What It’s Like to Play an Unkillable Character

The Leftovers’ Justin Theroux talks about matters of life and death in the show’s second-season finale.

Van Redin / HBO

Kevin Garvey had already died twice before the events of The Leftovers’ second-season finale. The first time, he tied a cinderblock to his leg and jumped in a lake—only to have the water drain from a sudden earthquake, leaving him mud-caked and surrounded by dying fish. The second time, he swallowed a cup of fatal poison and was buried underground. He woke up and dug himself out after completing some strange tasks in a strange hotel that was either in his own head or in a supernatural realm.

But The Leftovers wasn’t done with the trials of its leading man, a former cop trying to keep his family and sanity intact in the wake of a mysterious event that made two percent of the world’s population vanish. In Sunday’s season finale, a neighbor shot him in the stomach, sending him back to the purgatorial hotel, where he was forced to sing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” on stage. He returned to the mortal world, stumbled around a town that had been looted and set on fire while he’d been unconscious, and received some rudimentary medical treatment from the guy who’d just killed him.

I spoke with the actor Justin Theroux about what in the world it’s like to perform all of that.

Spencer Kornhaber: The finale was pretty stressful to watch. Was it stressful to film?

Justin Theroux: Sometimes it feels more taxing to watch than it is to do; sometimes it’s the other ways around. It’s a difficult show. It’s physically difficult some times, there’s times when the writing’s just so good that a lot of your work is done for you, and then there’s times when you’re trying to figure out thematically what’s going on.

It’s rich material, and it’s not a lot of easy answers. It keeps eating around the edges of the meaning of life, which is obviously not something that anyone has been successful in doing, ever.

Kornhaber: Did you get a heads up before you read the script that you’d be dying, and coming back, for a second time?

Theroux: No, I did not. I read episode eight and got the shock of my life when I saw I got killed at the end, and I texted Damon [Lindelof] and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.” I was hopeful that when I died I’d go to some other place, which I did. And then when I read episode 10, I thought, “That’s just so fucking great: kill him again in the middle of the episode.”

Kornhaber: Why do you think the show put Kevin through such a wringer?

Theroux: I don’t know. I’d die to be in the writer’s room to see what archetypes they’re stacking against each of the characters. In season one I think it was Job—you can argue that was Matt Jamison’s character as well. And in this one, it’s just that human struggle that’s obviously squared, or amped up, for Kevin. There are so many themes: Is it faith? Is it belief? Is it hope?

Kornhaber: Maybe you pissed off the writers somehow, so that they made you crawl naked out of a bathtub twice and sing karaoke?

Theroux: Ha, I think that was the furthest Damon ever pushed me out of my comfort zone. I’m not a singer. I think in the script he actually wrote something like, “Kevin gets up to the microphone and sings (yes, Justin: sings).” It plays on every fear of mine: public speaking, being at the microphone, singing, and being emotional. It’s a perfect storm of everything you don’t want to do on a day of shooting. I’d much rather be laying in a mud puddle with a cinderblock on my leg. But it I was really glad once I’d finished it, because I’d thought it was a very moving piece of writing, especially the conversation at the bar with the bridge man.

Kornhaber: What did you make of that? He asks why should you be special, why should you come back—and then the show has you come back. Do you think that Kevin actually is being made out to be special?

Theroux: I don’t think so? Obviously something special has gone on because he’s been shot through the body and survived it. You could read into it and go, “Oh my god, this guy is unkillable.” Or you can say “This guy is the .01-percent chance, the guy who got lucky.” It’s the rules of fate that Damon likes to play with: It’s something supernatural, or you’re part of the lucky club. And I like that Damon just asks the question and never answers it.

Kornhaber: But the fact that they sent you back to this hotel twice, does that feel to you like confirmation that that it’s a real place—or just that he’s still insane?

Theroux: It begs the question of did he really die, or did he have some kind of fever dream. I think if I was sitting on the couch I’d say, yeah I think the second time that is the real thing, that is a real place. I don’t know the answers; I’d guess it’s purgatory.

Kornhaber: You pulled off seeming pretty pissed that you’d have to go through this again. Getting out of the bathtub and all of that—from an acting point of view, what’s it like to do that twice?

Theroux: Well the bathtub was like getting waterboarded because you’re lying on your back both times, and no matter how much plastic or wax you stuff up your nose, you feel like you’re drowning. It’s actually a very effective way to get into the scene because you feel like you’re drowning as soon as you tip your head back.

Obviously it builds up the expectation that he’s going to have to go through some sort of similar trial to what he went through in episode eight. So he could be there for days or months or years or even the rest of his life. That’s where Kevin was at emotionally. It was fun to play that. I think he grows into something else once he returns.

Kornhaber: What do you mean?

Theroux: I think his journey is, literally, to be home. I think in the first season he makes this absurd but desperate wish to have his family back, and the second season you could argue that the same thing happens but it does feel different in that he gets it in spades with everyone coming back to him, for better or worse. It’s sort of the “wherever you go, that’s where you are” thing.

Kornhaber: That final scene was surprising to me because it feels like a happy ending. And this is not a show where we’ve come to expect happy endings for things.

Theroux: I agree that’s how it’s supposed to feel. But I think it’s how we feel in life at times when we’ve gone through a trial and succeeded. It doesn’t mean that the trials have ended. Life is hard, life is easy, life gets hard again, life gets easy again, life gets hard sometimes four times in a row. But I thought it was a brilliant ending. It dramatically checks all the boxes; everyone swirls together in this crazy kind of way and Kevin, once again, has delivered his family to him. Whether he takes it again or not, who knows? There are still issues, obviously, with Nora, and his ex-wife. There’s a lot of explaining to do.

Kornhaber: I loved your scenes with John—Kevin Carroll—in this episode, especially when you tell him that you’re not dead by saying “nope.” How do you think about playing those scenes? You’ve always been working on two levels when you talk to him.

Theroux: Well that scene was, I think for me, about forgiveness, and I think for him, it was being forgiven. And also the admission that he doesn’t understand anything. He said, I think, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” That’s the first time he’s ever been on the back foot in any situation. He’s so forward-leaning throughout the season, so proactive about burning guys’ houses down. The only person who can absolve him or at least forgive him for shooting Kevin is Kevin. On first read I was like, “Wait, he just shot me in the chest and now I’m not even bringing it up?” I think “nope” is a great way of pushing the elephant out of the room. And then [Kevin] just says, “It went right through me,” or something like that.

Kornhaber: What did you make of how things ended with the Meg and Evie twist?

Theroux: I think that whole thing of those weak-minded girls being swayed or wanting to be destructive in this miraculous place is a really interesting thing. I don’t know what their motives are really or what the Guilty Remnant’s are in general; I think Kevin said in episode eight it’s to destroy families. But it’s that illogical, fanatical, radicalized way of thinking that clearly somehow infected them either via the Internet or other means.

Kornhaber: Do you have any sense about whether season three is on the way?

Theroux: I don’t. We’re all sort of in stasis right now. It’s obviously up to HBO. I think that everyone on the show would be thrilled to do a season three because we all love the material and we love working together. We realize it’s a rare thing when you have really good material, really good actors to play with, and really rich places to go.

Kornhaber: Are you a Simon & Garfunkel fan?

Theroux: Uhh, no … I mean, yes, I respect them and like them but they kind of creep me out. They kind of remind me of fall days in the ’70s, which, I dunno. They’re kind of haunting.

Kornhaber: What do you make of it being a hotel, that vision of the afterlife?

Theroux: I think part of it was practical; I don’t think Kevin is going to go to a cloud with harps or anything. The show has totally been set in a real environment. I liked the idea of a hotel because it felt contained, a big enough space that you could find locations within it to play the scenes you want to play. If he gets out of it, there’s another world. That’s one of the question I had for Damon: Why can’t he just walk out the front door? He has a job to do if he wants to get home.

I don’t know if you have, but I’ve spent well over one to two months in a hotel. That can start to feel like purgatory as well.

Kornhaber: With Nora and Kevin, do you think everything is healed now, or did you take it as a betrayal for her to walk away when Kevin revealed what was going on with Patti?

Theroux: It was the biggest question mark for me, thinking of it in terms of how I-slash-Kevin would react. It’s a vulnerable thing to say to you’re seeing somebody, especially when they’re quite possibly a figment of your imagination. I was confounded by why she would opt to leave.

But then looking at her point of view, she’s not the portrait of sanity either. She’s throwing rocks through people’s windows and getting shot by prostitutes. And obviously her entire family is gone. If you ask Carrie [Coon], one of her biggest motivating forces is to try and get any semblance of family back. And when the tentpole of that family, i.e. Kevin, says, “Oh, by the way, I’m the weakest link in this chain,” I think it makes perfect sense for her to go, “I’m taking the baby, you can keep your other daughter.”

Kornhaber: Kevin almost seemed to respect that.

Theroux: He tried several different tactics. He said “listen,” he got a little aggressive, he was like “I thought we were going to be honest with each other.” I guess he respects it, though he’s confounded by it.

Once you verbalize something, it can unhinge you even more. I think throughout the season, he was going, “This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening.” And then he vocalized it, once he said “this is happening” with Nora and his ex-wife. Even then, he has this determined way with him. [Laurie’s] saying, “You’re mentally ill, you need medication, you need to go to a hospital and go away.” And even at the end of that he kept persisting and saying, “What if she is real?” So I thought, when we were shooting it, “Yes, he believes it.” It’s what drove him to go drink the poison as opposed to go get some lithium or whatever psychotic drugs he would need to erase her.

Kornhaber: Yeah he chose the totally insane method of dealing with his problem, over listening to a licensed therapist who was his wife.

Theroux: It’s like people who deal with trauma by going to the Amazon jungle and drinking Ayahuasca or whatever. It can seem radical to someone who would never do that, i.e. myself, but for someone who’s in pain sometimes something radical like that could be a cure.

Kornhaber: The finale was the Guilty Remnant trying to destroy Miracle or remove its specialness. Do you think it worked?

Theroux: It depends on the outcome. It’s kind of a classic battle of good and evil. The obvious comparisons are to any radicalized group, like ISIS—not drawing too clear a line between those two things, but I think that Damon was picking at that scab a little bit. What forces lead three very innocent girls to do something so unhinged? What are the motivations at work?

I think that people who gravitate towards that are damaged in some way. Patti lays out in a wonderful way, when she talks about how she was going around kissing babies and the father that left the baby with her. She goes on an emphatic speech and says, “That baby is going to grow up and be just fine.” She’s essentially describing herself, I think, and her abuse at the hand of perhaps her father and also Neil. I thought that was a great way of saying, “I’m damaged goods, and if I can’t be happy no one will.” I’m oversimplifying it, but there is something about people who become nihilistic or who want to destroy rather than create.

Kornhaber: Do you think that there’s an element of teenage rebellion, naivety in Evie going to the GR?

Theroux: I think it’s a little bit of that. It’s that age where a weak position can be construed as strength. It’s like skinheads or something. You don’t see too many people in their 60s who get dragged into that shit. Or their 40s or 30s for that matter. There’s something about cults in general that prey on the young. Charles Manson and his harem [for example].

Kornhaber: Can you relate, thinking back to your teenage years? Any phases?

Theroux: Sure, I considered myself an anarchist, I considered myself—I still am, obviously—distrustful of the government. But I also understand the virtues of civility or democracy and kindness, of course. I wasn’t throwing garbage cans through shop windows.

Kornhaber: Or taking vows of silence

Theroux: Or taking vows of silence. But yeah, it’s age-appropriate to be distrustful of older people because you think you know better.

Kornhaber: Did anything else this season resonate with your own life? Were there any specific experiences you found reflected in the scripts?

Theroux: Obviously I’ve never had audio or visual hallucinations of the sort that Kevin has. Maybe I’ve been as anguished, but not as mentally tormented, as Kevin. But the themes that all the characters go through are relatable. There’s a quest for family. There’s a quest for comfort. For assuredness in the near future. Kevin throughout the whole season was forced to live in the extreme present. I would joke with Damon, does he have a job? Isn’t he applying for a barista job or anything? What’s going on, shouldn’t he be a park ranger with his skills set? How is he fixing up the house? How is he spending his days? I think it’s just a couple weeks, the first season. He obviously has no immediate intention of employment or is in any condition to be employed.

Kornhaber: All season long there were breadcrumbs dropped about Australia, and eventually I thought we’d get there. When you see things in the script that don’t ever get answered do you think the screenwriters are laying plot elements for the future, or do you ever suspect they’re just trying to fuck with us?

Theroux: I definitely don’t think it’s to fuck with you. When you’re building a house you want to put outlets in as many places as possible so if you need to plug something in, you can plug it in. So I think it’s fun gristle to chew on, to go, “Oh, are they going to go to Australia next season?” I will say I don’t think Damon would have planted those seeds if he didn’t, at least in his creative mind, know he could go there. TV shows work with budgets, the actors that are on them have lives, and so in a perfect world maybe he would go to Australia but I don’t think he has decided that and I don’t think he feels compelled to do that. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar, sometimes it’s Australia.