Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Dominic West spent the early years of his career appearing in a decidedly diverse list of films, ranging from Richard III to Rock Star, Spice World to Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace. But he turned a major corner when he pulled the role of Jimmy McNulty on HBO’s The Wire. Since then, West has had a higher profile, but he’s continued to keep things interesting as an actor, both on the big screen (John Carter) and the small screen (Appropriate Adult). He can currently be seen in the second season of BBC America’s The Hour.
The Hour (2011-present)—“Hector Madden”
Dominic West: I heard it was written by Abi Morgan, so I was interested in that, because I think she’s very good. Then I knew Ben [Whishaw] and Romola [Garai] were in it, so that’s how I thought, “Yeah, I’d love to do that.” Especially because I got to fall in love with Romola. I thought, “Well, that’s an experience!” [Laughs.] So that was my main reason for doing Hector. Also, it was shooting in London, and I stupidly thought it was actually going to shoot in Shepherd’s Bush, right where I live. But I wasn’t that lucky.
The A.V. Club: Once you read the script, how did you approach the part? Did you have any real-life TV figures in mind?
DW: Well, not particularly. Certainly not constantly, anyway. But I realized that my dad was sort of a man of the ’50s. He wasn’t like Hector in any way, but in terms of the dress and the manners and maybe the sort of gentleness of him. I suppose what I see up there reminds me of my dad. And Abi said that she got the love-triangle idea from Broadcast News, and that’s a favorite film of mine, so I watched that again. And then we had a debate about the accents, because everybody in London [affects precise, clipped delivery] spoke like this, and certainly if they were on the television, they would say, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, listen to this very clearly, as this professor here is going to tell us precisely what this is about.” They were brilliant, and I wanted to do that accent. But they didn’t want me to do it. Understandably. [Laughs.] But once I got the suits and the accent right, it was a piece of cake.
AVC: What can we expect from series two that you’re actually able to divulge?
DW: Well, I seem to divulge everything, and I didn’t realize I couldn’t. [Laughs.] I have a really interesting time, because I start at the height of celebrity and the toast of the town, and within the first few minutes, actually, I’m accused of beating up a girl. So I’m in jail for the worst possible sorts of reasons, going from the heights to the depths, and sort of crawl my way out. You see a bit of his referenced war career and the trauma of it from when he was fighting the war, and a lot of it is his marriage. It turns out he’s infertile, so the whole baby thing… That’s a big issue behind his philandering, I suppose.
AVC: How much feedback have you gotten thus far from people who worked in the TV industry during the era?
DW: Not a lot, really. I’ve got a friend who works on Newsnight on the BBC currently, and she likes it, but I haven’t really… [Hesitates.] I’m not sure there’s many of them left! The main anchor for ITV when it first came out, he’s just died recently. Alastair Burnet. Oh, well, actually, my wife’s mother, she was around, and she keeps saying, “Oh, it was nothing like that at all!” [Laughs.] But I’m not sure she’s right.
Richard III (1995)—“Earl of Richmond”
DW: That was great. I got to fire a machine gun off the top of a tank. Couldn’t believe my luck. The producer came up and said, “Dominic, by the way, every time you fire that gun, it costs us £600 or something, so take it easy up there.” [Laughs.] But that was my first job, and I loved it. It was great. Ian McKellen was cool, and I got to shoot him off of Battersea Power Station, so that wasn’t bad!
Chicago (2002)—“Fred Casely”
DW: That was funny, because directors always—in auditions, anyway—tell you how important your role is. And [Rob Marshall] said, “Okay, Fred Casely… all right, he’s only in the film for the first 30 seconds, but he’s absolutely crucial to the plot!” [Laughs.] And he was right. He is crucial to the plot. But I was nevertheless only in the first 30 seconds. And then we got a Screen Actors Guild award, and I’d never been to the SAG Awards, but Richard Gere got us all up onstage, and I just couldn’t believe I’d gotten a SAG Award for my 30 seconds of work. And Richard Gere said, “You know, we sweated blood and tears for this film! We worked our asses off for six months, and thanks so much for recognizing that!” And I’m standing at the back going, “Shit, I did 30 seconds!”
John Carter (2012)—“Sab Than”
DW: Ah! [With overdramatic bombast] My finest role to date! [Laughs.] I don’t know what it was about that film. I don’t know why it’s done so badly, or that it’s perceived as being the Hollywood flop in Hollywood history. It’s not that bad at all.
AVC: No, it isn’t.
DW: There, you see? [Laughs.] No, but I thought it was a brilliant film. As you’d expect from Andrew Stanton, who’s a fucking genius. And I don’t know what happened, except I think it’s to do with Hollywood politics that it was just put in the bin. And I think it’s really unfair. I had a great time doing it. We shot in London, then we were out in Utah, and it was just fantastic. And he’s the nicest man on the planet, Andrew, and anyone to do with Pixar, who were there all the time; they have such drive and such a life-affirmative attitude. I loved it. They were great people. So I wish it wasn’t panned so badly. In fact, the critics didn’t mind it. It wasn’t a critical problem.
AVC: Bryan Cranston is very much of the mindset that the problem lies with the constant reporting of box-office figures. But the marketing campaign didn’t exactly help, either.
DW: It was terrible! And it was completely changed! I saw it two years ago, after we shot it, and they had the marketing campaign already out and it was amazing. But for some reason they got rid of all that, and they failed to mention that this was the granddaddy of science-fiction adventure stories, so everyone was going, “Why haven’t they got people who sound like the ones in Star Wars?” When, in fact, the whole point was that John Carter inspired Star Wars. So I think they did mess that up a bit.
Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999)—“Palace Guard”
DW: I also played another part, one besides that of Palace Guard, but that was cut.
AVC: What were you?
DW: I was a Naboo officer. I’m not sure I had a line for that, though. But I wanted to meet George Lucas, and I said, “Please, can you give me any part at all?” And they said, “Well, we’ve got Naboo Officer or we’ve got Palace Guard.” So I took both. And I met him, and he said to me, “You speak into an intercom and say, ‘The boy is here to see Padmé.’” And he said, “Of course, in the future, there’s no need for you to press any buttons. You just speak into it, and they’ll be able to hear you.” This was before we really had hands-free mobiles, and I said, “My God, it’s a glimpse into the future from George Lucas!” [Laughs.] But he said, “You still have to speak into the intercom, though, because otherwise everyone would think you’re nuts, just talking to yourself.” Of course, we all know what that’s like now. But I heard it first from George Lucas!
AVC: Does your character have an action figure?
DW: I’m in the Top Trumps. But I don’t think I’ve got an action figure. Yet. [Laughs.]
The Wire (2002-2008)—“Detective James ‘Jimmy’ McNulty”
DW: Yeah, that was a good job. [Laughs.] Not bad. Well, I mean, that’s the reason anyone knows me, isn’t it? And there are still people coming up who are just discovering The Wire. It’s amazing. It started back 10 years ago, and it’s got an amazing life after. I suppose it happily coincided with the start of box sets and binge viewing. That’s a great development, and The Wire was a perfect sort of thing for that. But Jimmy McNulty, I don’t know what to say about him. I’ve talked about him so much, I don’t know what to say now!
AVC: Well, let’s talk about the American accent. How long did it take you to get it down?
DW: Oh, I never found that very easy. I always found that difficult, and especially when we had English directors. We had quite a few English directors, and every time we had one, my accent went out the window. So, yeah, I found that really hard, because—well, in one way, even though I’m English, I’ve all my life been heavily exposed to American television and culture in general, so I knew the accent. We all do. But on the other hand, I’ve been watching American cop shows all my life and loving them, so I always had it in my head this sort of critic, this imposter syndrome, saying, “I used to run around pretending I was Starsky and Hutch or Kojak, and now I’m actually running around pretending to be an American cop!” I always felt like I was being a bit of an imposter and that nobody would believe me. But fortunately they did.
AVC: Do you have a favorite of McNulty’s storylines?
DW: Oh, fuck. Well, I really enjoyed the fifth season. I really enjoyed the fake serial killer. That was really a great storyline for McNulty. But I really liked the crashing the car and reversing, ’cause that actually happened. It was based on a cop who was called [Terrence] McLarney. So I was sort of in some ways based on him. And he actually did that. He used to drink and fight and crash his car, and he couldn’t work out how he crashed it, so he reversed and did it again to see what the trajectory was, and… I think he flipped the car. Which we didn’t write in the scene, but he flipped the car, the police came, and he wound down his window—he’s upside down—and he said, “Do we have a problem here?” [Laughs.] He should’ve kept that bit in!
AVC: Was it frustrating that The Wire didn’t get any Emmy love in its time?
DW: Well, initially. And then it was like we were really just hoping that we would get absolutely none, because to have got one award, or to have gotten one just for sound or something… But we actually got nothing. [Laughs.] And that was quite gratifying, because then you can think, “Okay, well, the awards are stupid, then.” And I continued to think awards were stupid for a long time, until this year, when I won one. And now, of course, I think they’re absolutely marvelous!
Spice World (1997)—“Photographer”
DW: Yeah, that was funny. That was another one where—well, I wanted to meet the Spice Girls! So I got that job, and I’d been to a wedding in Ibiza until that morning. I’d literally just flown in that morning, and I hadn’t been to sleep. The set was quite chaotic, so I just kind of leaned on the sofa, laid there, and just passed out. And I woke up in the middle of a script conference with the director and producers and all the Spice Girls. That was quite scary. They were like, “What are you doing? How did you get this bloody job, lying on the sofa?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you got a favorite Spice Girl?
DW: Well, Ginger was the only one who spoke to me. She was the only one who was nice. I think she said, “Are you a lovely or something?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s me, I’m a lovely. “ [Laughs.] But she was okay. I liked her.
DW: Yeah, that worked out well, didn’t it? [Laughs.] That worked out fine! Zack [Snyder] was hilarious. I mean, what a guy. He’s got about a hundred kids, Zack, and he’s the biggest kid of them all. He’d go, like, “Well, damn, what if a giant took on a midget, and they just went, ‘BOOM!’ Wouldn’t that be cool?” And I’m like, “Uh, okay, sure!”
AVC: How was the green-screen experience?
DW: I’m not a great fan of green screen. It’s not much fun for actors. It’s great for directors and technical people and cameramen. Actually, I had very little in 300. In fact, I had one of the few scenes where there was no green screen. You’ll remember, of course: It’s the one where I’m raping the queen. [Laughs.] It was all sex, no green screen in it. No action, just a… relationship. So, yeah, I had a good time on 300. It was all right.
Johnny English Reborn (2011)—“Simon Ambrose”
DW: I’m all over the place, aren’t I? Yeah, that was a really funny film. I really enjoyed that film. My kids did, too. And I’ve now got sort of a bit of a following with the under-10s, which I’ve never had before. But it was quite hard work, because Rowan Atkinson is… He doesn’t particularly enjoy working. By which I mean I think he finds it quite difficult, I suppose because the pressure’s all on him that he’s got to be funny. And he said to me at one point, “I genuinely find that the more fun you’re having on set, the less funny it is in the end.” And I thought, “Well then, there’s no danger for us: We’ll be having a very funny film.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Was it nice to have a chance to work in a comedy for a change?
DW: Well, I’d love to do more, but no one thinks I’m funny. But I’m dying to do more comedy. In fact, I was trying to get comedy into The Hour, but generally in the most inappropriate moments. [Laughs.] So, yeah, I’d love to do more comedy. But with Rowan Atkinson… I mean, he’s sort of a god for me, a great comic hero. I was definitely the straight man.
Appropriate Adult (2011)—“Fred West”
DW: It’s difficult talking about that, actually, because it was such a horrendous subject, but it was a brilliant project. Because it was such a delicate and sensitive subject, they really worked harder than most films would to get it right and to tell a story that was important to tell rather than exploitative or anything. So it was… an extraordinary job. I mean, I had to read all these books about him, and I had to listen to 50 or 60 hours of police interviews. You know, he was the worst man ever to have lived, really. But it was interesting, because he was outwardly so charming and affable, and the police really liked him, and the neighbors really liked him. So it was an extraordinary part to play, and a harrowing one. But I think in the end it was an important film to make.
AVC: Americans have no frame of reference for quite how horrible a matter it was in the UK.
DW: Well, it’s not that you don’t have plenty of your own serial killers. But, yeah, it was a very delicate, sensitive subject, because so many people are still alive whose lives were ruined by him.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)—“Billy / Jigsaw”
DW: That film never really saw the light of day, did it? We had such a ball, though. It was in Montreal, which is a fantastic town. And it was in the winter, so it was minus 40, but it was absolutely… I had a great time doing that. And I was ludicrously over the top, and the director let me be so, which maybe that was not a good idea. [Laughs.] But I loved doing it. It was brilliant. A pantomime villain, that was me.
Rock Star (2001)—“Kirk Cuddy, Steel Dragon Guitarist”
DW: What a glittering career I’ve had. [Laughs.] Kirk Cuddy was brilliant. I was [in Los Angeles] when I was filming it, and I suppose I’d always, like lots of actors do, wanted to be a rock star. And I got to be one. I remember when they showed me my costume, and I was like, “It’s great!” ’80s velour leotard with a silver cape. I thought, “Brilliant! The more ridiculous and camp, the better!” And then the first day, when everyone was wearing their costume, I realized that everyone was else was wearing quite hardcore leather and looked like they were in present day. I was the only one looking like some sort of ’80s twit. [Laughs.]
Anyway, I had a great time. I played in front of 60,000 people in the L.A. arena. It was fantastic. But I remember one of the assistant directors came up to me at one point and said, “Dominic, I’m afraid we’ve had a slight delay in shooting: One of our supporting actresses had to be taken to hospital.” I said, “Oh, fuck! Why, what’s wrong?” He said, “Well, unfortunately, her breast’s exploded.” [Laughs.] My wife in the film was this very cool girl who was a Playboy bunny, and the first thing she said to me was, “Where are you from?” I said, “London.” She said, “Oh, my breasts are from London!” So, yeah, I definitely had a great time working on that!