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 notions on the rise, is weirdness now mainstream? And does he feel scarred by his experiences?

Louis Theroux has got up close and personal with pimps, paedophiles, murderers, 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 place and nothing is happening. That’s the worst ,” he says.

Viewers of his documentaries- he has built more than 60- know Theroux , now 47, has built a career on stuff happening. His run 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 seems on, his emotions 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 simply a little 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, sex trafficking and drug addiction. Shooting began before Donald Trump took office, so they are not intended as 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 make three movies a year. I was building them in the UK, which was very rewarding and interesting, but harder to do because of the number of squads chasing smaller pools of stories. So we got a little bit behind .”

It’s a disarming admission- no guff about Tocquevillian exploration. Theroux may be our diplomat 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 bosses, quotums, deadlines and endless fretting about the next commission.

Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, laptop pouch at his feet, he seems happy to pull the curtains back- a bit- on what happens behind the camera once his intense relationship with his subjects objectives. You wonder if he is scarred- or feels under pressure to profess being scarred- by recurred immersion into damaged, dysfunctional lives.” I sense that people may want to hear that I am suffering psychological repercussions. I certainly get asked it a lot. It definitely get under your scalp 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 task .” For some reason, I take this as a no and realise merely after listening to the videotape 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 gently, he is a foreigner’s idealised Englishman. He rumor, jokes and quotes Max Weber and Jean-Paul Sartre and uses terms 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 inducing My Scientology Movie, his first theatrical release, last year.” I’ve always procured it easier to work in the Country, for various reasons ,” he says. The country, after all, is a story 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 place, 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 guns , not fewer. I frankly 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 chairperson( and his- he has US citizenship) is no fool.” Trump ensure 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 perhaps jealousy 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 research results if Theroux were to join the president for a golfing weekend at Mar-a-Lago. That The Apprentice propelled Trump to the Oval Office, giving 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 anticipated. In a saturated media landscape what, I ask, can he bring to Trump coverage?” I guess we’ll watch. I’ve always been fascinated by fringe notions and taboo postures, 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, obtained 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 possible” to” trying to enjoy the experience and watch what it is that fascinates me about the story “. Everything ran smoother once he learned to trust his instincts and not overthink things, he says.

Even so, he felt paralysed with anxiety when the BBC contracted him for Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends series- a dive into white dominance, pornography, survivalism and other subcultures.” I was probably, in a pretentious route, thinking that these are more than TV indicates … 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 human, but Savile’s long history of child abuse emerged merely after his death in 2011. Theroux castigated 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 revealing, very hardheaded and journalistic, and explains a great deal about his outlook and his weird attitudes .” Theroux stayed in touch with Savile for several years, considering him” slippery and tricky” but also funny and perceptive. One motive was ” said he hoped that he might fell 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 Photo: BBC

Years afterwards, nagged by remorse over the transient, transactional intimacy between interviewer and interviewee-” you’re in people’s worlds in quite an intense way and then you leave”- he revisited 10 subjects in a book, The Call of the Weird. They greeted him back, but were puzzled; unsure of the phase, he tells.” I was romanticising the nature of the connection that I was having on location. The transaction is transparent,[ subjects] 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 shades and limited illuminate.” I already understood the dark side of the US exists, but this gave me a greater appreciation for the darkness that’s following in the wake of these various phenomena .”

The first in the series, Heroin Town, airing on Sunday night, embeds Theroux in Huntington, West Virginia, where overprescription of painkillers has unleashed a heroin epidemic. Theroux avoided rehab centres-” a bubble where you’re not assuring 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 money is the motivation, there’s not an nasty lot in order to be allowed 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 junkies- 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 outlawed .”

Murder in Milwaukee follows a largely white police department tackling surging gun violence, murders and racial tension in a mostly black community.” I have a feeling they assign us the best cops when we’re out on place ,” tells Theroux.” You spend time with them, you get to like them, so you could argue you’re getting a distorted opinion .” He sighs. Cops, he tells, are better and worse than they’re dedicated credit for.” Rule 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 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 word” sexuality 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 getting a kind of emotional fulfilment in their relationship 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 style, deeply injury, often the children of prostitutes, who may have had daddies or household friends who were pimps. The closest analogy I have is that they are living in semi-apocalyptic conditions where the police are simply not an option .”

Theroux has a fourth documentary in the works, about anorexia. Slaying, abuse, addiction, illnes – 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 going on here, I’ll find myself chopping in the kitchen. I cook things that don’t need to be cooked. I induce soup and sauce and freeze it- anything that involves chopping and frying .”

Being Theroux, he has a hypothesi about this.” In this post-feminist era the kitchen has become the place for the man 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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