Mr Jennifer Aniston doesn’t care if you call him that. One of the few men in Hollywood, or indeed the world, to be defined by his wife on a regular basis, he is part of an elite club that includes Mr Scarlett Johansson, Mr Natalie Portman, Mr Theresa May and the soon-to-be Mr Kylie Minogue. If some men might find playing second fiddle to a famous female partner uncomfortable, Justin Theroux merely laughs when I call him by his wife’s surname: “It doesn’t really get under my skin. It’s just one of those things that’s a shorthand for describing who I am.”
Aniston, he says, is “a proper badass. She has lived through a lot of bullshit. Many people would have crumbled under some of the stresses that have been put on her. I’m very proud of her for that, for the way she handles herself. So in a weird way it’s an honour to stand behind her. Truly, in that sense, she’s amazing.” Who wouldn’t want a husband who talks about them like that?
No wonder “Jennstin” are adored by fans. Or that in the wake of Braxit (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce) some responded to the news that Aniston’s ex-husband’s marriage had failed by posting pictures of Jennifer with Justin, looking smug. As some fans put it: “Jen won.”
Jennifer and Justin married last year, at their Bel Air mansion in a secret wedding that was lavish yet casual. The ceremony was kept so hush-hush that some guests turned up wearing flip-flops, having been invited to what they thought was Justin’s birthday barbecue. A-list guests included Courteney Cox, Ellen DeGeneres, Sandra Bullock and Tobey Maguire.
In a way, the ceremony signified the conclusion to the real-life drama that tabloids had made out of Aniston’s life. A saga that started more than a decade ago when her then-husband left their marriage after co-starring in the film Mr & Mrs Smith with Jolie. Later, Jolie revealed she and Pitt had fallen in love on set, which, Aniston told Vogue, was “uncool”. The subsequent craze for “Team Aniston” and “Team Jolie” T-shirts split the public into rival camps. It was no surprise that Team Aniston T-shirts sold fastest; there weren’t many who failed to identify with the agonies of “Poor Jen”, as she would henceforth be universally known.
In the decade that followed, Aniston was cast as some kind of unmarriable spinster as she ricocheted from John Mayer to Vince Vaughn in relationships that didn’t work out. Then Justin came along. Now they are married, speculation is mostly confined to whether Aniston is pregnant or simply had too many burgers for lunch. Since the Jolie-Pitt break-up, there has, inevitably, been a wave of speculation about the state of their own marriage, with the couple forced to deny rumours they are on the verge of splitting after a US gossip magazine claimed Jen had caught Justin fooling around with an ex. He says sardonically: “There are definitely times when I don’t like walking past the newsstand in the US.” Meanwhile, fan conjecture about Jen shows no sign of stopping — since “Braxit”, a rash of memes showing her laughing in delight has swept the internet.
Theroux says Aniston is sanguine about this kind of stuff. His wife, he explains, “understands that she is someone who has attracted, for whatever reason, a level of attention where she’s become this sort of fable, I guess, in some sort of bizarre morality play of what a woman should be”.
It is an unusually thoughtful response to being in the eye of a tabloid storm and revealing of Theroux’s real talent — as a writer. He co-writes with the brilliant comic actor Ben Stiller; together they did the 2008 movie Tropic Thunder, coming up with the film’s infamous “never go full retard” scene. I watched it again before we spoke and was reminded what an acute and hilarious takedown of Hollywood egos it is. It was on that set that Stiller introduced him to Aniston, although they wouldn’t start dating for another three years. She has said that she found him “very sweet”, “but I remember thinking he was very dark. At first you think he could be like a serial killer, but he is actually the nicest person in the world.” For the record, I don’t get the “serial killer” vibe off him today at all — but then I don’t live in sunny LA, where the expectation of how friendly you have to be is absurd.
In red-carpet pictures, Justin had always struck me as looking somewhat waxworky. Today, with messy hair and grinning playfully, he is relaxed and looks cheeky and boyish. Especially when he laughs, which he does a lot. He is cool in a very New York way: a cultured edginess. A former skateboarder who stays fit by biking around the city, he collects old medical equipment, keeping a dish full of teeth in his office. His usual leather jacket isn’t just for effect: he owns a Ducati and a BMW Roadster and once belonged to a motorbike gang called Die Fast.
After Tropic Thunder, he hit his stride as a screenwriter: writing Iron Man 2 (2010), co-writing Rock of Ages (2012) and teaming up with Stiller again for Zoolander 2 (2016), in which they triumphantly murdered Justin Bieber in the first scene and then persuaded the likes of Sting, Valentino and Alexander Wang to make cameos poking fun at themselves.
Theroux sums up his writing method with Stiller as “we get together and we crack jokes”. He’s too self-deprecating to dwell on the fact that his success has been hard-won. Dyslexic with ADHD, he struggled academically, moving school several times. Eventually he graduated in drama and visual arts from Vermont’s Bennington College. Then he moved to New York, becoming a struggling artist. He painted murals in trendy Manhattan clubs (the Palladium, the Limelight). He still posts animé-style sketches on Instagram.
He says he pinches himself at how things have worked out. “A couple of days ago on set, where I was covered in blood and holding a gun, I turned to the director and said, ‘If someone could have told me at 13 that this is what I’d be doing, I would have just got down on my knees and thanked them.’ It never doesn’t dawn on me that I’m having a blast.”
He ignores fame, mostly. He prefers not to read his own press, especially the online comments. “You start to feel like the crazy person they’re portraying you as if you follow that shit. When it first started happening I’d sort of casually pay attention to it, and then I’d realise I was eating poison. Now I just avert my gaze.” Still, he is “constantly surprised” by strangers “congratulating you on the birth of a child. It’s really insane.”
As an actor, Justin’s charms are subtler. His varied career is mainly defined by character roles. He won critical praise playing a director in Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s neo-noir masterpiece, and starred with Aniston in the comedy Wanderlust in 2012 — they began dating after filming it in 2011 — but he’s only recently started to land serious lead roles. For the past two years he’s played the police chief Kevin Garvey, carrying HBO’s eerie drama The Leftovers. But it is because of his role in the hot thriller of the autumn, The Girl on the Train, that we’re talking today.
The film is an adaptation of the British writer Paula Hawkins’s hit novel, which spent 13 weeks at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and is set to be this year’s Gone Girl. It’s a thriller that uses psychological manipulation and messed-up timescales to keep audiences gripped. Shot from three characters’ perspectives, it draws you into a dark triptych where you’re never sure who to believe. The main story follows the descent of Rachel (Emily Blunt) into alcoholism and her obsession with the new life of her ex-husband (Theroux). An unnervingly real portrayal of alcohol dependence, it also explores the stories we project about other people’s “perfect” lives. Although the book was set in London, the film moves it to upstate New York; the gloss of Westchester works well in unpicking the white-picket-fence American dream.