How does one become a screenwriting rock star?
Well, you only have to do two things:
1) Write a screenplay that becomes a movie starring Tom Cruise.
2) Date Jennifer Aniston.
But here’s the tricky part, you have to do them both at the same time. Yeah, I know that last stipulation is a killer for most of you. (And really makes it tough for female writers.) As far as I know there is only one person who fits the above qualifications.
Justin Theroux. Screenwriting Rock Star.
How does one go from zero to a rock star? I’m not 100% sure, but I think it has something to do with not exactly starting with zero.
Let me unpack Theroux’s journey. Hang with me, it’s quite a trip.
First the name Theroux is not foreign in the world of American literature and movies. Paul Theroux has written more than 45 books (novels, shorts stories, non-fiction travel) and a few have been made into films, the most well-known being The Mosquito Coast (1986) which starred Harrison Ford. One of Paul’s sons, Louis Theroux is a journalist turned documentary filmmaker, and another son Marcel Theroux is a British writer with four published novels. So we can agree that Paul has quite a literary family, correct?
Paul Theroux is Justin Theroux’s uncle. According to a 2001 Washington Times article, Justin’s mother was a writer for the Washington Post. In another older article Justin called his father a good painter turned wealthy corporate lawyer in Washington D.C.. His parents divorced when he was young and he’s described his childhood as “relatively normal middle class,” with no thoughts of being a writer. At the age of 14 Justin began attending a boarding school in Massachusetts. He also started acting and discovered punk music around that time. He would go on to graduate from Bennington College in Vermont where he studied visual art and drama.
“I’m pretty easy to please artistically. I can be inspired by a rusty length of chain, or a car battery if it’s the right color.”
After Bennington he entered the British America Drama Academy where he performed Shakespeare. He moved to New York and made a living painting everything from t-shirts to billboards. He also got involved with the Roundabout Theatre and Actor’s Playhouse and this is where things really get interesting. He performed in the revival of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. For what it’s worth, I happened to catch that show in New York. It was only a six week run because many of the cast were working in Hollywood and could only take a pay cut for so long. (Eric Stoltz said in an interview he made $1,000. a week doing the play. He told the New York Times, “Doing something like this is more enriching than doing a film. Ideally, we’d be getting $20 million to do Chekhov and people in silly movies would be getting B scale.”)
It was February of 1997 and Three Sisters was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. (It was also my first trip to NYC—one glorious weekend.) I went to see Three Sisters because it was Chekhov and the cast included Stoltz, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Lili Taylor, Amy Irving, Jerry Stiller and David Strahairn. It also included actors who would become quite famous later; Billy Crudup, Calista Flockhart, and Paul Giamatti. So Justin earned his way on the stage with some talented actors. But it was his friendship with Tripplehorn that would lead him to eventually gaining a writing credit on Rock of Ages.
Tripplehorn was dating Ben Stiller and introduced Justin to Ben beginning a long friendship. And while Justin’s had a long run as an actor (including a part in Stiller’s Zoolander) his first credit as a writer was on Tropic Thunder which Stiller directed. And, of course, that movie had a memorable character named Les Grossman played by Tom Cruise. He then earned a writing credit on Iron Man 2, and today he’ll watch a film he wrote (credited with Chris D’Arienzo and Allen Loeb) fill theaters—all with Jennifer Aniston by his side.
“The media’s always talking about overnight success. There’s no such thing. My friend Calista Flockhart [the star of tv’s Ally McBeal] is a good example. She’s been doing plays for years—11 or 12 years. Nothing overnight success about her.”
2001 Interview with Sibella Giorello
Sure Justin Theroux probably had a little more coin and connections in his family than the average person, but you’ve got to think there’s a little more than average literary talent in those family genes. And there’s also the training and time to factor into the equation. From acting as a teenager, through college plays, performing Shakespeare in London, and Chekhov on Broadway, to acting in films and Tv shows—there’s more than 25 years of dramatic work that prepared Justin Theroux for this day.
He put in his 10,000 hours (of drama) before becoming a screenwriting rock star.
In getting caught up to Theroux’s recent success, it would be easy for someone to say, “Well, yeah, his uncle is a famous writer,” or “If I had a rich dad….” Which is why I wanted to show the bigger picture. All of this reminds me of a discussion that happened in an acting class I had in L.A. when I was 21 and everyone was talking about Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez getting roles because their dad was Martin Sheen. Visiting casting director Tony Shepherd said, “There are a lot of things that will get your through the door, but you have to stay in the room with your own talent.”
P.S. So does the East-coast raised Theroux have any wisdom for screenwriters living outside L.A.?
“Someone said, ‘Never fly yourself to L.A. Always let someone else fly you there. ‘ I actually took that advice, and I was in New York a long time. But I ended up having my first ticket bought for me to Los Angeles.”
Screenwriting U Interview with Jenna Milly
In otherwords, earn your way to Hollywood. And you might find this helpful from the same interview.
“I think the ability to throw out your own material is really important. Because everyone has an opinion on what you’re going to write. From the studios, to the actors, to the directors, whatever. So you get your sandcastles kicked over a lot, you know? So if you’re going to get your feelings hurt then you should be writing novels—and even then you’ll have an editor who’s going to knock you around. I’m a believer that the more sandcastles you build the better the sandcastles you’ll eventually build.”
May we all build better sandcastles.
Update: Before there was Rock of Ages the movie there was Rock of Ages the musical written by Chris D’Arienzo. He graduated from Paw Paw High School about 15 miles from downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan. I’ll see what I can uncover and write about him next week. What’s funny is just a month ago I wrote a post called Kalamafrickin’zoo’s Talent Pool and didn’t have D’Arienzo on that list.
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Thanks for the Plug TomCruise.com (My respone to post on TomCruise.com called Guide for Aspiring Screenwriters Part 1: Story Matters Most When Writing a Screenplay! )
Scott W. Smith
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