Louis Theroux: 'I’ve never been good at playing someone else'
This interview originally appeared in Radio Times Magazine.
Louis Theroux won’t win a BAFTA this year – in fact, he wasn’t nominated –but he doesn’t really need any more cluttering up the house. In his three-decades-long documentary career, he’s already bagged five golden masks for the mantelpiece and, since his early days on Michael Moore’s TV Nation, through Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, When Louis Met… and all his modern documentaries, he’s racked up a CV most film-makers would be happy to retire on. But Theroux’s not resting on his laurels just yet.
“As you get older, you do think about obsolescence, and you think that there are younger people doing brilliant work,” Theroux, 52, tells me when we meet in a London hotel after RT’s photoshoot.
“I certainly don’t take my position, such as it is, for granted. I think it’s a terrible look when you see high-profile people on TV acting as though they have a permanent position, like a freehold on the real estate of broadcasting.”
It’s a typically astute observation from a man who’s carved a niche as a chronicler of the human condition. Of course, once upon a time Theroux himself was the young upstart of documentary film-making, a disarming, faux naïf figure who managed to get his subjects to open up through deadpan questioning. He says that, back then, he was “just grateful to have a place at the table” – but presumably now, the experienced film-maker is more confident than the uneasy, earnest figure we see on screen. Is he playing more of a role than he used to?
“But that’s who I am, really,” he insists. “I would like to think that I’m still the same person, and from time to time I get little glimpses of remembering how insecure and how much of an outsider I used to feel when I was in my early and mid-20s.”
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Today, he says, his old insecurities have been replaced by new ones – a need to keep at the cutting edge, to not let the grass grow under his feet. Ironically, even if he did nothing, his career longevity seems assured with the burgeoning brand Theroux – several spin-off books (including two memoirs), a podcast, Grounded, a novelty rap single, dedicated fan sites online and a share in a production company, Mindhouse, where he now helps develop documentaries that he doesn’t necessarily front himself. At this stage, Theroux could probably just cash in, living off his past successes and name recognition – but instead, he’s still trying to walk a tightrope between fame and fact-finding.
“I know I’m a kind of hybrid figure,” he says. “I occupy a space somewhere between a proper documentary-maker on one hand and, on the other, a kind of TV personality.
“I do say yes to more things now. I used to be almost monastically resistant to anything that smelled too much of showbusiness: premieres or award shows if I wasn’t nominated. But then I got a bit older, I opened up about my private life in my books. And I just thought, ‘Do you know what? I shouldn’t be too puritanical about doing things that sit outside the remit of: what would Werner Herzog do?’”
Throughout our conversation, he remains remarkably deadpan, not once cracking a smile even as he accepts compliments or displays bursts of wit. One might assume he’s just had plenty of practice using his poker face over years of interviewing – but he argues this is, genuinely, what he’s like.
“I’ve never been good at disguising my emotions or playing someone else,” he says. “I would have dreamt of being a kind of Chris Morris, or a prankish figure. But I think as time went on, I just became more comfortable allowing the on-camera me to be closer to the real me.
“I couldn’t help being who I am," he shrugs.
My first TV memory is… Crown Court. You know how odd bits of cultural flotsam just stick with you? It had very distinctive theme music.
I was obsessed with… writing for TV. Sitcoms in the early 90s – like Seinfeld and Larry Sanders and The Simpsons and Frasier. Those felt like art of a high level, and maybe something I could participate in.
My big break was… never televised. I was working on a magazine called Spy, but then MTV came along and wanted me to do a one-minute monologue. They were going to use dolls to re-enact real-life situations, like pranks and scrapes. My monologue didn’t get used. And I don’t think the pilot got picked up. But it was a glimpse of something.
I’ve learnt… that TV will always change. My kids, especially the eight-year-old, more or less subsist on YouTube content. I hope we don’t get so fragmented that we’re all just siloed in our respective news and entertainment feeds. That wouldn’t be good.