Justin Theroux On The Cult Of Family In ‘The Mosquito Coast,’ And Whether He’s Done With Comedies

The cult of family is real, sometimes pushing us to defend batshit opinions and awkward behaviors. But how far would you go for family? When I spoke with The Mosquito Coast star and producer Justin Theroux recently, I joked that I wouldn’t follow some members of my family into a Costco, but for the clan around his character, Allie Fox, the answer might well be into oblivion. Which is part of the allure of the series whose first two episodes are available to stream on Apple TV+.

As Fox, a “radical idealist” with a strong aversion to consumerism, pop culture, and authority, Theroux plays a well-meaning but helter-skelter husband and father who takes his family on the run with him. Outside influences are considered instantly hostile or dangerous, and they’re in a kind of trouble that isn’t easily navigated. But he also might represent a kind of trouble that can’t be easily navigated — a patriarch with magnetism and mania at the center of him.

The series is based on the popular novel of the same name that was written by Theroux’s uncle, Paul Theroux, giving him interesting insight into the pieces of his own family that migrated into the DNA of the character. We spoke about that, Theroux’s fascination with cults, and whether second-guessing in comedy means the Tropic Thunder and Zoolnader 2 writer might not be interested in continuing to tackle comedy and satire.

But first, let’s rate the room. Last time I spoke with Theroux, it was in person on a junket for Lady And The Tramp. There were sandwiches that other people paid for (the best kind), I met some cool dogs (all dogs are cool), and Theroux briefly serenaded Tessa Thompson and I with a few notes from, I think Aladdin. This time, we communicated through screens, with Theroux beaming in while he sat, comfortably and luxuriously, in front of a very large fireplace in what looked like a log cabin while wearing a chunky sweater. A kind of arresting site that was so perfect I thought it was a Zoom background until, about five minutes in, his beloved dog walked past, momentarily distracting me. Because, again, all dogs are cool.

I gotta get out of the house.

Look at you, what is this, a ski lodge? Very nice.

[Laughs] I know. Doesn’t it look like that, like a Swiss chalet or something?

Lovely, lovely. So, there’s obviously such a unique relationship between you and this material since your uncle wrote the book it’s based on. What are the challenges of knowing the material that well and what are the benefits?

The challenges are just the normal challenges, which is being slightly nervous about having to create a character that I hope people find interesting. So that’s that. Uniquely, it’s the first time I’ve been in a situation where I knew, obviously, the author and also the people that the source material is sort of based on. The character Allie Fox is based largely, or in part, I should say, on my grandfather, my uncles, and even Paul himself, frankly. And so, that’s the one sort of absolutely unique thing that I can bring to it, which is that I knew these people and I know these people and that can inform the character. And that was kind of thrilling. I mean, they’re sort of Easter eggs that only my family might enjoy, but hopefully, they make the character more three-dimensional

I guess, how detailed of a process is that? Obviously, you’re going off and creating a character yourself. Are you checking certain things with them, or are you just pulling from just institutional knowledge?

I mean, no one likes to believe they’re the one being imitated, so I wouldn’t call them and be like, “Hey, how would you say this?” Also, my grandfather is dead [Laughs]. But it’s just institutional knowledge that I have of my family history. I did do a lot of checking in with Paul for other elements of the character that are unrelated and questions that I had and really picking his brain as to the reason for writing this character in the first place.

The character obviously has very defined feelings on consumerism and he doesn’t trust authority for legitimate reasons. What are your attitudes on that? Any feelings against tech and kind of the intrusion of tech?

No. I mean, I think we all have our own opinions on how much tech intrudes into our own lives. I think the ship has sailed on sort of getting it completely out of our lives altogether. What I really saw in Allie was his opinions are really just a feature of the character. They’re not necessarily my own, although I share some of them. One of the things that I love about him is that he’s chock-full of opinions. He’s the kind of guy that would be a wonderful dinner guest, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to live with him, or, frankly, be him. He’s done something miraculous as we meet him, which is, he’s essentially pulled his family off the grid. I mean, think of the kids that he’s raising. They have no references to pop culture, they don’t have television, they don’t have movies, they don’t even go to school. So they’re sort of a blank canvas for him to instill his own belief systems.

Apart from him being, in a way, all they’ve ever known, why do you think they follow him? I’m curious what it is about the character you think that makes him someone worth following into danger?

That’s a good question. I think we meet these two particular kids at that very particular age, especially Dina, where she’s just shy of a couple of years of being able to fly the coop herself. So when you were a closed circuit, like they are, you don’t really have much of a choice. Later on, you have a little more agency over your person and where it goes. But at this point, this particular point that we meet them, they don’t necessarily have that. And even Dina flees it at a certain point. And then I think eventually, it just becomes sort of a trust exercise. “Okay. Dad, let’s see. I’ll follow you down this rabbit hole.”

Also, I think Allie is incredibly persuasive. In one of the conversations I had with Paul, we talked about inspirations for the character. And he said at the time he wrote this, the big news of the period, right before he sat down, was the Jim Jones mass suicide in the jungle. And he said, “Allie’s by no means a direct comparison.” But he said, “I was fascinated by someone who’s essentially benevolent.” Starts off that way initially, a small-town preacher in the Midwest, who goes to San Francisco and has a very inclusive flock and makes this move to the jungles. It’s Jonestown.” And then cut to, they’re all drinking cyanide and killing themselves for him. There is an element of the cult of family, and Allie has a grain of cult leader in him, I think, where he can be persuasive, or at least hopefully it comes across that way.

It does. Is that a particular interest of yours, that level of magnetism? I know you’ve played sort of a cult leader before in Wanderlust.

[Laughs] Yeah, totally. Absolutely. That’s the forward-leaning comedic cult leader. But yes, for sure. Definitely. I’m fascinated by cults. I mean, I think a lot of people are. You can extrapolate. So like I’m the cult of my dog that I love, or I’m under her spell. It can show itself in many areas; politics, obviously, religion, of course.

Speaking of comedy, I so loved you in that, and also in The Ten. Is that a world that you’re looking to actively still live in and write in? Obviously, Tropic Thunder is another example. Is that something that’s a focus or are you more focused on more serious storytelling right now?

I mean, at the moment I’m more focused on this and probably will be for a bit. I have a couple of scripts that I’d like to push out into the world at some point. But as we all know, it’s getting harder and harder to write… Or at least the kind of comedy that I like. There’s a lot of second-guessing going on. But I don’t know. I mean, it’s interesting to see a lot of comedy people sort of moving into thriller, horror, just other genres. I can’t name, aside from Barb and Star, a comedy that I’ve loved in a long time. It seems like they’re just evaporating.

Obviously, there’s been some reaction after the fact to the Robert Downey Jr. role in Tropic Thunder, or Simple Jack, things like that. Is that part of what keeps you from wanting to fully embrace comedy still?

No. I mean, look, I’ve done that, so I don’t need to do that [in]particular…

When you mention the second-guessing. Is that…

For sure. Yeah. I mean, obviously, I don’t know if… I stand by that movie because the point of, I think, good satire is to point out, in hopefully funny ways, the failings or the ironies of things. So the Robert Downey character was purely [a] reaction to, in our fictional world, of a studio that didn’t have enough imagination to cast an African-American actor in that role. [Laughs] That’s the joke. The whole point is pointing out the lack of diversity in Hollywood. So I stand by it, although I don’t think I’d get the chance to do it again.

You can stream the first two episodes of ‘The Mosquito Coast’ on Apple TV+ with new episodes dropping Fridays.