Iron Man 2's Justin Theroux on How He Suddenly Became an A-List Screenwriter
In Hollywood, Justin Theroux puts most other multi-hyphenates to shame. The 38-year-old actor is already well-known for roles in film (Mulholland Drive, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) and TV (Six Feet Under), and he even directed the Sundance entry Dedication, but after co-writing the Ben Stiller comedy Tropic Thunder, he's suddenly become the town's most in-demand screenwriter. Iron Man 2 is his latest credit, though Theroux's got many more scripts on his plate, including Space Invader, Chief Ron, and Zoolander 2, the latter of which he'll direct. (If you'd rather see him in front of a camera, never fear: he'll play the villain in next year's James Franco/Danny McBride stoner comedy Your Highness).
Movieline already teased a little bit of our interview with Theroux; now, here's the rest, where he describes his unlikely career shift, the unorthodox Iron Man 2 writing process, and what he's got planned for the Zoolander franchise.
From my perspective, your opportunities as a writer just took off after Tropic Thunder. Had you been intending for it to become such a big part of your career?
I never thought it would, but I wanted it to become a much bigger part of my career as I was working on Tropic Thunder, just because I really like the way your days work when you're a writer and on-set. I haven't ever not been an on-set writer on the two [produced] movies I've worked on, not really. There's also a certain amount of writing you do when you're an actor -- when you're working with friends, at least -- and I've done a fair amount of my own little punch-ups with other writers on other things that I've worked on.
What was it about being an on-set writer that made you think, "I'd actually kind of like this"?
It wasn't so much being an on-set writer as it was the fact that for better or worse, in the industry in general, actors get to have a say in what they do. Especially if you're working with people who are funny, they might ask for your input as well, and so you get to enact ideas and jokes that you have to want to have in there. I've been working on stuff where I'm allowed to put my two cents in there during the development or the rehearsal process. Especially with comedy, it often sort of encourages improvisations that aren't on the page, that can only happen on set.
I know that you did a lot of the on-the-fly writing with both Tropic Thunder and Iron Man, but from what I understand about Jon Favreau's method, you actually did a lot of on-the-fly plotting with Iron Man.
It's different with Iron Man because when you're dealing with special effects, it's a much bigger rolling stone. Not that Tropic didn't have that, but there are certain things that are changeable and certain things that are unchangeable, effects-wise. But yeah, we were moving heavy pieces of furniture well into shooting. As you shoot them, those things go off the table, obviously, and you can change less and less.
So how would that play out? You'd notice a moment or a plot or some chemistry that you liked, and write more toward it?
It was either that things were going well or Robert would discover something in his character during the day that he'd gravitate to, so we'd write more towards that. Maybe there were scenes that we realized we could deepen. It was very mercurial, changing things, and it was sort of a wonderful way of working. It's not unlike when you do a play or something, and you have around five weeks of rehearsal where you can explore and touch all the walls of the room, so to speak. There are times that you wish you had that on film, because a lot of those times, the first time the actors are even saying these lines to each other is the day they're shooting it. So, if nothing else, a lot of the time we discovered stuff on [Iron Man 2] was that morning, where we'd go, "Oh, [the actors] are doing that, so let's write more toward that." A lot of times, we were just writing stuff on the lunch break for that afternoon's work.
What's a scene that changed a lot through that method?
The Pepper Potts CEO scene is a great example of that. We knew what the scene had to do, we knew that she was going to come downstairs angry and that he was giving his art collection away to the Boy Scouts of America, and at the end of the scene, the objective was to make her the CEO. And then [Gywneth Paltrow came in] with a cold, Robert started riffing on that, saying, "Don't make me sick" -- it's like taking what the day is giving you and writing towards it. It gave us great, real, spontaneous moments where he's remarking, like, "Don't breathe on me," and that just happened to play with the [blood poisoning subplot] with his character, and [Gwyneth's] voice didn't sound quite right, so we had to justify it. It was just like, rather than come in and pretend that she doesn't have a cold and that's not happening, why not write to it and get these great little nuggets of character that fall out of that?
It sounds almost like black box improv, where each actor has an objective and they just go.
That may be oversimplifying it. Robert is an improv baller, so he'll throw stuff in anyway and he's great at it, but we would try to recognize what those things were and write towards them on the day. A lot of times, they would do the scenes exactly as written.
At the Iron Man 2 press conference, Favreau seemed almost apologetic for causing you physical pain on set. What happened?
[Laughs] I slipped a disc in my back. I was sitting in a bad chair on set, hunched over a computer writing for so long, and I tweaked my neck towards the end of shooting. I had to have all sorts of cortisone injections and be wheeled in on a stretcher, practically. I had major back and neck pain.
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