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The first thing actor Dominic West wants audiences to know about his role as the villain Sab Than in Disney’s action-adventure John Carter is that his tan, applied to transform him into the Red Martian king, is completely fake.
“I remember, I had never been to [French tourist spot] Saint Tropez before and I was invited for a weekend there with my missus — and I was recalled from this weekend by John Carter in order to get a tan sprayed on me. I got back having cut short this wonderful weekend and the makeup woman was saying, ‘This is what I’m going to put on you,’ and it was called Saint Tropez. I was like, ‘I was just in Saint Tropez! I could have gotten the real thing!’” he laughed.
John Carter tells the story of ex-Civil War Captain John Carter, who is transported to Mars, where he becomes embroiled in a planet-wide war between the noble city-state of Helium and the opportunistic city of Zodanga, led by the thuggish Martian king Sab Than. While the jovial West joked that director Andrew Stanton did “all the work” in figuring out who Sab Than was, he explained that he continued to develop the character while on set.
“I find it increasingly in parts I do, if I was in drama school I would have written three essays about this and listed his favorite food and color!” West told Spinoff Online. “Then you get to a level where you find the stuff that’s most interesting is spontaneous, that’s your gut reaction.”
A British actor who has appeared in everything from The Wire to The Hour, West also has some television directing experience, and freely admitted to studying Stanton’s techniques while on location.
“What he knows about storytelling and making the biggest imaginable film in both live-action and animation and CGI is always interesting,” West said. “He’s always very willing to share and include you in it — he’s particularly generous in that way. I’d listen to him all night, and then he’d ask my opinion and I was like, ‘Who cares about my opinion? Just talk some more!’”
West jokingly added that when it came to acting he previously held the prestigious role of Palace Guard in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, so he was experienced at these sorts of genre roles.
“I think this will appeal across the board!” West said, adding that he actually receives a surprising amount of autograph requests from German Star Wars fans. “They weren’t fans of mine, they were interested in getting the complete set of Star Wars autographs, and who could be bothered to do that except the Germans?” the actor laughed.
Outside of characterization, West and his fellow cast members devoted the most attention to the numerous fight scenes and stunts in John Carter.
“We worked really hard on the fights, down to there being a different style of fighting between the Zodangans and the Heliumites. I broke five swords because they’re made of wood. A good martial artist like Lynn [Collins], and Taylor [Kitsch] as well, they’re very controlled in their movements and I tend to go crazy!” the actor said as he pretended to wave a sword in the air.
West was also enthusiastic about performing with veteran British actor Mark Strong, who plays Holy Thern Matai Shang, the villainous brains to Sab Than’s brawn.
“The new guidelines have come out in the British film industry — I don’t know if you know this — where you can’t make a film without having Mark Strong in it, because otherwise you won’t get the funding. Its part of the tax breaks,” he joked.
Expressing his admiration for the versatile actor, West laughed as he remembered one particular exchange with Strong.
“He did come to me at one point and say, ‘Dom, I’m really worried because I was offered this part in Green Lantern, and I’m just worried about doing too many things,” West said, doing his best Strong impersonation. “And I was like, ‘Just take the part! If you don’t want to take it, tell them I’m free!’”
Although Strong and West maintain serious expressions as the film’s main villains, the two were able to get some fun down time in while shooting in the American Southwest.
“We had a great a time doing it. One of our off days in Utah we took a raft down the Colorado, and he was looking like a proper Brit abroad with the hankie on his head because he gets sunburned! So I thought, ‘God, you might be a Thern in the film but at the moment you’ve got a hankie on your head!’” West laughed.
A Shakespearean actor, West told Spinoff he’d like to star in another action movie — although what really interests him was something new.
“I’d love to do a musical, I’ve never done a musical before!” said West, eyes shining. For now, though, the actor confessed the best thing he could do for his career is to change it up and try his hand at varied projects.
“I suppose it’s always to do something different,” he said. “After doing John Carter, I’ve done two big plays in London and now I’m doing a TV series. So I’m ready for another action movie, really.”
But no matter what, West believed the next role he finds himself in will benefit from his experience working on John Carter.
“You’re always looking for stuff that is different and keeps you interested,” he said. “I always love doing theater and Shakespeare, but it makes it a lot easier to do that if you’re in something like this that you see the latest technology and the best people in the business.”
John Carter opens Friday nationwide.