Dominic West on nude scenes and why he’s happy to be objectified
Early morning in Shoreditch and Dominic West and I are trying not to burn our lips on coffee as hot as molten steel. We’re in an old pub that, quite clearly from the decor (big game hunter’s lodge crossed with Soho House), has gone the way of so many of the edgier places out east and been upcycled into a member’s bar.
‘Bloody gentrification,’ West mock-grumbles. ‘This was once my old stomping ground… I went to Guildhall School of Music & Drama — I was here before the trendy haircuts and bike shops. I was thinking about this on the way here in the cab: back then it was a total s***hole.’
West, I’ll soon realise, has very little in the way of a verbal filter. The 47-year-old star of The Wire and The Affair is also an absolute riot, even at 8am, and will talk about sex with more candour than perhaps anyone I’ve ever interviewed, including Mickey Rourke — which may be just as well, given the amount of time he spends stripping off on screen. In accepting her Golden Globe for The Affair, his co-star Ruth Wilson dedicated part of her speech to him, saying, ‘Your arse is something of great beauty.’ West found the compliment
‘funny — although I’m not sure how well the American audience took it. They think the word “arse” is terribly crude — you have to say “ass” or they get fairly puritanical. But it became sort of an in joke with Ruth…’ The arse or the ass? ‘Both, I suppose. We had to do so many bonking scenes in The Affair that there was always a battle between us over who was going to go on top. If you’re on the bottom, you don’t have to take your clothes off or show anything. And Ruth always bloody won.’
Shooting the sex scenes in the show — in which he plays a writer who has an affair with a waitress, played by Wilson — is, he says, ‘absurd. I have to wear a sock over my bits for a start.’ What kind of sock? ‘Well, an actor-y sock thing — there was one that was like a jockstrap, but all of them are ridiculous.’ One they nicknamed ‘The Beast’. ‘A lot of the time the girl is wearing stick-on patches on her nipples which are also ridiculous. You look like sexless dolls. It’s farcical. In your supposed moment of passion you have a guy with a boom going, “Could you just move slightly to your left, mate?” Then you’ve got some other poor sod putting make-up on your bum.’ It doesn’t sound very sexy, I say. ‘It’s not, it’s very agricultural. It’s like giving birth. Or like a vet delivering a new calf. Sort of. I mean, it can be sexy sometimes…’
When is it sexy? ‘At all the wrong moments.’ One can imagine, at times, a man might over-think the scene, making it clear to everyone just how prepared he is. Has this ever happened to West?
‘Yes, of course!’
What do you do? Go and have a cold shower?
‘No. You’re covered up so it can’t go anywhere. It’s tied down so to speak. Also I think actresses don’t mind when it happens, in fact they quite like it. Everyone likes to be thought of as attractive.’
Today he is wearing dark blue jeans, a blue shirt and on his wrist there’s a sparkling watch from Tiffany. (‘I don’t go for accessories — I don’t even like wearing my wedding ring to be honest with you. In fact I think I might have lost it — but this is really rather beautiful.’)
When I ask if he minds being objectified — the role has, after all, won him an army of female and gay male fans — he reacts gleefully. ‘Are you kidding? I love it,’ he says. Has he always been so uninhibited? ‘No. I remember soon after drama school I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where I had to do a love scene with Anna Friel. For some reason I had got it into my head that the thing experienced actors do on set — someone like Richard Gere for example — is to walk around naked, just so no one bats an eyelid when you do get down to it. So that’s what I did like an idiot. I remember this props guy came up to me and said, “Didn’t realise it was so cold in here, Dominic.”
I didn’t do it again.’
The sixth of seven children (five girls and two boys), West was born into a Roman Catholic family in Sheffield. His father owned a plastics factory and his mother was an actress. West was educated at Eton and as a result, he’s often been lumped together with Eddie Redmayne and Damian Lewis, and been accused of being too posh. ‘Well, I always find it staggering that people think I’m a jumped-up posh twat, as I’m middle-class and from Sheffield.’
Has it ever annoyed him? ‘It did. But I quickly realised people have a lot worse things to worry about than being pigeonholed as a public schoolboy,’ he says. ‘It’s up to the actor to show your talent is bigger than that. And being typecast as an Etonian is no worse than being typecast as something else. Even though I have never played an Etonian.’
Indeed, his break-through role — as the brilliant maverick cop Jimmy McNulty on the seminal HBO drama The Wire from 2002-2008 — couldn’t have been further away from that stereotype. Despite roles alongside the likes of Julianne Moore (in Surviving Picasso), Michelle Pfeiffer (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Julia Roberts (Mona Lisa Smile), it was The Wire, followed by leading parts in period drama The Hour and as Fred West in Appropriate Adult, for which he won a Bafta, that made him a star.
The Affair has been renewed for a fourth series and The Square, an art world satire in which he stars opposite Elisabeth Moss, recently picked up the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Next year he’ll be seen alongside Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander in the hotly anticipated reboot of Tomb Raider. I tell West I was surprised that Tomb Raider had been green lit for a reboot; and gobsmacked when it attracted such acting talent as Vikander and himself. For most the video game turned movie franchise conjures up images of a cartoonishly sexualised Angelina Jolie, the augmented breasts, hot pants and ponytail like a bull whip — all very Loaded magazine.
‘Well I was wondering about that before we began filming,’ agrees West. ‘They have definitely modernised it — Alicia doesn’t have ludicrously pumped-up breasts. It’s not so chauvinistic, which may come as a disappointment to some…’
The film sees Vikander play Lara Croft ‘before she becomes the Tomb Raider as we all know her. She’s a bike courier with Bruce Wayne tendencies. It’s the origin story. I have to say when I found this out I said, “Well maybe she gets a big pair of boobs from her dad on her 21st birthday?’’’ West’s deep laughter fills the room. ‘No, no I’m going to get into trouble. Alicia was never going to take the job if it was all tits and hot pants. So this Tomb Raider is cool rather than being objectified.’
West doesn’t play the romantic lead but Croft’s father. It’s the second time he has been cast as Vikander’s dad, also appearing in Testament of Youth. Does it prick his ego when he’s not cast as the heroic lover? ‘Yes it hurts. It does and anyone who says it doesn’t is lying. Although it’s a great privilege that someone as beautiful as Alicia should be descended from me.’ Off screen, he has four children with film producer Catherine Fitzgerald, a woman he dated at university then fell in love with all over again after a break. He also has a daughter, Martha, from a previous relationship with Polly Astor (the daughter of the late Tory MP Michael Astor).
Though he says being in his 40s is ‘much better’ than being in his 20s (‘you have more money for a start’), he admits his slight panic at the sort of roles he’s being offered. ‘Next up I am playing Keira Knightley’s husband [in Colette]. Great, I thought, a chance for my youthful, leading man swagger to come back a bit. I went to the costume department expecting to get something snappy and I was fitted for a fat suit and a bald cap. I thought, “How unfair”. You know the way one sees oneself is at times in contrast to the reality.’
Perhaps West is being too modest. After all, he says he does still get wolf-whistled, which he describes as ‘wonderful. It’s The Affair of course, I won’t take the credit. The breadth of people who are into it is staggering. We were filming in New York recently and this bunch of doddery 70-year-olds streamed past us and one of them shouted, “Keep it up!” It’s amazing what the older generation get up to in those nursing homes nowadays with Viagra and a bit of dirty telly. If I’m relieving the boredom, I’m glad I can help out.’
Jonathan Heaf is features director of ‘GQ’