Interview: Dominic Monaghan talks BBC America's 'Wild Things' and the lizard he wants next
What makes a good or bad nature show for the 'Lost' star?
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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