He’s well-educated, handsome and impeccably connected. Then why is Dominic West so good at playing deeply flawed losers?
Before meeting Dominic West in a pub near his house in Shepherd’s Bush, I’m told by a publicist that the actor is tired of people only ever asking him about The Wire, the gritty, understated, critically acclaimed police drama set in Baltimore. Although “cult” must be one of the most overused and misused words in the arts world, it can be applied with some justification to this series, which ran from 2002-2008.
Its devotees are fanatical and there aren’t that many of them, considering the canonical status the series enjoys – it was aired on an obscure digital channel in this country and so, when word of mouth spread, most people watched the box set on DVD instead. West was its unlikely star – unlikely because his background is so very different from that of McNulty, the hard-drinking, womanising blue-collar American detective he played.
He is, after all, an Old Etonian, as well as a friend of Samantha Cameron.
He’s also married to an aristocrat, Catherine Fitzgerald. They met at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was reading English, but went their separate ways – she married Viscount Lambton, and he had a child with Polly Astor (granddaughter of Lady Astor). They met up again and had three children, all of whom came along to their wedding last year at Glin Castle, her family seat.
Given the baggage that must come with the OE label, you would think that if any subject were off limits, it would be that one. We will, of course, talk about The Wire, because it would be perverse not to – like interviewing Paul McCartney and avoiding The White Album. But for now, let us describe our man as he arrives on a bike wearing a baggy flat cap and an orange patterned scarf. He has just turned 42, and presumably the first thing casting directors notice about him is that he is tall, dark and handsome, though not in a conventional way – indeed, the words that keep cropping up whenever he is profiled are “simian” and “carnivorous grin”. He has teeth like “nutcrackers”, according to one critic. And to this descriptive mix are usually added “oaky voice”, “booming laugh” and “cut-glass vowels”.
But the first thing I notice about him is his beard. He grew it for his much-lauded role as Iago in Othello at the Sheffield Crucible, which has just finished its run. This followed another 1,000-line role in Simon Gray’s Butley in the West End. In that West played a lazy, drunken, extroverted don. He said at the time that he liked that role because it meant he got to be “monstrously camp” and “bitchy”. He has also been all over our television screens this year, having starred in the BBC series The Hour (a second series of which will start filming soon), as well as his chilling and utterly compelling portrayal of Fred West in ITV’s Appropriate Adult. On the big screen he is currently playing the baddy in Johnny English Reborn (a rare taste of critical disapproval for him this, but the critics didn’t stop it becoming number one at the box office) and he is about to appear opposite Rebecca Hall in The Awakening, an atmospheric story set in a Twenties country boarding school, loosely based on The Turn of the Screw.
West plays a wounded veteran of the First World War who is now working as a teacher. “There is an elegiac sadness to the film,” he says. “It plays with this idea that ghosts come out of grief. That they represent a human need to see people because so many had died in the war. The Twenties were a time of grief. People were living in the past because so many of their loved ones had recently died.” West’s grandfather fought at the Somme. “He got injured. Lived a long and happy life in Sheffield. He was an industrialist. We’ve got his medals and his hat. But the best research I found for understanding that period was the poetry. That was the medium of the First World War.” We talk about ghosts and I say that, annoyingly, the film gave me goose bumps – annoying because I don’t believe in ghosts. Does he? “I’m not a rationalist like you. I like to believe there are ghosts all over the place! The country house we filmed in had a lot of history. Several members of the same family had killed themselves there. The son shot himself and I was constantly trying to find that room.”
So he enjoys scaring the bejesus out of himself? “We’re drawn to that which frightens us,” he says. “Morbid curiosity. It’s the reason I like playing evil people like Iago or Fred West. We are fascinated by them.” But at least Iago is fictional. What was most disturbing about his Fred West was his normality. He seemed so matter of fact in the way he talked about his deeds. Worse, he seemed quite vulnerable and almost sympathetic. “My words were almost entirely taken from the transcripts, apart from some of his worst excesses. Everything I did was what I heard on those tapes. There was no acting involved, really. I suppose the psychopath in him meant that he looked to the appropriate adult for cues, because he had no idea what the social convention was on this. He had no understanding of what was thought to be shocking. For him, sweeping up leaves and leaving them in the garden was no different to chopping up his daughter and leaving her there.” In an interview at the time it was screened, he admitted he understood the dark sexual fantasies of West. “This is very, very dangerous territory,” he said. “But necessarily, one has something in common.”
“It got pretty dark,” he now says. “I was having bad dreams about it. It was filmed quite quickly, though, so I could come home and be with my kids and take my mind off it. I realised researching him that anyone who goes near that man, be they a biographer or actor or a relation of the victims, becomes tainted – you’re changed by him in a malign way. It’s extraordinary the power of people like that, they go on after their death. I don’t know whether you would call it charisma, exactly, but he was a lovable rogue, like Iago. Not very intelligent, but likeable and quite charming in his jack-the-laddish way.”
What was really freaky about that performance was that he looked and sounded just like Fred West, even down to the Gloucester accent. “Actually, I thought no one would buy it. But I am hyper self-critical.” I liked the way he kept chewing on his cheek. “Did I? I think that was the fake teeth which gave me even more of a monkey mouth, like his. It helped having a mouthful of too many teeth.” Meeting him in person, I realise that the cheek chewing wasn’t acting. He does it in real life, too.
Dominic West was born in Sheffield, one of seven children. His father made his fortune by manufacturing vandal-proof bus shelters. He played Iago with a Yorkshire accent. How did that go down in Sheffield? “They liked it, but I dare say there were some asking why I was doing it in a Yorkshire accent, asking if I thought Yorkshire sounded evil. But it was the opposite. Yorkshire sounds honest. Everyone calls him honest Iago. He couldn’t do what he did if people didn’t find him honest.” Of all the accents West has nailed, Yorkshire must have been the easiest.
“Yes, because that was the accent with which I used to speak. It also has its dangers, because it comes too easily to me.” What was extraordinary about the pitch-perfect Baltimore accent he adopted for The Wire was that people there had no idea he was an Englishman, though West says he found it a very hard accent to pull off. As part of his research for that role, he spent weeks shadowing real Baltimore cops as they patrolled the ghettos. Must have been an eye opener, that. “I remember my first day standing next to this guy who had been shot eight times and was still alive and his family were standing around him and I was hoping to God they wouldn’t ask me a question. I felt quite uncomfortable, because I was an actor from London. An impostor. Generally when things got exciting, I was excluded – I couldn’t go on drugs raids, for example – but I think it was just as important to learn about the boring stuff, because that is the main part of a cop’s working life.”
Can his friend David Cameron learn any lessons from The Wire about tackling the drug problem here? “Legalise it, you mean? Legalising it was one of the radical ideas we explored in The Wire, as a way of dealing with all the health issues. If you want a radical solution, that’s the way to do it, but it hasn’t been tried yet in real-life Baltimore. I think the writers thought the drug war was a waste of money and lives and that the drug dealers should be run out of town.”
Here’s a name drop, I say. I was round at Ian McEwan’s house not long ago, and I noticed there was no television. Did our Greatest Living Novelist disapprove, I asked? He did have one, he said, but he only used it like a cinema, for watching DVDs. And what was he watching at the moment? The Wire. “Was he?” says West. “That’s great. I think a lot of people did that because when they watched the box set it was quite novelistic, each episode like a chapter. Had it not been for the box set, I don’t think it would have been watched much at all.” What does he make of the fanaticism of the fans? “I do get the feeling from the people who come up to me that they feel like they are members of a secret club. The initiation to this club was sitting through 17 hours of quite impenetrable material. The harder they had to work, the bigger the pay off.”
West was most adept at acting drunk in Butley. And in The Wire too, possibly because he sometimes enjoyed the odd Scotch during filming. And, such is his conscientiousness, his “research” seems to have carried over into Iago – offstage, at least. “With Iago, I would come offstage and go on drinking,” he tells me. What, even when he had a performance the next night? “Yes. Of course. We’d go crazy. You don’t get hangovers because you’re running around so much and sweating so much. Physically, it was demanding for a 42-year-old git like me.” He’s known to like a drink, but now his run has finished I guess it doesn’t matter if he lets his hair down. “I’m in the first week of my holiday and adoring it,” he says. “But by the third week, I’ll be getting a bit antsy. We’re going to Spain tomorrow, then I’m going paragliding with my friends, and then I’m hoping to see the Dalai Lama, because I’ve been doing some work with Free Tibet. We’re flying into Dharamsala from Bir.”
I tell him my pet theory about 42 being the age at which people are reaching their creative peak at the moment: the scriptwriter Abi Morgan? 42. Professor Brian Cox? 42. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters? 42. “I’m part of this group, you mean? Well, it would be nice to think so. If you spoke to my wife, she would say the success can be dated to me going out with her! But yes, certainly over the past five years. I suppose you get to a time in life where your peers are the people in charge, they are the people about whom books are written and TV documentaries made. They are ‘your time’.” Especially in his case, having been at school with Boris Johnson and David Cameron. “Well, yes, they were older than me, but not by much, so we were near contemporaries. I knew Boris’s brothers well.”
Any memories of Dave he’d like to share? “I wasn’t aware of him at school much, would see him around a bit, but it was Sam I knew better. My good friend Nick was deeply in love with her and resented her going out with this guy Dave. That was really how I got to know him.” Is it true she’s a secret Labour voter? “Really? Why do you say that?” Ed Vaizey MP said she voted Labour in 1997. “That’s hilarious. I can imagine she might because she doesn’t want her husband to be prime minister, though I’m sure she’s delighted he became it. I imagine she would rather have her life back. But I don’t know if she’s a Labour supporter. I doubt it, somehow. He’s very convincing in his arguments.” He chews his cheek. “I think this coalition suits Cameron well because he doesn’t have to pander to his right wing, the Lib Dems keep that in check. He can occupy the middle ground.” West has two sons. Would he consider sending them to Eton, given that in the past he has said he was miserable there? “Yes, I would. It’s an extraordinary place. When I first went there I was desperate not to become what I thought an Etonian was: a soft southerner. It was very much a north-south thing. But it did very quickly nurture my acting. It has the facilities and the excellence of teaching and it will find what you’re good at and nurture it.”
I imagine he, like David Cameron, would rather not carry the label around with him. “I don’t think it will have won Dave any votes. It certainly hasn’t won me any parts. The other day, Newsnight Review was talking about Othello and it came up in five seconds. I thought, ‘Eton is more than half my lifetime ago’. So yes, there is a stigma, and not a benign one. But I do think everyone has to overcome other people’s perceptions of them. Clarke [Peters, who played Othello and was West’s co-star in The Wire] says he gets it with ‘black actor’ but I think there is a political will not to do that now. Old Etonian is attached to my name at every opportunity to explain what? I don’t know. Why I am such an a——-?” The booming laugh again. He doesn’t really think he is one, and I’m inclined to agree.