Allie Fox, the escapee from society at the heart of “The Mosquito Coast,” is no fan of any technology he didn’t invent. So it’s kind of a kick to talk to Paul and Justin Theroux on Zoom, a video chatting app that Allie would abhor as intrusive.
Paul wrote the novel “The Mosquito Coast,” originally published in 1981. His nephew Justin plays Allie in the new Apple TV+ adaptation, premiering April 30. (Both men are executive producers). Paul, also one of the world’s foremost travel writers, was working in Hawaii when we spoke earlier this month (“I can see the Pacific Ocean from my window,” he said); Justin was at home in New York. Both were eager to discuss this unique familial collaboration, the story of a disillusioned, egomaniacal white patriarch and his family who must flee the United States.
“Nepotism had nothing to do with this,” Paul said. “This was all a happy accident, but it’s great. I’ve made a number of films of my books, but I’ve never talked to an actor in such a friendly, intimate way.”
Among the other topics on the table when we spoke: the significant differences between the novel, which also inspired a faithful 1986 movie starring Harrison Ford, and the series. In the book, Allie, an inventor thoroughly sick of modern life and convinced the next world war is imminent, uproots his family from Massachusetts to Honduras, where he tries to create a self-styled utopia. Hostile missionaries and other obstacles, including his own delusions, stand in his way.
Some of that could still happen in later seasons of the series. (Only one has been greenlighted thus far.) But for now, Allie and his family, which now includes a teen daughter (Logan Polish), are running from the law for mysterious reasons. They execute a reverse (and bloody) border crossing to Mexico, where they stumble into a fine mess with a cartel lord.
The first season is a tightly plotted suspense thriller and family drama with philosophical heft. Through the course of seven hourlong episodes, it’s also a great example of how to adapt the written word for the screen.
“Hopefully, knock on wood, in subsequent seasons we’ll be getting more into the core themes of the book,” Justin said.
From their perches on opposite ends of the country, uncle and nephew also discussed the familial and political roots of “Mosquito Coast,” the similarities between yesterday and today and the pleasures of portraying a man who is unflagging in his dangerous convictions. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
It’s been 40 years since “The Mosquito Coast” was published. What inspired it?
PAUL THEROUX It was the times, particularly the late ’70s. Japan was flooding the U.S. market with cars and electronic goods. And bank interest rates were at 18 percent. People were blaming the government. I was also thinking about Huckleberry Finn’s father, and Jim Jones, and [the founder of Mormonism] Joseph Smith. I wanted to think of the personification of someone who wanted to leave the country and take his family with him and say: “This isn’t the country I grew up in. It’s gone wrong. Let’s go someplace.”
Justin, can you remember the first time you read the book?
JUSTIN THEROUX I actually have a vivid memory of reading it on a bus going to and from school, when I was living in Washington, D.C. I think it was a couple years above my pay grade when it came out. I probably read it four years later, and it made a big impression on me, especially the character of the son, Charlie, who is the narrator and the P.O.V. I loved it. Then, once the movie came out, me and my brothers and sisters and cousins were all kind of enamored with the fact that Harrison Ford was going to be doing a movie of it.
PAUL THEROUX This was the first book of mine that my kids could actually connect with. My sons, Louis and Marcel, were 11 and 13. Justin was 10, so he was in the same sort of family milieu. I deliberately made the kids in the book the age of my kids so that they could read it and relate to it.
What was it like keeping it all in the family for this series?
PAUL THEROUX Justin independently auditioned for it. I had nothing to do with that.
JUSTIN THEROUX It was one of those happy accidents that it came up on my radar. I raised my hand slightly high and said, “I’d like to at least see the scripts, and if I like them, meet with Neil Cross.” And then I read the scripts, and I thought, “These are fabulous.” And then I ended up meeting with Neil, and then had the joy of being able to call Paul, and, “Hey, I think this is going to happen.” I had an enormous amount of fun, because there are elements to Allie that are absolutely my grandfather, Paul’s father. Just his incredible thriftiness.
Frequently, he would take me and my cousins and brothers and sisters to the dump, like Allie does with his son in the series. He would trash-pick and find books and new pairs of shoes that he’d pull out of a heap and put on our feet.
PAUL THEROUX My father’s philosophy was, if it’s not in the Sears catalog, or if you can’t find it on the beach, you probably don’t need it. Those were the days when the dump was just a big pile of possibility, and my father would pick something up and say, “I don’t need it now, but this is going to come in handy.” And my father was a tinkerer, too, making things, fixing things. He wasn’t brilliant at it, but he would say: “I could do it. Why would you pay someone to do this?”
In the series, the law is coming for the Fox family, though we’re not sure why. In the novel, they leave of their own volition. What was the idea behind that change?
JUSTIN THEROUX I think there were certain decisions that Neil Cross [the series’s creator] had to make when faced with serializing it. The characters are largely the same but updated and built-out a little bit. But when you have that much runway in front of you — it could be two, three, four seasons or more — Neil, I think, smartly made some changes. So the law is now the propellant that forces them out of the country, as opposed to Allie’s own freewill and wanderlust.
Neil was very clear from the beginning: The movie’s obviously been made, and to do a faithful retelling of it in the serialized version would feel like we were maybe eating someone else’s sandwich. But the one thing we had very sharp elbows about was protecting the character of Allie and his philosophy on life and those sorts of things.
PAUL THEROUX The idea of being pursued is terrific for a series. In a movie, it’s different. I think that series are truer to books than films are. A film becomes something else, but a series is like … do you know what a Victorian three-decker novel is? Well, novels used to be trilogies. So when Charles Dickens was writing “David Copperfield,” it was two or three books. It wasn’t just one.
A TV series is a very literary form because it’s in parts: Part 1, then Part 2, then Part 3, Part 4. A film isn’t. A film encapsulates and leaves a lot out, but the detail that you find in a novel can be elaborated on in a series. That’s the pleasure, actually, of a series.
Justin, what drew you to Allie as a character?
JUSTIN THEROUX There’s complexity to the character, but he doesn’t overcomplicate things for himself because he’s obviously married to his convictions. I really like that. I thought it was going to be hard to play. But when you’re playing someone who’s that shiny a penny in his own mind, and that convinced of his own correctness, then it’s liberating. Your whole body opens up, and you think, “Oh, this is really fun.”
He can be by turns extremely charming and funny, but also infuriating. I was thinking of “The Great Santini,” or that kind of classic antihero. He’s not square-jawed and leaning into the wind and can solve any problem that way. He’s deeply flawed, but I just found him really enjoyable.
Paul, can you see similarities between the time the novel was written and today?
PAUL THEROUX I truly believe that today is a distant echo of the late ’70s. The economy is in the toilet. With the pandemic, there’s also no shortage of people who are saying, “I’d like to leave.” I mean, you probably know them. They’re saying: “I’d like to go to Mexico. I’d like to go to New Zealand. I want to go to Canada. I’d like to go somewhere else.” It’s amazing.
People want to go do what Allie Fox did. Allie Fox says, “I’m taking the best of America with me, and we’re going to remake America somewhere else.” There are plenty of people now saying that very thing. Trust in the government is at an all-time low. So Allie has to leave, in the series, because the government is after him. But he’s the sort of person that would want to go. And he goes to Mexico, which is terrific. I like the idea that he’s crossing the border the other way.
What keeps us from hating Allie, with all of his character flaws?
PAUL THEROUX As a can-do guy, and as an optimist, Allie inspires people to come with him. No one’s going to follow him if he’s downbeat. Justin has that to a T. It’s impressive that he brings his family with him, and that they’re on his side.
JUSTIN THEROUX He’s also not a liar, so he’s not a bastard in that sense. He might commit sins of omission, or he might make a promise that looks very different from what it ends up being. But he’s true to his word.