English actor Dominic West has acquired a legion of fans for the variety of roles he’s played in such films as “300” and “Chicago,” plus TV series like “The Wire” and the made-for-television movie, “Burton and Taylor,” playing Richard Burton opposite Helena Bonham-Carter’s Elizabeth Taylor.
Now he portrays another real-life personality in “Pride” (opening Friday), playing Jonathan Blake, a gay man who was part of a group of gay and lesbian activitists who made headlines in 1984 for joining the anti-government fight by striking British miners opposed to the repressive policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In a phone interview with West on Wednesday, the straight actor and father of four reflected on playing a gay character.
“I know I’ve likely played gay men in the past, but the one that stands out for me was being in ‘Design for Living’ on Broadway. I remember that I had to [romance] Alan Cumming for four months in that role. That’s about as gay as it gets,” laughed West, recalling his acting with the openly gay Cumming.
However, while the English star admitted he would have loved to have camped it up and “really played a flaming queen” in “Pride,” that simply would not have done justice to the persona of the real-life man he was playing on screen.
Jonathan Blake is simply “not the flaming queen type,” said West. “That wouldn’t have been appropriate.”
The actor was happy he was able to get to meet Blake and spend some time with him to get a sense of what his life has been like — not just at the time of the strike, when he and his colleagues organized Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners. As we learn in the film, Blake was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid-1980s and has been living with it ever since.
“He’s a really lovely man,” said West. “He lives in London and he invited me to tea, and I had some cake that he had baked. He showed me his garden and we had a good, long talk.”
For West the key thing was getting to understand what Blake has gone through. “He is a remarkable man who has lived with this death sentence hanging over him since those days. I talked to him a lot about his treatment for HIV and the initial discovery that he was HIV-positive, and the only reason he’s still alive is that he didn’t take the medicines which were being given in those days — which killed everybody pretty much.
“They didn’t die of AIDS, they died of the medications. That was a shocking thing for me to hear. Just trying to get into the mind of someone who is dealing with that sort of death sentence was pretty extraordinary. It was real eye-opener for me. He’s an incredibly courageous man, as many men like him are and were,” added West.
Though that historic British mineworkers strike happened when West was 12 years old, the actor remembers it very clearly. He grew up in Sheffield, in the north of England, the city that was the headquarters of the coal miners union behind the strike.
“So,I was very much aware of it. It was constantly being discussed by everyone. … Then I went down to school in the south of England, to Eton. While I was there, I was in a big debate organized to discuss the strike. I was debating a guy who’s now a member of Parliament, Jacob Rees-Mogg. It was all about the miners and whether they had the right to strike.
“Thank God, I was on the right side,” said West with a very satisfied chuckle. “I was debating that indeed they had that right. But Eton is a very posh and conservative school, so needless to say I lost that debate quite considerably. At least now I’m on the right side of history!”
The actor believes that releasing “Pride” now — and revisiting that time period — is important. “You forget how very recent all this took place, and how the attitudes were back then in the 1980s — about both the gays and the miners.
“But from the gay point of view, it’s amazing. You forget that the newspapers, for instance, were able to write articles like the one quoted in the film, that were so homophobic and so anti-workingmen’s rights. Those kinds of articles, I believe, would be illegal today.
“Plus, you have to remember how the gays were persecuted — and we’re only talking about some 30 years ago. It was only a short time ago in the U.K. that gays … were terribly persecuted and berated.”
For West, his most memorable moment in “Pride” was when his character performed a wild dance in the Welsh village hall filled with miners, their wives and families. It’s a key breakthrough moment in the movie that illustrates how a number of initially reluctant mining families come to accept the gays and their offer to help raise money for the cause.
“That dance will haunt me forever,” said West. “But frankly, it was one of the reasons I wanted to do the film. I really worked quite hard on that. I did two months of training for it, because I’m not a very good dancer. So that was a pretty big deal for me.”
There’s also a sidebar story to West’s big dance scene in “Pride.” This past summer he rented a house on New York’s Long Island in the Hamptons in order to bring his wife and family over while he filmed the new TV series “The Affair.”
As it turned out, “the house we rented was right next door to [famous Vogue magazine editor] Anna Wintour. She organizes a kind of summer camp there for kids — her nephews and other friends’ children and the like. So my kids were able to join in with them, too.
“But, as is usually the case, you have to sing for your supper, so to speak. Anna had seen the film and she made me do the bloody dance from ‘Pride’ in front of everybody,” said West with a big laugh.
Speaking of “The Affair,” which West is excited for audiences to see, that filming was “very exhausting,” from the actor’s point of view. “However, I’m really happy with it, especially because they have written it in such a way to allow the storylines room to breathe, if you will. That is something that is very unusual in television in particular these days.”
Naturally, we couldn’t talk to West without bringing up “The Wire,” his former crime drama series that has grown to a kind of cult status among its many fans.
“It’s great that people still come up to me and tell me they’ve just discovered it, and that’s seven or eight years after we wrapped that series. I’ve never worked on anything that has had such a long shelf life, or such ‘legs.’
“The older it gets, the more respect it seems to get.”
West said that back when they were originally filming “The Wire,” they knew it was a quality project and was built on strong writing, “but not many people were watching it. Now a lot of people have seen it.”
West credits the ongoing popularity of “The Wire” to the advent of boxed sets of TV series being released, so the public can sit down and watch a show whenever they want.
“That change in viewing habits has led to a new ‘Golden Age’ for television, in my opinion. Of course, now you have immediate access on things like Netflix, too, but those box sets were key — and ‘The Wire’ was one of the first shows to capitalize on it.”
Along with “The Affair” (debuting Sunday on Showtime), West is also preparing to play Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway in “Genius,” the new film about Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at Scribner’s for such writers as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. The film is based on A. Scott Berg’s award-winning biography of Perkins.
“I haven’t read his book yet, I better get on that,” said West, who then asked me to do a Chicago accent for him. I did it, but don’t really know if that will match Hemingway’s!