Sundance Features

January 20, 2007

Justin Theroux, Dedication

"If someone as much as crosses their legs you break into a flop sweat. With every frame there's just this anxiety I've never experienced before."

(L-R) Tom Wilkinson and Billy Crudup in Justin Theroux's film Dedication

I heard you got held up at the dentist. How's your tooth?

Dude, I've had the fucking craziest day. I went in for a cleaning, and the X-ray found an infection under one of the back teeth they'd done a root canal on. I had to go into emergency surgery to remove it. So now I'm missing a fucking tooth.

And you called nevertheless. What a guy.

They just loaded me up with a big prescription. Hopefully it won't be too painful.

I'll do my best. I saw a few clips of Dedication, and I got a general idea of what's happening. But I'm hoping you can just kind of run through the story for those of us who haven't seen the whole thing.

It's a love story; whenever I go and describe it I make it sound like a horrible Hugh Grant movie. But it's a love story that first centers around these to guys who are just best, best friends -- Tom Wilkinson's character and Billy Crudup's character. Tom Wilkinson basically dies. They collaborated on children books as well, and when he dies, the dysfunctional Billy Crudup character, named Henry, is forced to collaborate with another writer. And sort of an awkward love balloons. I don't know. I'm terrible at describing it, unfortunately.

What drew you to this story?

Basically the fact that Henry is a genuinely unlikable guy; he's awful to people, and the idea of just seeing how unlikable you can make a character and then redeem him in a love story, I thought that was interesting. Also, it wasn't one of these love stories with a confused guy afraid of commitment but the girl falls for him anyway. This is more of a guy who had genuine obstacles in hiss emotional life that were deep-rooted -- that he had to either confront or just be unable to get out of.

This is your directorial debut. How was it adapting to working behind the camera?

It's a blessing, because when you're an actor, you're sort of assigned your little shade of whatever color you are, and you try to be as many variations of that color as you can be. When you're behind the camera, your palette just fills up with everything. You can make all these choices to create the entire thing. But as far as the on-set experience, it wasn't that different. The creative collaborations are pretty much the same with the people you're working with -- about 200 or so -- and it's the same when you're an actor, I guess. Except when you're a director, the kind of peripheral vision you have isn't what you have as an actor, when you're more single-minded.

You've obviously worked with some pretty important and influential directors in your career. What were some of the tips or techniques you gleaned from individual filmmakers that you had the opportunity to apply on Dedication?

The one thing I learned from Mary Harron was that she was just very soft-spoken -- never yelled, never rushed. The two films I've done with her have been very independent, and by the third day on so many independent films, the director can start screaming his or her head off -- not at the actors, necessarily, but just from the panic of having to finish a film in 20 or 25 days. Likewise, David Lynch -- he's a director with this kind of calm that emanates off of him. It's unbelievable. The one thing I learned was to keep your crew motivated and love your crew; not to tease them with rewards that you never have on an independent film, but to take to genuine interest in their ideas. They're there for a reason. A lot of directors rule Napoleonically, and I think that's a mistake. You can be a good director and still do that, but I think it's a shorter line to what you want by embracing your obstacles, I guess.

You have three projects at this year's festival -- one as a director, two as an actor. How are you balancing them?

Obviously I'll be focusing mostly on the film I directed, because it's the one I'm trying to position as delicately in the birthing canal as possible. Actors have the blessing of going and just having a blast and doing some press. Directors do a lot more fretting, so I guess I'll be pacing a lot more than I have in the past.

So you're experiencing some nerves?

Absolutely. That's the one thing I learned just from the test screenings we've done: If someone as much as crosses their legs you break into a flop sweat. With every frame there's just this anxiety I've never experienced before. When you're an actor, your scene comes on and you tense up a little, but then you're scenes go off. And even if it's a total stinker you can walk away and say, "Well, I didn't direct it."

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