Backstage at the Sheffield Crucible theatre, Dominic West's booming bonhomie can't disguise an undertow of anxiety.
This seems to derive from two sources. One is that he's rehearsing to play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, his first musical, and he's frightened of messing it up, wearing his inexperience loudly, broadly, comically, as I suspect he does most things. Higgins's songs are half-sung, half-spoken and, "Stop me if I get too technical", he says – I brace myself for some complicated information – "but the [musical] notes, where they're not notes, they've got crosses, do you know anything about that?" He looks mildly confused. "Anyway, that's when you're supposed to speak it." He shakes his head. "This is a pretty steep learning curve for me."
The other source of anxiety is the interview itself. Five minutes in, he's fretting, head in hands: "I fucking swore I wouldn't say anything that would ruin my life." He returns later, repeatedly, to the subject of interviews he has hated, and I ask why he reads them. "Because my wife waves them in my face and says, 'Why have you done this?'" he laughs. "I'm just not very good in print, and I can't believe I'm doing it again." He has a point. On the Graham Norton Show earlier this year, for instance, he said his Eton education gave him "a stigma that is slightly above 'paedophile' in the media in a gallery of infamy". In a newspaper interview he suggested his privileged background could have limited him as an actor, but "you just have to transcend your background if you want to get anywhere". If you're not a class warrior when you start reading West's interviews, there's a chance you will be by the end.
But he is friendly in the flesh, all game self-deprecation and furrowed brow. He is still debating the true nature of Higgins, he says. The 1910s phonetics professor is obsessed with accents, believing he can change the prospects of the poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle by giving her intensive lessons in how to speak. He's essentially a big sexist, isn't he, I say, treating Eliza like a wind-up doll, referring to her as a "bilious pigeon"? "Hags, baggage, creature, squashed cabbage leaf," he says, quoting Higgins's terms for women. "He represents basically the attitude I imagine establishment males would have felt about the suffragettes, which was, 'Why are you making all this fuss, you'll get the vote anyway, and you don't have to get so hysterical about it.'
"But I have to defend him because I've got to play him, and I have five sisters and two daughters, and I've got to justify myself to them. Yes, there's no question he's sexist, but politically I like him, politically he believes that through education, through the science of speech, you can eradicate the class system, and so, in a way, he's a revolutionary." Why does everyone have to have the same accent, though? "This is the thing I'm having trouble with," he admits. "But, in fact, at drama school we all had to learn RP [received pronunciation], because we were told we'd get more jobs, and it's true." Eliza's ambition is to work in a shop, and he suspects even now, "with a certain accent, you would probably stand less of a chance".
He returns to Higgins's attitude to women, and starts warming to the idea of the language he'll be using. "It's fantastic. 'Straightening up their hair is all they ever do – why don't they straighten up the mess that's inside?' But it's good. It's good, honest sexism!" I suggest this could be our headline, and he starts chuckling nervously, then swearing, certain he's ruined his life yet again.
West's own accent first changed when he moved from his family home outside Sheffield, where his father was a successful factory owner, to Eton – and again when he began working as a young actor in the US. Early in his career he looked set for Hollywood stardom, cast opposite Sandra Bullock in 28 Days, and Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile. "I was a disaster," he says. "I just didn't know what to do, and I couldn't be the all-American guy, I just couldn't stand it. I think it's very hard to do those parts because you have to put so much of yourself into them". Around the turn of the century, he realised he'd "much rather dress up and prance about", so he joined the Argentinian circus group De La Guarda.
His breakthrough came in 2002, as Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire. The role freed him up as an actor, he thinks; back then "I wouldn't have got that job in England, playing a blue-collar cop", but he hopes he might do now. Does he really think his Eton background has been limiting for him as an actor? The evidence, after all, suggests the opposite. On the all-male shortlist for the Bafta rising star award this year two of the five nominees, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne, were Old Etonians, and West himself went home with the lead actor award, for his performance as Fred West in TV drama Appropriate Adult. His classmate Damian Lewis has been hugely successful with Homeland; other Old Etonians, Harry Lloyd and Harry Hadden-Paton, are building strong acting careers.
Still, he does believe it has been limiting "in certain ways, yeah. As an actor, you tend to be typecast, and you tend to probably want to do a greater variety of work than your typecasting might allow. So I'm not pleading I'm terribly disadvantaged and what a hard time I've had. But what I've always liked is to play lots of different parts that are very different to you, and so in that way you have to go beyond people's expectations."
He has played a good range in the past few years: a general in the film Centurion; villains in Johnny English Reborn and John Carter; the war hero, drinker and news broadcaster Hector Madden in TV drama The Hour; Iago in Othello at the Crucible. I ask him what he would love to have played, and his eyes narrow greedily. "Where do I start? I wish I'd done all the young Shakespeares, I really do, because I feel I'm quite good at it, and I'm too old now, and I really regret not pushing that. I didn't because I thought people would laugh." Why? "Oh, because it was my deepest dream, I suppose, and you get a bit embarrassed ... And then I was watching Bond, and I was going 'God, I would have loved to have been Bond.' I'm a bit old now." He's 43, a year younger than Daniel Craig. "Bit long in the tooth for Bond."
The UK has arguably never made a TV series as ambitious as The Wire, and West says funding is one explanation. Also, not unrelatedly, on a drama, "a writer wouldn't get a team of six other writers to work with, or the security of knowing that they've got the actor for at least five years". Actors sign shorter contracts in the UK than in the US; a relief for him, as he seems to have found episodic television a slog after a while. But the crucial reason, he says, smiling wolfishly again, is that the writers on The Wire were newspaper men and women, and "journalists in this country lack ambition". He sits back, grinning at this little dig.
He is scathing about government cuts to the Arts Council budget, and is worried these might affect Sheffield. "I suppose [the arts is] just, politically, the easiest thing to ditch. But in terms of the economics, in terms of sanity, it's crazy. This place, the Crucible, is a really great powerhouse that lifts people's confidence. Fifteen million has been spent on the theatre, and the audience is much better than London." How so? "I'm a typical London audience," he says. "If something's really amazing, I'll just raise an eyebrow and go, 'Oh, that was quite good'. But here, for the public dress rehearsals, the tickets are a pound, and there's pretty much always a queue around the block."
For all his blustery self-deprecation, I suspect West will be good in My Fair Lady. He usually is. When he goes to a musical, he says, he always feels shortchanged if the singers "don't seem to be busting a gut", so when he's singing, "I tend to push and make too much effort, and that is not very nice to watch, but it feels like you're doing some work. The danger is straining your voice, but I'm hoping it's going to get stronger, because it's not particularly sonorous." Has he recorded it and heard it back? "Fuck off," he says. "That would be dreadful."
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