Much like Matthew Weiner's Mad Men, Abi Morgan's BBC America smash The Hour focuses on the past to create drama that resonates in the present. The show, entering its second season on BBC America tonight at 9 p.m., follows the inner workings of a TV news program in late-1950s England.
Fans of The Wire will recognize Dominic West, who played Jimmy McNulty on the beloved HBO series. With The Hour, the English actor is playing another charmer with a fondness for drinking, a knack for pissing off the people around him, and a habit of not making it home in time for dinner. Sound familiar? Only this time, instead of being a knocko, he's a news anchor.
Complex connected with West to discuss the new season of The Hour. And, of course, we asked some questions about The Wire, too. How could we not?
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
I’m interested in the popularity of shows like The Hour, and Mad Men here in America, shows that look backward to critical periods in history. How do you explain the popularity of those shows? What do you think is the usefulness of that perspective?
Certainly in this country, the '50s were a period of austerity, the hangover after the war. Maybe we identify with that now, in terms of austerity. Because of the financial crash and the insecurity people feel with their jobs and lives, we’re attracted to a time that felt similarly. We get nostalgic and want to look backward, rather than forward, and maybe dream of a more codified society. We become more right wing, basically.
Right. And problematically so, wouldn’t you say?
Well, certainly in this country, we’ve seen revolutions in terms of class and in terms of opportunity. The country is run by old Etonians, and I’m one myself, so I have no reason to complain, but I think that there are progressive times when people are confident, and there are times when people aren’t confident. When that’s the case they look back with nostalgia to an age which we consider to have had a simpler code of manners.
With these shows, it seems that you look back to illuminate the present. More than nostalgia, you look back to learn a sort of lesson.
Right. So what have learned? What are we learning?
I think the shows work best when they don't let the viewer pat themselves on the back and think, "Oh, we've come so far."
I think that’s good. I suppose we took what we learned from the ‘50s and brought it into the '60s, which were, in my mind, a great time. A time of cultural revolution, certainly in London, and in the U.S. Maybe that’s what we’ve got to look forward to. I’m hoping that’s what we’ve got to look forward to now, instead of annihilation, which was something bothering people in the ‘50s. The prospect of atomic annihilation.
I always felt slightly unconvinced by my portrayal of McNulty. I didn't at all feel that I had the measure of him.
How long will The Hour run for? How far through time will the show take us?
I don’t know. I was contracted for two seasons, and so were the other main characters, so we’ll see how it goes. Romola Garai is having a baby, so that will take her a bit out of action.
But it’s a good format. It could go on indefinitely. With this format, Abi Morgan can choose to have the story pick up wherever she likes, and of course, we’re getting near the '60s, and there are rich pickings there in terms of torrid affairs and news. What’s great about The Hour is that it’s able to draw on the critical and social events to illuminate the personal drama. So, really, it can go on indefinitely.
The trend in television is to not have shows run indefinitely. Do you think that trend makes for better art?
It’s a balancing act, really. In America, the reason there have been so many great dramas in the last 10 or so years—something that hasn't really been happening in England—is that if you sign up for a show, you sign up for five or six seasons, which gives the writer the sort of security necessary to develop their themes and story arcs. Writers in England can't do that as much, because actors don’t sign up for that long.
From an actor’s point of view, I much prefer the short term. One of the joys of acting is you do something for a finite amount of time and move one. I’m not sure if that makes for better drama, but I’m sure every show, from the most successful to the least successful, has a life span, just like we all do, and the important thing is to not overstay your welcome.
What do you see as the fundamental difference between acting on television and stage acting?
The actor has more control on the stage. You come in, you do your thing, and you know you’re in charge of how the performance goes, and how the relationship with the audience develops. In television and film, that’s all in someone else’s hands; it’s in the editor’s hands, or the director’s hands, or the producer’s hands.
That’s what I like about theater: Practically speaking, you’re not waiting around for someone to do their stuff. One of the difficulties I find with episodic television is that there’s an awful lot of sitting around and getting bored, and then you have a very intense scene where you have to be very focused. It's a difficult discipline to master.
Have you ever had moments where you’ll see the final product, whether it’s a feature film or an episode of television, and you’re surprised by your performance?
Absolutely. Usually, you’re pleasantly surprised, because the editor's doing their job and making sure the viewer is only seeing the best bits. Rarely, when working on TV or on a film, do you have an idea of how the whole thing is going to look, how it’s going to come together. You only see the world from you’re little window, so it’s always a surprise. Usually a pleasant surprise.
Have you had any bad surprises?
All the time. Less so recently, more often earlier in my career.
Anything stand out in particular?
I have too many to mention. I’ve made some terrible films, and I’ve been involved in some bad television, but that’s the nature of starting out in your career.
I’ve made some terrible films, and I’ve been involved in some bad television, but that’s the nature of starting out in your career.
Doing The Wire for as many seasons as you did, did you start to become antsy near the end of that experience?
Absolutely. That’s the longest thing I’ve done. Of course, it was with brilliant writing and great fellow actors and directors. That's as good as it gets. But in a fairly long-running TV show like that, it becomes like a nine-to-five. There’s a certain drudgery after a while. Even more so when you're doing something that isn't of the quality of The Hour or The Wire. I’m usually very pleased to move on.
With that being the longest project that you’ve undertaken, do you feel like you had a deeper understanding of your character? Did you know McNulty better?
No, I don’t think I did. But with McNulty it was different, because I always felt slightly like I didn’t have a grasp on the character, or that I was going to get found out that I was a bit of an impostor. Probably because I was playing an American cop. I always felt slightly unconvinced by my portrayal of McNulty. I didn't at all feel that I had the measure of him. With much shorter-running shows and performances that I’ve done, I felt that I had a closer handle on the character than I did with Jimmy McNulty. But that’s often a good thing. Very often, if you’re not very comfortable, or you’re slightly on the edge with a performance, that makes for a better performance.
What was the most uncomfortable moment you had playing McNulty?
There was a moment that the bastard director kept in where we do a raid on someone’s house, or a drug den maybe, and we had to batter down the door and run into this drug house. I battered down the door with, I think, Domenick Lombardozzi or some other cop character, and I fell flat on my face when the door came in. Everyone laughed. I didn’t think it would make it to the final cut, but of course it did. It’s in there, somewhere, McNulty bashing the door in, running in, and falling flat on his face. There are moments like that where you think, “Oh God, he’s obviously an actor and not a cop.” It's not like most cops fall over.
Interview by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)