Dominic West: ‘I feel I’m in the summer of my life – it can’t last forever’

The acting livewire talks being lazy as a teenager, worrying about the time he has left and his years at Eton

At 16 my main preoccupation was with getting drunk. Oh yeah, and I played Hamlet in the school play. So I was quite focused on that, and the rest of the time I was trying to get illegal drinks in pubs.

Did I have a privileged upbringing? Well, I grew up near the moors, just outside Sheffield, with six brothers and sisters.

We had a couple of dogs and various other pets, hamsters and fish and all that crap. I spent most of my time on my bike running up and down the road. We were quite self-sufficient because there were so many brothers and sisters. We did have friends but I don’t remember leaving the house much because I just played with my siblings.

So yes, it was a privileged childhood, spending all that time on the moors with my big raucous family.

I have five sisters so even though I was going to an all-boys’ school, I didn’t have any fear of the opposite sex. Maybe by 16 I was starting to miss having girls around me at school, but we did have quite a lot of girlfriends coming down to visit us all so… Actually, I didn’t really have any girlfriends, I just wished I had. I had crushes that were unrequited. But when I was about 17 I started getting involved in plays, and going to the Edinburgh Festival, and then it all kicked off.

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In 2002 with Idris Elba, his fellow cast member in cult US drama 'The Wire'. Photo: C Contino/BEI/Shutterstock

I think as a teenager I was closer to my mum. I got to know my dad much better in my twenties and I had a lovely time with him after they got divorced actually. So I ended up pretty close to both. I have traits from both of them. My mum was quite romantic and I’m also quite romantic in my ideas about things like Ireland and music and poetry. I’m quite a softie in that way. And I have romantic ideas about childhood and the simple life and living in the country.

From my dad, I think I get my sense of humour; he was a very funny guy. And also my fairly Victorian idea of fatherhood. I’m pretty strict. I heavily limit my kids’ screen time. I insist they’re in bed on time – mainly because we have five kids and I’m always knackered, so I get them out the way before we can start the drinking. But I’m also very affectionate with them.

What I got out of Eton was that they identified what I was good at – acting – and they gave me the facilities and opportunities to pursue that. I was incredibly lucky to go to a school that could do that. It’s true that Eton also gives people confidence but that’s a double-edged sword. Often that confidence is misplaced. As is those people’s assumption that they’re the best people to run things. That’s quite annoying and often quite offensive to people.

Of everything I’ve done I think the teenage Dominic would be most impressed by The Wire. He’d be amazed that I actually managed to get into it. My mum loved theatre and couldn’t understand why I’d ever want to do anything else. She came to see everything I did in the theatre and used to say, why on earth are you doing American TV, what a complete waste of time. I think because her mother-in-law was American she didn’t like America very much.

The teenage me would also not have expected to have five kids. And I certainly didn’t think one of my kids would get a trial for Southampton FC. He’s only 10, it’s just for the academy, but I was so bad at football I couldn’t have imagined that.

When I look back at my life I might say to my younger self, don’t be so lazy. Be bolder, shoot for the stars. I don’t know if it was through self-doubt or fear or just laziness but I feel I rather took the easy option a lot. In terms of work, and taking my job and – it sounds pretentious – but taking my talent seriously. I let other people make decisions for me.

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I wish I hadn’t always gone for the job my agent wanted me to take, or the industry were guiding me into, which was often work that wasn’t that interesting. What I wanted to do in my earlier twenties was experimental and radical theatre, but I didn’t do it because I went off and got high instead. And maybe I did a bit too much partying and I should have… actually no, I loved partying, fuck it.

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In 2016 with his kids at the 'Finding Dory' premiere in London. Photo: Jonathan Hordle/Shutterstock

There was a wonderful woman in my life called Kay Eaton who very much looked after me when I was ill as a young child. She was my great granddad’s secretary and she helped me a lot. We had this joke that we were girlfriend and boyfriend – I was four years old.

She never married. I really regret not being with her when she was dying. I was on a job away, and I think she didn’t have a very nice death in a home in Sheffield. I wish I’d got to her and thanked her. She brought me great comfort when I was ill and I wish I’d been able to do the same for her when she was dying.

I’ve just turned 49 and I’ve thought a lot about the time that’s left. In terms of my career I do regret not doing all the great Shakespeare roles when I was young. Because I do love Shakespeare. But I don’t feel guilty about much, I’ve done my best in the way I’ve treated people. God, this sounds like I’m just about to die!

I don’t know… I’ve always been a bit frightened of death. I suppose what I’m really frightened of, apart from the moment of death and the actual condition you’re in when you die, is the worry that I didn’t do as much as I might have. But really, it’s all about my kids. I’m very conscious right now that I’m at the stage when it’s my last chance to be a big thing in their lives. So I’m taking a lot of next year off to do that. And actually, when I think about it… I couldn’t really give a rat’s arse about my work.

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In 2018 with his wife Catherine Fitzgerald. Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

I’ve never been so happy in my life as I have been in the last 10 years. And it just seems to get better and better, because my kids and I are at a time when we give each other great joy.

Last Christmas we went to see the giant trees in South California. I remember the whole day, from getting everyone out of the RV and walking up to the wood.  There weren’t many people around and the mist was lifting in the forest and the sun was coming up and we were in the presence of these astonishing 3,000-year-old giants.  And I did get a sense of immense happiness and peace.

I have a strong sense of wishing my time would slow down so it could just be like this for a bit longer. I don’t have a great foreboding about the future, but I do feel I’m in the summer of my life. And it can’t last forever.

Dominic West stars in Colette, in UK cinemas from January 11 and Les Miserables, on BBC One from 9pm on December 30