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Justin Theroux on Cary Joji Fukunaga: ‘I Just Like Being On Set With Him’

IndieWire Honors: The “Maniac” star celebrates the eclectic director for the fact that “he's not going to paint with the same color every time.”

Maniac"Maniac" Justin Theroux Episode 8 Netflix

Justin Theroux in “Maniac”

Michele K. Short / Netflix

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On November 1, the 2018 IndieWire Honors ceremony will celebrate seven filmmakers and actors for their achievement in creative independence. We’re showcasing their work with new interviews and tributes from their peers all week.

”Maniac” star Justin Theroux already had a relationship with both of the show’s co-creators before signing up to play mad scientist Dr. James K. Mantleray, having known showrunner Patrick Somerville from their time together on “The Leftovers.” But being directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga for every episode of the surreal Netflix series exposed him to the IndieWire Honoree’s detail-focused approach to collaboration, one that allowed Theroux as well as stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill to “get a little jazzy with it.” Theroux spoke to IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller.

What was so thrilling about “Maniac” for me was that I started looking at some of the concept art and the tone, and once Cary started explaining some of the overall tone of it, I was like, “Oh, we can go a bunch of different directions. We can try a bunch of different things and see what sticks.” He was very collaborative like that. He’s not one of those directors that’s trying to get you to sing in exactly the same key that he wants you to sing in. He’s sort of like, “let’s find our own notes and get a little jazzy with it.”

The first time I met him was through just a mutual friend in New York City, on a purely social basis — I went out to dinner with him, and my first impression of him was that he was incredibly intelligent. It was when he was gearing up to do what was going to be “The Alienist,” and we had long conversations about New York in the era that “The Alienist” is set, a wide-ranging discussion on Edgar Allan Poe, the neighborhoods at the time. He just struck me as incredibly bright.

It was just one of those good dinner table conversations, more than anything else. It wasn’t so much about the industry or the business or execution. It was about the material.

As a director, he’s very exacting. In composition, you definitely see that he had worked in the camera department because more often than not, he’d leap up from the monitors and come over grab the wheels of the camera and start spinning it into the position that he wants the framing to be. He spends a lot of time talking to his cameraman: It has to look like this. It has to move like that. He’s very specific like that.

As far as actors goes, he’s really just sort of adjusting treble and bass on everybody. And going, “Yeah, I love that. Let’s try it a little bit like this.” Or, “Let’s have them come into it like that.” He’s really fun. You feel well taken care of, but you don’t feel like you’re wearing a shock collar or anything like that.

I don’t know if it’s different from set to set for him, but I found ours hilarious. Some of the stuff that I was shooting, some of the scenes we were doing, we spent an enormous amount of time laughing our heads off between takes. It’s sort of a cliché to say, “I just loved everybody involved,” but it’s true. Emma is obviously extremely funny, Jonah’s very funny. Cary’s very funny, Patrick’s pretty funny. I just enjoyed that group. It’s sort of the wonderful part about arriving on a friendly set, that it can feel at its best like sort of a great summer camp. That was the case here. Which is not to say that the artistry that he was doing was accidental. It was entirely intentional, but I just thought it was fun.

I just like being on set with him. You know what I mean? That’s oftentimes 40 percent of what makes you want to go to a set. I would trust that he would make it fantastic.

He’s worked with some incredibly heavy presences on set. Whether it’s “True Detective” or “Beasts of No Nation,” he’s got a very good, healthy sense of self and confidence to walk onto a set with those kind of people. He’s pretty confident in what he does.

Each thing he does is so singular. One of his huge strengths is that he’s so different, almost from project to project. He shows enormous flexibility and style. It’s impressive that he can handle different genres and aesthetics even.

I think he shows incredible range, whether it’s shooting “True Detective” in the South, which has this incredible feel, the alternate future of “Maniac” or it’s James Bond. It’s not like he’s locked in. He’s not going to paint with the same color every time.

Regarding James Bond: I was ecstatic for him. I’m like, “For real, he’s going to crush that.” I have no clue what his James Bond will be like, and that’s kind of what makes it exciting.

I can tell you it probably won’t be trying to imitate anyone else’s version of it, is my guess. Obviously they’ll be certain things that are stock Bond, but I would bet that it’s not going to feel like it’s the next obvious film for the franchise. At some point, James Bond will wear a tuxedo. I’m sure he’ll have some gadgets. I’m sure there will be some action. The predictable points will be there. I’m also sure he’ll find another way to do it.

He’s out there in the world, dancing between the raindrops a little bit. He just have to thin it down, which  will be a virtue, and will serve him well moving through his career.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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