Louis Theroux talks about his new book and his penchant for the peculiar
As his memoir is published, Louis Theroux talks to Luke Rix-Standing about gratitude, keeping his cool and being on both sides of the lens
AFTER 25 years spent documenting the lives of others, Louis Theroux has finally produced something on his own.
His new memoir, Gotta Get Theroux This, is a candid and surprisingly personal read from someone often on the outside looking in, detailing his exploits from cradle to the 2019 Baftas.
Theroux's open secret – which will disappoint some fans but delight many more – is that he's pretty much the same off camera as on. The courtesy, the considered yet slightly stuttering delivery, the genuine interest in both his interviewees and his interviewers.
"I don't really know what people think about me," says Theroux (49). "But they have definitely thought that my persona was more of a persona than it is. I'm more or less who you see on camera."
Far from carefully choreographed strangeness, the on-screen Theroux has evolved in tandem with the man himself, and observers cite an increasing 'maturity' in his work. He agrees: "I like to think I'm more thoughtful now, about my work and human nature in general."
Where once his programmes were sly-winking segments on swingers, UFO sightings and survivalists, the modern Theroux explores eating disorders, postpartum psychosis and postnatal depression.
He views his work quite straightforwardly: "I find a subject that interests me – something complicated, stressful, or baffling – then I figure out what's going on. In one sense, there's not much more to it than that."
Ann Widdecombe once testily accused Theroux of "pretending to be dumb". He's certainly not dumb, but nor does he seem to be pretending.
So how does he remain so calm? There's the occasional twitch of the lips when chin-wagging with Nazis, a momentary fishhook in the eyebrow at the 'N' word – but where's the rage, the rawness, the revulsion he so reliably incites in his audiences?
It's a question he's been asked countless times, and one he still finds a little perplexing. "If you've been told," he says, slowly, "that you're going to meet some neo-Nazis, and you turn up and there are neo-Nazis, it's not like it's a big surprise."
From the outside, his nerves seem made from the stuff they put on armoured trucks, but beneath the inscrutable demeanour he insists he's rather thin-skinned. "It's one of my weaknesses," he says, almost apologetically. "If I read a bad review, I tend to mind."
Personal attacks affect him, and many of his most uncomfortable moments occurred when he became personally involved in his stories.
He famously filmed a documentary with Jimmy Savile before the serial predator was unmasked, and to this day Theroux admits he liked the man he met. He's struggled with his failure to see through the charade, and found it hard to answer the resulting, sometimes pointed questions.
"A couple of police forces asked me questions," he recalls, "but the director and producer tended not to be asked, which seemed odd as they're as involved as I am. Even within the industry, I think people think I'm more of an auteur than I am."
His programme with Neil and Christine Hamilton hasn't haunted him, but Theroux again felt the spotlight's glare when they were falsely accused of rape just as Louis and his team were filming them. "Suddenly we were besieged by the media, and I was in the middle of a story – as a subject rather than a chronicler. It was very odd, and I didn't know what to do," he recalls.
Does he dislike being interviewed? He pauses. "As I've grown older, I've worried less about being the subject of journalism. You have to be grateful for interest people take in what you do."
Belying his laid-back demeanour, at the heart of Theroux's work lies a ravenous appetite for storytelling. He got his start on the Michael Moore-led satirical news show TV Nation in the mid-90s, tasked with covering offbeat social issues through a mixture of gonzo journalism and comedy.
"When I look back, I see enormous good fortune," he says. "I had virtually no qualifications and no reasonable right to expect to be hired."
He's now his own brand, based partly on an often wince-inducing willingness to throw himself headlong into the worlds he investigates. "A level of discomfort can be quite positive," he says cheerfully. "When I was making a programme about wrestlers, they took against some of my questions and pushed me so hard in training, I threw up.
"As awful as it was, they did me a huge favour – the real punishment would have been to cancel our filming and revoke our access. It was a positive experience, in a way."
Theroux has braved slums in Johannesburg, gangs in Lagos, and several of America's most notorious jails in the line of work. He's a veteran of the BBC's Hostile Environments course, which teaches journalists how to handle roadblocks and what to do in a kidnapping.
"The levels of planning for safety at the BBC are extraordinary," says Theroux, "and probably completely appropriate. Every time you go on location, you have to fill out a risk assessment form. Risk: Driving in America where they drive on the other side of the road. Solution: Drive on the other side of the road.
"Sometimes," he adds diplomatically, "it's very detailed."
Today, Theroux's life is more babies than bullets, and his once-weird weekends are often taken up by his three young sons. "As I've had kids, [going away] has got harder," he admits. "But there's a real pleasure to being on location too. Everything in life is mixed, right?"
Theroux is not easily deterred, which is fortunate, because his programmes require Olympian research efforts and a large degree of risk. He could write a whole other book about the programmes he never made – cage fighting in the US, dog shows in the UK, a profile of renowned spoon-bender Uri Geller.
For Theroux, it's worth every second: "I love doing my job. I love telling stories the way we tell them, and getting to know people quickly in an intimate way."
When asked for his ideal next programme, he doesn't miss a beat: "I don't think there's anyone alive that wouldn't be intrigued to see a full-access doc about Donald Trump."
:: Gotta Get Theroux This by Louis Theroux is published by Pan Macmillan, priced £20.