Dominic West interview for Butley: ‘I’ve got a funny face’, from Daily Telegraph

4th June 2011

Dominic West interview: ‘I’ve got a funny face’

A brooding cop in TV’s ‘The Wire’, Dominic West is returning to the stage in a comedy. Silliness suits him, he tells Dominic Cavendish. Published in the Daily Telegraph 4 June 2011.

Indolent and insolent, repressed and extrovert, erudite and drunken, Butley, the English don anti-hero of Simon Gray’s breakthrough 1971 play, is quite a character. Faced with the break-up of his marriage and the loss of his doted-upon protégé, a younger male academic, to a bloke from Leeds, he’s unravelling badly.

But he’s also a funny guy, albeit one with a waspish wit of the sort that could probably get a man arrested these days: his forte lies in attitudes of risqué contempt towards women, homosexuals and folk from the North.

Is Dominic West funny? It’s clear from the moment he charges into view backstage at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, with just an hour to go before the final dress rehearsal on the day of his first performance as Butley, that he can be vivaciously entertaining. He’s hearty, throaty, and ready with a laugh – with some of the bumbling charisma one associates with another old Etonian, Boris Johnson.

We’re only minutes into our chat before he’s confiding how he once did a clown course that involved spending three weeks dressed as a gorilla. He loved it.

“I think I’ve got a funny face,” he avers. And considering his features – slightly simian – yes, I’d say so, too. But “funny” is not what West, 41, is famous for.

Best known – “only known” he says, modestly – for his leading role as Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in five seasons of the cult American television series The Wire, fans of the show have seen him at his most guarded, rugged, brooding and understated.

While Butley marks a reversion, of sorts, to the kind of social milieu you’d expect to find West in, it’s not as if he’s ever properly shown us his lighter side in a leading role. His last stage outing, at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009, was as the tormented prince in Calderón’s gruelling Spanish Golden Age drama Life is a Dream.

“One of the great attractions of this play for me is that it’s very showy,” he explains. “There are silly walks, funny voices. I love all that. And you’ve got to go for it – because, hell, it’s theatre and not gritty telly. Butley is written in the tradition of Oscar Wilde – so you have to keep serving up those one-liners.

“I’ve always wanted to play more comic parts,” he continues, “and I don’t know why I haven’t – the offers haven’t come my way, except for American chick flick comedies which aren’t really my sense of humour. I have tended to be cast as the arsehole boyfriend and I don’t particularly enjoy that – so I don’t think I am very good at it.”
Earlier on, his director, Lindsay Posner, tells me he believes his star’s considerable talent to amuse has been overlooked.

“I remember seeing him years ago in Cloud Nine at the Old Vic [in 1997] and he was hilarious. He can go from tough macho hunk to camp effete queen in a matter of seconds. It’s a cliché to say that Dominic was born to play this role but it’s true – he’s Eton educated, and went to Trinity College Dublin [to read English] before going to drama school, and so he knows that academic world.

“As well as having a leading actor’s driving energy, he also understands Butley’s self-destructive nature. It’s vital that whoever plays the part has some wickedness in them – and he has that too.”

At the moment we speak, so close to the wire, West isn’t sure he’s got any of that – “my inner critic is having a field day today”, he says with a grin. “I’m very aware of battling the voice in my head that says I can’t do it.”

If he does pull it off, he won’t just force us to reappraise his versatility, he’ll also be restoring a play that many regard as a modern classic, and even Gray’s finest work, to the limelight.

It hasn’t been seen in the West End since 1984, and the most acclaimed production to date remains the hugely popular inaugural run, which starred Alan Bates and was directed by Harold Pinter.

Gray, Pinter, Bates – all are, alas, now gone. Gray died in 2008, leaving the world infinitely richer for his wonderfully funny and keenly observed diaries, and a sizeable corpus of often wildly entertaining and highly individual plays, all of which have now finally been republished in beautiful new editions by Faber.

Working, he says, harder in his career than he has ever done, West has “reached an age where I don’t want to do parts that bore me – or don’t stretch me”.

This year he can be seen playing Fred West for ITV and starring as a BBC newsreader in The Hour, a major drama set during the Suez Crisis and already being compared, favourably, to Mad Men. In the autumn he returns to his home town, Sheffield, to play Iago to fellow Wire star Clarke Peters’s Othello.

And next year may see him catapulted to a whole new level of fame, when Hollywood’s biggest sci-fi film for a while, John Carter, in which he features as villain Sab Than, hits cinemas.

“I’m of the opinion that this probably isn’t going to last,” he says. “I’m not always going to be offered these roles, and certainly haven’t before. You’ve got to grab every opportunity that comes up.”

Including, right now, the golden chance to make people laugh.

Butley is now in preview at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (0844 412 4659), opens Monday

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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