You probably know him as Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, but Dominic West quietly returned to television in 2011 to play Hector Madden in the BBC America period drama The Hour. The show takes place in the late 1950s and centers around the start of a news magazine program (think 60 Minutes) just as that medium "television" was starting to catch on. As in Mad Men, the program's visual aesthetic is highly stylized, but that's where the similarities end. Instead, there's more of a Newsroom vibe, where the drama centers on telling the most important stories in the face of potential censorship. West, naturally, is front and center as the lead anchor.
We spoke with the actor, 43, about the show's new season (the debut is tonight), the terrible state of food in late-'50s Britain, and what he learned at clown school.
DETAILS: The Hour is set in the late 1950s. Is this a period you'd like to live in or are you content with the modern world?
DOMINIC WEST: Well, I like the cars and I like the suits [from that era], and that's about it. I think in contrast to America, the UK or London at that time was a pretty difficult place to be in. People were depressed. But I like the music as well. That is what was interesting about doing the show. It was a country that had a hangover from being in charge for 100 years and was absolutely at the bottom of the heap in the world. No one likes to lose their empire, as Mitt Romney would point out. You can imagine, there were a lot of widows around, a lot of ghosts, the food was absolutely dire. I know in America, you think we all eat dreadful food in England, but it was particularly dreadful then. [Laughs]
DETAILS: What was the most dreadful food one could have?
DOMINIC WEST: There's a brilliant designer on The Hour, and she designed this BBC America canteen. She has some old photographs stuck on the walls (photographs of food of the time), and my god, you can't even describe how awful it was. Spam with pineapple. The most awful crimes against cuisines ever committed.
DETAILS: The Hour takes place right as TV is gaining steam as a medium. Were there any broadcast journalists you looked to for inspiration?
DOMINIC WEST: The main one in London at that time is Richard Dimbleby. He was the superstar of current affairs. Avuncular, rather gracious. The style in those days was much more patronizing. The viewers were captive and there were at least 20 million of them for each program. The television was about entertainment and education, but with education as a public service.
DETAILS: Your character Hector likes the women and the booze, just like Jimmy McNulty did. What's the secret to playing a good, drunk philanderer?
DOMINIC WEST: It's nothing, I assure you, based on real life. I was always interested in clowns, really. I did a course with a great French clown about 20 years ago. He taught us that clowns have red noses because they're drunks. And that the moments when a clown ceases trying to be funny, and accepts that he's not funny and his life is a disaster, is when he becomes funny and lovable. That's what I feel about drunk philanderers. What's great about playing them is that there's always that moment when the mask comes off and they're revealed to be rather sad individuals. The audience has a certain affection or sympathy for them. I think that's crucial to playing a drunk philanderer.
DETAILS: Did you act and perform as a clown?
DOMINIC WEST: Not professionally. I just went to a clown school for months. I had a brilliant teacher, Felix Cayla, who after a week would tell you what your "clown" was, which was really your essence. She had this exercise; you had to go out of the room and then burst through the door and try and frighten everybody in the room. Which was obviously an absurd exercise, but it gave you a snapshot of you in your naked state. I did it and he said to me "Gorilla. You are a gorilla." It was something my brothers and sisters always said I was, so I was a bit touchy about it. I then had to walk around in a gorilla suit for the next three weeks. That was my clown. It did make people laugh. It made me feel terrible at first, but I came to terms with my simian quality.
DETAILS: What aspects of the late-fifties fashion are you drawn to the most?
DOMINIC WEST: Hair, for one. The shoes were great, the suits were great. That was sorta of the last time men looked really stylish. Women, too. I think that's partly why Mad Men is popular and why The Hour is popular. There's an elegance to the style that we've sort of lost now.
DETAILS: Do you ever dress like that?
DOMINIC WEST : I'd change at the end of the day from these beautiful bespoke suits to my shabby jeans and t-shirt and think, "God, what went wrong? What did we lose?"
DETAILS: Where do you shop these days? What do you look for in your everyday style?
DOMINIC WEST : Maybe I'm influenced by the job, but I found this brilliant tailor in London who has incredibly beautiful, heavy fabrics, that you can't get anymore. One of the nice things about suits and coats from that period is that the fabric is of high quality and density. The trouble is, they're boiling hot. I only wear them when I know I'm going to be outside or in the depths of winter.
DETAILS: What do you have planned for 2013?
DOMINIC WEST: I'm doing a documentary about the Kumbh Mela [mass Hindu pilgrimage] in India. I have a friend who hangs out in the holy land, with the Sadhus, and they're having a ceremony to induct him in a certain level of Sadhu-ness, so we're going to film that. It's the biggest festival in the world; 90 million people go. That's happening in January. Anything else depends on whether I survive that.
The Hour's Season 2 premieres on Wednesday, November 28, on BBC America. You can watch it on demand at the BBC America site. Season 1 is available on iTunes.
—Mike Ayers (@themikeayers) is a New York City-based arts and entertainment writer. He's not afraid of clowns.