Q&A: Dominic West discusses his disturbing role in 'Appropriate Adult'
There's no resemblance to the handsome aristocrat on BBC's "The Hour," nor to the wise-cracking Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty on "The Wire." But in Sundance Channel's 'Appropriate Adult," Dominic West is just as charming (albeit, disturbingly so) as notorious British serial killer Fred West.
The film, which premieres on the cable network on Saturday, looks at the Cromwell Street murders — at least 12 young women and girls killed by West (and his wife Rosemary West); one of the biggest police investigations in British history--by examining the unusual relationship between West and Janet Leach, his "appropriate adult," a role in the United Kingdom legal system meant to safeguard the rights of young people and vulnerable adults in police custody.
Showtracker spoke to Dominic about inhabiting the dark role, below. For more on "Appropriate Adult," check out our feature.
Talk about your involvement with this project. Was there any hesitation on your part given the subject matter?
It’s a very famous case in the UK—I remember it very well. It went on for several weeks, the investigation. Every night, I remember the news bulletins discovered another body in the garden and stuff. When I heard they were making a film about it, I felt in common with a lot of the press and the public here that it was a very risky thing to do in terms of exploiting the grief of the families who are still around. It was really only once I read the script that I thought that it was a sufficiently respectful and interesting angle to approach the story from. I think it turned out quite well.
What were the challenges in approaching this character? Fred doesn't really seem like someone who is easy to identify with--or was he, in a way?
Hmm, let me see how I want to put this--I don’t think you ever identify with people like that. I once played Iago, another sort of devil. They're roles you don’t identify with, but you do, I suppose, get into their head a little bit. The advantage of playing Fred West is there are over 100 interviews on tape that you can hear. You don’t normally get that with a character. I was fairly sure I could understand what his thinking was and the makeup of his mind listening to 60-70 hours of his interviews. In that way, you get under their skin a little bit. Though, with him, it was something I was very conscious of-–maintaining a certain detachment from. I suppose in all parts you play there’s an element where you submerge yourself in their character but still remain detached and objective about the character. I was very clear to keep that distinction and keep that detachment. He messed with everyone’s heads—including his biographers, a lot of whom had breakdowns. I was pretty wary about getting in too deep. I was determined not to let him get to me.
Was it weird for you to see how similar you looked? The resemblance is quite shocking.
To be honest, I wouldn’t be the best judge of that. I was worried that I didn’t look enough like him. Or that I wasn’t convincing enough. In his physicality, I’m quite similar to him. It was a concern, obviously, that I wasn’t enough like him. That was my biggest worry.
What were things like off set between you and Emily? How do you sort of develop a rapport when the subject matter is so dark? Were you mostly in character during the breaks on set?
We were initially. We rehearsed a lot in the beginning. While we were both finding our way, we did stay in character. But when we were shooting, it was something we sort of put on and off, at least for me. I had fake teeth—as soon as I put them in, I felt like I was him. As soon as I took them out, I felt completely detached. It didn’t require to be in character all the time. The more we filmed, the more I could switch him on and off. Really, I suppose—and it sounds awkward to say—but it’s nevertheless true: when dealing with these kind of subjects, Gallows humor takes over. That was one way of dealing with the horror--you tend to find the humor in it. There are lots of photographs of him with police—he was quite charming—but the police are often laughing and smiling—I think part of that is the material is so horrendous and inevitably there is a gap. There was a disconnect for him ... He's talking about chopping up his daughter like chopping wood or putting the trash out. The gap between reality of what he’s saying and how he says it is often quite comedic. And so off set, that was our way of releasing the pressure of the seriousness and horror of the mood of the subject matter. The mood was light and in a way it had to be.
You mentioned earlier having reservations about the movie. What changed your mind?
I think because it was her story and her perspective, it became a film that explored the nature of evil and depravity and how it affects us. I think that’s a very important function of drama, is to explore the darker side of human nature. She enabled us to be at one removed and to have some perspective of him. Had it been about him and his point-of-view, it’s essentially pornogpray or horror. For a drama to be useful, there has to be redemption, or a sense of normality restored in the air. I think if it had been a film about him or centered on him, there’d be very little to justify.
Janet was one of his victims. She sat in one these hundreds of hours of interviews, then her job was over. But it really wasn’t. She then continued to visit him in prison and do his laundry and things like that. Which is pretty shocking really. But she was just so fascinated by him. But I also think she felt she could elicit confessions and information from him that would help the police and victims families. I think she had noble and not entirely unrealistic hopes that because she became his confessor and the person he trusted, she felt she could get from him information that nobody else could. And, in fact, as it turned out, that turned out not to be the case. I’ve been to a few prisons because of this little show I was on called "The Wire." And what struck me most about the more serious criminals I met, was how manipulative they are and how they take advantage of your best intentions—and I think that’s what happened to her.
To be fair to her, although she didn’t get a confession out of him, she was the reason that Rose West was convicted.
What would you say was the most challenging aspect of making the film?
I suppose the danger of making him too sympathetic. Inevitably when you're acting a part, you sort of take their side. You give them the benefit of the doubt. You sympathize with them. The challenging thing to keep in mind the whole time was that he was not of sound mind. There’s a large part of his psyche that I could never understand or identify with in any way. There was a challenge in trying to remember there was that gap. For a normal person, to speak his words is not the same as listening to him speak his words because of the nature of his depravity. I sometimes felt myself acting him with a heart and a warmth that I don’t think he had. I had to be pretty vigilant about that.
And you met with Janet, right? What was your impression of her?
Yes, I met her and obviously Emily did. She was interviewed at length by the producers. She came on set once but I think she found it very traumatic. She was warm-hearted but obviously damaged. I got the sense that she was a woman who had spent her life caring for damaged people and trying to help damaged people and had received quite a few knocks in the process. Fred ruined her life. She said to me, 'I’m hoping this film will draw a line under it for me and help me to move on.' In some ways, I think it did. There was catharsis for her with this film. I think that’s another function of drama when it's done right.
Photo: (top) Emily Watson, left, as Janet Leach and Dominic West, center, as Fred West in the Sundance Channel original movie "Appropriate Adult." (middle) Watson and West in another scene from 'Aprropriate Adult.' Credit: Justin Slee