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 get 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 frightens 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 constructed 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 boasting, a poignant or embarrassing revelation- which stimulate 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 dedicates a similar seem, 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 relationships 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 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 making 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 diplomat to the wild side, an acclaimed culture Zelig with a huge following who pops up in the oddest places, but he is also a journalist with bosses, quotas, deadlines and endless fret about the next commission.
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, laptop pouch 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 repeated 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 gets 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 undertaking .” For some reason, I take this as a no and realise only after listening to the tape later 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 gossips, jokes 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.