Arab Today, arab today west famous as detective
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'People seem to think I'm Satan'

West Famous as detective

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Arab Today, arab today West Famous as detective

Dominic West
London - Arabstoday

Dominic West 'Come on then, 'it me if yer think yer 'ard enough, yer big queer, yer big fruit," shouts Dominic West unpleasantly from his seat on a banquette in one of Ealing's leading eateries. I look in the mirror above West's head: diners are definitely

staring at our table now, perhaps looking forward to coffee while watching a splendid homoerotic brawl. As when Alan Bates and Oliver Reed went nude mano-a-mano in Ken Russell's Women in Love, for instance. More likely, they are thinking that the 41-year-old actor who starred in The Wire until 2008 still looks gorgeous, but why is he having a lovers' tiff in public?

The old Etonian actor is satirising one of those awful, oikish regional accents, possibly mine. Oh dear, and we'd been having such a lovely lunch.But West isn't having a pop at me. He's limbering up for an afternoon taunting Paul McGann during rehearsals at Ealing Studios for a rare revival of Simon Gray's scabrous play Butley. West plays the eponymous English lecturer who is having a day from hell: his wife has just left him for another man – and so has his boyfriend. It is the boyfriend's departure he can't bear: Joey, the former star pupil who has now become a lecturer, who has been sharing his office and flat, is leaving him for the suave, soigné, Leeds-born other man, unbecomingly named Reg Nuttall and becomingly played by McGann.

Butley's crazed aim in the play's climax is to provoke Reg into thumping him by mocking his Yorkshire accent and his homosexuality. But any (deserved) beating he gets will be doubly painful since the sexuality Butley mocks is also his own. Harold Pinter, who directed Butley in 1971, wrote in his introduction to Gray's Plays published last year: "The extraordinary thing about Butley, it still seems to me, is that the play gives us a character who hurls himself towards destruction while living, in the fever of his intellectual hell, with a vitality and brilliance known to few of us. He courts death by remaining ruthlessly – even dementedly – alive."

What actor – even if he had played Jimmy McNulty in The Wire – could resist the role? Not West: "It's the funniest thing I've ever been near. When he's doing his Ecky Thump routine with Reg. He's half a bottle of whisky down by then and had a few pints at lunchtime so he's a total joy to do. He's so articulate and so acerbic. It's an extraordinary kamikaze suicide note. It's the expression of jaded self-loathing that gives the comedy, which is constant, such weight."

Is comedy a stretch for him? "No," replies West with pardonable sarcasm, "I've always been marvellous at it."

Butley's savage, lacerating wit, West thinks, comes partly from Gray's feelings of inadequacy. "I mean that frustration about what his brilliance lacks – in that he's not Eliot, he's not Byron, he's not Pinter even. It's all there in Butley, and his diaries. Pinter directed all his plays, they were good mates and Gray was writing in a way that didn't appeal in the same way that Pinter did. So there must have been a lot in his life which he was frustrated about."

True, perhaps, but that's not the whole of Butley: the play is also steeped in repressed homosexuality. It was first performed in 1971 with Alan Bates in the title role, four years after homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales. Surely as a result Butley is a period curio irrelevant to us? Don't we live in more tolerant times? "I remember the first thing I said to Lindsay [Posner, Butley's director] was: 'They're shagging obviously. Why's that never mentioned?' He said: 'They're not shagging' and that seems weird. I thought maybe that's a bit dated now – a man wouldn't be so unaware of his sexuality. But obviously that's not dated at all. I know several people who are like that. People who are not aware of their sexuality. People who unwittingly agonise over it. And it's not really talked about."

West waves away the waiter who wants to remove his plate. "I did a film once about Judas Priest [the 2001 film Rock Star in which he played opposite Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston]. You watch footage of the concert and it's the gayest concert you've ever seen in your life. He's leather-capped and leather-everythinged, strutting around. And then he was outed and they fired him for being gay. But looking at that footage it's so steeped in gay iconography you think: 'How did they miss the fact that he was gay?'"

Ah, Rock Star. It's strange now to think of West playing a bit part in a risible Wahlberg-Aniston flick sporting a frankly demeaning Brian May-ish wig for the mini-role of rhythm guitarist Kirk Cuddy in a daft band called Steel Dragon. West, now so feted, now so widely regarded as the thinking woman's (and man's) crumpet, could have been such a bit-part player for ever – an actor who never quite made it beyond minor turns in the Spice Girls movie or a prison guard in Star Wars: Episode 1 – the Phantom Menace. But a year after Rock Star scarcely troubled the box office, West got a role that shot him into a thespian stratosphere: hard- bitten, drink-addled Baltimore detective McNulty in the show routinely hailed as the greatest TV series ever made, David Simon's The Wire.

Initially, West didn't know the good thing he'd got. "I'm ashamed to say that I didn't want to commit to it. If you do an American TV series, before the audition you sign away the next five years of your life. That sort of control – I mean they have to have it, that's why they make great shows because they have that security to create – was something that initially I reacted against. I was away from home half the year."

West kicked up a fuss every time Simon insisted he return for another season. "I moaned and moaned and moaned and God bless him he put up with it and kept me despite myself. And he let me have time off for season four, which I think is the best season – and not entirely because I'm not much in it."

Has typecasting screwed up his career? "No, I don't think The Wire screwed up my career at all. It's the only reason people have heard of me. It's only been a huge, huge, very fortunate bonus. But you're right. I got offers to do the same kind of role again and again. I constantly had people ringing up and saying: 'We've got this great idea for you. It's a really good part – it's a drunk cop. Don't know if you've played one of those before.'"

But West worries that he gets typecast as something infinitely worse. "People seem to think I'm Satan. I seem to be playing Fred West, I'm playing Butley who's described as a man with no soul, and next I'm playing Iago. You've got to eventually think: 'Is somebody trying to tell me something?'"

Before this interview, I'd be warned that he wouldn't talk about playing Fred West, the serial killer who, with his wife Rosemary, tortured, raped and murdered at least 12 young women and girls between 1967 and 1987. Is he contractually obliged not to talk about playing him in ITV's Appropriate Adult? "I'm not allowed to talk about it, yeah. But it's fascinating." Is that contract unusual? "The whole thing was unusual because of legalities and compliance issues, which I'd never really come across before. It was a real minefield. So it's best I don't say anything because I'm not good at negotiating minefields."

Presumably he can say what drew him to the role? "Of course, yeah. It's fascinating stuff." Why? West grins despite himself. "He was the most appalling man who ever lived. So that's a huge acting challenge."

That's as much as he'll say on the subject. A few days after this interview, though, West pops up in the Sunday Times saying he can identify with aspects of the rapist's "attitudes to sex, sexual fantasies, dark stuff". "This is very, very dangerous territory, but necessarily one has something in common," he said, adding: "My conscience said stop."

West started acting when he was nine in his mother's amateur company in Sheffield. His parents – father George, owner of a plastics factory, and housewife Moya – sent him to Eton, where he was nearly contemporary with David Cameron and Boris Johnson, who among others helped him leave those flat Yorkshire vowels and blunt idioms behind. Dave and Boris weren't the most important people he met at Eton. An inspirational drama teacher called Rafe Pane cast the teenager as Hamlet and changed his life: "He said to me: 'Of course you'll have to consider it as a profession' and I thought: 'Really? You mean I get paid to do this stuff?' He was the first guy who made me think it would be my job and that you could get paid to do something you really enjoyed.

"I remember getting pulled up short when I went to Derby city council for my grant to drama school. The man said to me: 'Now then, Dominic. It's like this. We have to make a decision to let you go to – in brackets, poncey – drama school or we buy a new fire engine.' I said: 'There's no contest. Buy the fire engine.'"

So he didn't get a grant? "I did actually because they made my course into a degree course and so they had to. So perhaps they lost the fire engine. I hope they felt their decision was justified." He puts on his best camp voice: "I do hope that no one died for my art."

Now his 12-year-old daughter Martha may follow him into his profession. She's already starred in the movie Creation as Charles Darwin's daughter Annie. "She kept bothering me. So eventually I said: 'All right if you want to see what it's like, audition for this! And then you'll see what hell my life is.' Turns out she's got real talent and who am I stand in the way of that?"

Martha is the only child he had with his former partner Polly Astor. He is now married to university sweetheart Catherine FitzGerald, the former Countess Durham.They married last year at her ancestral seat, Glin Castle on the banks of the Shannon estuary. Wasn't it dangerous getting married in Ireland shortly after having played the biggest monster in Irish history, Oliver Cromwell, in Peter Flannery's 2008 English civil war TV drama The Devil's Whore? "There were a few sticky moments when I told her parents. All her ancestors fought Cromwell in Limerick, though oddly it didn't bother Catherine. My mum was the main one who objected. She didn't talk to me for a while. My mum's parents were from Ireland, my dad's mum was American-Irish. She hated him. And she had a point: all my ancestors were murdered by that bastard, that shit. But bastards and shits are usually the most interesting characters. That's why I wind up playing them."

But we'll see a very different West on television soon. He has just finished work on a six-part series, The Hour. It is so exquisitely written by Abi Morgan, has sets so beautifully designed and the principals are so sumptuously dressed that some are already suggesting it could be the British answer to Mad Men. I have only seen the first episode, but it borrows heavily from the 1986 comedy film Broadcast News. West plays against his evil type, taking the role of a smarmy himbo of a TV anchorman in a 1950s British TV newsroom. "It's one of the best TV dramas I've been in."

What does he think of British TV drama now? "We've got the talent – actors, writers, technicians – not the money. Boardwalk Empire cost $35m (£24.6m) for the first episode. Our biggest films don't cost that much. The only problem in this country is the dough. We don't have enough."

Is that why the US remains a lure? "The only reason." If Simon approached him to play the lead in a new drama, would he jump? "When I finished The Wire I was adamant I didn't want to do episodic television, certainly for a while." He allows himself a cheeky smile. "And while that still remains the case, if David Simon asked, I don't see how I could refuse. And my kids are quite little . . . "

Does he discuss this with his wife? "We talk about nothing else. I say: 'We've got to go to America' and she's up for it. It's really Martha, my 12-year-old – I wouldn't want to be away from her."

The interview is over. West puts on his shades and struts out of the restaurant. Damn, he looks good. Diners follow him open-mouthed. I'm not close enough to see if any are actually drooling, but it wouldn't be surprising. Am I the only person in the joint who is disappointed we didn't get to have that Lawrentian wrestle? Probably.

A couple of weeks later, I go to Brighton's Theatre Royal for the first night of Butley. The production is a work in progress. West hasn't yet the commanding presence that Alan Bates had in Pinter's 1974 film version. No matter: he is clearly having fun in the role. When he taunts McGann for 20 minutes, his delivery of Gray's acidic lines repeatedly brings the house down.

As West's curtain call is cheered, I recall his answer to the question of whether there was a something of him in Butley. "What you see is all me, darling. It's such a great role because I get to do all the voices I do at home in my head. I get to be monstrously camp, which is all I want to be, and I get to be an acerbic bitch.

"My good friend Martin Hutson [who plays Joey] had a complicated dream the other night in which he was apologising to people for me running around naked. And I said: 'Obviously that's how you feel about this play, that you're apologising for Dominic West's rampant narcissism.'" Is he a rampant narcissist? "We're all narcissists – but only some of us fortunate ones get to be rampant."

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