Louis Theroux: 'My documentary style is really just about being a decent human being'
The documentary maker delves into matters of life and death in his new BBC series, Altered States — but has he emerged unscathed?
Louis Theroux stands at the foot of Gus Thomasson’s bed and thanks the sleeping man for letting him into his life. That life is about to end, as Thomasson, 74 and suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer, has recently taken the drugs that will first tranquillise then, after seven-and-a-half hours, kill him. Thomasson has exercised his right to die under a California law that allows a terminally ill adult to end his or her life with prescribed medication.
Now unconscious, he has already said his goodbyes, and it’s left to his two daughters, his wife and friends gathered round the bed to tell Thomasson they love him.
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Theroux slips away before the end, past Thomasson’s infant grandson, who plays in the corridor. “I’ve seen quite a few upsetting situations,” Theroux says of this scene in his new documentary Choosing Death. “And I think sometimes I may lack a certain level of emotional self-knowledge. Occasionally I get surprised when emotions come at me unexpectedly. But, for the most part, I’m unscathed. It doesn’t traumatise me. I see something extraordinary, I’m part of a very powerful, upsetting scene in which someone is dying, or expressing a deep sense of mental anguish, and then I go home, put my kids to bed and kiss my wife.”
Theroux is married to the television director Nancy Strang and has three sons: Albert, 12, Frederick, eight, and Walter, four. To make this new three-part series Altered States, he moved them all to the US for a year. “We’d lived there in 2013 and 2014 when I made LA Stories, and then My Scientology Movie,” he says. “The kids love the beach, and the weather, the desert and trips up into the mountains.” When the boys were at the beach, Theroux was being welcomed into other people’s lives, often at their most testing moments.
Still, at 48, a boyishly curious figure, Theroux contrives to be both quizzical and yet somehow separate from the dramas around him. “I think the idea of someone coming from the UK and the BBC has a certain appeal for Americans,” he says. “It’s that feeling of, ‘Oh, it’s just some random British guy with glasses.’ And that somehow creates a sense of security.”
He’s a journalist, not an actor, so how real is that British guy with glasses? “Clearly, I’m trying to be a bit more polite and ingratiating, as friendly and solicitous as possible. So, you’re not going to go around throwing tantrums, you don’t want viewers to think you’re a complete dobber. Earlier today, I caught myself being a little bit curt with someone and I thought, ‘Oh, wow. Maybe that’s a bit off.’ But whether it’s a persona or just someone in a professional mode, I’m not sure. Probably in my normal life I’m a bit more crotchety. A bit more facetious.”
His reputation is built squarely on the 30-plus specials he has done for the BBC, starting in 2003 with Louis and the Brothel, after his When Louis Met… series, which began in 1998, ended. Sex appeared again in the first episode of Altered States, an investigation into polyamory, which saw Theroux stripping to his underpants and having his nipples tweaked by a trio of live-in lovers. “It was nice to flex some of those old comedy muscles again,” he says.
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He’s now, of course, taken very seriously, though he admits it’s been a long haul. “It’s like turning around an aircraft carrier. It took about ten years, after finishing the When Louis Met… series, for people to finally stop asking, ‘When are you going to do another Keith Harris and Orville profile?’ Or they’d say, ‘Oh yes, you do all that weird stuff.’ But now I think people understand that it doesn’t always have to be about oddballs, or strange stories.”
Theroux says that he has been thinking about more When Louis Met… encounters. “Tommy Robinson is too much on the front burner for me right now. I’m interested in stories about people who maybe are not riding as high as they once were – maybe Nigel Farage or Julian Assange. Farage seems to be more in the wings, more in the margins. I also like stories about people who have been somehow defrocked, or have fallen from grace. Roseanne Barr, the American actor and comedian, would be a good person to make a documentary about.”
In some of the scenes in Choosing Death – in which Theroux talks to people about ending their life – it is enough for him to look on, perplexed. At her home in Oregon, 65-year-old Debra doesn’t have access to the end-of-life drugs available to Thomasson under California’s 2016, AB-15 act. She is visited by Lowrey and Brian, advisors from the Final Exit Network, who demonstrate how she might kill herself; Theroux has been advised, for legal reasons, not to reveal the process in detail. He need say nothing – it is deeply uncomfortable.
In other scenes, we see Theroux’s deceptively casual interventions at their best. He lies down on the carpet to talk to 11-year-old Braden, whose mother, Lori, has a terminal illness and is planning to end her life. The conversation is delicate and perfectly pitched – but is it right for Theroux to benefit from the boy’s situation?
“Of all the people we feature,” he says, “the one that I thought most about was Braden. An 11-year-old boy is a sponge for what’s going on around him. But it might be years, or even decades, before it’s clear how he’s been shaped by what he’s gone through. I made a point of being aware that he was around, that he was hearing everything, and of asking, sometimes repetitively, if he was OK. You absolutely have a duty of care towards a child involved in a situation like that. It’s just horrendous to think about a young person losing his mum, isn’t it?”
Theroux went into the film thinking, “it’s probably a pretty good idea to afford people who are terminally ill the option of ending their life”. He has not changed his mind. “But it has made me more sensitive to the questions involved,” he says. “If you are having conversations about quality of life, that raises the question, ‘Well, what is quality of life?’ And what about people with dementia, who don’t have capacity? Those people don’t fall under the California legislation, but they are increasingly part of the conversation.”
Doctors have told Lori, Braden’s mother, that her cancer is terminal, and she wants to take control of her own death. But Debra in Oregon uses a wheelchair after a car crash, and suffers “dementia-like” episodes. She is clearly depressed after the recent death of her husband and lacks the money to stay at a specialised facility. Should we really be aiding her suicide?
Theroux says, “Brian, who is part of the Final Exit Network, expresses the view that no one would want to live with dementia, they’d rather be dead than live with dementia. That’s a short step from saying, ‘Let’s help anyone with dementia on their way to a sort of merciful release.’
“That, to me, seems like a very troubling scenario. You can decide you don’t want to live with dementia, but what about if you then get dementia and you forget that you expressed that wish, and to all intents and purposes you seem quite happy? It seems to me that the now demented person has a reasonable claim to being allowed to change their mind and decide that they’re quite happy doing what they do, living in dementia."
I ask if he has spoken about these things to his own parents, writer Paul Theroux and former BBC World Service producer Anne Castle, who are separated but still alive. “They’re getting on a bit,” Theroux says. “Dad’s 77 and Mum’s 76, but I haven’t talked to them about it. They’ve both been lucky, to still have 99 per cent of their marbles. Perhaps I should be thinking about that.” And what about Theroux? Does he have a living will so his family knows what to do if he becomes ill? “I don’t. And I should. I feel, maybe naively, that I’m 48, and I’ve got three children, the youngest is four, so that all seems quite far off.”
Theroux says he missed England when the family was in the US. “It became a bit much, not being able to walk anywhere, the car culture. And just not really bumping into people,” he says. “When we’re living there, the boys pick up the accent when they’re at school or with friends. It’s almost like being, well, bilingual, but only in English. When they’re at home with us, they use their English accents. They return!”
Has that been a danger for Theroux, spending so much time in the US that he stops speaking the English English that is part of his appeal? “Well, I see some old Weird Weekends episodes where I hear a little bit of an American twang,” he says. “It all goes a bit Loyd Grossman.”
I had presumed that this would be a bad time for a film-maker like Theroux to leave the States. Isn’t Trump’s America going to get weirder and weirder and throw up even more stories? It turns out the opposite is true. “My older programmes about survivalists, neo-Nazis and religious cults worked because they were always alleviated by a sense that these were figures in the margins, lonely and embattled. Which somehow makes it a little easier to stomach. Whereas the kind of ideology that Trump has embodied is now in the ascendancy.
"If I went and interviewed, say, ethno-nationalist Trump supporters, I’d have to retool. In essence, we’ve got an ideology that has been viewed as radical, and deeply questionable, before, and now somehow that’s become dominant. It has captured the White House and elements of the Republican Party, and that means we’re in different times now.”
Which means we will be seeing more of Theroux in Britain, perhaps attempting to bumble his way through the door of the Ecuadorian embassy, trying to get that Assange interview. Successful or not, he has an approach that should see him through. “For want of a better term,” he says, “it’s really just a case of trying to be a decent human being.”
Louis Theroux’s Altered States continues Sunday at 9pm on BBC2