“I liked that he was so vain, so it was a perfect thing to let the audience know right away that this guy is not the person he’s going to present as for the rest of the show,” said Justin Theroux about his role as desperately insecure scientist Dr. James Mantleray in the Netflix limited series “Maniac.” He was talking there about the scene early in the series when Mantleray is caught being sexually pleasured by a virtual reality device. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this character. Theroux discussed the series during an Emmy FYSEE event in New York City along with co-star Emma Stone and creator Patrick Somerville. Watch above.
Knowing how absurd Dr. Mantleray’s actual persona was right off the bat “gave me some fun behavioral stuff to play as far as paying attention to what my wig was doing, putting ChapStick on,” said Theroux. “And also obviously a direct link to his mother: trying to be the better person, or to present as the better person to his mother who he despises.”
“It’s an impossible role,” Somerville admitted, “and it’s sort of the conversation [Theroux and I] had that summer. I was like, this is impossible, will you come do it?” By that, Somerville meant that the character was “comic relief” and “the most ridiculous by far,” but he was also asking the actor to play it with “emotional realism.” That was the only way the audience would care “that his relationship with his mother was fraught and that he was coming undone.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it was working with Theroux on “The Leftovers” that convinced Somerville that he could pull it off. “As serious and real and emotional as your moments are in that show, there was a comic take to each of them that felt like it combined those things,” Somerville recalled. Then he added, half-jokingly, “Of course we didn’t use that because we were trying to depress our audience and make them sad on ‘The Leftovers.'”
But the key for Theroux in “Maniac” was to play it straight. “For anything to be funny, you let the situation be funny,” the actor explained. “It’s my favorite kind of comedy … Just believe it and hopefully then let the words do the work for you.”
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