Louis Theroux knows what it’s like to go viral. In 2022, the veteran British documentary presenter and journalist found himself a new generation of fans when a rap he wrote more than 20 years ago resurfaced as a meme on TikTok. Something he has in common with YouTube sensation KSI blowing up online is a new all-access documentary Therox executive produced for Amazon Prime Video.
The film follows the rapper as he releases his second album, embarks on a sold-out European tour and prepares for a headline show at London’s Wembley Arena. Speaking to Variety on Zoom Over from his northwest London home, Theroux said he hoped “KSI: Real Life” would be a window into a new media landscape and “an opportunity to reflect on what we are as a culture.” It’s a world where a child from Watford can build a global media brand from their bedroom, says Theroux.
Born Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji and known as “JJ” by his friends and family, 29-year-old Nigerian-British YouTuber KSI is “a media colossus,” Theroux said. Olatunji used the platform he built through gaming and comedy skits — largely through a decade-long stint with the YouTube group The Sidemen, of which he was a founding member — to expand into a successful boxing and music career. KSI now has 24 million subscribers on YouTube, “earning millions of pounds” and “driving billions of views.” As for ‘Gen Z’, he is one of the biggest stars in the world.
But Olatunji’s universe is one of relentless “stuff.” Theroux says the “overwhelming push from videos that are sometimes quite disposable” has created a culture of ephemera, “here today, gone tomorrow” material. In fact, Olatunji himself has deleted portions of his own videos to better reflect his current online identity. For Theroux, a feature-length documentary film is the opposite, a way to capture lightning in a bottle and freeze the star in time.
Celebrity profile documentaries are little more than vanity projects designed to promote their subjects. “You want to tell the truth, but you don’t want to make the deal, do you?” Theroux said. But according to him, the Mindhouse team had “zero editorial interference” from KSI’s team, and insisted that Olatunji had no preconditions on what he would and wouldn’t discuss.
It’s rare for a celebrity of Olatunji’s profile (and indeed, his generation) to allow this kind of no-holds-barred access, but Theroux explained that Olatunji’s lack of self-awareness was likely the result of years of sharing his entire life online. . “With YouTube,” he said, “you see them day in and day out, in their best moments and their worst moments in their bedroom. You see their vulnerability.” He described Olatunji as “someone who can’t really hold onto anything like an old Hollywood star could in the old days.” An intense, intimate connection with fans and followers who feel like they know her doesn’t need to eschew her mystique.
Dan Grabiner, Amazon’s head of UK Originals, first suggested Olatunji as a documentary subject after hearing Theroux interview him on the “Grounded” podcast in 2020. The film feels in keeping with Theroux’s sensibilities — genuinely curious, gently probing and, in Theroux’s words, “not tainted by overly cozy relationships.” The team’s approach was so journalistic, in fact, that Theroux said “what we needed to guard against was making it too forensic.”
“Sometimes in the documentary world, there’s a tendency to say, ‘How do we show the dark side?'” he said. He didn’t want the “conquest story of the son of an immigrant family from Watford” to feel “in any way creepy”.
Still, all good stories need conflict. Theroux was concerned that for someone as highly successful as Olatunji, “there wasn’t a huge sense of having something at stake professionally.” Instead, the team discovered that what was at stake was personal.
“I had an instinct that maybe the family would be grits in oysters,” Theroux said. Indeed, at the heart of the film is the tension between Olatunji and his younger brother Deji, who is also a YouTuber. Theroux was fascinated by the fraught relationship between the two brothers. “You Daisy really idolized JJ,” Theroux said, and then added, “JJ held Daisy by the hand and found her lacking in a few things.” Indeed it is when Olatunji reflects on how fame has given him something his family could not that he is at his weakest. When asked an innocent question about love, Olatunji started crying.
Theroux said he was wary of a white filmmaker making a film about a black family (“Our Amazon commissioner Fauzia Khan is a woman of color,” he added). But he also noted that “one of the really interesting things about JJ, which we don’t really dig into, is that his racial identity is not a huge part of how he sees himself.”
“KSI: In Real Life” is directed by Wes Pollitt and produced by Mindhouse, the production company Theroux co-founded in 2019 with his wife, TV director Nancy Strang, and executive producer Aaron Fellows.
“It was getting a bit frustrating that I was working contract to contract at the BBC, making three or so films a year,” Theroux said. Anything that deviates from the format — Theroux as presenter — he said, “doesn’t seem like part of the conversation”.
Mindhouse was a way for Theroux to create a project that didn’t require his participation in front of the camera. As an executive, he was able to step into the role of facilitator and “help shape the story” from behind the scenes and mentor a new generation of documentarians. As well as working with filmmakers like Pollitt, Mindhouse is also collaborating with presenters including Alice Levine (“She has that quality you want – even in extreme situations it’s not worth getting involved”) and Liverpudlian journalist Laila Wright. “Whose voices are original, and unique, and different, and not what you hear or see a lot on TV — that’s what we do.”
“KSI: In Real Life” launches on January 26 on Prime Video