Interview: Dominic West
West plays Sab Than, the king of Zodanga, in John Carter, an epic fantasy, directed by Wall-E’s Andrew Stanton which makes full use of computer-generated special effects. The film is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1917 classic, A Princess Of Mars, the first novel in the Barsoom series.
He explains: “We’re acting alongside a tennis ball and Andrew says, ‘It’s a spaceship coming out of the sky firing at you, then it’s going to explode, kill everyone you’ve ever known and you just react to that. OK? Go!’ For some reason, what’s etched in my mind is this close-up shot of Patrick Swayze in Ghost, when he reacts to seeing a ghost. It’s so awful, I’ve remembered it for the last 20-odd years.
“So there’s always this little voice going, ‘Don’t do a Patrick Swayze’ I just about got away with it, I think. There’s one shot in this film where I think, ‘Oh dear, so near Patrick’ – God rest his soul.”
With his cut-glass accent and matinee idol looks, 42-year-old West was born to be a leading man. Whether it’s period drama such as The Hour, gritty thriller The Wire or Shakespeare, the Sheffield-born actor can charm his way out of any situation or dilemma. But for his latest role, West, who most recently portrayed serial killer Fred West in the ITV drama Appropriate Adult, readily reveals he felt out of his depth.
“I haven’t done many action movies. Most of my work tends to be language-based because I do a lot of theatre, so I was very attracted to the idea of immersing myself in an almost completely action role,” he says. “We did about four weeks of pretty intense fight training, because I had to get the style of the Zodangan sword-fighting down. I’m not a particularly good fighter and I got through countless wooden swords.”
As the calculated tribe leader, the father-of-four had to grapple with Canadian heart-throb Taylor Kitsch, who portrayed the titular John Carter. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Burroughs’s character, considered to be the first space hero and the inspiration behind other science fiction hits such as Superman, Avatar and Star Wars.
Set on Barsoom (Burroughs’s word for Mars), the story focuses on Carter, an American Civil War soldier who is transported to the red planet. His apparent superpowers, caused by the change in gravity, immediately make him a powerful asset to the four tribes that live on Mars: the warring Red Men of Zodanga and Helium, the savage Tharks and the mysterious and all-powerful Therns.
“I hadn’t read the books and I hadn’t heard of John Carter but I don’t get out much so that’s not unusual,” jokes West. “The first I heard of it was at the audition, when Andrew spent an hour talking me through the drawings, animation and story. There was even an animated picture of my character. It didn’t look anything like me. It looked quite a lot like Rupert Everett.”
Arrogant and aggressive, Sab Than wants to destroy Helium so he can rule over Barsoom. But he is being controlled by the king of the Therns, Matai Shang (Mark Strong).
“It’s very liberating to play someone who is absolutely amoral and doesn’t care about suffering or death and merely wants what my two-year-old son wants, which is world domination and to be in charge,” says West, who was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Dublin.
John Carter marks the actor’s return to Hollywood, four years after his highly praised turn as Detective Jimmy McNulty in HBO series The Wire. The police drama, which ran for six years and was filmed in Baltimore, propelled both him and British co-star Idris Elba into the limelight. Last year West appeared with fellow Wire actor Clarke Peters in Othello at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
“I’m based in London, although it might look like I’m in the US all the time. I get to come to America two or three times a year, and I suppose I always try and find a way of moving back,” he adds, laughing. “America is the land of opportunity.”
As more Brits head across the pond, West – who is currently filming the second series of The Hour – reckons it’s time to embrace the best of British. “Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant – we’ve always been going to America. I don’t think you can have an American TV series without a Brit in it,” he says. “It is a good time to be a Brit actor. I think we’re probably good value for money or something.”
John Carter is on general release from March 9.
Bringing Martian Wars To Earth
Taylor Kitsch did almost all of his own stunt work on John Carter – including a 250ft jump into the Martian wilderness.
No less than 383 yards of material were used for just one of Matai Shang’s silver Thern robes, and it took about 250 hours to make by hand.
John Carter was filmed in the UK and Utah, which was chosen for its similarity to the desert landscape of the red planet.
During the Utah filming, crew members found a large bone protruding out of the ground which was later confirmed to be from a dinosaur skeleton.