Cometh The Hour, cometh West
The tobacco-stained teeth and dirt-lined fingernails. The tightly wound curls and jet-black brooding eyes. The acrylic jumpers and leering smile. Dominic West's startlingly accurate portrayal of notorious British serial killer Fred West is hard to forget.
That chilling character execution seen recently in TV One's Appropriate Adult won West a Bafta award. Thankfully, he's stepping out of the serial killer shadows and is back to his suave, sophisticated, handsome best as The Hour's Hector Madden, returning to Sky TV's SoHo channel on Monday.
Picking up nine months on from where season one left off Hector, lead anchor on BBC news show The Hour, is riding a wave of celebrity. He's a regular at private member clubs in, fittingly, Soho, where he is surrounded with "wine, women and song".
His affair with producer Bel (Romola Garai) may be over but his matrimonial vows are still low on his list of priorities, leaving lonely wife Marnie (Oona Chaplin) playing house each night while she waits for his return.
He is coasting at work, showing up late or not at all, and frequently features on the front page of tabloid newspapers. He is being pursued by producers at rival network ITV who want to poach him for their new series Uncovered. Hector feels like he's bulletproof.
"Then he gets into trouble," West says, "which we're not sure - but maybe we are sure - that he's been falsely accused of attacking a woman and so that familiar routine of building celebrities up and knocking them down again is explored. It's great for an actor because [I] get to play him at a very, very low ebb."
The parallels surrounding today's celebrity culture are not lost on West.
"I think if you go to the glossy magazines of pre-1950s, then it was all about the royals or Lady so-and-so; aristocrats. They were the celebrities and no more deserving than celebrities now, I suppose," he explains. "It's obviously a need that we have to have heroes. Or have heroes that don't do very much."
West doesn't really consider himself a celebrity and suggests being at the forefront of the public consciousness is a transient thing.
"When you're on someone's telly and they've seen you the night before, they recognise you on the street but as soon as it's over, even a week after, no-one knows who the hell you are," he laughs. "Even more so [in America] because I suppose they're even more saturated with media. You're forgotten the next day."
Obviously that's not strictly true. West has been steadily building his profile for more than 20 years. Before The Hour and Appropriate Adult - and after some forgettable roles in terrible films (remember his turn as a photographer in Spice World: The Movie?) - West was best known as fast-talking, oft-swearing, hard-drinking cop McNulty in The Wire. Or, as it's usually referred to by TV critics, The Best TV Show Ever Made. Finishing after five seasons, West was convinced he didn't want to sign up for another long-running drama again, especially in America.
"Only because you have to sign for six years and that's a big commitment when you've got four kids."
Since McNulty, West has acted in theatre, film and TV but he says the variety of roles he has chosen hasn't necessarily been as a result of some grand career plan.
"There aren't many really good scripts that come in so I just do any good script that comes my way," he says. "I suppose, though, that yes, unconsciously, I don't particularly want to do something that I've done before. You spend a lot of time and energy and thought on a part and a period and a subject and I think once it's done you don't need to revisit it. I'd be reluctant to play another drunk cop.
"I like the diversity of medium, really. I really like doing theatre and I like doing TV and I like doing film, but all for different reasons, so I'm hoping to keep doing all three."
He's also dabbled in directing, in the first instance taking charge of one episode of The Wire which he says unleashed a newfound passion. "I thought, ‘that's it! I want to be a director from now on'. But I suppose what happened was the acting work got very good for me and I didn't have any time to do the directing. But I still hope to, it's something I really, really enjoy and I think I did a decent job on."
The fact he could stay at home in London and be there to "put his kids to bed" was one reason he decided to do The Hour; another was Hector himself.
West says he is very fond of the character and when I tell him of one critic's description of Hector as a "smarmy himbo" he lets out a long, loud roar of throaty laughter.
"That's a bit unfair! Smarmy himbo! That's very nice," he blusters. "I don't know about the smarmy bit but I think he's a bit old for himbo!"
Instead, West suggests Hector is "likeably flawed".
"He's among these highly efficient young kids and he's this rather flawed and slightly damaged older guy who's finding his way in a new world.
"My father was a man of the 50s and I realised unconsciously that I wanted to do Hector and was attracted to him because in some ways he reminded me of my father. Not in the way he behaved, just in the way he dresses and his manners, so I'm very fond of him in that way."
Growing up in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield, West was the sixth child of seven. His father, who owned a plastics factory, wanted him to become a lawyer but, West jokes, "by the time they got to me they were much less resolute about what they were going to insist on".
West's mother was an amateur actress in a local company. "She was delighted when I became an actor," West says. "My dad . . . he had a great voice and he liked to make speeches so I think he rather liked it too, to be honest."
West attended the elite private school Eton and his privileged education has been the source of many headlines in the British media. He once talked about Eton on The Graham Norton Show; the next day papers quoted him out of context as saying "Old Etonian is a stigma that is slightly above ‘paedophile' in the media in a gallery of infamy."
"I've had some very unfavourable headlines which have upset former teachers and staff, of whom I'm very fond and have a great deal to be thankful for what they taught me," he explains. "I had a wonderful education, an amazing time at school . . . Since it was more than half my lifetime ago it should be something that's not so significant."
The Hour, Monday, 8.30pm, SoHo
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