Melissa George, Logan Polish, Gabriel Bateman and Justin Theroux as the fugitive Fox family
Some childhood moments just stay with you.
Others leave such a lasting impression that they guide crucial decisions throughout your life. And then there's the story of Justin Theroux and The Mosquito Coast. When he was a rambunctious kid in Washington, D.C., his grandfather, Albert, often took him to the local dump to sift through discarded items.
"He was a hardscrabble working-class guy and had this belief that you could get whatever you needed there," Theroux says. He reflected on that experience as a 15-year-old in 1986 when he caught the movie adaptation of The Mosquito Coast.
Based on the bestselling 1981 novel by his uncle Paul Theroux, the drama about a family's struggle to start a new society starred Harrison Ford as the loving but bullheaded patriarch, an inventor and anti-consumerist. And though the character of Alexander "Allie" Fox was fictional, his core rang familiar to the then-teenager.
"I remember thinking, 'God, that's just like Grandpa,'" Theroux recalls. "He did such a wonderful job nailing so many specific traits."
Decades later, The Mosquito Coast is once again abuzz — this time as a gritty seven-episode drama for Apple TV+. And that kid who was once enamored by the idea of Indiana Jones playing the part of a beloved family member has taken on that role himself.
"I definitely connected to the material because it's highly biographical, in a piecemeal way, of various members of my family," he says. "But I'm drawn to the character first and foremost and the potential for complexity. There's also the benefit of a story bending in a different direction."
So different, it's almost completely off the map. This reinvented The Mosquito Coast (which premiered April 30 with two episodes) is set in the present but is more akin to a prequel: viewers see how — and, to an extent, why — the Fox family abruptly leave their rural California surroundings for a seemingly utopian island existence.
Much of the new narrative is set throughout Mexico, where Allie and his furtive wife, Margot (Melissa George), and their teens, April (Logan Polish) and Charlie (Gabriel Bateman), are on the lam from hot-on-their-trail federal authorities. Desperate yet determined, they attempt to assimilate into the culture, but with chaotic results.
"I wanted to tell an exciting, moving and old-fashioned Swiss Family Robinson and Robert Louis Stevenson–style adventure story," explains Neil Cross (Luther), creator and writer of The Mosquito Coast, as well as executive producer and showrunner . "The idea was to make the first season kind of like a travel book, and every episode is a different destination. It's also just a fun and simple narrative device to tease everything out."
Cross is struggling to come up with a word. The best he can do is "fan," though it's not quite right.
"I've been a devoted reader of Paul Theroux ever since I was 14 and a friend pressed a copy of [the 1975 travelogue] The Great Railway Bazaar into my hands," he says. "His books are incredibly important to me." He's not shy about his fandom either, freely admitting that he's been apt to rave about the author's works over cocktails with friends before getting "shoveled into an Uber and sent back to my hotel."
He theorizes it was that adoration that prompted his friend, Dante Di Loreto — president of scripted entertainment at FremantleMedia North America — to call him one day in early 2019 and gauge his feelings about adapting The Mosquito Coast as a TV series. He answered yes in a hurry.
"I love the book because Allie Fox is the personification of an American archetype that contains the best and worst of America," Cross says. "I think Paul approached that fearlessly. He wasn't afraid to articulate the complexities and darkness involved with the character."
The only issue: the protagonist, a disillusioned hippie, was very much a product of the post-Carter/early-Reagan mass-consumerism era of the early 1980s. And that dated sentiment would not jibe in a modern setting. In reconstructing the narrative, Cross decided to keep Allie's idealistic essence.
He still desires personal freedom and wants to live on his own terms, but now he's focused on privacy concerns in the big-tech information age. Nobody in the Fox family uses smartphones or watches television. The kids are home-schooled.
And when they suddenly take off, it's because of complications stemming from Allie's former job with the National Security Agency — a job, Cross says, "that came to represent everything he hated." And the matriarch, Margot? No longer a nameless disciple known as "mother," she's turned into a not-so-innocent force who takes charge and bears the brunt of her children's anxieties.
Cross used the revamped concept to hash out the first two scripts, which then went to executive producer Rupert Wyatt. "I could tell obviously that decisions had been made with the characters and been made correctly," says Wyatt, who directed those first two episodes. (Subsequent episodes were directed by Jeremy Podeswa, Natalia Beristáin, Tinge Krishnan and Clare Kilner.)
"It got really exciting to me when we started talking about where we could take the story as the season progressed. And the scripts themselves were just immensely visual and really evocative of a story worth telling at this particular moment in time, especially in America."
Do you know where 'nepotism' comes from?" Paul Theroux asks over Zoom. The award-winning author goes on to explain that the Italian word for "nephew" is nipote and that during the Renaissance, a pope once elevated an illegitimate son into the hierarchy by referring to him as his nephew.
All of this is to say that even though Paul's own nephew is a star and also an executive producer of The Mosquito Coast , even though Justin lived with him after graduating from Bennington College in the early '90s and talked wistfully of becoming either an actor or painter, even though they share a last name (but pronounce it differently — long story), the chain of events that led both of them to the project was purely and wonderfully coincidental. No nepotism.
"I had no input into any of the casting and was delighted when he signed on," the author says, noting that he was also happily surprised when Fremantle picked up the rights to the novel. "Justin's a very smart kid and I have high regard for his talent, so I was delighted." Plus, he boasts, he still owns the kayak that his nephew painted with graffiti art.
The wheels were set in motion for actor and two-time Emmy-winning producer Justin Theroux after one of his representatives told him a series adaptation was in the works. On hiatus after shooting 2018's Maniac for Netflix and doing some voicework, "I was eager to say that if certain people fell out of it, I'd love to fall into it," he explains.
"There were none of the trappings of Paul reaching out to me and saying 'Hey, I'm making this book into a TV show.' Sometimes happy accidents just happen."
Having the younger Theroux on board proved invaluable. "I think Justin has great insight," Wyatt says. "He has a history with his uncle and the book, which allowed him to have a perspective on decisions that his uncle made in writing the book that otherwise we would not have been privy to. He also just approaches things in a very considered way. He's a real professional." ...
For the rest of the story and photos, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE
Take a look under the cover shoot with the cast of Mosquito Coast HERE