David Zurawik

Dominic West - From 'The Wire' to 'The Hour' and beyond

There is certainly no shortage of outstanding leading men working in American TV drama these days. Jon Hamm, Damian Lewis and Michael C. Hall to name a few.

But it would be hard to find any whose proven range is greater than that of Dominic West, star of BBC America's "The Hour."

It extends from Detective Jimmy McNulty raging drunk in a grimy Baltimore train yard late at night in HBO's "The Wire," to Professor Henry Higgins prancing across the stage in tweeds with Eliza Doolittle in an English revival of "My Fair Lady" that opened last week.

Or, how about the distance between the Iago he played onstage alongside Clarke Peters' Othello, and the role he is signed next to deliver as Richard Burton opposite Rachel Weisz's Elizabeth Taylor in a BBC production set to film in New York?

This Wednesday, the 43-year-old West winds up a critically acclaimed second season in "The Hour" as Hector Madden, a 1950s-era BBC anchorman with an upper-class background, a noveau riche wife and a war veteran's knowledge of how dark and tenuous life can be.

One of the season's strongest arcs in this ensemble drama set backstage at a TV newsmagazine finds Madden's onscreen popularity on the rise even as his personal life takes a turn to the sordid thanks to alcohol and a relationship with a chorus girl at El Paradis, a gangster-run nightclub in Soho.

For all his triumphs onstage, "The Hour" is West's first TV series since "The Wire" ended production in Baltimore in 2007.

"'The Wire' created a lot of wonderful opportunities for me, and I stupidly turned them all down and did theater instead," West said jokingly in a telephone interview last week between performances of "My Fair Lady," which has received glowing reviews.

"Seriously, 'The Wire' is what I'm known for," he quickly added. "It was an amazing piece of good fortune that I'm associated with it, because certainly in this country, and I know in America as well, it's hugely well regarded. And so, I have an audience and a profile here and in America that I never would have had without it. It is still the thing I'm known most for, which I'm delighted about."

The feeling is mutual, according to David Simon, creator of "The Wire," who explained in an email last week how much West contributed to his landmark series.

"Beginning with a self-made audition tape that Dom sent across the Atlantic, our sense of what Jimmy McNulty could and should be was altered," Simon said. "He gave the character colors and facets that we were able to utilize for five seasons, creating a main protagonist that was highly intelligent, very angry, dryly comic and humanly flawed."

The result, Simon said, is a character that the audience came to care about in all his contradictions.

"At some points, the audience desperately wanted McNulty to be a better man than he was, and at other key moments, that same audience came to love him for being so bluntly honest and indifferent to the rules," Simon said. "Dom provided room for all of that, and he found the core of every scene we threw at him. He's a pro and among the best I've worked with."

West delivers the same kind of nuanced, complicated and even contradictory performance as Hector in "The Hour." It starts with the actor understanding not only the character but the sociology of the times in which the character would have lived.

"Hector had been at D-Day, he'd been in the war [World War II], he'd had a traumatic war record. And like that generation of people, he lived life to the fullest upon coming home -- having witnessed such horror. Very much in Season 2, that's what drives Hector. He's into wine, women and song, because he's faced death," West said.

"At the end of the '50s and beginning of the '60s in Britain, a new guard was coming in and replacing the old. And people who had not fought in the war did not have the same reverence for pre-war values. And so, Hector is bridging those two generations and trying valiantly to adapt to the new generation, although he is very much, I suppose, part of the older one."

There's also a compelling physical dimension to West's performance

As I said in my preview of Season 2, I can think of no actor outside of James Gandolfini who can use his body to capture the movement and aura of a man surrendering to physical desire like West. You could see some of it in his performance as McNulty as the detective started to feel the effects of the booze in his blood after a couple of drinks.

But what viewers of "The Hour" see as Madden takes his seat at El Paradis and loses himself in the slinky, sultry movements of the female singers and chorus-line dancers is even more dramatic. The transformation West executes is stunning as Madden goes from polished, in-control TV celebrity upon entering the club to heavy-lidded, dissolute sexual consumer rapaciously staring at the dancers.

Like Gandolfini, West has so mastered his craft that you totally believe in the reality of this man's surrender to desire. And just as Gandolfini did with Tony Soprano, West never lets his Hector Madden become one-note, totally unlikable for it.

Given his thoughtful approach to character and craft, it is not surprising that West, who directed an episode of "The Wire" in Season 5, is looking to spend more time behind the camera. And Simon thinks West has a future there.

"Dom debuted as a director on 'The Wire' and did extraordinarily well," Simon said "We asked him back on 'Treme.' ... On the second season he was slated for an episode. Prior to prep, however, he realized he had a conflict with an acting commitment in the U.K."

Simon and West almost reunited for the final season of "Treme," which is filming in New Orleans. It would have also reunited West with Wendell Pierce, who played his detective partner, Bunk Moreland, in "The Wire."

"We thought of a 'Wire' callback for the last episode of 'Treme,'" Simon says. "There was a scene in which Antoine Batiste [Pierce] has to purchase a pair of bunk beds, and we thought, why not go to the well one last time on the same joke?"

As Simon described the scene, an Ikea employee larded down with boxes would follow Batiste to his car: "Batiste expresses concern about the assembly process and the employee, face hidden under the box would reply that it's an easy build, any idiot can do it. Flatpack is settled on the roof of the car, and we turn to see employee nod assurance and walk off. Dom would have played the employee."

"I would have been playing the Ikea shop assistant, and it would have been so good," West says, laughing uproariously as he described the end of the imagined scene. "It would have been brilliant, brilliant. But I just couldn't do it unfortunately."

Brilliant is a word often used by others in talking about West's work these days. It's in the reviews of "The Hour" and his stage performances in London and Sheffield the last two years. It's also in the analyses of most people who talk about his work in "The Wire."

"When that whole ensemble cast came together in the very beginning of 'The Wire,' the first thing that occurred to me was, 'If you don't like Jimmy McNulty, it's not going to be good,'" Emmy-Award-winning casting director Pat Moran said last week.

"We had to give a damn about what happened to him. And had it not been a guy as charming and an actor as outstanding as Dominic West, it would not quite have been the great show that it was. We had to feel he was a lovable loser, a lovable cad. He wasn't quite an anti-hero, but he did some stuff, if you will recall. It was a tricky, tricky role, and he pulled it off. He was spot on. Dominic West is a brilliant actor."

"The Hour": The second season concludes at 9 p.m. Wednesday on BBC America.

BONUS SIDEBAR: West on choosing the right accent for McNulty

One of the many acting choices that led to Baltimore Police Detective Jimmy McNulty becoming the kind of character viewers could believe in involved the way he spoke.

Despite living in Baltimore six months a year for the five years that "The Wire" filmed here and being praised by some critics for his Baltimore "accent," West says he never could get the dialect quite right -- and so, never tried to do one as McNulty.

"I could never do a Baltimore accent -- I mean, a proper one," he said. "'You goin' down the ocean, hon?' I could never do that. I mean, I wanted to, but I could never quite do it right. And so, David Simon said, 'Absolutely not. You mustn't do it.' So, I did a sort of general East Coast accent."

When asked how he learned to sound American in "The Wire" and why he thinks British actors like he and Damian Lewis, of "Homeland," are so much better at American accents than U.S. actors are at sounding British, West said he believes it's cultural.

"Part of the reason is that unlike Americans, we Brits grow up on American TV," he explained. "We watch a helluva a lot of American TV and listen to a huge amount of American music. So, there's a huge amount of American culture in our lives - and we hear the accent from a very early age." Also, he added, most Americans are not as attuned to listen for social class differences and regional nuances in accents as people in the U.K. are.

"So, I think you forgive a lot in America," he said. "If you watch Mel Gibson in some of his early films, it's amazing anyone believed he was American. I think Americans are quite forgiving in that way, partly because they possibly don't realize how much English or Australian hasn't been washed out of the accent."


Hometown: Sheffield, Yorkshire, England

Education: B.A. Trinity College Dublin, Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London

Family: Married, father of four -- two daughters and two sons