JAMIE WEBB meets actor Dominic West and talks about serial killers, drugs, and joining the circus.
Meeting Dominic West in the flesh is an intimidating experience in the best possible way. He possesses an imposingly large frame and the voice to go with it, a deep sonorous baritone that fills the room.
It’s a tribute to the absurdity of 300 that he was cast as the conniving, weedy bureaucrat when he looks every inch the Roman general he played in Centurion.
Despite a diverse acting career, he is primarily known for one role and one show. West played Detective Jimmy McNulty in the Wire, possibly the most acclaimed piece of television ever created.
So does he get tired of people only ever wanting to talk about one thing wherever he goes?
‘No not in the least. It’s the main reason why people know me and it’s the only reason anyone’s interested in me. It finished 7 years ago but no one knew about it then.’
‘I love talking about it, and I always will. It’s a really great program and one I’m really proud to have been a part of.’
Being part of a show like that is bound to change your views on politics, isn’t it?
‘I suppose so, but it didn’t change my views generally. It was during the time George W Bush was in power and being in America at that time was immensely frustrating.’
‘Everyone outside was aware of what a massive dick he is, and there being seemingly so little dissent, certainly in music or rap or anywhere you might expect.’
‘Being part of the Wire was great for showing how the dispossessed in America were being treated. And of course the war on drugs was the central thesis of the show, that it was a futile waste of time and money, and people are beginning to recognise that.’
I put to him that he must have experienced a similar feeling to that which hits all Cambridge students eventually: after you leave a place like this, what next?
And after you’ve been in The Wire, isn’t everything else a step down? Don’t you get defined by that kind of role?
‘Well I wish, I’d love to be defined by it. I didn’t know anyone had seen it until I was in a road rage incident in London and I was shouting and screaming at someone, which I don’t do normally.’
‘He was shouting until he suddenly stopped and went, ‘you’re McNulty!’ and that was the first time I realised it was catching on. But picking another job is difficult because I’ll probably never get writing that good.’
West went from one side of the thin blue line to the other when he played the role of Fred West in TV drama Appropriate Adult. What effect does that kind of part have on a person?
‘That was the trickiest one, because anyone who wrote a book about him or were involved in that case had a breakdown or committed suicide.’
‘That level of evil has a very toxic effect on people and I was very conscious of that and conscious that I wasn’t going to let it get to me. I read everything by him and went to this weird place in Bethnal Green where this guy has the license of all the police tapes and I saw all those tapes.’
‘It made me more aware of the distance there is between an actor and a character and that that separation is a very good thing. You’re acting and not being. I did start dreaming about him, some very nasty dreams. I made a very conscious effort not to think about it again. And then I got a BAFTA for it so I had to.’
West also had a stint in an Argentine Circus, which seems an incredible non-sequitur in a career otherwise dominated by traditional dramatic roles.
‘I went to see them in London and the physical stuff was always something I wanted to do. I’m not very good at it so I haven’t done much but it was really exciting. You get to run around walls on ropes and swoop down on someone in the audience and fly them around so I loved that.’
As I leave I can’t resist asking one more question.
‘Dominic, could I ask you one more thing?’
‘Could you say, what the fuck did I do?’
A favourite saying of McNulty, it’s as close as anyone on The Wire came to having a catchphrase, and I’ve been wanting to ask him that the whole interview.
Quick as a flash he repeats it back, the Baltimore drawl returning, his wide grin and the glint in his eyes suggesting he really does love looking back on the show that made him a star.
‘What the fuck did I do?!’
He has effortlessly and completely made my day. Time to dig the old box sets out.