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The Many Deaths of Justin Theroux: Why ‘The Leftovers’ Is The Only Show on TV That Knows How To Kill Its Characters (Consider This)

In a sea of bad teases and fake-outs, Justin Theroux explains how "The Leftovers" became the one show to handle on-screen death perfectly.

The Leftovers

“The Leftovers”

Van Redin/HBO

For all the recent distress over who’s alive and who’s dead on TV, one series managed to pull off an on-screen death that made everyone happy.

No, he didn’t actually die.

Well, he did, but only briefly.

Okay, it was eight hours and someone buried him, but he’s alive now.

We think.

Even though Kevin’s astounding journey in the final four episodes of “The Leftovers” Season 2 is complicated, it absolutely works. As portrayed by Justin Theroux and written by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, Kevin’s deaths were based in character rather than implemented as a cheap plot device — or, in Theroux’s words, “It served a higher purpose.”

Theroux, the de facto lead of Lindelof’s HBO drama (now shooting its third and final season), recently spoke with Indiewire on his day off, extolling thoughts on Kevin’s impossible arc performed so precisely, and why it stands as one of the few on-screen deaths that actually satisfied everyone.

Lately, fans have been getting angry if they feel tricked or lied to about on-screen death, like with “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead.” What’s kind of amazing is that there were never any complaints throughout this arc for Kevin; about him dying and coming back — twice.

I think audiences are obviously very savvy and they know when they’re being “Who shot J.R.?”-ed in a show. So they know when they’re basically being tricked into tuning in again. And I don’t think this was that at all. Most of the time when people die, you don’t go to the other side with them. They sort of just die, and then you realize, “Oh, they fell down the staircase but they didn’t break their neck.” — whatever it is. This was not a soap opera death. You actually travel with him to the next place. I’m sure it’s been done before, but not the way we did it.

Justin Theroux in "The Leftovers" Season 2 Episode 8 International Assassin


So I think that’s why people embraced it. Because yeah, there’s obviously going to be a reaction when a character dies on a television show, and I think we probably had a week of, “Oh, boy. What was that about?” But I think the minute the next episode came when I was obviously in this hotel, people went, “Oh, this wasn’t just a device. This actually served a higher purpose.”

After Episode 7, did you feel any pressure via social media or otherwise to reassure fans or explain what was happening? To confirm you weren’t gone for good, perhaps?

I love that you can surprise people. I had no inclination to tell people, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.” That’s revealing the magic trick, you know? And also, I’m kind of a believer in not explaining things to people. That’s partly from working with David Lynch, learning that even after the fact you can ruin the experience by explaining to people what happens. It’s much more fulfilling to let people have their own reactions and sit with it. And with our show in particular, a lot of people had very violent reactions to it that are not favorable, that made them click off, and that’s fine, too.

Did you always know it wasn’t the end for Kevin? Did you know where it was going?

No, I didn’t know where it was going. For that particular episode, the one where he drinks the poison, it’s scripted where he’s dead. “Dead.” Really dead. So I called up Damon [Lindelof] after reading the script — and I was kind of ambivalent about it — but I asked, “Am I really dead?” And he said, “No, you’re not. There’s going to be a whole other thing that happens. You’re not off the show.” He didn’t tell me what form that was going to take until I got the next script.

Justin Theroux & Ann Dowd in "The Leftovers" Season 2 Episode 8 International Assassin

So what was your first reaction to “International Assassin”?

About 10 pages in, I realized he, Tom and the other writers had picked up a big bat to swing, and I was like, “Oh, my God. That’s an incredible script.” I was very touched by the script. I just thought it was such a gorgeous script, I was weeping by the end of it. I thought the Patti arc was so elegant and beautifully laid out. I didn’t know how I was going to come out of it — crawling out of the ground — but to me the episode ended when Patti died, and crawling out of the ground was just to get me back in it.

The real feat, I thought, was the way they made such a great villain relatable. It’s kind of reverse storytelling. If it was a comic book, they’d be like, “Here’s the horrible thing that happened to the bad guy when he was a kid and that’s why he wants to kill people.” They did it in an incredibly original way — basically establishing her as bad made people accept that and then, in the last moments, she tells this story about “Jeopardy!” of all things. Immediately, you just have this flood of compassion for her — at least I did. Her, as a person, saying, “I won all this money, but I couldn’t leave my abusive husband” — how she wasted her life. It’s just a beautiful piece of writing.

Did shooting that episode feel different while you were in it?

Yes, and the most special part about it was that the writers got to write that script. I still got to play Kevin Garvey, it was just a demented, James Bond, burdened version of him. [laughs] It was cool in that I had this skill set that I don’t really have in life. It has this sort of dream logic where, yes, if a bellhop bursts into my room and tries to stab me to death, all of a sudden I’m a great fighter. But again, the character still remained the same which was what was so impressive about the script. I knew there was a high bar for failure if we didn’t do it correctly. So I think we all really worked extra hard on it to try to service what had been given to us.

[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This campaign is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This contenders may be underdogs, frontrunners or somewhere in between. More importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]

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