Louis Theroux: ‘Sometimes it’s funny to ask a ludicrously simple-minded question’

For a documentarian who has spent 25 years quizzing other people about their lives, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that Louis Theroux has only recently got comfortable with being interviewed himself.

“I’ve made my peace with the idea of being seen,” he says, from his kitchen in London. “One of the things I enjoyed about being on location and among people who were, in certain ways, outside the mainstream, was that it gave me a kind of invisibility. I was there as a Boswell figure, in the shadow of whoever I was finding out about. But these days, I’m pretty relaxed about opening up and sharing.”

Theroux, who recently turned 50 and now sports a sizeable beard, spent the first half of his career exploring the darker corners of America as he embedded himself with porn stars, neo-Nazis, survivalists, Scientologists and Ufologists, making one revealing and sometimes shocking documentary after another.

In the past decade, he has largely moved away from fringe groups, instead making thoughtful films on transgender children, dementia patients, heroin addicts and mothers suffering from post-partum psychosis. 

Louis Theroux outside the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles for ‘My Scientology Movie’, his 2015 documentary © BBC

This year, however, circumstances have forced him to pursue a more straightforward interview format, talking to actors, musicians and comedians for his podcast, Grounded with Louis Theroux, which is returning for a second series. It was born out of Theroux’s desire to remain productive during the spring lockdown. He has certainly achieved this: along with the podcast, he also assembled the TV series Life on the Edge in which he reflects on his back catalogue and catches up with old interviewees. 

Theroux’s introduction to podcasting came in 2013 when he was living in the US and heard WTF with Marc Maron, the interview series in which the eponymous host has lengthy tête-à-têtes with assorted fellow actors and comedians, as well as the likes of Barack Obama and Paul McCartney (and Theroux himself).

Theroux realised that a medium existed where “you could have conversations that were free-flowing, unmediated and unconstrained by the limitations of a schedule”. He notes that at the heart of his TV output is a “controlling question, or some sort of ethical dilemma . . . There’s a dimension of that for the guests on the podcast as well. I want to get to a real place with them and, most often, that’s to do with grappling with something deep and emotionally complicated.”

The first series included a poignant conversation with the comedian Lenny Henry, who recalled early punters coming to his gigs in blackface. In the new one, he talks to the actor and writer Michaela Coel about turning her experiences of sexual abuse into powerful television (the hit series I May Destroy You) and the comedian Frankie Boyle about his struggles with alcoholism. 

Louis Theroux in Kansas in 2007 for his documentary ‘The Most Hated Family in America’ © BBC

I wonder if Theroux’s own celebrity threatens his ability to get his subjects to open up. By now, surely, they are au fait with his methods? “Actually, what I find now is that people know who I am and it’s almost like that fast-forwards the relationship, so they have the power of knowing a bit about me,” he explains. “In the podcast, I also like those aspects that involve self-exposure. I can own up to things that I grapple with, or my own frailties. That’s part of the conversation and I see that as a plus.”

It’s true that Theroux isn’t afraid of making himself look vulnerable. Talking about the nature of achievement with the writer and film-maker Jon Ronson in the first series, he notes there is “a little part of me that continues to feel a bit of rivalry [with you], and there’s some nastiness mixed in with it, which I don’t endorse.” It was a remarkable moment, not least because Ronson and Theroux have always appeared to be on an equal footing in terms of their careers. 

“I think Jon is a terrific writer and I’ve read all his books,” Theroux says. “I think [the envy] perhaps stems from the fact that my father [the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux] is a writer, three of my uncles are writers, my brother is a writer. At some level, I always imagined or hoped that I might be a writer . . . To be honest with you, I’m capable of being faintly jealous even of things I’m not that interested in doing. I look at Sacha Baron Cohen, and I see how much success he enjoys all over the world based on his brilliant creations. Like, I’m not an actor, I can’t do anything like what he does. But still, I get a little twinge.”

A question has long hovered over Theroux: how much of what we see of him on screen is a persona, that of the wide-eyed naïf, and how much is real? While making a film about the Phelps family, members of the fiercely homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, he received a dressing-down from the patriarch, Fred Phelps, who referred to his “feigned humility, innocent-sounding questions and pretended befuddlement”. In the show, Theroux admits: “He kind of nails it.”

“I’m not much different from the person that you see on the screen,” Theroux tells me now. “People ask, ‘Is it a persona? Is it the real you?’ It’s all of the above, really. And, you know, sometimes it’s funny to ask a question that is ludicrously simple-minded. Or sometimes I do it because I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, or I just genuinely want to know.”

His shambling approach reaped rewards with the entertainer Jimmy Savile, who was the subject of When Louis Met Jimmy in 2000 (Theroux also made films on the disgraced PR guru Max Clifford, boxer Chris Eubank and the late ventriloquist Keith Harris). Savile died in 2011, after which it emerged that he had raped and abused scores of women and children during his years in the limelight. Does Theroux feel that, on some level, he failed as an interviewer? 

Louis Theroux meets Catherine in ‘Mothers on the Edge’ (2019) © BBC/Richard Ansett

“Well, it’s self-evident that if I’d known he was a predatory paedophile I would have called the authorities,” he says. “The truth is I’m very proud of that programme. I watched it after the revelations came out and it’s a really solid and revealing 50 minutes of TV. As much as you might say, ‘You didn’t unmask him’, well, that’s true, but that makes me like thousands of other people who were far more involved [in his life]. With the information we had at the time, I think it holds up.”

Theroux maintains he’s a harsh critic of his own work, and has had plenty of opportunity to reflect on his missteps while making Life on the Edge. “I can nearly always see room for improvement — often it’s to do with the commentary, or what kind of shirt I’m wearing, or the state of my hair. But the substance of the encounters? Really, there’s not much I’d change.” 

‘Grounded with Louis Theroux’ returns on November 30 on BBC Sounds. ‘Life on the Edge’ is available on iPlayer

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