Louis Theroux:’ For all his awfulness, I admire Trump’s shamelessness’

The documentary-makers new series returns to the dark underbelly of the US. But with Trump in the White House, and fringe faiths on the rise, is weirdness now mainstream? And does he feel scarred by his experiences?

Louis Theroux has get up close and personal with pimps, paedophiles, assassins, neo-Nazis, Afrikaner separatists, religious fanatics, alien-hunters and a range of eccentrics who are often armed, deluded and volatile. They’re not what scares him.” The truth is, the most terrifying experience is when you’re out on location and nothing is happening. That’s the worst ,” he says.

Viewers of his documentaries- he has induced more than 60- know Theroux , now 47, has built a career on stuff happening. His work relies on made-for-TV moments- the visual gag, a shocking confession, an outrageous boast, a poignant or embarrassing revelation- which construct you wince or giggle while Theroux himself appears on, his feelings in check, the quizzical outsider.

Nursing an iced coffee in a near-deserted Los Angeles cafe close to his new home, for once interviewee rather than interviewer, he devotes a similar looking, the eyebrows arching merely a bit, when asked about the process of turning these enigmas of human psychology into films.

” The best decision we made as a production team was to trust in the idea of creating its relation with people, and putting myself in situations that were extreme ,” says Theroux.” Good things came from that. A sense of roundedness in the contributors and occasionally a sense of drama when I was put in uncomfortable situations, or when the situations spun out of control. Those were always the best moments .”

Viewers will see the Theroux method anew in three BBC2 documentaries, which plumb America’s darker corners: policing, sexuality trafficking and drug addiction. Shooting began before Donald Trump took office, so they are not intended to cover Trumpian parables.” The whole genesis was to go back to the US and, if I’m honest, pick some low-hanging fruit. I have a delivery schedule; I’m supposed to construct three films a year. I was stimulating them in the UK, which was very rewarding and interesting, but harder to do because of the number of squads chasing smaller ponds of stories. So we got a little bit behind .”

It’s a disarm admission- no guff about Tocquevillian exploration. Theroux may be our ambassador to the wild side, an acclaimed cultural Zelig with a huge following who pops up in the oddest places, but he is also a journalist with boss, quotums, deadlines and endless fretting about the next commission.

Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, laptop container at his feet, he seems happy to pull the draperies back- a bit- on what happens behind the camera once his intense relationship with his subjects ends. You wonder if he is scarred- or feels under pressure to profess being scarred- by recurred submersion into damaged, dysfunctional lives.” I sense that people may want to hear that I am suffering psychological consequences. I surely get asked it a lot. It definitely get under your skin in ways that are not immediately apparent. I may be distressingly fine with going into the dark worlds and then hopping out again. It’s quite a weird chore .” For some reason, I take this as a no and realise only after listening to the tape subsequently that it could be a yes.

It’s odd, interviewing an interviewer, especially one so famous. Theroux knows all the machinations and deflections, innocent or otherwise. And he has been in the public eye so long, a one-man broadcasting brand, you can’t fully disentangle the person from the persona.

It’s easy to see why people open up to him. Affable and solicitous, with brains, poshness and an ego worn lightly, he is a foreigner’s idealised Englishman. He rumor, gags and cites Max Weber and Jean-Paul Sartre and uses words like “incommensurable”. When you talk, he cups his face in concentration, creating an owlish effect.

Theroux Theroux with Nate Walsh, a heroin user, for his new series. Photograph: Freddie Claire/ BBC

Theroux moved from Britain back to Los Angeles, an old stomping ground, in August, and lives in a neighbourhood close to the Hollywood sign and the Scientology headquarters, which he knows from stimulating My Scientology Movie, his first theatrical release, last year.” I’ve always found it easier to work in the Nation, for various reasons ,” he says. The country, after all, is a tale mill, even if some, such as last week’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, seem grimly familiar.” I still remember is available on America[ in 1999]- on location, shooting an episode of Weird Weekends about wrestling- when Columbine happened. Nothing has changed. Americans tend to see these spree shootings as a reason to buy more handguns , not fewer. I honestly can’t imagine what it would take to change the paradigm. It’s too deeply ingrained in the myths Americans have about themselves .”

Theroux is working on a long-term project about Trump advocates. Their chairwoman( and his- he has US citizenship) is no fool.” Trump watched through so much. For all his awfulness, I can’t but help admire his shamelessness, in an odd style. Or maybe not admire, but be fascinated by it and maybe envy it. In a shame culture he seems to have figured out that if you refuse to be shamed, it gives you enormous power .”

One can only imagine the result if Theroux were to join the president for a golfing weekend at Mar-a-Lago. That The Apprentice propelled Trump to the Oval Office, dedicating him the nuclear codes and a platform to threaten North Korea with Armageddon via Twitter, is a level of weird not even Theroux’s oeuvre foresaw. In a saturated media scenery what, I ask, can he bring to Trump coverage?” I guess we’ll watch. I’ve always been fascinated by fringe notions and taboo attitudes, and some of those attitudes are sneaking towards the mainstream. At that phase, it stops being called weirdness. In a sense, weirdness is a majoritarian phenomenon. If enough people believe it, it stops being weird .”

Theroux was born in Singapore, the son of Anne Castle and the travel novelist Paul Theroux. He went to Westminster public school, procured a first in modern history at Oxford and splashed into television in the early 90 s doing offbeat segments for Michael Moore‘s TV Nation series.” Michael had a year-zero attitude to TV-making, which was that most TV is shit and we are revolutionaries, and are trying to change the world, and should behave like you’ll never get another job in Tv. In other words, scorched earth television. Part of that was helpful .”

Theroux’s method evolved from” trying to extract as much humour from situations as is practicable” to” trying to enjoy its expertise and assure what it is that fascinates me about the story “. Everything went smoother once he learned to trust his instincts and not overthink things, he says.

Even so, he felt paralysed with nervousnes when the BBC contracted him for Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends series- a dive into white dominance, pornography, survivalism and other subcultures.” I was likely, in a pretentious style, thinking that these are more than TV proves … that they needed to take things to the limit in some very undefined route .”

In 2000, he profiled Jimmy Savile, then still a beloved children’s TV presenter. The documentary captured tantalising glimpses of a darker man, but Savile’s long history of child abuse emerged merely after his death in 2011. Theroux chided himself for letting Savile off the hook in a sequel last year. Some think he flagellated himself too much and BBC top brass not enough.” I can’t really say whether or not I was too hard on myself. I was just trying to account for my own role in the affair and understand why I wasn’t able to see more .” He remains proud of the original movie.” It’s enormously uncovering, very hardheaded and journalistic, and explains a lot about his outlook and his weird attitudes .” Theroux stayed in touch with Savile for several years, deeming him” slippery and tricky” but also funny and perceptive. One motivating was ” hope that he might drop his guard or that I would figure out his secret, whatever that might be “.

Theroux Theroux with Pastor Fred Phelps while filming with the Westboro Baptist Church in 2007 Photograph: BBC

Years afterward, nagged by guilt over the transient, transactional intimacy between interviewer and interviewee-” you’re in people’s worlds in quite an intense style and then you leave”- he revisited 10 subjects in a volume, The Call of the Weird. They welcomed him back, but were puzzled; unsure of the point, he says.” I was romanticising the nature of the connection that I was having on place. The transaction is transparent,[ topics] understand that’s what I’m there for. Perhaps I needed to let go a bit more. That was my conclusion .”

His new three-part documentary series-” trilogy sounds a little bit pretentious”- shunts Theroux on to terrain with plenty of gray tints and limited illuminate.” I already understood the dark side of the US exists, but this “ve given me” a greater appreciation for the darkness that’s following in the wake of these different phenomena .”

The first in the series, Heroin Town, airing on Sunday night, embeds Theroux in Huntington, West Virginia, where overprescription of analgesics has unleashed a heroin epidemic. Theroux avoided rehab centres-” a bubble where you’re not considering the seduction of the lifestyle, and you’re hearing these cliches about recovery “. He also largely steered clear of the pharmaceutical companies, regulators and politicians who permitted the disaster.” When fund is the motivation, there’s not an awful lot for me to unpick .” Instead, he hung out on streets where heroin and opioid craving is” off the scale, unlike anything I’d ever seen before “. The junkies, in other words, are the stars.” We give them space to express themselves. There’s a bit of romance that goes with the idea of being filmed. People are able to self-mythologise. And sometimes that’s quite a good thing because it sets people in touch with their own sense of being superstars of their own life. Even heroin addicts- there’s a Bonnie-and-Clyde archetype with many of them. While paying lip service to the idea of recovery, you can sense that they’re still beguiled by the romantic notion of what it means to be an prohibit .”

Murder in Milwaukee follows a mostly white police department confronting surging gun violence, murders and racial tension in a largely black community.” I have a feeling they designate us the best policemen when we’re out on location ,” says Theroux.” You spend time with them, you get to like them, so you could argue you’re getting a distorted view .” He sighs. Cops, he says, are better and worse than they’re given credit for.” Regulation get bent, sometimes in a way that’s questionable. And other days, if the rules weren’t nudged or massaged the really good work wouldn’t get done .”

Sex Trafficking Houston traces the tangled relationships between sex workers and trade pimps, some violent and dealing with drug addiction, others not.” You have women with very low self-esteem who come from abusive backgrounds- their circuits are all scrambled .” He avoided the term” sex slave “.” If you overdo the abusive dimension, you strip the women of agency – it’s oddly disempowering and kind of neo-Victorian. The girls are get a kind of emotional fulfilment in its relations with the pimps, though it was poisonous and often damaging .” The pimps tended to be stylish, eloquent and intelligent.” These guys are, in their own way, deep injury, often the children of prostitutes, who may have had daddies or family friends who were pimps. The closest analogy I have is that they are living in semi-apocalyptic conditions where the police are only not an option .”

Theroux has a fourth documentary in the works, about anorexia. Slaying, abuse, addiction, disease – it’s a long way from his Tv Nation days following Avon ladies up the Amazon river.

How, I wonder, does he process stress?” If I can’t enter into negotiations with whatever drama is going on, I’ll find myself chopping in the kitchen. I cook things that don’t need to be cooked. I attain soup and sauce and freeze it- anything that involves chopping and frying .”

Being Theroux, he has a theory about this.” In this post-feminist era the kitchen has become the place for “the mens” to hide, for masculine disengagement. If I’m chopping an onion, that’s my safe space. I made a huge amount of carrot soup the other day .” He smiles and doesn’t need to say it. Documentaries fill his freezer with soup. Weird.

This article was revised on 9 October 2017 to correct the date of the Columbine shootings.

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