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Justin Theroux On Kevin Garvey’s Journey In ‘The Leftovers’

Actor Justin Theroux looks back over three years of HBO’s The Leftovers as the critically acclaimed series gears up for its finale next week.

The Leftovers concludes its 3-season run next Sunday night, and actor Justin Theroux remains incredibly proud of each and every moment. After a warm critical reaction to Season 1, the series received massive critical acclaim with a thematically expanded Season 2 and an emotionally devastating Season 3. Yet, Theroux looks back over the arc of the season and his character, Kevin Garvey, and attests to the quality of each outing. Talking to him over the phone, Theroux praises series creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta as well as executive producer and director Mimi Leder for pushing the material and the cast to greatness.

But the journey to greatness remains in the highly capable hands of Justin Theroux as an actor who completely embodies Kevin Garvey. Theroux’s “everyman” qualities help navigate audiences through challenging and engrossing material. His Season 3 arc largely revolves around a group of people claiming Kevin embodies the return of Jesus Christ. Someone even reveals “The Book of Kevin” in Episode 1. Through it all, Theroux’s performance gives the audience an emotional touchstone, an entry point through which we relate to the otherworldly material. His Season 3 performance, as well as his series-wide work, places him on several Emmy short lists for Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

Here, Justin Theroux talks about what it’s like to play Kevin Garvey, what Kevin ultimately believes, and what the series means to him as it concludes June 4.

Justin Theroux
(Photo: Ben King/HBO)
So, Justin Theroux, as an actor, describe playing Kevin Garvey over three seasons of The Leftovers?

It’s been incredible. It’s really been a gift. There have been a few times in my life where I think we realize we’re doing something special, or you feel like, “Oh wow, I’m on the Yankees for a minute!” That’s kind of how I feel about this show. The writing on this show is so incredibly muscular and dense. It’s a gift when an actor gets scripts that are this tight. I’ve appreciated it the entire time I’ve been doing it.

Going into Season 3, were you aware that Kevin would be considered something of a Christ-like figure after returning from death in Season 2?

I did know, but Damon sort of picked a spot on a map – figuratively and literally. I knew where we were going, but I just didn’t know what arteries we would take to get there. When someone tells you to grow a beard and you’re going to Australia, you start to get a hint. We’ve always had a very good relationship as far as explicitly telling me where we were going. I’m OK with him constantly surprising me when we do get a script. He did tell me that was going to be one of the themes for my character, but much in the same way as Season 2 where he told me I’d be having “psychological trouble.” I never could have predicted how or in what way Kevin did eventually.

Yeah, looking all the way back to Season 1, I never would have imagined this is where the series would go.

Never!

So, what’s going on internally with Kevin while everyone makes this claim?

As an actor, I’m just trying to be as clear a mirror to reflect the writing as possible. I contend that Kevin’s whole journey since the pilot exists as this Job-like trudge towards getting his family back together and wondering why he can’t wrap his arms around it and make it stick. Even in this season, I think he sees the Book of Kevin and everything else that projects on his as an annoying distraction to his ultimate goal of fixing his relationships with his children, his girlfriend, and trying to create a new life for himself.

In the second episode of Season 3 where he says he wants a baby, Nora just laughs at him because he’s sitting there with a bag on his head. I think he’s sincere. That’s what he wants. Continually throughout the show, he wishes for family, and he gets something that resembles a family. Yet, it’s not how he imagined it. With Season 1, he begged for Laurie to come back. In Season 2, he has a kid, moves to Texas, and his problems followed him. Season 3 seems similar although it takes many different paths. He finds meaning in his family, but the whole “Christ” thing is just this added level of frustration… particularly since he doesn’t have that control of the narrative.

I’m glad you mention that Episode 2 scene between Nora and Kevin. That’s the scene I point to when people say, “The Leftovers doesn’t have a sense of humor.” 

[Laughs] I know! It’s the comedy of life. That’s what I love about it. It is so grounded in its own reality. I constantly compare it to Chekhov. There are times when Chekhov is riotously funny and terrible things are happening.

Let’s jump forward to Episode 7 (“The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)”). Was it tricky for you as an actor to play two different versions of Kevin?

It’s tricky only in that it takes more time. You have to rehearse both parts. I was very lucky in that we had an Australian actor who came in and knew all the lines and was able to play both parts with me in those rehearsals. He wanted to be very faithful to what I did on the other side of that table. That proved enormously helpful, and of course, Ann Dowd is just the Babe Ruth or Michael Jordon of actors.

That looked tremendously fun to play those scenes with her.

She’s just so much fun to work with. I was glad she came back, and we could play in the sandbox together again. We just love each other personally so dearly.

You’ve mentioned before that you think Kevin is either at least an agnostic if not outright atheist. Yet, he experiences this entire other world and interacts with individuals therein. What does he actually believe? Does he secretly believe in a Heaven?

I don’t want to spoil anything. I’ll say this. I don’t think he believes in Heaven. Again, he’s sort of an atheist with desperate hopes to be agnostic to deliver him to some sort of belief system. I think all the stones throw at him, I think he justifies them as his own brain. He thinks there’s some kind of psychological explanation, or he thinks that this is something that just happens.

It’s why he calls Laurie (Amy Brenneman) and uses her as the sounding board for what’s happening to him. She’s the one person he trusts because they’re not in a relationship anymore, but they still love each other. He uses her for the clinical explanations she gives of what’s happening to him. Sometimes he believes. Sometimes he does not. He lives in the world of facts and science and needs those things. That being said, he is willing to strap himself to a board and get drowned a couple of times. [Laughs] He must believe that he can do something somewhat supernatural.

In the end, Kevin starts a nuclear war that destroys “Heaven” or whatever place he’s in. He then comes from from the dead again with the apocalypse seemingly abated. Do you think Kevin achieved what his father could not? 

I don’t know. I think the nuclear apocalypse can be seen two ways. You can see it as Kevin pushing the button to explode it all and save humanity by doing that. As a result, that delivers the whole Christ metaphor. Or did he basically just obliterate his shadow self and heal his shadow self by doing that? You can play it both ways.

Justin Theroux
(Photo: Ben King/HBO)
Absolutely. That level of interpretation effectively becomes one of the most brilliant things about The Leftovers. You can play it many ways. It’s open to so many interpretations. Years from now, people will still study this series for its incredibly rich meaning.

I think it’s such a dense series. In the reading and in the performing, I have so many “OH!” moments where connections become more apparent. You can analyze the series to death, but it’s not a puzzle box. It’s very different from Lost or anything Damon did before.

Looking back over the three seasons, what favorite moments will you take away from the series?

Wow, I don’t know. I don’t have any particular favorite moments. When Damon and I were originally discussing the character before we knew each other well, I asked him, “My biggest fear about doing a series is we’ll get stuck in a rut where we painting the same barn over and over again in a slightly different color.” He came back at me quickly and said, “Oh trust me. I’m going to work you hard.” That was the gentlemen’s agreement we had. Boy, did he prove that to be true. I never put any scene into neutral. We always gave 100 percent in every scene we had. A lot of that credit goes to Mimi Leder too who told us we need to go deeper, darker, and dig. I’m just very proud of the entire series.

Awesome. What’s next for you?

Oh, a very serious project called The Lego Ninjago Movie. It’s my immediate sorbet palate cleanser for The Leftovers.

The Leftovers concludes Sunday, June 4, on HBO at 9pm ET.