“There is no normal”: Emma Stone and Justin Theroux on mental illness in Netflix’s Maniac

The stars of the new series say its not a show about mental health, but it goes some way to normalising the conversation around it

EmmaStone

Despite its misleading title, Netflix’s Maniac – a black comedy-drama from True Detective season 1 director Cary Fukunaga and The Bridge writer Patrick Somerville – provides a nuanced, thoughtful look at mental illness.

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The series, which centres around drug addict Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and allegedly schizophrenic Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) two lost individuals plagued by personal trauma, is set in a slightly tweaked version of our reality, in which Dr James Mantleray (Justin Theroux), a neuroscientist with some neuroses of his own, believes he can cure mental illness with an outlandish pharmaceutical programme.

It is based upon a Norwegian series of the same name about a man in a mental hospital who lives his life vicariously through a series of elaborate fantasies, but Fukunaga and Somerville made to call to change much of this to ensure that mental illness wasn’t “the butt of the joke”, and to shift the focus to the importance of human connection.

“These characters, including Justin’s character, have been through a lot of trauma, and have developed in their own ways of sort of protecting or isolating themselves,” Stone tells RadioTimes.com. 

In the first episode of Maniac, Annie is strung out, having become addicted to a drug that is only accessible in Dr Mantleray’s trial, only to find her source dry up. She makes it her mission to get a place on the trial by any means necessary, unaware that it will take her and her fellow participants through a series of fantasy worlds in an effort to confront and come to terms with traumatic events in their past.

Maniac
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in Maniac

“What Annie has been through, what Owen has been through, what they’re dealing with mentally, I thought that was important – but I don’t know if the intention was to make a big statement about mental health per se,” she says. “This is sort of an alternate version of reality, what they’re going through is so specific to this pill, and the world that they enter into is very unique, so I don’t know that that was the overarching thing.”Her co-star Theroux, concurs.

“It’s not a show about mental illness,” he says. “It’s hilarious that we think that this particular absurd pill is going to completely rewire people and make them better again. It’s really more about people who are suffering from trauma who are able, in this lab environment and in this interior world, to communicate through their trauma and connect on it, and in that sense it’s sort of this lopsided love story.

He continued: “The thing that actually kind of is the most beneficial for them is not the pill, it’s not the lab setting, it’s not anything, its them connecting as human beings and talking about it.”

In Fukunaga’s warped version of New York, isolation is a major public health concern. The rent-a-friend industry is flourishing. There’s an underlying sense that the show’s creators are fretting about the direction the smartphone society is headed.

Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno in Maniac
Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno in Maniac

But Theroux feels that, at the very least, we’ve gotten better at talking about our emotions – and that more and more, art is beginning to reflect this.

“I think we’re in a pretty healthy place,” he says. “Even though there’s obviously people who are ignorant to mental illness, we’re in general coming to a much healthier place as far as addressing and talking about [mental health] is concerned. So you know, I wouldn’t say this show is a catchall for the stigma of mental illness, it’s just a piece of the overall tapestry of shows, movies and books and things that are being written where they sort of address it.”

“I think, in general in the world we know that there is no ‘normal’,” Stone adds. “If you need a pill to help balance the way your chemistry works, fine. If you need to go to therapy, fine. But it’s about human connection, I think. If we can reach out to each other and not make each other feel like shit because we’re all going through a bunch of stuff… I mean, I need that, I need to know that. Just in terms of what I’ve gone through. But everybody has got their own version of something going on internally. So yeah, the lack of stigma is great. I’m glad more people talk about the struggles we have.”

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Maniac launches on Netflix UK on Friday 21st September