America’s Most Hated Family In Crisis is a follow-up to his acclaimed 2007 documentary The Most Hated Family In America, and sees Theroux return to Topeka, Kansas for a second visit to the Westboro Baptist Church.
A fire-and-brimstone Christian group, made up of 80 members of the Phelps family, has garnered worldwide notoriety thanks to their funeral picketing of soldiers killed in action.
Believing they were killed as God’s punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality, the family wield anti-gay placards while singing their own disturbing lyrics to Lady Gaga tunes.
In the four years since Theroux’s first documentary, a series of defections of family members has shaken up the church. They’ve also been at the centre of a landmark supreme court case (the court ruled that vicious anti-gay rhetoric was constitutionally protected) and their beliefs have become increasingly bizarre.
For Theroux the story has moved on, which is partly why he wanted to return. That and the fact he admits he’s “fascinated” by the Phelps family.
“It sounds really odd to say this but there are aspects of them that are quite nice, given how hateful they and the pickets are,” he says, adding he found his attitude towards them “modulated”.
“When you’re on the pickets you find yourself shocked and sometimes upset by what they’re doing, and then at other times you see them as normal people. The challenge is to try and manage your reaction,” he explains.
“I mean we’re human beings, they’re human beings, in some way you have to guard against demonising them too much, and against becoming desensitised by being around them.”
The documentary is being broadcast tonight at 9pm on BBC2 – make sure you tune in.