It’s been six long years since we’ve seen Dominic West’s cocksure cop McNulty patrolling the mean streets of Baltimore. The British actor returns Stateside in Showtime’s The Affair, an intimate relationship drama told from his-and-hers perspectives. West talked to us about his new show’s connection to The Wire and how he got into disco.
You’re back doing U.S. television.
Taking work from honest, hardworking Americans.
I’d read you’d turned down a role in Game of Thrones a couple of years ago because it would have taken you away from your kids. But you changed your mind for The Affair?
Well, my family got sick of me and said, “Please go. Please go and bring back money.” No, I got it worked out quite well with this because it shoots over the summer, so I’ve got my family here with me. That’s the short answer.
Any regrets about not taking Game of Thrones?
I don’t know the part I gave up, actually. Do you?
The speculation online was you were going to be Mance Rayder.
Is he cool?
He’s this feral warlord type. Lives in perpetual winter.
Wow, I’m glad I dodged that one, then [laughs]. Winter! That’s what I’m trying to get away from. I’m from England. Why the hell would I want to do that?
In your last show The Hour and in The Wire, you were a boozy philanderer. In The Affair, obviously, you cheat, but not drunkenly so far.
No, this time I’m not a drunk. I don’t really know what to do with myself now! [Laughs]. And actually, I’m not really a philanderer this time. My character, Noah, falls in love with a girl, and he’s married. He’s a very good dad and a very good husband, and that’s what makes the drama more interesting.
The Affair is told Rashomon style, so we see different portrayals of Noah. Does it feel like you’re playing two different characters?
In a way, yeah, I do. Two different perspectives allow you to play, at the very least, two extremes of your character. There’s a scene where I meet Ruth Wilson’s character, Allison, and she sees me as sort of a swaggering, confident lothario, and my character remembers being timid and rather passive. I get to play both. The tendency is to get locked into a role. You underestimate the range that every one of us has in our character. The way this show is written explores that range.
There’s also a mystery-crime element. It plays a little like True Detective, where you’re both telling slightly different versions of the same story.
The messing with perspective thing is everywhere now. It seems to be in the water or something. They’re going to play around quite a lot with perspective, and the crime element gives it a motor. You’ve got a detective trying to work out the truth from two greatly different perspectives.
Both you and Ruth Wilson, best known as Luther’s saucy serial killer Alice Morgan, are British. Do all British actors just have an American accent in their back pocket?
No, no, no. It’s constantly, ludicrously funny. I always found on The Wire that whenever we got an English director, which we did occasionally, my American accent would suffer a lot. Now there’s Ruth and me, and we’re — you know, I think our accents are just terrible.
They’re really not.
We’ll fix them, but in acting, what you get a lot of is impostor syndrome. I certainly got it as McNulty, running around with a gun and pretending to be a cop and thinking, I’m a middle-class actor from Sheffield. What am I doing here in Baltimore?
Can we talk about Ruth’s lips? She’s got a natural snarl I’m obsessed with.
We’re all obsessed. And her eyes are even more amazing. They change color. Sometimes they’re bright blue, and sometimes they’re bright green. I’m not sure she’s entirely human.
Have you traded stories about Idris Elba? Luther to her, Stringer Bell to you.
Have you seen the photos online?
He’s been photographed on a set and there’s a question as to what the thing in his trousers is.
Oh, those photos. Somewhere, Jon Hamm is cheering that it’s not him this time.
I think he said on Twitter it was a microphone [Editor’s note: Elba said it was a mike wire], but our sound girl on The Affair was pouring over this photo all night and has pronounced that there’s no microphone that looks like that.
Well, okay then! So you and Ruth have it settled.
Oh, yeah, we were literally looking at it just now. We both tried valiantly to pursue what was in his trousers.
John Doman, who played your hard-driving boss Rawls on The Wire, is playing your father-in-law on The Affair — and he still hates you!
Every scene we do, I think he’s gonna put up his [middle] fingers up and go, [to quote one of Rawls’s great lines], “This one over here is going up your narrow fuckin’ Irish ass.”
Do people quote McNulty to you?
“What the fuck did I do?” Yeah, yeah. Quite a lot. When we were shooting it, no one was really watching it, certainly not in the U.K. Now almost every day someone tells me they love The Wire.
You also play a failed actor in Pride, the true story of a group of gay activists who set out to help striking miners in the ‘80s. It premiered in Cannes and is out this month. Word is your big dance sequence is pretty impressive.
The main appeal of the role was I get this three-minute disco dance. I worked pretty hard at it for at least three months. I had a vision of myself as John Travolta, really, so when I saw the film, it was mildly disappointing. [Laughs]. I’m a bit over the hill now. I walked to the South Pole just before Christmas with a bunch of wounded soldiers for charity. One of them asked me, “What training have you been doing?” and I said, “I’ve been doing a bit of yoga, but mainly I’ve been doing disco,” and he just looked at me with this look of astonishment and regret.
You don’t hear about disco that much anymore.
But it worked! I’m telling you, I got really ripped doing that bloody disco.