'I Try Not to Judge': A Conversation With Louis Theroux

In ‘Heroin Town’, your favourite bumbling BBC host embeds with opioid addicts in West Virginia.

by Katherine Gillespie
27 October 2017, 12:03am

Image courtesy of the BBC

Louis Theroux walks into the trap house wearing a slim striped scarf around his neck. A subtle statement piece; the sort of accessory beloved by dapper-but-dorky British men. The scarf's presence is incongruous, to say the least. This isn't one of those music video trap houses so much as a normal-looking suburban house with some heroin in it, but still. Louis Theroux, the cartoonishly awkward, Oxford-educated BBC documentary maker, does not look at home here in an addict's home, somewhere on the outskirts of Huntington in West Virginia.

As I need not explain to his many fans, the juxtaposition is carefully curated. There's a formula to Theroux documentaries, and it's an effective one. Upper class Brit embeds with homosexual-hating evangelicals; naive and virtuous nerd visits a hospital for pedophiles. In this new television documentary, Heroin Town, Theroux inhabits a slightly more grown up version of his trademark earnest persona, chronicling the opioid epidemic that has ravaged parts of the United States in recent years by interviewing heroin addicts who treat him, not unreasonably, like a visitor from another planet who comes in peace.

"We wanted to get deeper in and really penetrate the world of the heavy user, in a sort of immersive way—not just rock up with the police and interview people with their faces obscured," Theroux tells me over the phone in the famously clipped accent that has made him a slightly unlikely sex symbol. His tone, both on camera and off, is honest rather than patronising, although the line is fine enough to feel nonexistent at times. "Really delve into the lives of the community," he adds.

Only 50,000 people live in Huntington, with a quarter of them addicted to opiates. Most of them became heroin users after being prescribed highly addictive prescription pain medications like OxyContin, but heroin is cheaper and easier to access than its pharmaceutical version. In Heroin Town, Theroux spends time with several such addicts and the most compelling is twentysomething Katillia Martin, who became dependent on painkillers as a teenager and now lives with her dealer boyfriend. A few nonchalant minutes into the interview, she casually confesses on camera that said boyfriend regularly beats her but that easy access to her next hit makes it difficult to justify leaving him. She's smiling as she says it.

Theroux routinely and effortlessly extracts this sort of thing from his subjects, who he says typically "do really want to share" their stories with him, no matter how tragic or incriminating or strange. "There is very much a sense of being invited in," he muses. "I think part of it is that people who are going through something extraordinary, sometimes they do like to document it. That what they're going through is weird even to them. They've gotten into this situation that was not where they'd set out to be. Perhaps there's an unformed thought: that maybe by documenting it they'll regain some perspective."

When it comes to Katillia, "I can only believe that she saw us as representatives of something more normal, something safer, something more healthy." A statement that robs Theroux's subject of her agency somewhat, but nonetheless rings true. He's far from normal, but on the streets of middle America Theroux possesses an even more palpable sense of authority derived from class and education status, as well as his exotic nationality. He may as well be a Hogwarts professor, for all these people know. For someone in a desperate situation, he and his BBC camera crew could certainly look like a lifeline.

If there's a temptation to play the role of bespectacled saviour, though, Theroux won't admit to it. "I'm careful not to judge too much and I do try not to fall into a formula of easy moral judgment," he explains. "You know, I'm not so comfortable and happy with my life that I feel like I've got it all sorted out. I'm not saying I want to try heroin, but I also respect people's choices that they make."

The whole act (and it is, to an extent, an act—he admits his on-camera persona is "at least a little bit" artificial at this point) would be insufferable if it wasn't for the precisely calculated moments in which Theroux is able to rectify the power imbalance between him and any given interviewee with a self-deprecating Louisism. Sitting with Katillia in the trap house, Theroux examines a gram of heroin by leaning over and sniffing while she cradles it in her palm before shooting up. He has a long, beakish nose crowned by a pair of ugly, utilitarian glasses. It's a perfectly silly way to ease the tension—these are the moments his loyal viewers hang out for.

Heroin Town does what it purports to do—explore the opioid epidemic in a personal, small-picture way—and does it well. There's a New Yorker piece that examines in devastating detail the larger and more malevolent forces behind America's prescription drug problem, but Theroux works best on the ground. It's gonzo journalism with a stiff upper lip.

"Late in the process I thought to talk to one of these doctors who are over-prescribing medication. And we did make some efforts to contact them, but a lot of them are doing time—actually, a couple of the more notorious ones are dead," he says. "And as far as big pharma goes, they are very much culpable but in a way their motivations are not terribly interesting. They're grey men sitting behind desks or in comfortable gated communities. Although it's not to say they shouldn't be held to account."

Having stood at the coalface, the only solutions that he can propose are the obvious ones. "There needs to be more awareness of it as a medical and social problem than a criminal problem, and we need to put more money into rehab and more money into social services," he notes. "But by the looks of it that's not Trump's approach."

Currently based in LA, you can expect Theroux to stay in America for the foreseeable future. How could a documentary maker resist doing so, at this historical juncture? "We're living through interesting times," he agrees. He applies his particular brand of exaggerated contemplativeness to Trump with an assessment that makes about as much sense as anybody else's: it's too early to tell what the presidency means.

"No one quite knows whether there's been a paradigm shift in American politics. Whether Trump points forward to some more chaotic and disordered way of doing politics, or whether this is a blip. But for all the awfulness going on it's a fascinating time to be doing this kind of work."

Expect Theroux, and his scarf, to embed with a group of trucker cap-wearing loyalists sometime soon.

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'Heroin Town' is screening in select Australian cinemas from November 17. More information here

Opioid Crisis
Louis Theroux