Working Theroux death, polyamory and masculinity
'I was raised to be suspicious of masculinity,' the documentary maker admits as he mulls future projects
In a hotel restaurant high above central London, Louis Theroux is picking at a limp mozzarella salad, considering what it might be like to have multiple romantic partners.
“I tend to think,” he says, gazing to the window, “that while polyamory is far from perfect, it does have a certain sense to it – for some people, at least. I don’t actually know anyone who’s polyamorous, you know, in my own circle, but you do often hear about it. And I guess if you’re strong enough to handle it, then, well ... ”
He shrugs, but a quizzical expression remains. Last week, polyamory – the practice of engaging in sexual or intimate relationships with more than one person – was the first subject in Theroux’s latest three-part BBC series, Altered States. Almost two million people (excluding viewers on the internet, where he is a cult icon with 1.2 million Twitter followers and an extensive back catalogue on Netflix) tuned in to see him spend time with polyamorous groups in Portland, Oregon.
The film had many moments of trademark Theroux levity – one scene showed him participating in a part-naked, mostly blindfolded “sensual feast”, another saw him asking for a step-by-step guide as to precisely how spooning works in a “throuple” (that’s a three-person couple, for the uninitiated). Yet, as ever, it was his refusal to judge that stood out.
“The idea that polyamory is weird while monogamy is normal is plainly not quite right,” the 48-year-old mulls. “Monogamy’s got its own weird side to it: it’s illusory for many people, in that they’re cheating or their loved ones are cheating, and, of course, there’s boredom.”
Theroux insists he isn’t speaking for himself. He has been in a (wholly monogamous) relationship with Nancy Strang – a TV director and now “Corbyn supporter, and chair of Brent Momentum”, as her Twitter account puts it – for 16 years. They married in 2012, have three sons, and recently moved back to London after a year of living and working in Los Angeles. There, they lived in the same neighbourhood as Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Katy Perry, but their only involvement in A-list circles came thanks to family parties with Theroux’s cousin, Justin, who was married to Jennifer Aniston until last year.
“I liked the strangeness there, it was good for work, but we felt the children needed some consistency in their education,” he explains. “The longer we stayed, the harder it would be when we eventually [left]. I enjoyed LA, but I’m a Londoner by upbringing and education.”
The salad and bicycle helmet at his side suggest he’s retained a markedly LA attitude to his wellbeing; his recent work in America has had him considering the bigger picture.
“I was reading that at the turn of the previous century, the average age for a man to die in the UK was 48. Now, I’m 48, and I’m not planning on dying any time soon. So in the past 100 years we’ve gained this second adulthood. Marriage evolved at a time when people just didn’t live that long.”
In person, Theroux is every bit as patient and balanced as he appears on screen, and, bar the odd grey hair and salt-and-pepper stubble, looks as studiously unkempt as he did 20 years ago, when Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends saw him pioneer a documentary style that explored the fringes of society without obvious prejudice.
Even after a long morning of press commitments that included judging grime tracks on BBC Radio 1Xtra (incidentally, Stormzy is one of many celebrity fans), Theroux retains an owl-like level of alertness. Questions are questioned, answers are thoroughly thought through – complete with much silent pondering, brow-furrowing, umming and ahhing – and he is evidently delighted for his work to provoke debate.
The series will certainly do that. In Choosing Death, Theroux spends time on America’s West Coast with people taking control of their lives’ ends. Seven states currently allow individuals to end their lives with a prescribed cocktail of medication, known as medical aid in dying, and 23 more are considering it. It makes for difficult viewing.
Gus, a seemingly sprightly 74-year-old retiree and new grandfather, has recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer; Theroux and the camera crew are there for his final hours. The drugs kick in, Gus’s complexion fades, and we see him die surrounded by the sobs, laughter and music of his family.
If my household is anything to go by, there will be tears when it airs. Somehow Theroux held it together.
“It’s odd, there’s something about being in the moment that stops you crying. Watching them back I often find them a lot more upsetting. It was very emotional, but I was aware that I was there to do a job. It’s not really my role to cry.”
If he had a preconceived stance on assisted dying – which differs from euthanasia in that the patient is in complete control, performing the act themselves – it was that “we should be a little more open to the idea” of doctors prescribing life-ending medication; “I actually became more aware of how it can potentially be dangerous,” he says.
In one scene, Theroux challenges an “exit guide” (a volunteer organisation that advises patients) when it’s claimed that all dementia patients would rather die than live with the condition.
“I’ve made programmes about dementia and had family members affected. It’s in some ways a horrible illness, but there’s also plenty of people with it who are kind of happy. I think I’d rather be happy and demented than asphyxiating myself,” he says.
Then comes the balance: “But then, if I’m in unbearable pain, I would reserve my right to go through with it. It seems like a reasonable choice to make.”
The son of American travel writer Paul Theroux and his English then-wife Anne Castle, Theroux attended Westminster School and went on to gain an undergraduate degree in modern history from Magdalen College, Oxford, before moving to the US and starting his filmmaking career working for Michael Moore.
A job with the BBC soon followed, and has led to him living either side of the Atlantic many times. His sons Albert, 12, Frederick, 10, and four-year-old Walter, have now settled into new schools and nurseries near the family’s home in northwest London. There is “a kind of caste system built into public school education” in this country, Theroux believes, and, as such, Albert has started at a local comprehensive.
So far, he says, his stance on raising the boys has been “just to encourage them to be who they are, be polite, be sensitive”.
“I was raised by my parents to be suspicious of conventional masculinity,” he says by way of explanation.
“My dad wrote a piece when I was a child about how whenever he hears someone say ‘be a man’ he hears them say ‘be uncaring, be insensitive’, so he never imposed on us an idea about masculinity. Mine are young, and I think it’s okay, but we may have that to come ... ”
Plans include making more films in the UK, though a question mark hangs over the subject matter. The far right has never interested him, “for some reason”. While he waits for screen inspiration to strike, he has a memoir to write. “Have you got any ideas for a title?” he asks, quite genuinely. “I’m trying to think of something good but not too punny. There’s that birthday card, ‘You got Theroux another year’, have you seen it? Or my wife suggested ‘Adventures of the Nerd Kind’. Is that a bit cheesy? I don’t know. It’s hard.”
Given his knack for careful contemplation, I don’t imagine he’ll be struggling for too long.
– © Telegraph Media Group