Apple TV's 'The Mosquito Coast' Is a Family Affair for Justin Theroux
The 'Leftovers' actor talks about working with his famous uncle for the new Apple TV+ series.
Justin Theroux wishes he had the idea to update and adapt his Uncle Paul's seminal 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast for the 21st Century as a television show, but he came along well after the series was already in the works. "I heard that Apple and my uncle were mounting this as a television show, and I thought, hey, I'm right here," he tells Thrillist.
In the latest adaptation of the story of American idealism gone to rot—the first was a 1986 movie starring Harrison Ford—Theroux plays Allie Fox, an inventor who uproots his family. Unlike in the source material, where the trouble starts for Allie when he arrives in Central America, showrunner Neil Cross, of Luther fame, has reimagined the saga as a chase. Here, Allie is being pursued by authorities for reasons that are initially unknown to the audience. Allie enlists the help of coyotes, smugglers, to get his brood into Mexico, where more trouble awaits. Theroux plays Allie with a charisma that can be deeply frustrating as he leads both his loved ones and other people he encounters into progressively more danger with his unearned confidence.
Off screen, Theroux, best known for his work in The Leftovers, posts near constant pictures of his dog, a pit bull mix named Kuma, on his Instagram and co-owns a bar in New York City. We managed to get questions in about a number of his pursuits when given a short time with him.
Thrillist: I have to say, if I had my way I would be asking you 10 minutes of questions about Kuma, your dog.
Justin Theroux: Well, she's around here somewhere. Kuma, where are you? Come over here.
I'm obsessed with the way you serve her dinner.
She just now comes and sits on the table. [Kuma appears on camera.]
Oh my god, she's so cute. But to the matter at hand: You've clearly spent a lot of time with the work of your uncle, Paul Theroux. When did you start thinking about tackling The Mosquito Coast?
I didn't have any hand in the way it was going to be treated. It was, frankly, off my radar. I didn't even know it was happening. I wish I had the idea myself. In my mind, it was a book that was made into a movie and there's no real point in remaking a movie because remakes of movies don't go as well as expected. It had been done. And then I heard that Apple and my uncle were mounting this as a television show, and I thought, hey, I'm right here. In a more formal way I reached out to Neil Cross, who is our writer and showrunner, and said, "Hey, I would love read the script," and I read the script. And then I met with him and we sort of fell in love. The rest is kind of history. I'd love to say this is something me and him cooked up and brought to Apple, and said, "Let's make a TV show." Neil really did the hard work of giving it a reason for existing now and creating changes that are going to propel us through the series.
Allie Fox's rejection of American consumerism and America in general reads a lot differently in 2021 than it did in the 1980s. Did that change how you approach the character?
The one thing that I think almost every American can relate to—I think I can say almost every American, because across party lines there's a deep dissatisfaction and disappointment that things could be better in our country and what those things are tailored to the individual. And I think that's, since the birth of America, been the case. I think of Allie as a classic American antihero in the vein of Jack London or Hemingway. There's a machismo around him that is that über American pioneer spirit. I agree with a lot of the things that Allie says, and I find him fascinating. In the book, in particular, his take—he was doing hot takes before they were hot takes—on a lot of things was fascinating. I kind of describe him as the guy who you would absolutely want to have at a dinner table because he would be riveting or interesting, if nothing else. But you wouldn't want to live with him or be him. He could become insufferable. Essentially, he's a zealot for his own ideology and he tries to indoctrinate that into his children and tries to make them live by the morals that he wants to share with them.
As the episodes go on, his idealism turns him into the stereotype of the "ugly American" when he's dealing with people who become collateral damage during his escape. How were you and Neil Cross thinking about that and the place he occupies as a white man going into Mexico?
It's a colonialist mindset—again, a very American trait—to think that "I'm brilliant, I can invent something and bring it to someone to be helpful to people." That can be true. In Allie's case, in our show, it's refrigeration, done for cheap, but it's deeply baked into the book. The idea of bringing ice to the savages in the book and wanting them to marvel at this cold gemstone, which he brought them. There's a great line in our thing where the character of Chuy in one of the episodes basically says, "You claim to hate America but you are America." You can flee America and you can flee America, and you can throw a grenade over your shoulder and say, "It's done, it's over, I don't want to be there anymore." But you're still going to bring, essentially, the virus with you. I don't mean coronavirus. Your personality travels with you. You don't get to leave that behind either. It's one of the things I find fascinating about the character. I find him riveting. He's, by turns, extremely charismatic, and at other times extremely unlikable. To me, that's what makes a really interesting character. There's the turn of the screw with Allie, the deeper in the quicksand he gets, and the more he flails in it, the deeper he gets buried in his own good intentions.
You mentioned COVID unintentionally. A lot of people have been referencing The Leftovers during this time. Have you gone back to it?
I call Damon, Damon Lindelofadamus because there are so many prescient predictions, from The Leftovers to Watchmen. I'm like, please just write a show where everything's great because clearly whatever you write comes true. People, particularly early in the pandemic, when it was extra alarming, and we thought corona was literally leaping off the walls into our faces and our nasal passages, before we had a better understanding of it, New York looked not unlike several scenes in that show. It just shows what powerful writing Damon and those writers and [The Leftovers author] Tom Perotta did. There are all kinds of parallels—you can make a parallel to 9/11, you can make a parallel to the pandemic—but loss and grief is something every single person on this planet experiences at one point or another, even if it is the loss of themselves. How you process that is unique.
You're in hospitality with Ray's Bar. How have you been rethinking these enterprises in the midst of the pandemic?
My first priority, at least with Ray's, was making sure everyone was safe. Initially, the main concern was making sure everyone still had a livelihood, so we did a lot of drives and GoFundMes for our staff. Now we're back up and running to the point where everyone can keep their jobs. It's not necessarily turning a profit in the same way it was, but that's OK. Forgetting my bar, it's just been devastating, what happened to so many industries, in particular the restaurant industry and service industry. It's been heartbreaking.
What did your uncle think when you took on the role of Allie?
He was thrilled. He got to play the part of proud uncle. I think he's also genuinely, unless he's completely lying to me, a fan. He was a big, huge Leftovers fan. He's an avid consumer of good streaming television. To him, it's a little slice of heaven, he's like, "Oh my god." And it's in the family. He's thrilled by it.