Louis Theroux is tall — two or three inches over 6ft — dark and handsome. He has stubble, which he keeps neat with a beard-trimmer, and is living in LA, with a tan to match. But he’s also a self-confessed nerd.
“If nerd was a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [of Mental Disorders] you would check off…” He mentally starts counting. “No, not all of them — I’m not that good with computers. But I’ve got glasses, I’m not terribly sporty, I’m socially slightly awkward. So I do have those indicators.”
I’m sitting face-to-face with Theroux in central London. He’s in town to promote his three-part series on Los Angeles, in which he meets people living on the edge, either of life or society. He tries, with that quizzical look of his, to understand his interviewees as they lie on their death beds or contemplate the sexual crimes of their past. He is, he reminds us, curious. And I’m curious about him.
Son of the writer Paul Theroux, brother of novelist Marcel, cousin to American actor and screenwriter Justin, Louis grew up in London, went to a top private school and then to Oxford. He got a first in history and started out as a print journalist before winning recognition for his roving role on Michael Moore’s TV Nation series. From there, he’s become the man who asks the weird questions we all want answered.
One of the things I really want to know about Theroux is whether he plays up, on screen, his “innocent abroad” appearance. What does he make of accusations that he’s faux naïf? After all, he cannot deny his academic record. But, he says, there’s a disconnect between emotional intelligence and “intelligence intelligence”.
“Sometimes I feel a bit socially disconnected in terms of being a little bit gullible about how people interrelate emotionally.”
In 2012, he made a documentary called Extreme Love about children with an autism spectrum disorder. “My director said that in a couple of the interviews, it wasn’t completely clear which of us had the autism. It was like I was sort of on the spectrum as well. Arguably, there’s an emotional side of life that I’m not always completely plugged into.”
He checks himself. “Clearly I’m able to read emotions. But I do feel… What is it? Awkwardness. I’m not a slick dude. That’s what it comes down to. The nakedness, the guilelessness… that’s quite real.”
He is not, he admits, completely relaxed talking to me. “I’m not that good at dissembling or concealing, let alone lying, so if I have any sense of anxiety, it’s that I know there’s a real danger that I’ll blurt out the whole truth about who I am and how we work and what I’m about. And it will, in some way, end up looking wrong.”
During research for his film America’s Medicated Kids, he interviewed an adult psychiatrist who, based on a 20-minute conversation, said that he would put Theroux on medication for bipolar disorder and social anxiety disorder if he were treating him.
“He was a rather pill-happy psychiatrist. He made two very serious psychiatric diagnoses of me,” he says, with a surprisingly high-pitched but gentle chortle. “What I had said was that sometimes, when I’m sleep- deprived, my mind starts revving and I get a lot of ideas that may not be very good ideas and I go into slightly creative overdrive.”
Theroux’s subjects have changed since the days of what he describes as “slightly facetious documentaries that had some heart to them but had a predominantly comic tone”.
He credits the BBC with allowing him to go on a journey that now finds him making “fairly serious programmes, although they have funny moments”. His films, he says, represent life with the boring bits cut out. “Isn’t that what they say about art in general?”
He feels a sense of responsibility towards his subjects “very intensely, because most of the people that we film are in some way vulnerable and sometimes they are extremely vulnerable.”
In the second of his LA films, he encounters patients facing a medical death sentence. It doesn’t surprise Theroux that people are prepared to be filmed at intensely intimate moments.
“Most people feel that they are the heroes of their own lives and that they’re good people. So if they’re in a crisis, they feel an understandable urge to set out their own version of events. In a lot of cases, they take some strength from having their struggles documented.”
Ethical concerns can be eased, he says, by the knowledge that some interviewees feel their lives are being memorialised.
And there is, he thinks, “probably” something therapeutic about talking to an interviewer. Which is not to say he sets out to improve people’s lives. “That’s not the aim. The aim is to tell the truth and create an interesting programme. But, when it’s done responsibly, it can have a side-effect of being an almost helpful process for the people involved.”
It is, though, more “complicated” with sex offenders. “There’s this more difficult element to the engagement — they’re clearly offering up ammunition for people who would want to make them look bad or [they’re] possibly making themselves vulnerable to vigilantism or embarrassment.”
Does he think harm has ever come to anyone as a result of his filming? He pauses. “It’s possible. As far as I’m aware, it hasn’t, but you go into these things knowing that it’s a risk.”
He wonders aloud whether the children of porn stars he’s filmed might one day see his work. “You could torment yourself imagining the ways in which what you’ve documented somehow ended up backfiring on the people [involved], but that’s the way it is.”
In the documentary about sex offenders, he seems to go in search of humanity where others might not look, and treads a challenging line between sympathy and horror. “I think you second-guess your reaction or your inclination to trust but we also need to second-guess our inclination to distrust. So there has to be a level of hesitancy on both sides. That’s what makes it a difficult subject and a difficult issue to deal with.
“There’s an understandable tension between the urge to punish and the urge to rehabilitate.”
His most famous subject avoided punishment entirely. When Louis Met… Jimmy, about Jimmy Savile, was broadcast in 2000. Despite the “outlandish” rumours that were “not well sourced or well established”, Theroux says he would have needed hard evidence to unmask Savile as a serial sexual abuser. But he is proud of the film and maintains it was the most revealing documentary made about Savile while he was alive.
Although Theroux moved to LA for family reasons — his wife grew up abroad and struggles with British winters — he’s kept his house in Harlesden, West London, and will return later this year. He has a “healthy” US following on YouTube but, although an attempt to break into American television has crossed his mind, he can’t see the point. “I get to do everything I want to do in my arrangement with the BBC. I can already write my own ticket.”
He’s still only 43, but I wonder whether having to confront patients in their twenties and thirties dying in LA hospitals has made Theroux think about death. A little, he says. “Most days I do 60 sit-ups and 40 push-ups and I go for runs occasionally and cycle. I’m at the stage where when I look in the mirror, I don’t get any benefit from it. My skin looks grey and weird. So I face my own mortality every day of the week.”
He admits he enjoys being recognised in the street but part of him can’t believe it. “ 'Why are you excited?’ ” he wonders of those in his thrall. Being known is not what it’s all about for him.
“It’s a losing game in the end, isn’t it, the idea of fame. Don’t you want to die lying in your bed thinking, 'Actually, I think I did the right thing’?”