Josh Rottenberg
February 17, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

If you were to walk through the lobby of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and spot Justin Theroux sitting at a small table — dressed in black from his fedora to his leather boots, drinking espresso and chewing an occasional piece of Nicorette gum — you’d probably recognize him from, well, something. You might remember him from his roles in films like American Psycho or TV shows like Parks and Recreation and Sex and the City, in which he improbably played two different love interests for Carrie Bradshaw in two different seasons. (”Apparently it’s a Trivial Pursuit question,” he says.) Perhaps someone would whisper to you that he’s a hot screenwriter thanks to hits like Tropic Thunder and Iron Man 2. Or, if you’ve been anywhere near a supermarket magazine rack recently, you’d know him, as he says drily, ”from my role as the Boyfriend in a Relationship” — with an actress named Jennifer Aniston.

More than most actors, Theroux is a moving target, bouncing between small roles and big ones, art films and blockbusters, dramas and comedies, TV and film. ”I’ve had the most unpredictable career path — it’s really a career stumble,” says the actor, 40. It’s fitting, then, that Theroux’s latest film is called Wanderlust. In the R-rated comedy, which was directed by David Wain, Theroux plays a charismatic, not entirely trustworthy commune leader named Seth who seduces a stressed-out New York couple (Aniston and Paul Rudd) into joining his backwoods utopia. With his long hair, bushy beard, and it’s-all-good hippie vibe, Seth could not be less like Theroux himself. (”I own one pair of flip-flops and that’s it,” he says. ”I don’t like loose clothing — it always makes me feel slightly out of control.”) But Seth’s got a quality Theroux loves to portray: ”Sincere insincerity,” he says. ”My wheelhouse is douche bags.”

His wheelhouse is actually a lot bigger than that. The Washington, D.C., native grew up among writers. His mother is a journalist and author, and he is the nephew of travel writer Paul Theroux and poet and novelist Alexander Theroux. He initially planned to be an artist; acting was his second love. ”I thought I was going to be a guy who painted and smoked and didn’t do much of anything else,” he says. But in the mid-’90s, acting work in the New York theater led to small parts in movies like Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. ”Justin was always tough to put your finger on,” says Rudd, who has known Theroux since they were both up-and-coming actors in New York. ”He’s always had a bit of mystery about him. He’s a creative guy who has all these different interests, and I think he gets bored with just one thing.”

In 1997, Theroux met Ben Stiller during the run of a Broadway play he was doing with Stiller’s then girlfriend Jeanne Tripplehorn. At first Stiller wasn’t sure what to make of Theroux, who wore all black, rode a motorcycle, spoke Chinese, worked as a bartender to pay the rent, and decorated his apartment with interesting things he found in Dumpsters (a salvaged toilet served as a candelabrum). ”I thought, ‘Who is this guy?”’ Stiller remembers. ”He seemed like kind of a New York hipster dude. But when I got to know him, I quickly realized he was the real deal.” Theroux showed Stiller some stabs he’d made at screenwriting, and the two soon began kicking around an idea for a comedy about self-important Hollywood actors who are filming a war movie and blunder into a real war — an idea that would become 2008’s Tropic Thunder, co-written with Etan Cohen.

”Ben was really the first person to believe in my ability as a writer,” says Theroux, who went straight from Tropic Thunder to writing Iron Man 2. Since then he has worked on the screenplay for the upcoming musical comedy Rock of Ages and recently finished co-writing Zoolander 2 with Stiller, a project Theroux hopes to direct. He’s also developing an animated show for Fox about a left-leaning Archie Bunker-type dad. ”Now all of a sudden I have a seat at my own family table,” he says of the writers in the Theroux clan. Then he laughs. ”Although I don’t know if they altogether respect [my screenwriting], because it’s been a lot of fart jokes.”

For years Theroux considered it a mark of his success that, aside from the occasional David Lynch freak who’d approach him to ask about his work in Mulholland Drive, he was enough of a chameleon that he wasn’t often recognized on the street. In the past year, though, because of his relationship with Aniston, he’s had a crash course in navigating the world of paparazzi and tabloid headlines. ”That’s definitely new for me,” he says. ”She’s a pro at it, though. I take a lot of my cues from her. But it’s just something that…” He pauses. ”What’s the other option? I’m not going to let them dictate the way I want to live my life.”

Despite what’s been reported, Theroux and Aniston didn’t actually meet for the first time on the set of Wanderlust. ”We met around five years ago when I was working on Tropic Thunder,” Theroux says. ”She was vacationing on Kauai with her friend Courteney [Cox], and I met her one weekend.” While Theroux would love to keep the relationship private, he knows that Aniston’s personal life is its own strange reality-distortion field, making him a new character in a soap opera. ”I’m fully aware there’s some other me walking around out there that has nothing to do with me,” he says. ”I have a good friend in the industry who, when this first started happening, said, ‘They’re going to start writing a narrative for you that’s completely inaccurate. You can either kick back and laugh at it or you can try to chase it.’ I’ve chosen to kick back and laugh at it as much as possible.”

On any given day, the tabloids are reporting one of several mix-and-match story lines: Aniston is pregnant. Aniston is not pregnant. The two are getting married. The two are breaking up. ”If you say everything, eventually one of those things will be right,” Theroux says wryly. ”But I’m here to tell you we’re actually happy and there’s nothing wrong. Unfortunately, that’s less interesting than ‘Everything is falling apart.”’ For an actor, he says, the spotlight ”makes your job more difficult — I’ll need bigger and bigger beards and glasses and wigs to disappear into roles. But the heart takes you wherever it takes you.”

The lunchtime crowd at the Chateau is thinning out when John Krasinski and his wife, Emily Blunt, come over to say hi. ”I saw a hat at a jaunty angle and I thought, ‘There he is!”’ Blunt says excitedly. Theroux jokes with Krasinski about the preview for the Office star’s new movie, Big Miracle. ”I know it’s for 9-year-olds, but f—, it was making me cry,” he says.

Theroux gets ready to head out, picking up his black leather jacket and aviator sunglasses. His preferred mode of transport is a motorcycle. ”There was a period when I was younger when it was all about how fast you can go and how tight you can take a corner,” he says. ”I’m definitely not that guy anymore. Now it’s transportation. But I do like taking long rides on vacation. I can put on an iPod, ride all day long, pull into the hotel exhausted — and do the same thing 10 days running.”

There’s another nice thing about riding a motorcycle, of course: When you put on your helmet, you could be anyone under there.

Justin’s Résumé
His career is all over the place, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tropic Thunder (2008)
Theroux and Ben Stiller spent years honing the script for this Hollywood-skewering comedy.

Iron Man 2 (2010)
The superhero sequel carried huge expectations. ”That was terrifying,” Theroux says.

Zoolander 2 (TBA)
Theroux and Stiller teamed up again on a script for a planned sequel to the 2001 comedy.

Sex and the City (1998-99)
He played two different guys interested in Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) in two different seasons of the HBO series.

American Psycho (2000)
Theroux first landed on many moviegoers’ radars with his role as a Wall Street yuppie friend of Christian Bale’s serial killer.

The District (2000-01)
Working as a series regular on this CBS cop drama didn’t suit the actor’s restless nature. ”It was hard on the spirit,” he says.

Mulholland Drive (2001)
Originally conceived as a pilot for a TV series, David Lynch’s dark meditation on Hollywood featured Theroux as a director.

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)
He put on an Irish accent (and took off his shirt) to play the ex-boyfriend of Drew Barrymore’s Angel.

Six Feet Under (2003-04)
In seasons 3 and 4 of the HBO series, he was a cerebral boyfriend of the tempestuous Brenda (Rachel Griffiths).

John Adams (2008)
Theroux traded his fedora for a tricorne hat to play founding father John Hancock in this acclaimed HBO miniseries.

Parks and Recreation (2010)
Theroux guest-starred in four episodes of the NBC sitcom, playing a love interest for Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope.

Your Highness (2011)
As an evil wizard who kidnaps a princess, he chewed the scenery in this stoner fantasy comedy.

Wanderlust (2012)
”He’s so free and easygoing and doesn’t care,” Theroux says of his narcissistic commune leader. ”I’m the exact opposite.”

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