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Dominic Monaghan on working with Wild Things' “beautiful, gentle spiders”
By Will Harris / January 29, 2013
Dominic Monaghan seems to be doing his best to keep his career interesting. After spending three films as a Hobbit (Meriadoc Brandybuck) in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, then shifting to the small screen and serving as part of the ensemble of two TV series (Lost and FlashForward), Monaghan is continuing to act as the opportunities arrive, but now he’ll also be hosting his very own nature show, Wild Things With Dominic Monaghan, on BBC America. The A.V. Club talked to Monaghan about the origins of his fascination with spiders, snakes, lizards, and the like while also delving into his back catalog as an actor.
The A.V. Club: When did you first develop your love of small but dangerous animals?
Dominic Monaghan: Well, I kept lizards from a young age, which are not that dangerous, but that got me very close to snakes. So probably from about the age of 8, I was interested in snakes. My brother and I were both interested in snakes. I’m a big fan of the misunderstood, the vilified, the underdog, the breaking of myths. And those type of animals have a lot of myths attached to them—bats, snakes, spiders, wasps, and bees and stuff—and I just thought it wasn’t fair people thought one thing when it was clearly true that something else was going on. So certainly by the age of 8 or 9, as well as liking other animals like koala bears and dogs and cats and horses and stuff, I’d started to really get interested in slightly weirder ones.
AVC: How close in time was that to when you decided that you had an interest in acting?
DM: Around the same time, really. I saw Star Wars—well, I actually saw The Empire Strikes Back first, when I was probably 8, and then the week after that, I saw Star Wars. And once I saw Raiders Of The Lost Ark and connected Harrison Ford with Han Solo and Indiana Jones, I became very curious about what it meant to be an actor. So I think probably around about the age of 9 or 10, when I knew it was a job, I got pretty serious about it. I played Joseph in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when I was 7, and my parents were told by my teachers, “You know, he’s interested in this.” All the other kids kind of stood on the stage. [Monotone voice.] “I am a farmer and I have a goat, and I’m going this way.” [Laughs.] Whereas they’re like, “Dom’s asking questions like, ‘Why am I saying this? And who’s this person? And how do I do this and do that?’” They found that I was enthusiastic about it. I was always interested in and working in school plays.
AVC: Was there a particular point when you realized that you were doing this as a career rather than just a hobby?
DM: You mean acting? Well, I played the Artful Dodger [in Oliver Twist] when I was 13. I think around the age of 11 or 12 I thought, “I’m into this,” but when I played the Artful Dodger, people really seemed to respond to it, and I remember thinking, “There’s nothing else that I’m able to enjoy as much as this, and there’s nothing else that gets the same reaction from people as this.” I was an enthusiastic soccer player when I was a kid, but I wasn’t as good as my best friend. My best friend was much better. But when I acted, I remember thinking, “No one’s as into this as I am, and no one wants it as much as I do.” So I think once I played the Artful Dodger, I thought, “I think I’ll give this a pretty good crack.”
AVC: Over the course of giving it a crack, you’ve managed to star in one of the biggest movie trilogies of all time as well as a hugely popular TV series. What made you shift gears and say, “I think I’ll be a nature-show host now”? It seems like somewhat of an odd left turn.
DM: Yeah, although if you know me, probably not that much of an odd left turn. [Laughs.] But from your point of view, sure, like, “What? I thought he was an actor. Now he’s doing this?” I am, at my core, an actor, and that’s something that I will continue to do. If somebody said, “Look, you can only do one thing,” I would be sad to leave behind Wild Things, because it’s something that I’m very enthusiastic about, but at my very core, I’m an actor. I just thought I’d established myself enough in the acting world to show that I can act and that I’ve got something to contribute, but I found myself with a little bit more voice and a little more time on my hands, and I thought, “Well, let’s see if I can turn some of these ideas into a pitch that I can go out and sell people.” And I knew that with my contacts and my agent’s contacts, I could sit down in rooms with people now, whereas years ago I couldn’t. It’s just another part of me. My brother’s a teacher, but he [also] plays the guitar, and I think if you said to him, “What would you get rid of?” He’d say, “Well, I’d put the guitar down, because teaching affords me a living, so that’s what I do for a job.” But neither one of them defines him more than the other. He’s the sum of those parts.
AVC: When it came time to make that pitch, was there any hesitation on the part of prospective networks? Did they say, “Wild Things, great idea, but what do you meanyou’ll be hosting this?”
DM: Yeah, I think there was a little bit of surprise. When me and the producers were discussing the pitch, they said, “Look, we know you know what you’re talking about, because you’ve spent so much time, but they don’t. And they’re gonna be very keen to find out what you know. So when we go into the pitch, when we start mentioning specific animals, you need to take over and show them that you know what’s going on.” So I think they were a little taken aback, like, “How does he know so much about these weird little animals?” That was important for me, to show a little sense of authenticity. I don’t know what they said when I left the room. I don’t know if they sat around and said, “What the fuck was that about?” [Laughs.] But I think people knew that they could make it and potentially market it, because I was so enthusiastic about getting it made and about sticking my neck out. It was probably a calculated risk with those guys. They were like, “Look, we have someone who’s been successful in certain fields, we don’t know how he’s gonna do in this one. If we can take a risk and it works out, then we’re good.”
AVC: Were there insurance concerns? Did you have to display some sort of proof of your knowledge of these dangerous creatures?
DM: Oh, yeah, there were insurance concerns. [Laughs.] An insurance company called my agent and talked to him for a good hour or so. Then he talked to me and said, “I just had my ear chewed off by the insurance company because they don’t want you to do it. Someone’s got to insure the show, and they’re nervous about how much you know and how to make sense of you handling the snakes and spiders and scorpions.” And I kind of laughed and said, “Look, I’m gonna do it. There’s no sense in me not doing it. I’ll either do it today or tomorrow or next week, but I’m gonna do it. So someone needs to insure me. They may as well make money, too. So just tell ’em to deal with it.” And that was how it worked, really.
AVC: You obviously have an enthusiasm for the creatures, but it’s more than just the casual interest that you started with. How did you accumulate enough information about these animals that you can, say, hold a potentially life-threatening spider in your hand?
DM: Well, first of all, I should say that I’ve been exposed to enough spiders nowadays that I wasn’t as scared as I think someone who doesn’t know that much about spiders would be. But it definitely took my breath away, when I saw it and thought, “I’m gonna have to pick that guy up.” [Laughs.] He was bigger than my hand! I thought, “Okay, this is going to be a different experience than picking up those other spiders.” It turned out to be a beautiful, gentle spider.
But it’s based on experience a little bit, as well as the ability to read a situation with an animal and understand body language and certain behavioral traits. Then you just have to be willing to take a risk, because you never fully know what’ll happen. The way I make sense of that is, you never fully know humans, either. [Laughs.] You can be in a bar with a guy, he [has] one gin and tonic, then he has a second one, and he punches you in the mouth. You just don’t know how someone’s going to behave. And you can be with a snake that’s behaving beautifully, you think you can push your luck and talk to the camera, and suddenly he’ll wheel around and bite you on the hand. You never fully know. You take calculated risks and try to be as fast as you can. I’ve trained myself as best I can to keep my reactions fast and to work out the correct amount of space in between you and that particular animal. If I think I can push my luck, then I’ll let that particular spider walk on my hand. If that spider was struggling and trying to bite me and stuff, there’s no way I would’ve let it go. But it just sat there very calm, doing his thing, so I thought, “Why not? Why not take a risk?”
AVC: To focus on your acting a bit, when it comes to Lost, Charlie’s been called everything from the character with the best-developed backstory to the most useless character on the series. How do you feel about his place on the show?
DM: Well, he’s been consistently voted as one of the saddest deaths on TV. That’s something, surely! I think he was the most important person to fall on their sword on that show. I think when making the show I found myself becoming a little frustrated with how he was being utilized. I thought there was some real potential with him, but we found ourselves telling the same story quite a lot: drugs, not drugs, drugs, not drugs, babysitting, not babysitting, loves Claire, doesn’t love Claire. But in terms of his final arc, when he was able to sacrifice himself for the rest of the people, I thought that was a great opportunity, a better opportunity than most, to really leave a message behind on the show. Because when it got to the end of season six, everyone was getting smoked. Whereas at the end of season three, it was only really me, and I thought it was the best crack of the whip I was going to get.
AVC: If the show had been made a few years later, with social media a bit more in play, do you think you would’ve ended up having to support a full album’s worth of Drive Shaft songs rather than just the one hit (“You All Everybody”)?
DM: [Laughs.] Yeah, probably. I mean, I know people have recorded that song, and they’ve made videos and stuff like that. People will constantly say to me on the street, “Ah, ‘You All Everybody’!” And I’m, like, “Yeah, yeah, ‘You All Everybody’…” [Shrugs.] It’s part of TV pop culture now.
AVC: How did you feel about the way FlashForward ended?
DM: I was disappointed that we didn’t get to continue with the story. I mean, at that time in TV, ABC went through a pretty significant staff shuffle, and we were part of the fallout from that. I thought that we were going to explore some pretty interesting things with Simon in the second season, and I was sad that we didn’t do that. It’s hard to try and follow in the model of something as successful asLost and not get kind of damaged by some of the vagaries that it’s left behind, because as soon as you start comparing it to something like that, it’s always going to underperform. But I had a great time on it, I made some good friends. I mean, you can’t predict. At the same time FlashForward was on, I’m sure Jersey Shore was on, and Jersey Shore’s a piece-of-shit TV program, and it ran for six seasons. Meanwhile, FlashForward was a nice drama that was well-written by talented people, and it lasted one season. You just never know what’s gonna happen.
AVC: You turned up on Childrens Hospital recently. How did that come about?
DM: I’m friends with Rob Corddry, the creator, because his wife is my dialect coach. So we had worked together on a film called The Day, and she was talking about her husband, and I said, “Who’s your husband?” And she said, “Rob Corddry, he’s got this show, Childrens Hospital.” So I said, “Oh, I love that show!” And she said, “Oh, that’s great!” So I met Rob, and he gave me a couple of seasons and was like, “I heard you were a fan, so here you go!” Then I was in Laos, making Wild Things, and she and Rob got in touch with me and said, “Look, we’re thinking of doing a British Childrens Hospital, and we’d love you to come and effectively play the lead in it. What do you think?” And I’m like, “I’m in, no problem.” I love the anarchic nature of the show, I love the dark humor. I had a great time. I loved it.
AVC: So was [the TV movie] Hostile Waters your first time in front of a camera, or did you film that after you’d already started on the series Hetty WainthroppInvestigates?
DM: No, Hetty Wainthropp I started when I was just 18. But Hostile Waters wasn’t much later, and it was with Martin Sheen and Rutger Hauer, so it was the first time I was really working with movie stars.
AVC: Did you actually get to work with them?
DM: Yeah. I got Martin Sheen to sign my Apocalypse Now DVD. And when he signed it, we were chatting, and I’m sure he’s said this to a lot of people, but he said, “You remind me of me when I was your age.” And I was like, “Aaaggghhh! That’s wicked!” [Laughs.] And Rutger Hauer was cool. I mean, we’re talking real movie stars.
AVC: And then for your first theatrically released film, you had the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. That’s a hell of a way to start a movie career.
DM: It was, yeah.
AVC: It also had to be a little bit intimidating.
DM: Yeah, although we were insulated, because we were in New Zealand. And Pete [Jackson] was such a father figure to us all and making the biggest independent movie of all time, or at least that’s what it felt like. Also, not knowing stuff is really helpful sometimes. [Laughs.] We were young. I was 22. Elijah [Wood] was 20. We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. We spent almost two years in New Zealand making this film, not exposed to the world’s media, not exposed to any sense of hype. We wrapped it, completed it, went off and did our thing, and then it became this… beast. So we didn’t really have too much time to get intimidated by the project.
AVC: John Rhys-Davies said that he went from being completely dismissive of the idea of making Lord Of The Rings into a film to being the project’s biggest supporter. Do you recall that transition going on?
DM: Well, I was always enthusiastic. We would drive back from Germany listening to storybook tapes, and we would listen to tapes of The Hobbit and all of the Lord Of The Rings. And my dad readLord Of The Rings almost every summer. We loved the books. We thought Frodo and Bilbo and the ring and all that kind of stuff was just so much fun, you know? So I felt like it was a piece of pre-history, almost. I didn’t see it as a fantasy film. I didn’t see it as something silly with dwarves and elves and goblins. I saw it as a world that used to be, which is now different from what it is.
AVC: Please note that this is not a request to see it, but how many times have you had someone come up to you and ask to see the tattoo that you and your cast members got to commemorate your work together on the project?
DM: Yeah, it’s happened quite a bit. Probably… 40 or 50 times? People saying, “Can I see it?” And I just say, “You know, we don’t really show it, because we try to keep it a secret.” I think it’s out there, though. I think you can see it. But we try not to expose the tattoo too much, because we didn’t want hundreds of thousands of people walking around, “Hey, I’m in your gang, too!”
AVC: Lastly, you’ve got Wild Things going, but do you plan to keep up the regular acting gigs as well?
DM: Oh, yeah. My dream career is to do two film projects a year or two television projects a year, and then do Wild Things. I’d never spend a year just doing Wild Things, and I would hope to never spend a year just doing film. I’d like to balance. [If successful], Wild Things becomes more problematic, because it probably took us about three months to film this particular stint, but if we keep going on, it might get closer to four, five, six months to make it, and then that’s half a year taken doing Wild Things. I never get overly worried about getting too busy, though. [Laughs.] Not being busy is something I worry about, but I think work begets work. If I’m doing Wild Things, even though it’s a nature show where I’m being me and going to different parts of the world, people are exposed to me, and maybe they want to work with me as an actor. I enjoy versatility in my work that shows people what I can do, and Wild Things is another way that I can do that. But there’s so many things left in the acting world that I haven’t done. So many filmmakers I want to work with, so many types of films I want to make. I hope to be an actor and never retire. And I hope to do the same thing with Wild Things.