Before my interview with Louis Theroux, I set myself the challenge of not asking him the same questions as every other interviewer.
Mainly, this meant not asking “Is your on-screen persona an act?” (but I did put this to a former colleague) and “How do you feel about not exposing Jimmy Savile as a paedophile?” (Though Theroux brought this up himself).
Fast forward towards the end of my virtual meeting with the documentary filmmaker, and I feel I’m doing a pretty good job. We’ve spoken about tattoos, Ali G, Lorraine Kelly and tombstones.
It’s not all new ground, but I believe Theroux has been genuinely surprised by some of my questioning.
Then, with just a few minutes left on the clock, I slip up. “If you were interviewing yourself, what would you ask?”
Theroux replies: “You know, you’re not the first person to ask me that, William.”
Sensing my disappointment, Theroux quickly offers some reassurance. “You’re not the first person to ask me that, William. And that is fine.”
But, he explains, me asking him this is like a “burglar saying to a bank manager: ‘If I was to burgle your bank, how would I do that?’ So, quite evidently, umm, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to tell you what to ask.”
Nevertheless, Theroux relents, to an extent. “The answer – and first of all, I’ll say your questions have been really good – I think is that anything you’re naturally curious about is something worth asking about.”
Plus, he adds, it’s not just about the question. It’s about the setting in which the question is asked. “You almost can’t understand people in isolation – you have to see them in connection with a milieu, like a set of relationships,” he says.
“I think if I were you, I’d say like: ‘Can I come round?’” (Theroux lives with his wife, Nancy, and their three sons in London.) “I’d be like: ‘I’d love to hang with you for a day and talk to you with Nancy, your wife, and see what was going on.’ I think that’s what I’d do.”
Great, I say. So, next time I’m in London, I’ll give you a call and invite myself round.
“Okay. I can’t do it.”
Fan tattoos? They’re a ‘big vote of confidence’
Theroux made his name as a comedic presenter who poked ethical boundaries to gain access to eccentric characters and peculiar sub-cultures. He made an appearance (fully clothed and non-sexual) in a pornographic film. He wrote and performed a rap song on the radio. He took part in a UFO hunt.
Over the years, Theroux’s programmes, while still amusing at times, have taken on more serious issues – dementia, sexual assault, North America’s opioid crisis.
In his latest BBC Two offering, Forbidden America, Theroux revisits three of the subject areas that helped establish him as a journalist – far-right America, rap music and the porn industry – and examines how they have been changed by modern technology.
More on Forbidden America shortly, but first I have a question about tattoos. Theroux estimates that his face adorns the bodies of at least ten of his devoted fans.
How, I ask, does this make you feel?
“Umm. Okay. So, I feel pretty good about it. If I’m honest,” he says.
“I take it seriously. I don’t want to take it too seriously, because I also recognise some of it’s playful.”
The 51-year-old says he became aware of Louis Theroux tattoos around eight years ago. “I don’t know how many there are now. But it’s certainly double digits.
“And I feel like: Wow, that’s so great. And I feel very – I feel lucky to have people sort of making that statement. I mean, there’s a part of me that feels I should get a tattoo of myself as well.
“You know, just to sort of say: ‘Hey, I think that’s a cool thing to do. I’m going to do it too!’ But, I don’t know. Maybe that’s missing the point?”
When I put forward the theory that Theroux has more fan tattoos than any other British journalist, he begins musing. “I wonder who else… which other British journalists – I’m half American, but for the sake of this – or documentary makers would you suppose that there are lots of people getting tattoos of them? It’s hard to know –”
I cut in to ask Theroux who he’d tattoo on to himself.
“ – well, maybe Lorraine Kelly. She’s very beloved.”
Later, watching the Zoom recording of this interview, I realise it’s not clear whether “Lorraine Kelly” is the answer to question one (which other journalist has lots of fan tattoos?) or question two (who would Theroux like a tattoo of?). The latter, I feel, would make for a better story and might help me get an interview with Kelly.
Sadly, when I email Theroux for clarification, he disappoints. “Hi William, if memory serves, I was answering the first question, suggesting that there might be many people with Lorraine Kelly tattoos.”
My follow-up email – asking for a second time which journalist Theroux would tattoo on to himself – has so far gone unanswered.
From San Jose to Weird Weekends
Theroux grew up in London and attended the prestigious Westminster School at the same time as Nick Clegg, Helena Bonham Carter and his brother, Marcel, who is today a novelist and broadcaster. Theroux’s mother is English and his father, Paul, is the famous American travel writer and novelist. His cousin, Justin, is a Hollywood actor and the ex-husband of Jennifer Aniston.
After graduating from Oxford in 1991, Theroux moved to California and started his career at Metro Silicon Valley, a weekly newspaper, as an intern. He soon after landed a staff job on its sister title, the San Jose City Times. In his book, Gotta Get Theroux This, Theroux recalls writing about council meetings, budgets, fires and charity fundraisers.
What was Theroux like as a journalist back then? I asked his former Metro news editor, Jonathan Vankin, a writer who has penned several books on conspiracy theories. He describes Theroux as an “extremely smart guy and a terrific, funny writer”. Theroux was inexperienced, says Vankin, but he was a “very fast learner” with “abundant natural ability”.
Theroux didn’t last long in San Jose. In 1992, he moved to New York City where he worked for Spy, a satirical magazine that drew some inspiration from Britain’s Private Eye. Theroux was given his first break in television by filmmaker Michael Moore, who appointed him as an off-beat cultural correspondent for TV Nation.
This job ultimately led to Theroux landing his first gig with the BBC. His first British TV series, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, aired between 1998 and 2000 on BBC Two. At this point in his career, Theroux’s modus operandi was to embed himself among survivalists, porn stars, swingers, rappers and other fringe communities in the United States.
Theroux rose to fame at around the same time as Sacha Baron Cohen, a comedic actor whose characters – like Theroux – traveled the United States in search of people whose views might intrigue or amuse British viewers. Although Theroux is a real-life journalist, parallels have in the past been drawn between him and Baron Cohen’s characters, Ali G, Borat and Bruno.
I ask Theroux what he makes of this comparison.
“There definitely was a time, very early on… maybe when I was getting into TV, working with Michael Moore on TV Nation, when I might have imagined that part of what I did was to be a prankster. To sort of go in, slightly under false pretences, send up the people that I was among, asking deliberately silly questions. But really what I do is I’m a journalist. I’m not a comic actor.”
I also asked Vankin, Theroux’s first news editor, about his on-screen persona. Vankin said the Louis Theroux he saw on Weird Weekends, as well as on TV Nation, “was most definitely the ‘real’ him. I wouldn’t even say he was exaggerating his natural persona. He was just being himself, as far as I could see, albeit in more outré situations than he was ever in at Metro.”
Forbidden America marks a return to ‘weird’
From Weird Weekends, Theroux moved on to presenting a celebrity profile series called “When Louis Met…” Subjects included Ann Widdecombe, Chris Eubank, Max Clifford and, most infamously, Jimmy Savile.
In the years since, Theroux has established himself as a household name in Britain, and a more serious journalist. He’s presented programmes on Scientology, Neo-Nazis, prisons, anorexia and heroin addiction.
So, I ask, where does 2022’s Forbidden America fit in? From the preview clips I’ve seen, it appears to mark a mature return to some of the subjects explored through Weird Weekends.
“I didn’t want to weary my audience. I never want them to feel like, you know, that it’s getting a bit samey. I thought, why don’t I do something a little bit more, for want of a better term, weird?”
I ask Theroux to what extent he has changed his approach, particularly when dealing with right-wing American politics and conspiracy theories. It seems that views that could be written off as rare and eccentric in the 1990s have become more mainstream.
“The far-right as a cultural force is, I think, closer to the corridors of power now certainly than it was 20 years ago,” he says. “When I started making Weird Weekends, Bill Clinton was president. In 2003, I made Louis and the Nazis. Bush was in office, but it still felt like I was dealing with people who were very much on the fringe.”
Now, Theroux says of extreme right-wingers, “one has to take them seriously as a cultural force”. He says the rise of social media means they have more reach and can “actually make real-world change happen”.
Theroux says his change in style may also reflect “me getting a little bit older. My approach has developed and evolved a bit.” But, he adds, “I’ve still got a sense of humour. There are still moments of comedy.”
When Louis Met Jimmy: ‘Haunted is a strong word’
Ahead of my interview with Theroux, I knew I wanted to speak to him about Jimmy Savile. But I wasn’t quite sure how to broach a subject that, if anything, has become more toxic with the passage of time. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Theroux to mention Savile himself.
When discussing some of his more awkward interview moments, Theroux talks about an encounter with actress Rose McGowan on his podcast, Grounded. McGowan played a key role in exposing Harvey Weinstein as a Hollywood predator.
“We were talking about Harvey Weinstein and Jimmy Savile,” says Theroux. “And I say I sometimes feel like I look back on the interview with Jimmy Savile and I wonder if I failed.
“And I think I expected her to sort of say [here, Theroux adopts an effeminate American accent]: ‘You did the best you could, let go.’ Instead of which, she said: ‘Yep, you did.’”
In 2000, the ‘When Louis Met…’ series kicked off with a documentary on Savile, the broadcaster and charity fundraiser posthumously revealed to be a serial sex offender. Theroux stayed in Savile’s home and struck up a rapport with the aging former DJ. Towards the end of the programme, Theroux discussed with Savile rumours that he was a paedophile.
Shortly after Savile’s death 11 years later, victims began to speak out.
In a recent Guardian interview, Theroux predicted that his obituary would describe him as “the man who failed to get to the truth about Jimmy Savile”.
I mention this to Theroux and ask why he seems to be haunted by Savile. “That was – yeah. Well – yeah. Haunted is a strong word. I meant it’s something I get asked about a lot.”
How often, I ask, do you think about Jimmy Savile?
“Ooh, I don’t know how to put a figure on that. I feel like – I’d like – the thing on my tombstone, whatever it was, or my obituary…?”
I confirm that the Guardian quote was about his obituary rather than his grave inscription.
“Yeah. It would be a bit much for the tombstone! Presumably, I’d get at least some input – or my loved ones would have some input – into what was on the tombstone. It would be quite an odd choice. ‘Here lies Louis Theroux. Beloved father, grandfather. Man who did a documentary about Jimmy Savile.’ Why would you put that on there!?”
Snapping himself out of his dark joke, Theroux says: “Look. Okay. Full disclosure. I still regard the Savile doc I did, which was called When Louis Met Jimmy, as a robust and hard-headed piece of programming…
“I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see it recently – ?” I tell him I have “ – It kind of holds up. It still holds up as a piece of work. I still think it’s a powerful piece of storytelling.”
In Theroux’s own mind, he is “both the person who failed to reveal [Savile] as a paedophile, but also the person who probably revealed most about him while alive than anyone else.”
‘TV is obviously a faintly raffish medium’
Theroux may not shy away from speaking about Savile, but my next question does seem to fluster him. How, I ask, do you think you’ve changed British journalism?
“Well. Ha. I like that question because it’s sort of premised on a huge – me accepting in a hubristic way… I’ve got to absorb the grandiosity of the premise.
“Look,” he says, gathering himself. “I don’t think I’ve changed journalism in any major way. But thank you for suggesting that I might have.”
In his book, Gotta Get Theroux This, Theroux writes: “I’ve always had a secret yen to be a more respectable journalistic figure – a foreign correspondent covering big international stories.”
I ask Theroux how much this plays on his mind. Do you beat yourself up about it?
“No, I don’t beat myself up about it,” he says, but his vocabulary does seem to shift up a gear.
“My dad was a distinguished travel writer and novelist [and] there was some part of me that had to come to terms with the idea that I was never going to be that. That I was never going to be like a litterateur, a homme de lettres. And I think that’s probably what my dad would have liked me to be.
“And TV is obviously a faintly raffish medium. Like it’s a déclassé realm of creativity and journalism… It’s always with a touch of chagrin that I notice that in the culture pages of newspapers in general, or Radio 4 Front Row or whatever, TV doesn’t really get that much of a look in.
“It’s almost viewed – it’s a bit like fast food. Or: ‘Yeah, that’s just something we all consume, but it’s not really art. It’s not really culture.’
“And so that’s part of a faint sense of status anxiety. And the other part is, to be a roving foreign correspondent, as opposed to a shambling, light entertainment, faintly comical BBC inquisitor, it seems somehow [my] lineage – whatever lineage I may occupy – is less elevated.
“And maybe I’m fine with that. Right? But I suppose the fact that I even notice it says something.”
‘No, I don’t want to change the world’
After becoming the latest journalist to ask Theroux what he’d ask himself in an interview, and then failing in an attempt to invite myself to his family home, my 30 minutes are up.
I don’t want to end things on a sour note, so I ask Theroux if he has time for one more question.
“Sure. I don’t care.”
What drives you?
“Oh, Jeez. I thought you were saying what do I drive. And I was going to say a Seat Alhambra.
“What drives me is a feeling of – a kind of anxiety, among other things. Obviously I like to create things that I feel are enjoyable. I follow my curiosity. I’m interested in life. I’m curious about how people think and why people do things that they do.
“But I also am someone who feels quite anxious and feels hemmed in by a feeling of judgment – hemmed in by a feeling of what am I allowed to do or not do. And so those people who seem to act in ways that seem forbidden – that’s a nice tee-up for the series, Forbidden America – I’m curious about what it is in them that enables them or forces them into doing that.
“It’s almost like my diffidence and my tentativeness feeds on those sorts of qualities of other people that are the opposite – that are evangelical or dogmatic or self-confident or extreme.”
Do you want to change the world?
“No, I don’t want to change the world. I feel that’s the wrong answer. I think if I could make the world a better place, obviously I would like to.
“But I don’t even know – I think perhaps half the time it’s the attitude of wanting to change the world is one of the more dangerous impulses.”
With that, Theroux calls time on our Zoom call.
“Okay,” he announces. “I think you asked three last questions there, unless I’m very much mistaken.”
Louis Theroux’s filmography (a selection)
- Weird Weekends (17 episodes), 1998-2000
- When Louis Met… (8 episodes), 2000-2002
- Louis and the Nazis – 2003
- The Most Hated Family in America – 2007
- The City Addicted to Crystal Meth – 2009
- Miami Mega Jail – 2011
- LA Stories (3 episodes) – 2014
- My Scientology Movie – 2015
- Savile – 2016
- Dark States (3 episodes) – 2017
- Altered States (3 episodes) – 2018
- Life on the Edge (4 episodes) – 2020
- Shooting Joe Exotic – 2021
- Forbidden America (3 episodes) – 2022
Photo credit: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson