LOUIS Theroux has been telling stories for 30 years, but his fly-on-the-wall narratives of everyday life have always maintained an awkward, self-deprecating style.
The approach has endeared the documentary presenter to an ever-growing cadre of fans around the world. At home, English actor Judi Dench told Theroux in a recent interview that he was a “national treasure”.
Reviewing a unique career built on the power of an authentic voice, the quirky, bespectacled Englishman joined BBC News’ Katty Kay at the Palais II in Cannes early in the Cannes Lions week.
He described how he got his start in the US on Michael Moore’s TV Nation in the mid 1990s as a 23-year-old graduate. His “shambolic” nature and “level of incompetence” appealed to the future Oscar-winning documentary-maker. “My curiosity carried me through,” Theroux said of his interviews with fundamentalist policemen and Avon ladies trying to sell cosmetics in the Amazon.
Theroux’s blundering, everyman correspondent was established in the popular imagination when he presented the first series of Weird Weekends on the BBC from 1998 to 2000. From neo-Nazis to porn stars, black nationalists and conspiracy theorists, he was able to embed himself in these fringe subcultures because people “trusted me”, he said.
This authenticity was coupled with an innate shyness. “I could not do pieces to camera” because it felt “very artificial”, Theroux said. For the documentary presenter, stories need to have an organic flow if audiences are going to relate. This included interviewing male porn actors in the nude in an attempt to make them feel more relaxed.
But he has also moved on from documenting “weirdness” because “it has become mainstream”. He referred to the former subjects like nationalist militias in the US that have since been legitimised by the likes of former president, Donald Trump.
“I want to tell stories that keep me interested,” he said of more recent work, including spending two weeks with prisoners in San Quentin.
He has also filmed a series of interviews with celebrities from Stormzy to Dame Judi Dench. As ever, Theroux has tried to approach these subjects as “normal people.”
“I love anything that levels the playing field,” he said.