In my John Carter interview with Willem Dafoe I waxed on Dafoe’s somewhat frightening presence — certainly the fallout from decades of playing frightening characters. He’s also very focused on the business at hand, uninterested in fielding questions about, say, Green Goblin, for example. Dominic West, who has spent his post-The Wire years playing mostly heavies in movies, could not be more the opposite. West is laid back and warm, with an infectious ever-present grin; he seems like the kind of guy who strikes up conversations with complete strangers at a pub. He also LOVES talking about The Wire, and anything else you might throw at him. During a round-table with other journalists, he even gleefully tossed George Lucas under the bus when someone brought up West’s bit part in Phantom Menace — long story short, West said he made both PM and John Carter because he wanted to work with their respective directors, and when asked how that turned out for him, West cracked a smile and said, “Let’s just say Lucas wasn’t what I had hoped for, and Andrew Stanton was.”
So I decided to open my interview by bringing up the fact that I recently had auditioned for a character named “NickNotle” on an animated comedy series (yes, I dabble in voice acting, what of it?) to see how West might react…
Dominic West: He’s called NickNolte?
Josh Miller: Yeah, and I thought, shouldn’t the joke be that he sounds like Nick Nolte? But it was a name pun, and they wanted me to do an impression of you as McNulty. At first I thought it would be easy, but then I think I got too into my own head thinking, “This isn’t a Baltimore accent, this is a British guy doing his impression of a Baltimore accent.”
West: Oh god, fatal. And it was an in-joke on The Wire that I’d do an English accent, so I was an English guy playing an American playing an English guy. (laughs)
Josh: It must have been bizarre on set when you’d share scenes with [fellow Brit] Idris Elba, and between takes your real accents would fly out.
West: Well, he actually – he eased off a bit, but at first he didn’t want to come anywhere near me because he was desperate to speak in an American accent the whole time. Which I tried, but I couldn’t do for very long because I’d just end up not saying anything to anyone. But he was very studiously avoiding me for most of it, for that very reason. And I think in our scenes together maybe – certainly when we had an English director; we had a few English directors – the accent really suffers.
Josh: It must be strange doing an accent for such a long period of time. Obviously it must get easier, but when you’re doing an accent, isn’t it distracting to have to save a part of your brain that is always paying attention to how to say certain troublesome words? Or is it helpful in a way? Like you’re wearing make-up or…
West: It can go either way. I did a thing called Appropriate Adult, which is about a serial killer in England, and he had this West Country accent. And the accent gave me the whole character. Once I was doing the accent I had everything. It was great. It gives you that. And other times, certainly in terms of The Wire, it was, as you say, this little pocket of my brain that was constantly aware of listening to how I sounded. And I found it very difficult. Really limiting, in fact. So it goes one or the other way. American I find particularly hard. Maybe because we all know it so well.
Josh: Moving from there into John Carter, it is interesting to me, as someone – well, I guess The Wire didn’t really have a typical lead role –
West: (feigning offense) Yes it did.
Josh: Right, of course. You. You had the biggest picture on the DVDs.
West: (puffing himself up) I was #1 on the callsheet. (leaning into my recorder) This is what people don’t understand. I was the star. (laughs)
Josh: Well, now the truth is out there. But with something like The Wire you had five seasons, episode after episode to hone this character. Then with something like John Carter, which is about the length of two episodes of The Wire, how does that change your approach, when you know, “I only have this many minutes to make an impression on the audience”?
West: I don’t think I think about it that much, in terms of what your impact on an audience might be. Or even in-depth study as to the character. I used to do that a lot at drama school, and write essays on it, and make lists of their favorite colors and what they just had for breakfast and stuff. And I think eventually you just rely on a gut feeling and you read what a character says and what he does and what scenes he’s in, and you respond instantly. Or you don’t! Though if you don’t, then you tend not to take the part. So what I’m saying, even with McNulty, something in you responds to that guy and that’s what you latch onto. And it may grow and it may expand, and hopefully it does. But it doesn’t really ever get bigger than that initial feeling. So you have the same feeling for this kind of film part, even though [you have less screen time]. But that’s also good, because it focuses your mind. And you have far more resources. Usually the director is of a more amazing caliber. Or at least he was on this. Really though it all comes down to that instant instinct.
Josh: Your character in John Carter, Sab Than, behaves a bit like a petulant child with a new toy. Talk about the feelings you had with this character.
West: It only occurred to me today [talking so much about the character] that my sons must have had a huge influence on the character. Inevitably these things feed into your gut reaction. And yes, they taught me despotism and what it is to be unreasonable and completely amoral in your behavior and how if you want something you go for that to the exclusion of anyone else. And that if you have this amazing toy you will smack your brother over the head with it as quickly as possible, unless some guy over your shoulder tells you not to. So I suppose in a way that’s what I was drawing from. In a way he is a bit of a kid, Sab Than. A kid in sweet shop when he is given this weapon. But he has to abide by the rather strict rules of the, uh, NRA – (laughing) or I suppose the NRA doesn’t have strict rules. He wishes he was in the NRA, rather than having European standards of firearm control.
Josh: Have your kids seen the movie?
West: No, no. I’ve only just seen it yesterday. And I wanted to take my thirteen-year-old daughter, but I couldn’t get her out of school. I can’t wait for her to see it. My boys are a bit young.
Josh: Have they not seen any of your work?