Justin Theroux on ‘The Mosquito Coast’ and the Perennial Relevance of Allie Fox (INTERVIEW)

Despite the book coming out in 1981, and the subsequent film adaptation hitting theaters just five years later, there’s something timely about The Mosquito Coast. Particularly its main character, the irate, discouraged inventor Allie Fox.

In an era of platformed conspiracists and growing distrust in conventional institutions, Allie’s brand of paranoid delusion and mistrust is practically mainstream. As portrayed in the 1981 novel written by Paul Theroux, Allie hastily relocates his family from the U.S. to the famed “mosquito coast” in Mexico, where his behavior gradually becomes more and more unhinged. It was first adapted into a feature film five years later, which did reasonably well with critics, but less so with moviegoers, despite the star power of mid-80s Harrison Ford. Now, actor Justin Theroux (the author’s nephew) will be telling Allie’s story once again, this time as a producer and star of The Mosquito Coast series for Apple TV+.

“He’s almost like an uber-American,” Theroux says of Allie at a roundtable interview ahead of the premiere. “I mean, I don’t think of him in political terms. I don’t think of him as Republican/Democrat/Independent, anything like that. I think he’s that classic kind of antihero ‘head west’ kind of pioneer. And with that comes an incredible amount of hubris, and a colonial mentality that he can somehow bring wonderful things to wherever he’s going. In Allie’s case, it’s inventions. And as one character really preciently points out, they say ‘you want to get out of America because you hate it, but essentially you are America.’ You’re bringing that with you. You can’t leave your personality behind when you travel.”

While some may have been intimidated to take on a character that was initially created by their uncle, Theroux says it actually helped make the process easier. “I was able to just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, guess what I’m doing Allie Fox,’ which was a thrill for both of us,” he explains. “Also, having a preexisting cordial relationship where I could just ask them anything I want at any time that I want — text him, have coffee with him, so that was really fun.”

Despite the author’s previous claims that the character of Allie was in any way influenced by the author or his family, Theroux did admit that there were “large elements” of the character that were taken from his family. “My grandfather, uncles, probably more than he’d like to admit, Paul himself,” he says. “So, if there’s any sort of inside baseball, it’s that. I was able to sort of just reach into my own memory of these people and pull out elements of them to the playing, which was really a luxury I’ve never had before.”

Though Theroux has a wealth of family memories to help inform how he plays the character of Allie, he’s well aware that his performance will be compared to Harrison Ford’s. “His portrayal of Allie Fox, I think, is unforgettable,” he admits, calling it “that weird thing of where you’re sort of having to try and forget what he did so well.” Still, for this contemporary take, he admits that he’s “working with different materials altogether, the character’s the same, but what I’m doing in our story is different.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised — and I haven’t, nor would I want to do — any kind of side-by-side comparison, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we arrived, just as actors, had the same conclusion on certain things,” Theroux explains. “It’s kind of a bit like [how] you can see two different actors play Hamlet and I’m sure they do wildly different, but at the same time, it is still Hamlet, so you’re going to discover some similar things, perhaps cadence or things like that.”

One of the critiques of the ’86 film was that its feature-length runtime meant condensing Allie’s mental and emotional erosion into vignettes into showcases of extreme examples, which didn’t always come across as organic. As television continues to become the preferred medium for complex storytelling, it avoids that possible pitfall outright. Though Theroux implied there may be more to come beyond the upcoming batch of 10 episodes.

“I actually don’t know how it ends… I mean, our version of it,” Theroux admits. “I know how the book ends, but [director] Peter Weir, at one point, said in the making of the movie, is that it’s anti-Hollywood. It’s so untraditional, because it’s essentially a story that happens in reverse. Normally, a movie begins with there’s a family, oh, now they’re in trauma; now they’re getting themselves out of trauma; now they’re fine. The book and the movie are the exact reverse of that, where it starts with them fine, and then things get worse and worse and worse. I think it’s great for us, because hopefully we’ll have a lot of runway to tell this story over multiple episodes and hopefully seasons.”

“And I don’t know how it’s going to end,” Theroux repeats, adding that “even if I did probably wouldn’t reveal it here.” Though he goes on to say that “what I do like is that these characters certainly have places to go that they haven’t gone yet.”

“It is this sort of series of pricks and fractures that happens to them over the course of their travels, which is very similar to what happens in both the book and the movie,” he says. “So that, to me, is actually the most compelling thing about it —or at least these relationships. Watching [the family] splinter and watching Allie, who really ties himself to the master of his own convictions, weather this storm that is going to continue to unfold… I just find it — at least in the playing of it, I can’t say for the watching of it — is fascinating, you know? And it’s one of the things that I love about him so much is that he is by turns charismatic and interesting and also infuriating. I hope. If I’ve done my job right, that comes across.”

The Mosquito Coast will premiere its first two episodes on Friday, April 30 on Apple TV+

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