The VICE Interview: Louis Theroux
The awkward king of documentaries talks about sex with robots, childhood neurosis and the time he had one giant testicle.
This is the VICE Interview. Each week we ask a different famous and/or interesting person the same set of questions in a bid to peek deep into their psyche.
If you grew up with a TV and parents who prioritised the four basic channels, you'll know the bespectacled face of Louis Theroux. He's Britain's answer to Michael Moore or Werner Herzog, managing to be awkward, kind and probing, all at the same time.
On Sunday, Theroux's latest documentary, Drinking to Oblivion, took a decidedly sobering look at the lives of British alcoholics. It marks the start of a busy year for Theroux, who has another documentary about brain injury coming next month, before he releases his first feature film My Scientology Movie later this year – a film which has already angered scientologists so much they've responded with their own documentary about Theroux.
Which conspiracy theories do you believe?
I'm not a natural conspiracy theory believer. I tend to be a bit of a sceptic. I don't believe that aliens have visited Earth, or that alien life has been covered up by the US government. I think we landed on the moon. However, I do believe that the key decisions are made by an oligarchic semi-clique of powerful people. I believe in vested interests and a group looking after itself. I've been really struck recently that the American political system is not really a democracy. But that's not a conspiracy theory is it? It's fact.
What film or TV show makes you cry?
Very rarely would that happen. There's no TV show on a regular basis that does. In real life I cry, but not often. I'll tell you one thing that made me cry: it's a bit embarrassing to admit, but I was being interviewed on a Dutch TV show and they showed me a clip of my programme about parents of children with autism. There's a scene where a mum is seen trying to deal with her kid's behaviour and I started talking about it and in the act of talking I was aware I had that weird wobbly-voice almost-crying thing. I hadn't felt emotional in that way at the time of filming, but by being removed from it and watching it back I was really quite upset.
What would be your last meal?
I've thought about that one before. If you're on death row, they do put themselves out to accommodate the request, as I understand. It probably varies from state to state, but within maybe 10 miles or so they'll go and get it from the place you request. I really like good New York-style pizza. Good, not gourmet. I got a taste for it while being there. There's a place in Brooklyn famous for it and often has long lines of people going up to it. I'll probably ask that they got me some pizza from there.
If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you carry on with what you're doing, change jobs, or stop working?
I feel about my work the way some people feel about their holiday. Not to say I don't get stressed, because I do, but I feel taken out of my normal life and exposed to a different world. There's a departure from the norm that is refreshing. With holidays, I get stressed about hotels and flights and all that stuff. I don't worry about any of that when I'm on location because I have the luxury of not being the producer or director of my programs, just the presenter. It's probably a bit infantilising but I basically just get to be the child and I like it.
What's the most disgusting injury or illness you've ever had?
At Christmas, I don't know how or why, I got something called orchitis. Basically, one of my testicles swelled up to two or three times its normal size and it was extremely painful. Due to a bit of a mix-up, I ended up going to three different NHS hospitals, and at each one someone had to examine the feel of my "ball". I was very aware that they might know who I was. And I was aware that they might know I was aware that they might know who I was. Yet you've just got to do it; clearly the alternative is not getting critical medical attention. Anyway, I took antibiotics and it did go down after three or four days, but it was pretty embarrassing. I mention it because maybe as men we feel a little embarrassed about talking about our testicles when it comes to health. Perhaps we need to get a little more comfortable with saying the word testicles.
Something which was disgusting was when I did a documentary on female bodybuilders, and one of the male fans got me to roll around in the wood on his property after being boxed to death by some muscly women. "Yeah, roll around, roll around!" he yelled. I did about three or four takes. I later discovered that there was poison ivy all over the place, and I got sores on the vast proportion of my body. I remember the sores was so purulent that I would sort of drip discharge onto my desk as I was attempting to write an article. It was horrible. I suddenly realised that everyone in America would know if they had poison ivy on their land and became convinced he did it on purpose. It was almost sort of a psychopathic act for that guy to do that.
When in your life have you been truly overcome with fear?
I remember as a kid, I was at the bus stop showing off to some friends and some other kids came by and I mouthed to one of them: "What are you looking at?" They wandered off and my friends got on their bus. I was waiting for the 37 when the other kids came back and then was totally overcome by fear. I don't think it even got physical. Maybe it did. Possibly he punched me. I was going, "It's nothing, nothing, nothing, I'm so sorry".
I was a worrywart as a child. I have a very good recollection of my childhood and I can remember before I could read, I became worried that I'd never be able to read. And thinking that when you grow up you have to pay taxes and I didn't know how. Worrying about things that I really had no reason to be worrying about. I do still worry a lot. I have to sort of consciously dig my way out of it.
Complete the sentence: The problem with young people today is...
...they're young and I'm not and they remind me that I'm not. I feel so old. I see them having fun and think maybe I didn't have enough fun when I was younger. I've got no choice in the matter of getting old.
What's the closest you've come to having a stalker?
When I was at school I got a Valentine's card from a girl who was in the year above, or maybe even two years above. I didn't know who she was, I just knew she was a bit older. I was only about 15 at the time. Inside the card itself there was a poem which was very macabre and it talked about the temptation of the razor's edge, veiled references to suicide – and as much as I was love-starved and wanted to have a girlfriend, even at that age knew there was something about it sending danger signs. I didn't even want to know who it was from. I just sort of put it out of my mind.
What was your worst phase?
I think I'm in it now. You wouldn't know while you're in it, that's the whole point, isn't it? That's the illusory nature of progress. But when I was 15/16, it wasn't great. I had been an OK-looking, outgoing boy and then puberty hit relatively late and it just took me. My nose got really big more or less overnight, my hair and skin got oily and physically I became a bit of a mess. I'm still basically dealing with the fallout from that.
What picture of you, that's been taken this year, do you think you look nicest in?
In one of the publicity photos for Drinking to Oblivion, I'm in Brighton with a contributor called Joe and Joe's a good-looking guy. The pair of us are like world-weary detectives on an ITV drama. It looks like a reboot of Dalziel and Pascoe. We've got that craggy, 'I'm not taking any nonsense' look. Also because the documentary is on a serious subject, I don't have to smile in the publicity photos. When I smile my cheeks pop out and I look like a squirrel or a chipmunk. I definitely look better if I'm not smiling.
Would you have sex with a robot?
I think I'd have a bit of a problem with it. Have you seen Ex Machina? Especially since I'm married, I just think it would be too creepy. It's maybe another way we've lost intimacy and ways of expressing closeness. It could be alien and ultimately unsatisfying.
Do you think drink or drugs can make you happy?
Definitely, but only for short periods. If I have a few margaritas, especially the way I make them at home, I am happier. But it's like you've taken it out of the tank and it's not there the next day. You've depleted your reserves of serotonin. I'm in favour of legalising cannabis. I don't think that's controversial to say, is it? In America it's more or less legal in various places. I'm less keen on the idea of hard drugs.
What's the nicest thing you own?
I live in London, but my wife and I have a house in LA that we lived in for a couple of years. She grew up in a hot climate and liked the idea of living abroad somewhere warmer. But I don't really own any frivolous things. You know what, I definitely think I should get some. I'm going to.
If you were a wrestler, what song would you come into the ring to?
"100 Miles and Runnin'" by N.W.A.. I like old-school rap and hip-hop. The only thing I don't like much is metal.
Louis Theroux: Drinking to Oblivion is available on BBC iPlayer now. His film on brain injury will air on BBC Two in May.
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