With his portrayal of hard-drinking, womanizing detective Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, British actor Dominic West established himself as something of a charming rogue. In his new film, West goes fully dark as real-life serial killer Fred West (no relation). Appropriate Adult, which airs on the Sundance Channel on Dec. 10, recounts the 1994 investigation of Fred and his wife Rosemary, who were charged with torturing and murdering 11 women and girls in and around their Gloucester, England, home. With Emily Watson in the role of the “appropriate adult” — the title for the social worker assigned to the case — the film focuses on the unlikely bond she forms with the murderer. It’s grim stuff, yet Dominic’s performance is enthralling. He spoke to TIME about getting inside the mind of a killer, being the bad guy and why he wouldn’t mind if McNulty were mentioned on his gravestone.
The account of Fred and Rosemary West’s crimes is one of the most gruesome stories I’ve ever come across. Yet your rendering of Fred showed how charismatic he could be as well. Is duality something you look for in a character?
Well, I suppose that’s where the dramatic tension comes from, isn’t it? By any account, Fred [was charismatic], and any pictures you see of the police with him, they’re usually laughing and smiling. And he was likable and he was funny and he had a certain charm, which belied his monstrous qualities. And, of course, that’s interesting to play. It makes it all the more complex and dramatic.
Would you have thought twice if it’d been a different sort of script — one that depicted the actual crimes rather than the investigation?
I think definitely, yes. I mean, it all depends on the writing, but it’s not his story. It doesn’t go into his crimes any more than to illuminate his ability to manipulate and to destroy the life of the appropriate adult. There was quite a lot of controversy in the papers [in Britain] before anyone saw the film, and I suppose people had very legitimate concerns. There are people who are still alive, whose lives have been ruined by this man, and the concerns were that if it ever ventured into the territory of horror or pornography or sensationalism it would have been morally wrong to do. But I think that the fact it didn’t, that it was centered on [Emily Watson’s character] and West’s effect on her, made it an acceptable thing to do.
There’s quite a bit of black humor in the film, which was a surprise. I would laugh out loud and then feel guilty immediately after. Was that a hard balance to strike, describing horrific crimes with just a bit of ridiculousness?
It wasn’t in the acting. It was all in what he was saying. What I say in the film is pretty much verbatim what he said in the real police interviews. The humor comes from the chasm, his failure to connect. So there was no difference for him from putting out a sack of trash and putting out the remains of his daughter. He just was not able to see that they were morally different things. It was an extraordinary psychology. Inevitably it led to humor in terms of his flippancy, in terms of things that were horrendously serious.
Many of the characters you’ve played are dishonorable, if not outright evil. Do you ever worry you’re being typecast?
Damn right, I do! All I seem to play is bloody villains! [Laughs] I’m dying to play a hero. The difficulty with villains is that they’re usually more interesting to play and they’re usually funnier. Of course, you have to be careful when talking about Fred West in those terms, but [villains’] complexities tend to be more challenging and, therefore, more interesting. But I’ve got to go out now and play a nice guy. I think inevitably you start thinking, Why do people think I’m so appropriate to play these parts?
Is it giving you a complex?
Yeah, a little bit! I think it must be some weird look I’ve got in my eye, but I’m actually quite a nice person.
I wanted to ask you about your accent. To my ear, both your Gloucester accent and your American accent were pitch-perfect. How much effort do you have to put into your accents?
Well, sometimes accents give you the character and therefore when you put on the accent, you get into the character. I found that very much with Fred West. I also had these false teeth and you feel very different wearing them. It was much easier talking in the Gloucester accent when I was wearing those teeth. With the Baltimore accent, it was always a struggle. It was a hard slog, that one, trying to get that right.
You know I’m going to have to ask you about The Wire now, right?
Oh, of course.
How tired are you of questions about Jimmy McNulty?
Well, I always like talking about The Wire because it was such a great experience for me and I’m so fond of what we did, but … actually, I was just talking to someone about this, because it’s the show’s 10th anniversary, and I said that after 10 years, it’s about time that I shut up about it. [Laughs]
Is it a concern that you might always be best remembered for McNulty?
No, no, that’s never a concern. I think it’s a great piece of work and I’m very proud to have been in it. It would be a problem if people only identified me as a Baltimore cop, but I don’t think they do anymore. No, I’m proud. If that was written on my gravestone — that, and “He was a good dad” — it would do me fine.
The online magazine Slate recently dubbed The Wire as television’s modern classic — the show that’s most likely to endure. Do you agree?
Great! Of course I do. I don’t know, I don’t watch a lot of telly, but its impact and people’s affection for it is certainly undiminished after 10 years. Particularly in the U.K., I still have people coming up to me. It seems to be enduring.
What’s next for you?
I start next week on the second season of the BBC series The Hour. I do that all winter and then John Carter, which is a big Disney film, comes out. And I play the baddy in that.