As he launches his first podcast, Theroux discusses his all-star guests, how he’s adapted to working from home, and addresses the criticisms of his recent documentary, Selling Sex
I’m sitting in my living room when a little pop-up appears beneath a livestream of my face. It says: “Louis Theroux would like to join”. Seconds later and the documentarian materialises, full screen, and wearing a grey sweatshirt that reads, ‘gotta get Theroux this’.
We’re here – staring at each other from opposite ends of London – to discuss his new podcast, Grounded with Louis Theroux, but Theroux has a question for me first. “How’s that going?” he inquires after I haphazardly announce that I’m quarantined with my boyfriend. “It’s good,” I answer, aware that Theroux has a habit of interviewing his interviewers. “Good,” he replies. “You find out a lot about each other when you’re locked down.”
While I’m learning about the idiosyncrasies of my boyfriend during quarantine, Theroux is entertaining his three children and trying to perfect his vegetarian lasagne. “Cooking is a way of dissipating nervous tension,” he tells me, adding that if he feels stressed, “I sometimes just make a marinara sauce.”
As well as documenting his cooking endeavours on Instagram (and, of course, watching Tiger King), Theroux has been video chatting with Boy George, Lenny Henry, and Miriam Margolyes for his first ever podcast. “I’m a bit more of a tour guide in these ones,” he says of the interviews, “as opposed to a therapist inquisitor.” It’s been 20 years since Louis’ last foray into the world of celebrity interviewing, when his When Louis Met… show first aired in 2001. The now iconic series saw Theroux profile the likes of Ann Widdecombe and Chris Eubank, and two decades on, he returns with some other famous faces. Now, the journalist is finally speaking to some of the guests who turned him down for the TV series.
“At the time, (When Louis Met…) caused a big splash,” Theroux explains, “because they were very unvarnished, warts-and-all depictions of celebrities.” With many public figures unwilling to participate, the series came to an end, and Theroux went on to create some of his most famous documentaries, including The Most Hated Family in America (2007), Behind Bars (2008), and more recently Transgender Kids (2015) and Selling Sex (2020). The filmmaker also premiered his first feature-length documentary, My Scientology Movie, in 2016.
Though he’s revisiting the subjects he couldn’t get for When Louis Met…, Theroux describes Grounded as “a whole different proposition”. He explains that this time around, he isn’t asking “something cheeky of my guests”. In each episode, the journalist will dig into the psyches of his interviewees, all conducted in two hours over Zoom.
Right now though, Theroux and I have half an hour on Zoom, which is just enough time to discuss lockdown life, Tiger King, and his forthcoming podcast.
How have you been keeping busy during quarantine?
Louis Theroux: I have three children, well, my wife and I do, so we have no shortage of things to keep us busy. In fact, I would say that we’ve never been busier in terms of having three boys in the house who need feeding, supervision, and entertainment. So, there are not enough hours in the day really to get everything done. I think for people with young families who work, time is very precious. That being said, it’s nice being around the family.
I see from Instagram that you’ve been doing a lot of cooking. Have you had any particular disasters or achievements?
Louis Theroux: Cooking is a way of dissipating nervous tension. There’s a lot of anxiety associated with everything that’s going on, and the feeling of impotence in not quite knowing what you can do; so I get excessive nervous energy, but I can deal with that by cooking. I’ve been making a lot of vegetarian lasagnes, also homemade pizzas and ratatouille, and various other dishes. You know, if I feel stressed, I sometimes just make a marinara sauce. I’ll chop up a couple of cloves of garlic and pick up some tins of tomato – or something more ambitious – and then you can put the radio on and be in your own little bubble for a while.
“Living through these strange times together brings out the best in us; the times that we remember as we go through life are the times where we went through adversity” – Louis Theroux
What have you found to be the most challenging things about lockdown, and also the most uplifting?
Louis Theroux: I think what’s most challenging for me is the work-life balance. I find it enormously stressful when I’ve said I’m going to do something, or when someone’s made it clear to me that they need me to do something, and then something else blows up that derails the whole schedule. But maybe that’s the lesson I need to learn – to be more relaxed and to accept disruption with more equanimity. What’s good (about quarantine) is just being with your family, and reminding yourself that you all love each other. Living through these strange times together brings out the best in us; the times that we remember as we go through life are the times where we went through adversity.
So let’s talk about the podcast a little bit. It’s your first podcast – how have you had to adapt your interview technique for it?
Louis Theroux: The main difference is that I’ve done it over the internet, so instead of being in a room with someone, I’m having to try and build rapport and get to know someone remotely. Being with someone is such a big part of how I normally work. I also think that with the kinds of people I’m talking to, most of whom are quite famous, there’s a sense that you’re joining them mid-story. They’re halfway through life, or further, so you have to do a lot of prep because you don’t want to embarrass yourself by not knowing all the main points about who they are. In that sense, there’s more of a sense of needing to guide the conversation. These chats are varied in tone, there’s light and shade. There’s also the need to keep moving, not circling around some subject, but actually going on a little bit of a journey to cover different subjects. I’m a bit more of a tour guide in these ones, as opposed to a therapist inquisitor.
This is the first time you’ve returned to profiling celebrities since When Louis Met… Why did you decide to leave that world, and what made you want to return now?
Louis Theroux: That’s a good place to plug my book (laughs), in which I talk quite a lot about the experience of making the When Louis Met… series. It was, in many ways, the most stressful passage of my working life. At the time when I was doing the programme, they caused a big splash. I think because they were very unvarnished, warts-and-all depictions of celebrities, and a lot of people weren’t used to that level of revelation and intimacy. But the downside of that was that many people in the public didn’t particularly want to participate in that kind of documentary, so it became increasingly hard to get people to agree to come on the programme. That’s why I ended it. That, and also because it’s not that much fun as a way of working when you’re constantly thinking, “I’m spending two weeks with someone who at any moment might decide they don’t like where this is going”.
But Grounded is a whole different proposition. It’s a controllable format; it’s just two hours or so over the internet. It’s a conversation, I’m not wandering around, and we’re not having to spend days and days together. For me, it’s more enjoyable because I don’t feel like we’re asking something cheeky of our guests. It means that we got many more people who are willing to be guests; Lenny Henry and Boy George were both people I’d tried to profile all those years ago, who both turned me down.
“Lenny Henry and Boy George were both people I’d tried to profile all those years ago, who both turned me down” – Louis Theroux
Have there been any enlightening anecdotes shared? Are there any tips for lockdown on the podcast?
Louis Theroux: I think the main thing is exercise; I talked to Gail Porter about it, and Boy George seemed to be taking (lockdown) as an opportunity to have a more healthy diet. We also talked about walks; Jon Ronson and Lenny Henry talked about the need for going out for a walk, and maybe listening to an audiobook. So I think physical exercise is the key, and obviously not overindulging in things.
You’ve also been watching Tiger King during quarantine. How does the man on the screen compare to the real Joe Exotic that you met in 2011? What do you think of the campaign to free him from prison?
Louis Theroux: Joe is one of those people who you can’t help warming to in spite of his eccentricities, and more than eccentricities. I mean, he has been found guilty of animal abuse; I wouldn’t try and excuse any of that. I think that Tiger King was enormously entertaining, and I enjoyed it a lot, but I could also recognise that was not a good place for tigers. They should not be in small cages in Oklahoma, they should be out in the wild.
From what I’ve read in interviews since he’s been locked up, he’s sort of apologised for some of his behaviour. I think if he comes out and never has another tiger, or even worse a chimpanzee or a bear – because those animals suffer even more in captivity than tigers do – I think that would be positive. I believe in redemption and rehabilitation. I don’t want tigers in cages, nor do I particularly want Joe Exotic in a cage any longer than he needs to be to pay his debt to society.
Over the last decade, your documentaries have focused on sensitive topics, including alcoholism, eating disorders, and sexual assault. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced while approaching heavy subjects?
Louis Theroux: The biggest challenge in doing sensitive stories, or stories about mental health is twofold. It’s the tension between the need to make a programme that people can tune in for that doesn’t feel oppressive, dreary, or hard to watch, and then, on the other hand, managing the understandable and very real concerns and vulnerabilities of the contributors. It can be intrusive and upsetting to have cameras there, and have someone asking you questions about the worst thing you’ve ever lived through. It’s all about this process of making sure your contributors are OK, while also knowing that if you’re tiptoeing around everything, you may not end up with a particularly revealing documentary.
Is it difficult to stay detached from your subjects?
Louis Theroux: That’s probably the question I get asked the most, and I always feel bad when I answer because the truth is: I don’t think it’s that difficult, depending on how you define ‘detached’. I think I accept that I’m there for work, and they accept that I’m there for work – not to say there isn’t a great deal of mutual curiosity and affection at times, but in the end, I recognise that there’s a professional role that I fill and that I’m there to do the job. I guess the other thing is that you don’t have to stay detached completely; it’s OK to be friendly. The last couple of days, I’ve exchanged emails with a couple of people who were in documentaries that I did five, ten years ago, so maybe I’m not detached.
“It’s all about this process of making sure your contributors are OK, while also knowing that if you’re tiptoeing around everything, you may not end up with a particularly revealing documentary” – Louis Theroux
How do you deal with criticism or backlash? I know your recent documentary, Selling Sex, got mixed reviews.
Louis Theroux: I think that what you see in the sex industry is one of the most divisie phenomena of our time, in the sense that people who would agree on everything else are on completely opposite sides of the fence when it comes to this issue. Some people say: “Well, this is my body. If I choose to have sex for a living, and I choose to charge people money to have sex, that is my right as a feminist. If I can make thousands, how dare you tell me I don’t have the right to do that, or that it’s in some way degrading.” That’s a plausible argument.
The other argument is: how can you take the most intimate sex act and feel OK that women are being incentivised into trading it for money? How can that be anything other than a symptom of a society with fucked up values? Both narratives, to me, have surface plausibility – both of them seem to me to be reasonable positions. In the programme, I just attempted to not land squarely on either side, and I did that by talking about it in the most sensitive way possible, presenting the views and lives of three women who sell sex for a living. No one loves to be criticised, but the thing is, it would be weird to want or expect uncritical adulation. You’ve just got to go with the flow and accept that not everyone is going to like what you do, and especially on a really divisive subject, clearly not everyone is going to agree with what you do.
Grounded with Louis Theroux debuts on BBC Sounds today (April 27), with a new episode dropping every Monday. Radio listeners can catch the series on Radio 4 from May 6 at 8pm, with a new episode airing weekly