There’s not much Louis Theroux hasn’t experienced of humanity. In more than 25 years of documentary making, he’s moved in multiple worlds including those of neo-Nazis, Scientologists, pornography stars, those living with dementia – and Jimmy Savile.
While his approach has altered over the years, from comic gonzo to sober inquisitor, Theroux’s ability to extract uncomfortable truths without confrontation has not.
Yet, the one person we don’t get to know is Theroux himself. The questions are simple. The expression inscrutable. Only his eyebrows sometimes go rogue. In other words, he gives his interviewee space to show who they are.
Epithets from “faux-naive”, “impenetrable” and “wacky” have been employed in an attempt to define him. Theroux says he can, up to point, understand why.
“I plead guilty to, back in the day of Weird Weekends and When Louis Met, sometimes being a ‘wacky’ satirist, finding fringe people in marginal, wrongheaded or poisoned lifestyles and having fun with them, making them look a bit silly,” he says.
“Now I cover stories I’m interested in, funny or not.
“We used to say, ‘Where are the laughs?’ as a way of eliminating a subject. But it’s not about being Jeremy Paxman or David Frost, but being engaging, exciting and interesting and being the best me I can.”
As Theroux edges towards 50, his latest project – a memoir – could help unmask the “real” him.
In Gotta Get Theroux This, he turns the focus inwards, to the workings of his TV world and his complicated mind. The title’s pun comes from the ironic “cult of Louis” that spawned a range of Theroux-themed merchandise. Theroux wanted to “repurpose the meme, which never struck me as really that funny. Any pun on my name, I’ve heard a million times”.
“But a theme of the book is getting through things, so I focused on challenges, things I found difficult: professional failures and worries, feeling I’m not up to it, I’m in over my head.”
Theroux goes into forensic detail as he takes us through his childhood, into adulthood and becoming an alumnus of Michael Moore, to the present day. As for his personal life, it’s been a rollercoaster of anxiety, self-doubt and emotional detachment. (There’s also been a lot of pot smoking.)
“I take my work arguably too seriously. I neglected my personal life to focus on achieving some sort of professional success. The price of my lack of emotional nous was paid by those nearest and dearest to me.”
He’s had to learn to overcome the commitment issues which contributed to his first marriage’s breakdown and almost broke his second to Nancy Strang, mother to his three boys. Given the commitment he’s now asking of readers, he felt it necessary to be as open as possible.