Dominic West interview

from, 4/2/01
by Paul Wontorek

Dominic West may be the best export from the London stage since, well, Alan Cumming and Jennifer Ehle. The fact that all three stars are headlining Roundabout’s highly-debated revival of Noel Coward’s Design for Living is reason to rejoice. As Leo, the playwright who becomes involved with both Cumming’s Otto and Ehle’s Gilda, West is assured and poised for the kind of adoration that Americans love to lavish on handsome leading men with foreign accents. In fact, he’s already had a taste of the Hollywood scene, starring as Sandra Bullock’s drunken boyfriend in 28 Days and with Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston in the upcoming Rock Star. But for now, Broadway’s got him—and so does We recently had a chance to chat with West during an afternoon off.

Dominic, I have to tell you that I really loved Design for Living
I'm glad that someone does!

The three of you look like you’re having fun up there.
We are. It’s been funny—ever since the New York Times review, the audiences have been subdued but we haven’t been affected by it. We’re still having fun. And we did throughout rehearsals. It’s so relaxed and easy.

It’s always aggravating when audiences turn after a review.
Apparently it’ll all settle down and they’ll forget about it soon.

Since you are playing characters that are so close in life, do you rebel offstage and never want to see Alan Cumming and Jennifer Ehle?
(He laughs.) Maybe in a few months that’ll happen, but not at the moment. We tend to hang out together after the show. We all get on pretty well. It’s funny that you say that. Maybe it should be like that, but it isn’t. We aren’t tired of each other. Yet.

Did you know one another? I know that you appeared in Spice World with Alan…
Oh yes. I met Alan at the party for that, but not during shooting. And I met Jenny at some other party, but I really didn’t know them at all. It was potluck really. We did that photo shoot [for the Design for Living poster] in December, and by that time, we were already committed to the show. It would have been an interesting run if we hadn’t gotten along! It was good casting, I suppose.

That is a great poster. Was it a fun shoot?
Yes, it was. I had just flown in that morning from London and that was one of the first shots we took. It went on all afternoon. Alan then popped some Vicadin in our mouths and it got really fun. (He laughs.) It was a good day--like a rehearsal, really.

So you bonded early on.
I suppose so. I also think that going out and all of the extracurricular stuff helps. We went out and got drunk together a lot. It all helps.

Now what about that onstage kiss with Alan…
We didn’t put that into the show until three weeks into previews. I don’t really remember how that came about. I don’t remember what we did before we kissed. I think in the script it says that he put his head on my shoulder. They’re alone together, they’re obviously lovers—it didn’t seem that outrageous that they would kiss.

Did it seem outrageous to you?
(He laughs.) What do you mean?

As a straight man, were you cool with it?
(He laughs.) For a straight man, I seem to have to kiss an awful lot of men! I did a play at the Old Vic where I had to snog a guy. We’ve had groups of kids at Design for Living and it’s funny because their reactions are so much bigger. The kiss always gets a hell of a reaction. When Alan first gave me a peck on the lips in the first scene, there was a “whoo” from the audience. I said, “God knows what they’ll do when we start snogging each other!” During the big scene there was this uproar. This woman actually yelled out, “No. Stop that!” It was extraordinary. We had a chat after with the kids and three people asked me, “What’s it like to kiss a guy?” And they were girls asking! I was like, “Don’t you know?!?” So yes, that scene does get an awful lot of attention.

It’s one of the big talking points about contemporary productions—how far to take the gay undertones.
Yes, it’s fairly controversial. I don’t know where I stand on it. I don’t believe Noel Coward felt too restrained to put in what he wanted to put in, but on the other hand, I don’t think it detracts from the play at all.

When I was watching the show, I kept thinking that if these three characters really existed, they’d be truly messed up.
(He laughs.) Yes, we had a lot of trouble figuring out what they’re laughing at at the end of the show. If they’re laughing at [Gilda’s jilted beau] Ernest, they’re smug brats and you don’t care about them. I think they’re like, “Oh God. We’ve made our bed and now we’ve got to lie in it.” They’re laughing out of fear of the future--that shock of realizing they’ve got to make a go of it. They’re finally together and they’re good together—they have an amazing time. But as you say, God knows what happens to them later or how long the arrangement will last.

A lot of critics of this production complain that it’s too dark, that it should be played as a romp.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I think there’s a danger of playing it like it’s Chekhov--turning comedy into Strindberg, which I think we fell into a bit in rehearsal. But that first scene in Paris—the more light you take it, the more emotionally upsetting it seems to be. That’s what makes good comedy—when you have tragedy mixed in as well, people getting hurt. But it’s a difficult thing to gauge.

Were you nervous to make your Broadway debut?
Yes, terrified. I lost my voice I was so frightened. It always comes out in physical manifestations.

You lost your voice?
Yes, the second week of previews. It was all nerves, and I guess also a lack of technique—learning how to project again. But it was mainly nerves. Besides, I’m up there with two Tony Award winners. But it’s like playing tennis with a good partner—it just makes you better.

Americans get pretty excited about Brits. What’s that all about?
(He laughs.) I couldn’t tell you! I think it’s certainly mutual. All of the American movie stars who come to do theater in London…people rush to see them regardless of their acting talent. Because they’re American, they have extra glamour. I certainly detect the Anglophile nature of Broadway. I think that Brits can get away with a lot more than Americans can, especially with Roundabout audiences, who are quite Anglophilic. They forgive things they would never forgive of their countrymen. It’s also the allure of the exotic.

You starred in De La Guarda? That came as a surprise to me.
It came as a surprise to my agent, too! I did it for five months in 1999. I’d seen the show a couple of years before and I was very taken with it. It was one of the top fortnights that I’ve spent in the theater. They wanted to set up the show in London and they let me in.

That must have been an intense experience. Is it the same as the New York show?
It’s exactly the same, but better. It killed me for the first two months and then for the next three, it was total bliss. It was great. It was a license to grope people every night. It was a good way to see out the 20th century--I finished on the 31st of December 1999. I mistakingly thought that I would get my adolescence out of my system before the 21st century.

It must have been a good workout.
Yes, totally. But when you stop, there’s a sudden decline in accelerators. I can’t even tap my toes now.

How did you get your start in London?
I got an agent in drama school and then my first job at the Almeida, which was a good start. And I did Ian McKellen’s Richard III on film, which was quite a break.

And you spent a year working with Sir Peter Hall…
I did a year at the Old Vic, doing mainly The Seagull and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine playing a Victorian housewife. That’s when I had to snog that man. I also got to wear a nice dress in that show.

Did you get to keep it?
I didn’t! They wouldn’t let me. I thought, “Who the hell is going to wear this?” I remember that when I wore it, I felt very petite and pretty and when I looked in the mirror, I looked like a rugby player in drag.

What is your dress size?
I think I’m off the scale.

You also appeared in Star Wars: Episode One.
Yes, for about eight seconds. They cut my Naboo officer. I had two roles; I played a palace guard and then a Naboo officer. They replaced my Naboo officer with a computer-animated puppet, who they apparently thought was a better actor! But, the palace guard remained for eight or nine glorious seconds. I never had so much fan mail in my life--people saying they loved me in Star Wars!

That must have been an amazing set to work on.
It was interesting. The sets were magnificent, but they only went up about ten feet. They created the rest of it on computers. But you could still get an idea of what it would be. And I got to meet George Lucas and all that stuff. It’s not an actor’s film, though. It was nice for a day and no longer. I got a taste of what it would be like to star in that kind of movie. You have to have an awful lot of patience.

You also starred in a big studio film, 28 Days. What’s your take on the whole Hollywood thing? It’s interesting. 28 Days was great. I got to play a drunk Brit--a stretch. The Hollywood thing…I haven’t worked out what I think about it yet. It seems that there are a set of roles that come your way automatically and the trick is to avoid them. A lot of Brits go to Hollywood and start playing the obvious villains. As tempting as those roles are, they can be a dead end. It doesn’t hugely interest me, but that’s what’s coming to me now.

What about this new movie Rock Star? What’s that about? This is another example of me playing out my adolescence. For four months I got to live in L.A. pretending to be a rock star. It’s based on the true story of what happened with Judas Priest, when they sacked the leading singer and recruited a fan who headlined a tribute band. I play the leader of the band who recruits Mark Wahlberg. I wear a wig, tattoos, got to play in front of 6,000 screaming fans. I had a great time. [Rock Star opens September 14].

So was Broadway a goal of yours all along?
Yeah, I mean, it’s exciting and stuff but the reason why I did Design for Living is not because it’s Broadway. It was the play and the group of people working on the show. And they certainly treat you wonderfully. There’s a lot more money and respect doing theater here. You really don’t get it in London.

Oh yeah, everything’s better on Broadway. American actors who go to London to work are astonished by the lack of hospitality. I’m having a great time.

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