‘Maniac’: Justin Theroux Needed ‘a Palate Cleanser’ After ‘The Leftovers,’ So He Built a Mad Scientist With Mommy Issues

Justin Theroux talks to IndieWire about the role he calls "a big pack of Listerine breath strips."
Justin Theroux and Sally Field in "Maniac"
Justin Theroux and Sally Field in "Maniac"
Michele K. Short / Netflix

Justin Theroux said his “Maniac” alter ego, Dr. James K. Mantleray, owes everything to his wig. “I was like, ‘This wig is terrible,'” he said, recalling its tar-colored tufts. “‘Why don’t we play it as an actual wig?’ So, instead of just being a character with dark hair, let’s play it like it’s actually something he puts on every morning.”

Though Theroux’s character was initially “ill defined,” the hairpiece helped him locate Dr. Mantleray’s core. “He’s literally covering something up every day,” he said. “It reminds me of that famous Charlton Heston [story] where he went into a makeup trailer with his toupee on and said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have to wear a wig,'” Theroux said, laughing. “And then he made the makeup people cover his wig with a bald cap and then put another wig on that wig.”

From finding the comic extremes in his character to grounding the mad scientist in the altruism of his efforts, Theroux functions as the foundation for a series as experimental as its lead doctor. The screenwriter-actor was offered the part — a disgraced scientist trying to cure sadness with a series of high-intensity pills — when Mantleray was a work-in-progress. He knew Somerville as a writer-producer on HBO’s “The Leftovers,” and knew Fukunaga socially since “forever.” The “Maniac” creative team told him to “just have at it,” trusting Theroux to add details like his distinctive voice, movements, and hair (or lack thereof).

Justin Theroux in “Maniac”Michele K. Short / Netflix

The opportunity was well timed. Following three intense years as the straight-laced, gravely serious lead of “The Leftovers,” Theroux was ready for a break. “It was just fun,” Theroux said. “It was an absolute palate cleanser, and obviously so far away from [dark tone] Kevin Garvey.” Theroux said building Dr. Mantleray allowed him to “shake off the other stuff” and compared the shift between making the emotional HBO drama and the bizarre Netflix comedy to eating “a big pack of Listerine breath strips.”

Theroux said as shooting began, “we discovered that we could go much further with him. He’s arguably the most neurotic of the characters, and that’s saying something because everyone is so bananas. […] We knew he was an odd guy, but we made him much odder. He works in this corporate, pharmaceutical world for this Japanese company, and I thought it was interesting to make him one of those ‘Japanophiles’ — an appropriator of sorts.”

Driving his behavior is a complex relationship with his mother, a famous self-help guru known as Dr. Greta (Sally Field). Through pained phone calls and uncontrollable outbursts, Theroux’s “Jamey” (as she calls him) makes clear how much he simultaneously loathes and loves Mom.

That’s never more apparent when when a taxing set of circumstances strikes Dr. Mantleray into a fit of blindness. Theroux thrashes around the room, attempting to climb through the window so he can escape his mother as she chases him around a locked office. An orderly watches from outside, unamused at his preposterous superior. “That’s probably the hardest scene,” said Theroux. “According to all the research I did on hysterical blindness, they don’t even know if it’s really a thing,” Theroux said. “So maybe he can see […] I don’t know.”

Theroux described that scene as “literally being allowed to chew scenery,” but his version of Mantleray is more than comic relief. The character became so integral, he ended up with three introductions: His first appearance in the flesh (so to speak) is when Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) walks in on a bald Mantleray having virtual sex with the “High Priestess of Atlantis” — a winged purple woman with red hair. Before that, he’s seen hosting cheesy welcome videos for patients starting their drug trials. What could have been painfully blunt exposition, as scientists explain direct-to-camera how the process works, turns hilarious thanks to “terrible” graphics and Theroux’s deliberately stilted dialogue (Theroux read off a teleprompter rather than learning his lines).

But it’s Mantleray’s first impression that proves his significance. Theroux narrates the series’ opening scene, waxing poetic about amoebas, cosmic orgies, and hypotheses in a voice Theroux called “slightly breezy, [but] pressurized.” Somerville said he considers that voiceover “a thematic stamp on the show.” He liked how the “grandiosity of Mantleray’s point of view” could hint at the depth within “Maniac” while also “mak[ing] fun of ourselves a little bit.”

Maniac"Maniac" Justin Theroux Episode 8 Netflix
Justin Theroux in “Maniac”Michele K. Short / Netflix

Mantleray is also the only character in “Maniac” given an indefinite ending. While storylines for Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) conclude, there’s a thread left hanging for the good doctor. [Editor’s Note: The following three paragraphs contain slight spoilers for the ending of “Maniac.”]

After disappointing his boss, Dr. Mantleray is promptly fired. But before leaving with his friend and “intimate” partner Dr. Fujita, he’s told some of his work might still be “useful” to his undisclosed employer “in a private manner.” It’s the sort of vague line that might suggest “Maniac” could be an ongoing series. What it all means for Mantleray remains a confounding tease to the audience, and, it turns out, Theroux.

“I don’t know,” he said about what’s implied. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and the actual boss is just saying he’ll have usefulness elsewhere to give the audience hope that he’s not being completely run out of town.”

Theroux said he also shot a sequence that didn’t make the cut in which Mantleray and Fujita were sent to a “dormitory” to make amends for their failure. “There was an atonement process before being released,” Theroux said. “Not a reeducation camp, necessarily, but just [a place] to atone for how badly they had disgraced the company.”

Despite an unclear future and many peculiar foibles, Theroux had true affection for his mad scientist. From big, broad comedy to tone-setting “grandiosity,” Theroux is the series’ cornerstone, helping connect its many tones and extreme ambitions. He finds the reality in the absurd, and vice versa.

“Sincerity is often the quickest way to find the comedy,” Theroux said. “If the words and the material are there and you just play it pretty straight, it’ll be funny. He’s such a puny man in a weird way, and I like that about him. He has the appearance of being magnanimous, but he’s really pusillanimous. I think you have to adore all your characters, and I really adore him.”

“Maniac” is streaming now on Netflix. Additional reporting by Liz Shannon Miller. 

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