Louis Theroux: “I lose my temper quite a lot”

Ahead of his new Dark States BBC series, Dawn O'Porter quizzes documentary king Louis Theroux about his big break, home life and what still shocks him

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I was supposed to be on maternity leave. But when Radio Times asked me to interview Louis Theroux, I had to pass the baby over for a minute, while I jumped at the chance to meet the guy who has probably had more influence on me and my career than anyone else.

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To say I’m a fan is an understatement, so it took a tidal wave of willpower to hold myself together when the master of documentary-making rung the doorbell of my home in LA. He’d agreed to the location instantly, and arrived without a bead of sweat, despite his cycle over. “Oh my goodness, you weren’t joking,” he smiles, referring to the 11-week-old baby boy in my arms, “how wonderful.”

He has three boys of his own, Albert, 11, Fred, nine, and Walter, two-and-a-half. He tells me about Walter, who still wakes up in the night for milk. “That shouldn’t really be happening at two-and-a-half, should it?” he says, mostly to himself. “You just sort of give up a bit with the third.”

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This happened. Interview coming soon. Total dude.

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I’d taken the liberty of ordering us lunch – a full macrobiotic meal consisting of largely tasteless tofu and veg concoctions, with a choice of raw juices. I thought I’d test his “LA-ness”.

“I’m the most un-LA person you’ll ever meet,” he admits, choosing the green juice. “Vegetarian by inclination, but not in practice.” He’s been trying to phase meat out for moral reasons but finds it very hard. “I can’t help but think of the animals, being led to slaughter en masse,” he says, though he admits he still enjoys the taste.

The move to LA is new; he arrived with his sons and wife Nancy three weeks earlier, “just for fun more than anything.” It was easy enough – he’s a US citizen thanks to his dad, the celebrated Boston-born travel writer Paul Theroux. “I only got a British passport when I turned 18,” he says. “I was always back and forth.”

So is this move for ever? He thinks maybe just a year. “The experience of living in LA is pretty different from living in the rest of America. It’s a self-conscious place. An industry town.”

Louis, now 47, got his break in TV at the age of 23, working for film-maker Michael Moore. He’d been working as a print journalist in New York, then did a year on a local paper before moving to Spy (America’s answer to Private Eye).

Some friends went to work for Moore on his satirical news series TV Nation, and heard that he was on the look-out for someone British. “My friends told him, ‘We know this guy, he’s quite funny, a journalist, he might be a good person for you’. I hit some quota that they needed.”

Another white male with a public school education? “Indeed,” he laughs, “because there are not enough of those on TV.”

It was all terribly chancy and a stunning stroke of luck, but Moore saw something in Louis that he hadn’t really seen in himself. “He really did give me my break, I would never have envisaged myself as an ‘on camera’ guy.”

I understand why he never saw himself that way. I’ve watched him on TV and wondered how this very straight, often stiff persona had wangled his way onto the screen rather than remaining in print. That isn’t a criticism – his straightness is his greatness. Louis’s unswerving elocution is pivotal in highlighting his contributors’ peculiarities. But he hardly comes across as someone who could be bothered to charm a TV exec.

Yet now I meet him face-to-face, I get it. He’s every bit the smart, straight-talking person I feel like I know so well from his shows, but in the flesh other attributes that we see glimmers of on screen are much more pronounced. A strong wit; a genuine interest in getting to know you (I keep having to bat away his questions); a cheeky smirk that makes me want to steer the conversation away from the serious nature of his shows and more towards a giggle. I imagine that even in the most precarious of situations, that charm is still there.

How different is Louis in real life from the one we see on camera? “In real life I’m just a heightened version. On TV you’re doing a job, you’re required to get questions asked and answered, ideally. So you are in the mode of a polite, curious person.

“But in my normal life, I suppose I am more emotional. A bit more impatient. I get angry when I pick up my family’s clothes from the floor. I shout ‘Stop it’ and ‘Shut up’. Normal family interaction. People tell me I’m good not to lose my temper, but I never feel inclined to on location. But at home I lose my temper quite a lot. I’d love to find the person who doesn’t.”

I tell him that’s a surprise to me, coming from someone who takes on the challenge of documentary-making, which is no walk in the park as far as effort and hours go. “Yeah, but my directors absorb a huge amount of the anxiety. I don’t have to think about the logistics, I just turn up. I quite enjoy being in the mode of just watching what happens and trying to figure out what’s going on. I enjoy that, I find it very relaxing.”

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So, as he watches the action unfold, is he ever surprised by what people are willing to say on camera, despite their questionable life choices or circumstances? “For the most part, people have to rationalise what they do. They have a script, a narrative in which what they do makes sense given the choices they have been given and the worlds they have been born into. They see a logic to what they are doing. By and large the people I meet are not con artists or actively mendacious people – with a couple of exceptions – and so for the most part the truth kind of forces its way out of their lips. People are doing things that they have made themselves OK about. Whether it’s murder, or being a PR guy, or a paedophile.”

Nate, who Louis meets in Heroin Town, the first episode of his new Dark States series, comes to mind. Louis is in Huntingdon, West Virginia, a town that’s been hammered by heroin addiction. Nate lives in a tent and shoots up daily, yet despite the circumstances of his life, tries to convince Louis that he’s got it right.

There he is, high as a kite on the best heroin in town, wondering why on earth he would ever stop. He waves a chunk of illegal drugs at Louis and puts up a pretty good argument as to why he’s about to power it into a vein through a crusty scab that he’s been injecting into for years.

After Nate’s passionate description of getting high, was even the smallest part of Louis tempted? “Yes. The smallest part of me. I never would, but of course there is a little part of you that wants to know, to understand that rush. I wish, maybe, that a little had accidentally touched my nose,” he says, causing me to break into laughter and choke on some brown rice. “Just to accidentally get an idea of how it feels.”

He laughs too but soon collects himself and is quick to remind me that, really, he would never try heroin.

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Louis Theroux with Nate Walsh, a heroin user who lives in a tent on the banks on the Ohio river

There is an understandable reluctance to participate in the subject matter he covers, but after all these years of wild investigation, has he rendered himself unshockable? “No. As odd as it may sound, there are things that shock me. Like infidelity. I’m always trying to get my head around casual intimacy, casual sex. Or sex that is paid for.

“One of the episodes in this series is about illegal prostitution and pimping. That was quite shocking. But I hear from women who are selling their bodies and giving all the money to their pimp, then I discover they were abused as kids and associate love with abuse and suddenly it all makes a bit more sense.”

Over the course of his career, Louis’s personal circumstances have changed enormously. Now a family man, does he struggle with travel and lengthy times on location away from his brood? “Yes, I do. But sometimes it’s nice to have a break. From the routine. So, it’s not something I could give up lightly. I have thought about whether it’s fair on the family, me being away a lot. But I get so much out of doing the work. I did stay in the UK for a year after having our third son, which was the right thing to do.”

What about the potentially risky situations he finds himself in – surely he is more hesitant now when going to places that might be dangerous? “No, that’s never crossed my mind. Truth is, the way in which I am exposed to danger is probably exaggerated. I’ve never had a knife or a gun pulled on me. Which is pretty good going…”

His determination to balance his commitments at home and his strong work ethic has its foundation in his upbringing. His pride in his family’s achievements is very endearing. “Mum worked at BBC World Service as a producer. My dad has written 50, maybe 60 books.”

Has Louis read them all? “I don’t think even he has read them all.” The family home was in Wandsworth, south London, where he and his brother, Marcel, a writer and broadcaster, watched a lot of TV growing up. “Whatever was on. Play School, The Young Ones, University Challenge. Computers were s**t in those days. My dad tried to toughen us up in America in the summer holidays. With mixed results.”

I ask him if there is anything he wishes people knew about him. He mulls this over for such a long time that I’m sure I’m about to get an exclusive on something so juicy that fans will hold this interview in the same reverence as his films, but he eventually sighs, “Not really”.

Maybe it’s the lack of scandal in his own life that draws us so much more into the lives of the people he encounters. A tactic, perhaps, so he doesn’t distract his audience from his subjects? “I used to be funny about all that when the people I was interviewing were celebrities,” he says. “I thought I couldn’t go to parties, or be a part of that celebrity culture, but I’m more relaxed about it now. I just went on Pointless with my wife, and we were pretty good.

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Louis Theroux: Dark States — Heroin Town Sunday 9.00pm BBC2