It’s tempting to look at BBC America’s “Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan” and compare his new creepy, crawly adversaries to creatures that Dominic Monaghan has battled in scripted projects like “Lost” and “Lord of the Rings” and “X Men Origins: Wolverine.”
That would be an inappropriate comparison.
Yes, “Wild Things” finds Monaghan face-to-face with reticulated pythons, ultra-poisonous spiders, venom-spewing beetles and, nastiest of all, terrestrial leaches. And yes, some viewers would, if they found themselves in Monaghan’s shoes, be using those shoes to squish more than a few of his new co-stars.
But for Monaghan, these creatures and critters aren’t objects of fear and disgust. They’re subject to respect and admiration and, assuming nothing strangles him or nothing poisonous bites him, each of the wild things opens a pathway for education.
I sat down with Monaghan at the Television Critics Association press tour a couple weeks back to talk about “Wild Things,” which is part nature documentary, part extreme travelogue and part exploration into the fascinations and passions of one actor-and-enthusiast.
It’s an in-depth interview about one of the pleasant TV surprises of the spring. Click through for the full conversation…
HitFix: So I’m watching the show and I kept going, “Why the bleep is he DOING that?!?” How frequently did that thought go through your mind? Like “Why am I actually doing this?”
Dominic Monaghan: No, I don’t think that. It’s been something that’s been so imprinted in my DNA from a young age, that I don’t find myself thinking, “Why the hell am I doing this?” With the spider, which is an extremely intimidating and imposing spider, I did think, “OK. That’s the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my life and I’m just going to have to do it.” But I never had that moment of, “Oh! I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know why I’m doing this.” It’s just that I’m an admirer of the natural world and any opportunity that I get to have an experience in that arena, I’ll take.
HitFix: Even when terrestrial leaches are involved?
Dominic Monaghan: Well, the terrestrial leaches were not my favorite. The annoying thing about a leach, this is the thing that really gets me, is they’re like secret assassins. They latch onto your socks and then climb up your legs and you don’t feel them and then they start sucking your blood and you don’t feel it. The only time that you feel it is when they’re done. When they’re done eating and they’re kinda, “Alright. I’ve got my fill now,” they’ll start moving around and then you’ll be like, “What is that?” and you pull off this huge, fat leach full of your blood and then they have an anti-coagulent in their saliva which makes you bleed for the rest of the day, so that’s pretty disgusting. But I don’t begrudge them a little bit of food. You know? They might not have drank blood for a few months and then I come along and they get the opportunity? I’ll give them that.
HitFix: Here’s the part I begrudge: I’m OK with leaches when they’re in the water. I’ve experienced them. It happens. But what the heck are they doing on land?
Dominic Monaghan: Oh yeah. Well, they’ve had to adapt to get a little bit closer to their food source, which is admirable. But it is gnarly. You stand up and you look on the ground and you see these little things like coming towards you and it’s like, “Holy smokes. These guys are ferocious.” But I admire it. I admire their ability to stay alive and survive and it was just another challenging element to the show, but that’s just part and parcel with where you are in the world.
HitFix: OK, take me back to the origin of this show. I know you’d said you were interested in doing a show and told people you wanted to do something like this, but what was the process that actually made this happen?
Dominic Monaghan: I had been pitching nature shows for probably two or three years to certain networks and then I sat down with an independent producer called Dave Brady from a company in Toronto called Cream and he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, you know, I want a crew to document the way that I go on holiday.” And he said, “How is that?” And I said, “Well, if I’m on my own, I’ll pick an animal in a certain part of the world and I’ll fly to probably the capital city where the plane will dock and then I’ll take a small plane or a train or a boat down to quieter parts of that particular country in the hopes that I’ll have an interaction with that animal, meet local experts along the way, eat street food, stay in weird places, play football with people on the streets.” And he was like, “Well, let’s try and turn it into a pitch form.” So about a week or two later, Paul [Kilback] came down to LA with Dave and we hammered out a five-act idea for me going to Ecuador to spend some time with the scariest ant in the world and pitched it to different networks and we managed to get a budget and I think about a month later, we were flying to Ecuador.
HitFix: I found that act structure in the episodes I watched to be interesting. It’s like, “OK. Act I, you’re going to go out and try to find the animal but you’re not going to. And you’re going to go and you’re going to meet locals and then you’re going to find the expert who’s going to help you…” etc. How natural did that structure feel to you?
Dominic Monaghan: It feels kind of naturally in terms of me learning the tricks of the trade and going through the boot camp. Most of the time, when you arrive in a capital city, to get to a quieter place is geographically quite a stretch, so that makes sense in terms of, well, if we land in Vientiane, capital of Laos, we can’t drive down to where we want to go in a day. It’s gonna take us four days, so we may as well drive, film, stop, sleep, drive, film, stop, sleep. And, on the way, as a detour, let’s meet an expert who lives half-way between the capital city and the place where we’re heading to and maybe he’ll take us through a little bit of a boot camp. Obviously, with making a show, there are some times where we have to fabricate what’s happening. You know? We might land in a capital city and go a little bit north before we got south and that would be Day 3, but what we don’t want to do is go south for Day 1, south for Day 2 and then come all the way back up to go north for Day 3, so from a chronological point of view sometimes there’s a cheat. And sometimes when I’m handling an animal, I might say to my camera department, “Can you back up a little bit” and we won’t use that bit or I might say, “We need to stop filming. I have sweat in my eyes…” or “I have sunblock in my eyes” or “I’m getting bitten by something.” All the animals that we work with are wild. All the animals that we work with, we put back in their natural environments. None of them get hurt. None of them, we don’t do any demonstrative things like remove any venom or take out their teeth or any of that stuff. These are wild animals and that’s something that we try to keep a lot of integrity about.
HitFix: Is there somebody there who’s being kinda a common sense check-person for you?
Dominic Monaghan: Well, we work with a local field guide, so they will talk to me about the trials and tribulations of certain animals like, “Be careful if it does this, because this is a warning” or “Be mindful if this animal makes this particular body movement.” I’m OK with that kinda stuff. Obviously with certain snakes, we’re all a little bit more mindful when we’re dealing with some of the elapids and the vipers and the cobras and stuff like that. Some of animals are hugely unpredictable. A spider might be incredibly calm and sweet for you and then in the blink of an eye, it goes off. A scorpion might do the same. Snakes are a little bit more easy to gauge their temperament. But you can never tell. You can try and be respectful and try and do the right thing and hope that you’ll survive.
HitFix: But you’re at that restaurant in Vietnam and they bring out the water beetle venom. Is there somebody there to tell you, “You might as well dip your eggroll in this. It won’t do anything too bad to you.” Or do you just go with the assumption that that’s going to not paralyze you?
Dominic Monaghan: We knew that we were going to go to that restaurant and we knew that we were going to that restaurant for that one reason, that they carried the essence of the water bug. So I had asked, you know, “Exactly how edible is this stuff? Where does it come from? What part of the water bug are we using?” And we found out that it was relatively edible. It didn’t taste fantastic, but it didn’t make me puke a couple of hours later.
HitFix: Score on that count, at least. So talk to me about inspirations. I know Steve Irwin was one. Was Lorne Greene an inspiration? Was Tony Bourdain? Was David Attenborough? Who are the people who do this right in your opinion?
Dominic Monaghan: I think when we talked about the show, obviously, we tried to set out our own stall, but the people we were influenced by, certainly Anthony Bourdain, I like the way he travels. I like his daring element. I like his ability to break down barriers and barricades and stuff like that. And I think he’s a great cook! So he was an influence in terms of just his lack of intimidation factor. I like the way Michael Palin travels. I think he does good stuff. Obviously he does a little less high-octane stuff than I do, but he’s cool. Bear Grylls I think is good at times. The most influential person is probably David Attenborough, but not necessarily for the way that he makes TV shows now, but just simply for his his need and want to educate people whilst entertaining them. David Attenborough is a fine natural historian, probably the best there’s ever been in terms of television work, but he’s very keen on trying to make you learn something at the same time. Now we’re making a nature show in the year 2012, so we’re not making a David Attenborough show now. We’re making a show that’s a little bit more punchy and full of travel and color and beats and stuff like that, but I was very keen in the edit to say, “I want people to learn facts. I want people to learn things about these animals,” not just “Oooh, there’s a spider. Oooh, there’s a snake.” I want to talk about what type of snake it is, how it behaves, what it does.
And Steve Irwin, clearly, the way that he handled snakes was a big influence, the way that he was enthusiastic about things, the way that even when he was genuinely scared, which you will see me being genuinely scared on the show at times as well, he wasn’t allowing that fear to take over. He was saying, “I’m scared. This is scary. I’m going to stay in it.” And I try and do the same thing with the show.
HitFix: It sounds like you watch a lot of shows within this genre. What are things that the less successful shows and hosts do wrong? What turns you off of a show like this?
Dominic Monaghan: I don’t like it when we attach human emotions to animals. I don’t like it when we say things like, “This animal isn’t very happy” or “This animal doesn’t like me.” I loath it when people give animals voices, when you pick up a spider and you go, “Oh, hello! Don’t hurt me, I’m a spider!” or they grab a bird and they’re like, “Hi, little human…” I don’t like that. Animals don’t behave in that way. Their brains don’t function in that way, as far as science has worked out at this point. I think mishandling an animal, handling it aggressively and saying, “I need to handle it aggressively because it’s gonna bite me and hurt me” can be done a little badly at times. If you’re dealing with something like a cobra, which can clearly bite you and hurt you, I would like to see a show where you keep your distance and you stay away, rather than grabbing it by the back of the head and making it panic and potentially hurting you. I don’t like it when there’s not a lot of education. I don’t like it when it’s just like, “Oooh. He’s got big eyes and look how fast he is and… OK. On to the the next thing.” I want to spend time with the animals. What we do on our show is we show just how beautiful those animals are. There’s a lot of very close-shot macro-photography of the animal’s eye or the animal’s skin or the iridescent quality of its mouth or something like that. I find these animals beautiful and I want people to feel the same way.
HitFix: What is the research process that you do to make sure that you’re able to be off-the-cuff about these animals? How much do you have to feel like you know in order to sound like an expert or to feel like an expert?
Dominic Monaghan: We’ll know probably about a month before each particular expedition that we go on and each trip that we take will be two episodes. So we did Namibia and Cameroon. We had to do three for Asia: We did Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia. And then we did Ecuador and Guatemala. So I’ll know about a month before and I’ll know as much as I can about the target animal that we’re looking for. I’ll know about the animals that live with that target animal and are effected by that target animal. And then I’ll do my own general research. I’ll buy field guides for Ecuador. I’ll buy field guides for Vietnam and for Laos. I’ll go online and I’ll go on Wikipedia, you know, “The 10 Most Venomous Snakes in Laos,” “The 10 Most Aggressive Animals in Laos” or Vietnam or something like that. I’ll do as much as I can and then, if I need help, I’ll ask our local guide. And a lot of times, you’ll see on the show that I don’t know. I’ll say, “This is a fantastic-looking beetle and I found it here, which means this, probably… It looks like a male to me” and let him go. I don’t pretend to know something that I don’t.
HitFix: So it’s important to be an educated layman, but not to pretend to be an expert?
Dominic Monaghan: I would never want to come across as an expert, fake people into thinking I’m an expert. What I want people to think is, “He has a lot of enthusiasm about the subject, which allows him a certain amount of freedom, but he doesn’t know everything.” I’ll be the first person to say, “I’m not sure what that animal is. It looks great, but I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t look like it’s gonna bite me, but I’m not sure.” I enjoy spending time with those animals and I enjoy shooting scenes where I might not necessarily know and I’m trying to work it out myself, but trying to play the audience a little bit, I don’t think the audience would necessarily do everything that I do. My hope is that if you’re feeling a little enthusiastic and you’re having a great day and you put on your boots and your leather jacket and you get tough about stuff, maybe you’ll go into the jungle and have the experience that I have and, if not, you can sit in your armchair and watch it.
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HitFix: What is your degree of control in the editing room and over what the final product that’s going to air is going to look like?
Dominic Monaghan: I sat through every single edit. I’m not the editor. I’m one of the producers and creators of the show, myself and Paul Kilback would sit with the editors. I went to Toronto I think six times. We’ll come back after filming, I’ll be in LA and Paul will call me after a week or so of going through the cut and say, “I think you should come up now. We’ve really shaved off some of the fat and it’s ready for you to look at it.” I’ll look at a rough cut, I’ll say what I don’t think should be in there, what should be in there, what’s working, what’s not, music ideas. We’ll go away, the editor will keep working and we’ll go back in a day or so later and see how they’re going. And they’ll constantly send me rough notes and I’ll just email them back like, “I like this. This is too long. This is too short. Where did this scene go?” You know? So I think I had a certain amount of influence on it. Like I said, I’m not the editor, so I don’t want to slow up the procedure, but they were constantly asking me my opinion about the show and I wanted it to have a slightly surf-movie feel to it, slightly drifting, slightly undisciplined quality. We don’t know where I’m going. We don’t know if I’m going to get there. If I get distracted and meet someone new, that’s cool. If I go off the beaten track, that’s cool, too. The music was key for me. I wanted the animals to be shot beautifully. I didn’t want them to attach any weird, strange sounds or effects to anything. I wanted it to be real. I didn’t want any bulls*** with me. I didn’t want them to be wiping my brow or making my hair look good or brushing my t-shirt off with dirty. I wanted it to be as real as possible.
HitFix: At least in the two episodes I watched, it seemed like you pretty much just rolled out of bed into the shot.
Dominic Monaghan: Yeah. There’s no vanity on this project.
HitFix: What is the different sensation of watching yourself as yourself on-screen, as opposed to watching yourself acting and in-character?
Dominic Monaghan: I’m OK with it. I’m a little nervous about how the audience feels en masse, because I have to come to terms with the fact that if they don’t like this show, maybe they just don’t like me. That’s different from me saying, “Ah, well they just didn’t like that character in ‘Wolverine'” or “They just didn’t like that character in ‘Lord of the Rings.'” I’m OK with it. I’ve been called enough names now that nothing really bothers me, but we’ll see! Maybe they’ll come up with something new and it’ll kill me. It’s something that I’m alright with. I watch what I do and then I forget about it. I don’t obsess about it? As long as I can be satisfied with it, then I don’t micro-examine it.
HitFix: But there weren’t any specific traits that you noticed when watching Season 1 that you’re going to steer away from in a hypothetical Season 2?
Dominic Monaghan: Not necessarily steer away from… There’s a lot of things that I say that have become almost catchphrases now. I say “ginormous” a lot. I say “enormous” a lot. I say “amazing” a lot. I say “wow” a lot. I say “check this out” a lot. So “check this out” became a catchphrase. Paul would say to me, “You’ve not said ‘Check this out’ yet,” and I’m like, “Well, I’ve not seen anything yet. It’s seven in the morning!” But it’s just natural for me. As soon as I see something I say to the camera, “Awww.. Check this out! Check this out!” I want people to get excited. So that’s become something that’s become a little trademark-y. I don’t think I’d avoid anything yet. I wasn’t super into me getting in a wetsuit on the show? But if you’re going to get into a crocodile-infested lake, you’ve got to get into something.
HitFix: One of the things I enjoyed about the Vietnam episode was how personal it was to you because of your appreciation of “Apocalypse Now,” how the pop culture informed everything you were doing… How much do you want to be using that sort of thing as a filter?
Dominic Monaghan: I do use it, because I’m such a film nut and I’m a comic book nut and a music nut and all those kinds of things. I reference “Star Wars” throughout the entire show. I reference “Apocalypse Now” certainly in Asia. I reference Manchester United. I reference “Lord of the Rings.” I reference “Lost.” These are things that have had deep effects on my life and things that I’m interested in, so I think people can giggle along with me like, “Oh, I see what he did there… He was in ‘Lord of the Rings.’ He just walked past a big tree. He mentioned that it looked like Treebeard. We can make that connection and we can share that joke with him.” So I think it’s fun. I never want to be frivolous about the subject matter. I always want to say, “Look, this is an important show in which we’re teaching a sense of rudimentary science,” but I also think it’s important to laugh and blow off steam sometimes and I always like to have fun and when I travel, it’s always light-hearted, so that’s why I have fun.
HitFix: How pleased where you, going around the world, that no matter the languages being spoken, Manchester United is kinda a universal language?
Dominic Monaghan: I’ve known that for a long time. I’ve been lucky enough to travel since the 17, when I started traveling on my own, and Manchester United, you can compare it with brands like Coca-Cola and McDonalds in terms of just people knowing it, especially in places like Asia and Africa and India. I would wear Manchester United shirts a lot, because it’s just a way for people to talk to you, you know? So it’s exciting to know that they’re a brand that people recognize, but that’s all based around their success. They’re a successful football team. If they stopped winning games, people would forget them pretty quickly.
HitFix: But you’re also, at least somewhat, a brand people recognize. You’re out there in the episodes and people are wanting to get their pictures taken with you. How frequent was that and what were people recognizing you from most specifically?
Dominic Monaghan: It was really dependent on where I was. Africa, it didn’t happen at all. Cameroon? I didn’t get recognized once in Cameroon. Namibia? Maybe in the capital city, but apart from that, not really. Asia, in Vietnam and Laos, it was kinda crazy. When we were in busy places, we had to make sure that we kept moving and stuff. Ecuador, we were so remote that it didn’t matter. Venezuela, Guatemala, a little bit. Mainly, in Asia it was “Lord of the Rings.” In South America, it was a combination of “Lord of the Rings” and “Lost.” Then there’s little pockets here and there that’ll just know me from something freaky, where you’re like, “Oh s***! You’re the person who watched that? I had no idea.”
HitFix: What was the weirdest thing that anybody recognized you from?
Dominic Monaghan: Well, I get recognized quite a bit from this TV show I did when I was 18 in England, tiny little detective show called “Hetty Wainthropp Investigates,” tiny BBC-One show, I get recognized for that a lot. In LA, there are certain pockets of LA that I go to to play soccer or pick up friends or to grab food, where people won’t know me from anything else apart from this Eminem video that I did. So they won’t recognize me from “Lord of the Rings,” this two billion dollar smash hit franchise. They’ll be like, “Dude. You’re the guy in that Eminem video.” So it’s interesting what people recognize you from.
HitFix: This is somewhat a DIY series and you also did that Crackle series that you were a producer on. How much are these things a model for where you ideally see your career going forward? Things where you’re pushing the projects forward and steering them and whatnot?
Dominic Monaghan: I like to educate myself about being a producer. When I got the opportunity to make “Wild Things,” obviously I was instrumental in creating it and coming up with the ideas as to where we were gonna go, how we were gonna treat the animals, how we were gonna shoot the animals, so being a producer was kinda a given at that point. With some of these film projects that I’ve worked on, I will connect myself with that project relatively early on, so then we’re able to establish me as a producer so that I can kinda give some advice or lend some help for the casting, scheduling the film, how the film’s gonna work in terms of where we’re gonna go and things like that. It’s just another way of learning new stuff about the project. The good thing about being a producer is that you then form real relationships with the other producers on the show, because they come to talk to you about things and you have a rapport with them. It’s not as if I can walk into a project at Warners Brothers or at Paramount and produce it, like Tom Cruise can. But I can do it on independents that might lean on me for a little bit more help and advice.
HitFix: Are you happy with that as your position? You’ve done big studio movies and you’ve done major network TV shows and you could presumably go down that path again. Do you feel like you’re missing out on something when you commit to a small independent just to get in there and be involved?
Dominic Monaghan: No, no. I don’t. I only do projects based on the material and if I like them or not. It would be fantastic if every single independent that I did was a monster hit, but that isn’t always the case. I did a tiny little film called “I Sell The Dead,” which hardly anyone saw, but I love it. I think it’s a great little film. I did a film called “The Day” last year, which not that many people saw either, for WWE Studios. I loved it. I thought it was a really dark thriller. I just did a film in Seattle called “Deep Burial,” with Tom Sizemore, another tiny, microbudget film. It’s all based on the material. If people see it? Brilliant. I’d love everyone to see it and love it and it blows up at a festival and gets bought by Miramax or by Warner Brothers. And if people don’t see it? I had a great time on it. I learned some stuff. I played a fun role. I got paid. On to the next one.
HitFix: Have you felt like there are certain genres or certain worlds in which your name has the cache to get things moving and maybe others in which not so much?
Dominic Monaghan: There’s certainly places in which me getting involved with something helps them get the movie made. I don’t think… The big studios are not struggling to say, “We really need Dom to come on-board ‘Avatar 2,’ because that’s gonna greenlight the project.” They don’t have any problems with that at this point. I’ll continue to do studio projects when it makes sense and in-between that time, I’m not gonna be idle. I made “Wild Things.” I’ll make other TV shows. I’ll make independent films. It just gives me a little bit more freedom. Ultimately I like working.
HitFix: And, going back to “Wild Things,” what’s the dream animal for Season 2?
Dominic Monaghan: The dream animal? Probably a reptile from New Zealand called the tuatara, which looks just like a lizard, but it’s not a lizard. It can live in very, very cold temperatures. It can live to over 100. It has a rudimentary third eye. It has very strange behavioral patterns. It’s relatively rare. I’d like to go to New Zealand, tell the story of my journey through New Zealand and then find that beautiful animal. That’s one of the ones on the map for Season 2, for sure.
“Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan” airs on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on BBC America.