Right now I'm midway through Season 3 of The Wire, which means that when I first sat down to talk to Dominic West, I told him straight-up not to spoil anything about the series for me. We weren't there to talk about The Wire, of course, but about John Carter, the new epic adventure in which West plays the villainous Sab Than, engaged through an arranged marriage with our heroine Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) but also hellbent on taking over Mars thanks to a slick new weapon and some ambition handed down to him by a mysterious, godlike figure (Mark Strong). Even if you've watched every single episode of The Wire it might be hard to recognize Jimmy McNulty in John Carter-- West spends most of the film in a revealing leather warrior outfit, with a deep fake tan and red tattoos to mark him as a Martian citizen. He's a long, long way from Baltimore, it's safe to say.
And yet, after a winter of blazing through The Wire on DVD, it was plenty surreal to sit down with West on a sunny patio in Arizona, where Disney had gathered the cast of John Carter for a massive press junket. I actually talked to West twice, once on camera, and below you can see our quick on-camera interview, as well as the transcript of our longer conversation. West, who just wrapped up a stint playing Iago in Othello in London (opposite his The Wire co-star Clarke Peters), talks about the nature of Sab Than's blunt, childish villainy, the slightly goofy experience of British actors on massive American films like this one, and the bachelor vacation he took out West when he wrapped filming on John Carter, even though he jokes that he told his wife they were still working hard.
Check out both interviews below, and see West in John Carter this Friday.
You and Idris Elba gave everybody such a kick watching the Golden Globes, when you guys hugged when he won the award. The internet blew up when that happened.
Did it? Oh good. It's funny at those things, as much as you want to win an award, at the time you're just desperate not to have to make a speech or a joke, so you're desperate for someone else to win. I was genuinely delighted for him. I was mad for him to win anyway, because it's rarer and rarer that we get to meet up, and I talked to him quite a lot that night, so it's always a good thing.
That opening scene of John Carter felt kind of like a new scene, because it opens with you instead of the actual title character. Was that a reshoot?
No, we shot that originally. I can't quite remember if it was in the script in that order, maybe they stuck it on. But I must have noticed when I read it, "Oh, I'm the first person to be seen." No, it was absolutely part of the original thing. The reshoots really weren't significant. Certainly from my point of view there was nothing that changed anything, it was mainly filling in things. But I was delighted that I was opening. It was my big scene!
You can get your family to come and they can just leave after that.
Yeah, like I was in Chicago and I got shot in the first two minutes, it was great, everybody could leave.
You and Mark Strong are up on that ship through a lot of the movie. Was that just you guys on the set in London, surrounded by a thousand extras?
No, there was a lot of me being on that ship, fighting hard, sweating, really earning my keep, lots of difficult choreographed moves. Then he would sweep in, in his dressing pajamas, and be God. His job was really easy. And he said it was hot inside that outfit, but who cares, it wasn't nearly as difficult as my armor. It's always so funny when you get a bunch of English actors, and there were quite a few in John Carter, let loose on an epic American project like this. We just feel so utterly inadequate. Not inadequate, but the tendency is to get very camp and stuff, and go a bit silly.
When you're out in Utah on the set, is it even more of a transition, like British actors stuck in a Western?
Yes. You just can't believe your luck being allowed to participate in this thing. We had a grew time, and I stayed on for a couple of weeks afterwards, I loved it so much. I went around Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon. I told my wife we were still working hard…
Taylor Kitsch has talked about how he killed himself physically for the role, but you're scantily dressed too. Did you go into a lot of training too?
No, I didn't. It's just brilliant design. The costume, actually you see very little of me, thank God. Except the occasional embarrassing lack of bicep. Taylor was really naked throughout in every way, and thank God he looked so good. If I had been naked there would have been no contest for Dejah's hand.
Knowing you were going to be up against this brawny guy like Taylor in this fight scene, did you feel the pressure to bulk up?
Not once I got the costume on. Once you've got that on, you feel like a superhero. It's like American football gear, it comes out in all the right places and covers all the right places. You do feel like a superhero.
And you had to do the long hours in the makeup chair, for all the red tattoos.
Yeah. I got them to agree to let me lie down on a bed. I'd get in at 6 and sleep until 8. It was great.
Had you done hardcore makeup like that before?
I did a thing called The Punisher, where I had a complete head encased in prosthetics, and that was 2 hours. That was awful. It was in Montreal, it was minus-40 and we were shooting at night. Actually we had a great time, for some reason. I was sort of used to the makeup, and this was a piece of cake compared to that.
What kind of villain is Sab Than? He doesn't really get all the good lines, like Iago or something. Where does his villainy come from?
I suppose the evil delight in destruction, which I think we can all relate to. Anyone who gets a gun in their hand gets this visceral sense of power, "I could take over the world! "That's what connects them, and that's wha tI liked about Sab Than. He's a kid in a sweets shop, getting the biggest toy and being frustrated by some authority figure that he wasn't able to use it at will. There weren't a lot of lines, there was enough situations of him being able to moan about 'Come on, let me kill everyone!"
When you get into a character like this, do you take it home with you? Or is it about getting to set and getting in costume and going from there?
I think it's that. I took it home in that I was covered in those tattoos for about 4 months, and the bed was covered in fake tan. With that character, with most characters actually, because I'm lazy and also because I"m fairly experienced, you go with your gut response to a character and your instinct with a character, which means you don't have to prepare or think too much about it.
Even playing Iago, something that's that complicated?
That was trickier because he's just so black in his outlook. Even that there's a relish or delight in his evil. But I did find him getting to me eventually. I was glad to get away. You do start giving vent to all your jealous feelings. But Sab Than, no, I didn't feel any more than I normally do that I want to kill everyone and take over the world.