For the record, I wasn’t staring into Theroux’s hazel eyes. I was watching his boxing gloves, conveniently positioned just below his eyes to protect “home base”, the point of his jaw. The funny thing is, even though I do indeed make excessive eye contact with those gloves, I never see the jab coming. A quick right. He tags my left eye and nose but good; isn’t headgear supposed to prevent pain? I wait to feel the blood run down over my lips, but it doesn’t. Theroux pops me again a few times. He’s punching at will now, and I can’t do anything about it.
NONE OF THIS should be surprising, as my biggest previous boxing claim before today was watching Muhammad Ali spar when I was nine years old. I’d never had my hands taped, put on headgear and stepped into a ring with anyone. I recommend it.
A boxing workout is a destroyer, and a rebuilder, of men. We’re in the ring at Gotham Gym in New York City’s West Village, where Theroux lives. Sunshine streams through the front windows, but the dozens of boxing-glove pairs hanging from the ceiling say, “This is where people come to work.”
For Theroux, who at 46 looks single-digit-body-fat lean, boxing is his primary workout. I’m only two years older, but he’s done this a lot, so any other in-the-ring factors like height, weight and reach are meaningless. I don’t know shit.
I don’t feel bad about this. Later, Theroux tells the following story about sparring with a female trainer at the gym who’s about 15 centimetres shorter than he is: “I hate getting hit. And she’s so fast, a better boxer than me, by far. It’s so frustrating. A couple of times she really rang my bell. And I was a combination of hurt-slash-pissed. Am I gonna cry or knock her head off? But I couldn’t touch her. Too quick. But I see that a lot in sparring. People get pissed, get emotional, and that’s kind of the point of sparring: keep breathing, remain loose, not tense.”
That’s exactly what I’m not doing. My endurance is okay, but where I really feel the failure is in my rigid shoulders and arms. At the end, my gloves quite literally start to drop on their own. Keep breathing. Remain loose. Not tense.
A good life philosophy in six words. An actor with some boxing chops takes down the less-skilled writer. A trainer with serious boxing chops takes down the actor. The circle of life? Nope. Not really. Just a healthy reminder that even if you keep breathing and remain loose, not tense, skills matter.
BOTH IN AND OUT of the ring, Theroux handles himself just fine. He seems to have figured out how to engineer his life so that he enjoys it more often than he doesn’t. So work is rewarding more than it is soul-crushing. He’s cruising through his forties looking good, strong and engaged. Pretty much every guy wants to feel like that. Talking with Theroux offers some clues as to how he’s pulled it off. Word of warning: he does make it look easy, but that’s just because you only see the result, not the work he put into it. Remember, the guy’s 46 – he’s been around the block a few times.
Let’s start with range. It’s his professional hallmark. Actor, writer, producer. He played a douchey director for David Lynch in Mulholland Drive, a psycho with a six-pack in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and Evil DJ in the Zoolander films.(He wrote the second one.) He also joined the screenwriter rankswith Tropic Thunder, IronMan2,andRockofAges. The “full retard” speech in Tropic is all his. More recently, he’s gone heavy, headlining HBO’s The Leftovers forthree seasons and taking parts in The Girl on the Train and the underratedNetflixflick Mute. (The sick-o-meter goes to 11 in the latter role.) Which explains why he was grateful when he was offered the action-comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me. “I can tell you I am a spy, and I do dump someone,” he says. “This little bonbon popped up and I love Mila [Kunis] and Kate [McKinnon], so I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go to Budapest and do this. I get to shoot things, blow things up and be a spy for a while.’”
Ask him about his formula for life and work, and Theroux offers the usual annoying answer – “I’m lucky” – and while that’s technically true, there’s more to it than that. (Since we’ve mentioned luck, it would be strange not to mention his marriage to Jennifer Aniston. They announced their separation in February. Theroux doesn’t discuss his personal life with strangers, much less one with a digital recorder. But if “I’m lucky” is a viable explanation for the rest of his life, then it obviously covers romance, as well.)
In the early ’90s, after graduating from Bennington College with a drama and visual-arts degree, he became that stereotypical young New York artist bouncing between acting jobs and painting murals in nightclubs, then expanding into bitsy film roles and, eventually, bigger gigs. In those younger days, though, he felt the pain of things not going the way or at the pace he wanted. “When I was in my early 20s, I was impatient,” he says. “Always wanting things to happen the way I wanted them to happen. And that has gone away. Not completely – because there are definitely things I want to happen in the time I want them to happen. But I don’t lose sleep over things anymore the same way I used to.”
Why? It could be because he’s got a much firmer grip on patience, and a better idea of what choices will make him happy. “I learned – not early, but at some point – if you do the things you like to do, you’ll produce better work. When you’re doing things you don’t want to do, the work suffers. How could it not? You’re not interested in it. I gravitate toward the next thing I think I’ll enjoy, as opposed to things I think would be smart to do or a good career decision.”
He’s also learned enough patience to engage in what might be called deliberate spontaneity: positioning yourself so that you’ll be able to take advantage of opportunities. “I was talking to someone recently about bucket lists, and I was like, ‘I don’t have a bucket list’. In ideal circumstances, the bucket list just starts to happen if you’re leading your life well.”
He offers multiple examples: “I happened to be driving by a skydiving school once and decided to go skydiving. A split-second decision. It wasn’t anything I planned. I always wanted to ride a motorcycle across Europe. I’ve done that three times now.”
The best window into Theroux’s mindset might be his criteria for tattoos. He has a bunch and is never opposed to getting more, but his approach is different from what you’d expect. “I don’t put a lot of thought into mine. I never had a stage when I was like, ‘I want to get a tattoo, it has to be really meaningful, it’s also gotta have a yin and yang in it and be an homage to my mother’. There are a lot of people designing their own tattoos who are frustrating a lot of tattoo artists. I’m real easy. I’ll go in, like, ‘What should we do?’ ‘I dunno, what do you wanna do?’ So it’s kind of when the mood strikes.”
He recently got some sizable ink on his back as a tribute to his deceased pit bulls – a rat for one dog and a pigeon for the other, two denizens often encountered in parks in New York City. His is a life of diversity. And that’s by design.
“I think doubt is a good thing.
We’re all doubting whenever we set out to do something new”
THAT SETUP makes it sound like Theroux glides from one success to the next thinking golden thoughts. Not true. Yes, he penned Iron Man 2 and Zoolander 2,butneither sequel will ever be mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather Part II. He juggled projects decades before the gig economy existed.
An actor and writer lives the freelance life, with the complete set of negatives attached. Lack of security being problem number one. Does he have doubts? Maybe. But negative can be positive. In fact, it should be positive.
“I think doubt is a good thing,” he says. “We’re all doubting whenever we set out to do anything new. But that’s a motivating factor to try to make it good. It’s destructive if you let it creep over the entire process, but I don’t dwell. I doubt things, but I hope things, too. That’s when you give it the best chance of success by working harder or practising or rewriting. That’s how I deal with doubt.” Then he smiles. “Or I just pretend I’m not doubting myself.”
Theroux also understands how to handle situations that aren’t working. “I get up and do what I do,” he says. “When I do things I don’t necessarily want to do, or I get stuck in a situation where I’m like, ‘Oh, this was not the best choice,’ I’m still aware there’s something to be gleaned from that experience. You have to just find some nugget that makes it worthwhile. Otherwise you’ll completely give up. Bad work experiences are instructive: (A) what I shouldn’t do again; (B) how things are done wrong and how I can do better.”
Now we begin to see what kinds of skills matter to Theroux, especially when they’re coupled with keep breathing, remain loose, not tense.
Aside from work, Theroux fills out his life with some genuine loves: motorcycles and dogs. If you ask him about his favourite bike, he rattles off a complete paragraph in one breath. (See sidebar, page 117.) He’s also partial to pit bulls – he’s taking custody of a new rescue dog later in the week. “Dogs do drive you crazy,” he says. “It’s like having a toddler that’ll never speak, and toward the end of their life they get very sweet and tender and break your heart.”
For him, dogs offer companionship, of course, but it’s bigger than that. No matter how good or bad he thinks his life is at any point, they seem to have taught him a little bit about big-picture suffering. “I had one dog, a pit bull who’s dead now, who had night terrors,” he says. “She would wake up in the middle of the night whining and screaming. She was a very traumatised dog.”
Still, there’s nothing like the anticipation of a new puppy’s arrival. Until then, you can probably find Theroux boxing, working on a new script and keeping one eye on the horizon.
As our time winds down, he casually mentions how surprised he was that I jumped into the ring with him that morning. He claims that many students of boxing take a long time to try sparring.
I can honestly tell him that when I got the offer, I didn’t hesitate. Why would I? That’s a mindset he can understand, and an approach I used to be a lot better at. I may never master keep breathing, remain loose, not tense. But a willingness to get into the ring counts as a skill.
In the meantime, may we all push ourselves to a point where we can say something like this: “There’s nothing I’m dying to do. Nothing gnawing at me.” Then Theroux laughs. “There are things I know I will do. I just don’t know what they are yet.” ■