Louis Theroux: ‘As Much As Having Kids Can Be Wonderful – It’s Also Warfare At Times’

Theroux's back, tackling maternal mental illness. Here, Grazia's Anna Silverman talks to him about his latest documentary, Mothers On The Edge.

Louis Theroux Mothers On The Edge

by Anna Silverman |

Documentary maker Louis Theroux knows all too well that life with children isn’t always Instagram-perfect. With every high, he says, there’s a sleep-deprived low, where it’s easy to feel like a failure.

As much as he loves raising his sons, Albert, 14, Frederick, 11, and Walter, four, he says being a parent to a baby also brings a sense of ‘futility and impotence’. As for new motherhood, ‘It’s supposed to be such an unalloyed pleasure that I think the idea of it being anything less than dreamy is difficult to acknowledge.'

This disparity between how society tells new mums they should feel and the realities of having a baby is something the broadcaster explores in Mothers On The Edge, his new documentary. For filming, Theroux, 48, spent time in two specialist psychiatric units that treat new mothers experiencing serious mental illness, including postpartum psychosis. Around one in every 1,000 new mums develops the condition, which can cause hallucinations, delusions and depression.

The women he meets live in the unit. with their babies. One, Catherine, absconds during filming and attempts to take her own life. Another, Barbara, clearly experiences delusions even as she talks to Theroux. He hopes the film will help to reduce stigma around a topic that’s still shrouded in shame. ‘I, like everyone, have been brought up in a society which places this huge value on the idea of maternal love – in which a mother’s love is seen as the most powerful force in the universe,’ he says. ‘That may be the case some of the time, but it’s certainly just as common for the feelings around new motherhood to be more ambivalent.’

Around one in five women will have a mental health problem during pregnancy or in the year after birth, with conditions like postnatal depression affecting fathers, too. Is Theroux able to draw on any personal experiences? ‘I will just put it in general terms,’ he says. ‘As much as [having kids] can be wonderful, transporting and unlike anything that you’ve ever been through before, it’s also a bit like warfare at times – the feelings of deprivation and confusion. You feel like a failure a lot of the time.’

In the documentary, Catherine talks about feeling the need to put on a show for Instagram. Does Theroux think social media has made it harder to be a parent? ‘It’s tempting to say yes because it sort of feels as though that would be the case,’ he says, before adding, ‘but I don’t know that there’s any real way of knowing.’ Herein lies the tricky nature of interviewing Theroux: that professional objectivity – for which he’s so admired – suddenly feels frustrating. His answers are skilfully diplomatic and he sticks to general explanations, playing it irritatingly safe.

It’s hard to mind, though, in the face of his charm. We meet at the BBC’s headquarters in London, where he plays ball for the photographer, fake-laughing on demand and pulling his trademark thoughtful expression for the camera. I ask why – after two decades of fame – he thinks there’s such a cult around him. ‘Do you think there is a cult around me?’ he replies. ‘I wish I had a good answer. I wonder if it’s to do with not making that many programmes. If you don’t make too many and you make them to a high standard and – this might sound like I’m bigging myself up – they’re about something real... almost all of them go to something quite deep about what it means to be a human.’ On the other hand, he jokes, ‘It might just be because I have a big nose, glasses and I’m socially awkward.’

What he watches is largely dictated by his sons. He’ll catch bits of Strictly or Bake Off, but finds it hard to switch off. Is it because he’s constantly thinking about his next topic? ‘It’s not so much that. I sometimes think I’ve got so many things I need to do that I get nervous energy. I realise, actually, I’m not feeling that relaxed watching this and so sometimes I will go and cook, to sort of dissipate some of my nervous tension.’

His dream interview would be Melania Trump; the question reminds him to ask his producer if they’ve heard anything back from the White House yet. (They haven’t.) ‘I think there’s a story that they’re putting out doppelgängers [of Melania],’ he says. ‘Do you think it’s true? That would be an interesting story. I mean, it’s always a balance between who you imagine would be interesting and who’s likely to actually say yes, isn’t it?'

When it comes to persuading people to talk to him, Theroux’s had an impressive success rate, interviewing everyone from Ku Klux Klan members to ex-Scientologists. Then there was Jimmy Savile in his renowned When Louis Met... interview in 2000, where he came tantalisingly close to exposing Savile as a paedophile.

A few years ago, he approached Wade Robson – one of the two men who accuse Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them as children in the documentary, Leaving Neverland – but Theroux told a newspaper recently that Robson wasn’t receptive at the time. He wasn’t granted access to Jackson, either. He says he found watching Leaving Neverland upsetting, but felt it carried an important message: that talented people can also be sexual predators. Would he boycott Jackson’s music now, or avoid films by other fallen stars like Harvey Weinstein?

‘It’s not my first impulse. I was a fan of Michael Jackson’s music... and I would say I’m still a fan of his [earlier] music,’ he says. ‘I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I still quite like R Kelly’s music. I’m able to separate [the music from the person] for the most part... It’s a personal decision. It would make life easier if the people who produced the best art were exemplary human beings.’

Over the years, Theroux has made such a wide range of documentaries. I ask whether he prefers probing neo-Nazis and holding people to account, or speaking to those who have been affected by something profound, like the women in Mothers On The Edge, who act in good faith? ‘It’s easier going into situations where you’re talking to people who you feel are not attempting to deceive you,’ he says. ‘That said, there’s something fun and satisfying about taking difficult subjects involving contradictory or predatory people.’

We say our goodbyes, and I leave giddy about how down-to-earth he was. Only later do I wonder: was I Therouxed? His ability to put people at ease, without giving too much away about himself, is, after all, what makes him one of the best interviewers in the world.

‘Mothers On The Edge’, Sunday, BBC Two

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us