Louis Theroux talks porn stars, privacy and growing up

Gone are the days of gyrating nude on camera - the documentary-maker discusses fatherhood and his forthcoming wedding

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Louis Theroux has hung out at a swingers orgy, been massaged by a prostitute in a Nevada brothel and was an extra in a gay porn flick, yet making his latest film he had an odd revelation. “I’ve discovered I am quite a puritanical person,” he says.

In his new documentary, Theroux, now 42, returns to Los Angeles to look up performers in the porn industry he met in 1997 while shooting one of his early Weird Weekends. He discovers a business in decline, its profits ravaged by internet piracy and actors barely eking a living. The burgeoning stars of 15 years ago now struggle with emotional damage inflicted by their trade: one major name, Jon Dough, committed suicide in 2007.

And we also see, by way of flashbacks, how Theroux himself has changed. The callow, skinny 27-year-old show-off, who gyrated naked while a casting agent snapped his Polaroid picture is replaced by a rather doleful figure exuding concern and disapproval.

His young man’s fascination with porn – “that in lonely moments one might conceivably resort to it, but never with a great feeling about it afterwards” – has changed to a belief that “some things should remain private”.

In person, however, Theroux still has a cultivatedly boyish quality, turning up late and dishevelled in jeans, trainers and hoodie, like an etiolated sixth former. The traits that make him a successful interviewer – charm, a mild manner and dreamy vagueness – render him a frustrating interviewee. Sentences trail off, personal inquiries are side-stepped and beneath the self-deprecation you detect a streak of slyness.

By these means he was able to inveigle his way into the lives of celebrities, most notably Christine and Neil Hamilton, Jimmy Savile and Paul Daniels. Theroux would move into their homes for weeks, get drunk with them, share secrets and hangovers, yet seemed to show little compunction about how ridiculous they looked on screen. In one infamous scene he told the Hamiltons, “I’m not a journalist, I’m your friend”, a remark he claims was a joke, but has become a metonym for his disingenuous technique.

But Theroux met his match in wily PR man Max Clifford, who manipulated their film for his own ends and sold stories about Theroux to newspapers. “I do still have residual feelings about the sense of dislike I got from him,” he says. I suggest that he is not accustomed to being disliked. “No!” yelps Theroux. “It was a bit odd.”

He seems to crave warm feelings from his subjects, says he has befriended many, including JJ, a porn actor who crops up again in his latest film. He revisited many interviewees for his 2006 book The Call of the Weird, seeming to crave a lasting connection. But how much are these friendships predicated on self-interest? I note that despite his close bond with Jimmy Savile he didn’t attend his funeral.

In the end, Theroux stopped making celebrity films, queasy about the moral ambiguity of the transaction, and returned to documenting edgy subjects such as prisoners in San Quentin jail and gang bosses in Lagos.

But latterly he has moved from the strangeness outside to that within, making films about children with autism and sufferers of dementia living in an enclosed community in Arizona. Since reading Oliver Sacks’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, “I have always been interested in people whose minds are wired differently.” But until now he felt he lacked the maturity and confidence to tackle themes that required sensitivity and a subtle hand.

Although the new porn documentary is back to classic Theroux territory, his tone is less larky and excitable than in 1997. “I was puckish and playful, a bit silly back then,” he reflects, “and sometimes I didn’t seriously examine what I thought about things.” Now, rather than inquiring how performers keep “wood”, he wonders about the toll upon the human soul of performing such an intimate act before the camera.

In the 1997 film we met the melancholic and reckless young porn star JJ, heedless about the dangers of unprotected sex. In the 2012 film we discover he had thrown himself into this career as a response to the cot death of his infant son. “A lot of performers, I would say most, have had some chaos or turbulence in their upbringing, perhaps connected with their parents,” says Theroux. “But the porn industry then exacerbates it, stores up more problems.”

Theroux discovered too – although he omits it from his film – that because fewer porn movies are being made, performers are resorting to prostitution to pay the rent. “Agents call these assignments ‘privates’,” he says. “That’s not spoken about, it’s very hush-hush. But at the same time the official line is ‘We’re showbiz, we’re nothing to do with that.’ The obvious difference is you are still having sex with strangers, but you are doing it on camera. And to my mind that seems more tawdry.”

Theroux reflects that when filming a legal Nevada brothel he witnessed tender, long-standing relationships between hookers and their clients. “It is strange to me that in the porn industry they look askance at prostitution, because I can see a much better case for the legalisation of prostitution than pornography. It seems a more humane profession.”

Where does he stand on demands from certain quarters, including the Daily Mail and Devizes MP Claire Perry, that internet service providers should make the default setting for porn entering our homes “off” rather than, as now, “on”? “My honest reaction is it sounds like a good idea,” he says. “I have kids. The elder boy is six and he’s always clicking on things. I’m sure I could work the filter, but there always seems to be something more important I need to do. With the default at “off”, that would be simpler.”

Fatherhood – his other son is four – has inevitably matured Theroux, given him gravitas. It also complicates his lifestyle, with long absences filming abroad. It is a relief, he says, to be away from young children for a few days, “but also quite sad”. His own father, the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, most famous for The Mosquito Coast and The Great Railway Bazaar, was frequently away for up to half a year on research trips.

Theroux is younger by just 23 months than his brother Marcel, a novelist and broadcaster (Marcel’s documentary about Ukraine’s homeless children was shown last month on C4), and the brothers were hugely competitive. Louis was the family’s “licensed jester”, a role he later parlayed on to screen once he found that clowning broke down barriers, won friends. He believes, for example, it was only because he showed his nude Polaroid to porn star Jon Dough that he secured an interview. “Jon felt, I think, this guy has paid his dues. He is putting himself out there and doesn t consider himself superior to me.”

Not that Theroux lacked intellectual heft: after Westminster School, a contemporary of Nick Clegg, he got a first in history at Oxford. Indeed, unlike his blinking, dumb-playing on-screen persona he has a sharp mind and is partial to quoting arcane sources.

Fame notwithstanding, his father’s strong personality dominated the family. “He had ideas of how we should be,” says Theroux. “I suppose I had the healthy urge to escape his shadow by doing something different.” So he moved to San Jose, California, because, although his father is American, his own nation was the one part of the world he had not written about. Louis worked with Michael Moore on his US programme TV Nation before forming his own production company. “I think I drifted into TV partly because it felt like a creative medium where I could make a mark and earn a living but not be compared to my dad.”

He sends his father all his films, and has no embarrassment about their explicit themes. “I have read enough sex scenes in my dad’s books for it not to feel the least bit awkward.” Besides, Theroux Sr “likes the sex ones best. He loved the brothel one a lot and the porn ones.”

So what will he do next? Theroux replies that having churned out three one-hour documentaries a year for a decade, he is taking a rest. “I’ve, um, been travelling a lot and I am trying to recharge my batteries and, um, I’m getting married,” he says. Then in a whisper adds: “I shouldn’t say that, should I?”

Indeed I wonder why he volunteers the information since, perhaps because he trades in others’ privacy, he is unforthcoming about his own life. He was married before, a union of convenience to a longstanding English girlfriend when he was living with her in New York. With his American passport, their marriage made it easier for her to find legal employment. There were no wedding photos. “It was really a marriage of convenience,” he has said.

But this wedding will be to Nancy Strang, a TV producer and teacher, the mother of his sons. “I don’t really want to talk about it,” he says, forestalling other questions. And as we say goodbye he adds, in his donnish, ingenuous way, “I really don t know why I told you I’m getting married.” Or is he tossing me this personal secret to secure my devotion? I suspect Louis Theroux, beneath the faux-innocence, knows exactly what he’s doing.

Louis Theroux: Twilight of the Porn Stars is on BBC2, Sunday at 10.00pm

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