out, he really didn’t want to do a Season 2 unless there’s a really big, great idea. Then they struck on the idea of this town. In Season 1, this global event happened, but we’re seeing it through the prism of the small town of Mapleton, New York and the way it’s affected their psychology and their psyches. In Season 2, he’s created a big sky, a big country. It’s a crazy town, but he’s created this petri dish or ant farm, where people feel special for not having disappeared, and they question why they’re special and what they did. It becomes this destination for people who are looking for “it,” or some grounded spirituality. People are trying to draft on whatever this special place has. Of course, the question is asked, is there a such thing as a special place? Is Miracle just an anomaly, or is it something wonderful?
When you think about Kevin, what do you think he’s looking for there?
It’s a bit of the cliche of him looking to start over. It’s allegorical, the last scene with Holy Wayne in [the Season 1 finale], he’s offered this idea of making a wish which ostensibly gets granted in the final moments. It’s like anything when you wish for something, often the appearance is vastly different than what you get and what you wished for originally. There’s stuff you weren’t expecting. I think that’s the case with Kevin, he’s optimistic but he also has these other burdens he’s hoping will, at least geographically, remain behind him.
“The Leftovers” airs Sundays at 9pm on HBO.