The Chameleon Kid: Interview with Hetty Wainthropp Investigates' Dominic Monaghan

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Actor Dominic Monaghan

Actor, singer, teacher — those are the career paths Dominic Monaghan considered while growing up. “My dad has been a huge influence in my life, and he’s also a teacher, so as a child I always contemplated the idea of becoming a teacher, perhaps a drama teacher,” he says. “I’m a big music fan as well and for a long time I was interested in pursuing a singing career. However, since the age of 10 or 11 my true passion has been acting. My favorite part of the school year was being involved in the annual play. I played sports and enjoyed other aspects of school, but the thing I really excelled at was drama class. I’ve always enjoyed the artistic tug-of-war that goes on where you grab hold of a character, own him for a while, and then let go and grab hold of the next role.”

On TV, Monaghan is probably best known for his role of castaway Charlie Pace in J.J. Abrams’ cryptic long-running TV drama Lost, while on the big screen he brought Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck to life in The Lord of the Rings movie franchise. Prior to both these high-profile roles, though, the affable actor garnered plenty of experience in front of the camera playing budding private eye Geoffrey Shawcross opposite veteran British actress Patricia Routledge in the popular BBC detective series Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. On February 11, Acorn Media is releasing Hetty Wainthropp Investigates: The Complete Series on DVD in North America.

“I was at college in Manchester [England] studying English literature, geography and drama,” recalls Monaghan. “I was also involved with the local youth theaters and had been in a few plays. One of my friends’ fathers worked for a production company called Granada, and he gave me a list of names and addresses of all the TV/theatrical agents in town. I sent letters off to them basically explaining who I was and that I had done some theater work. A couple of agents came to see me perform onstage and offered to represent me. I eventually signed with one agency but didn’t think much about it at the time because I was still focusing on my studies.

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“One day, my agent phoned to say he had organized an audition for me for a TV show. Pretty much every young actor I knew at the time in Manchester was trying out for the part [of Geoffrey] and I thought, ‘No way am I going to get this job, so I’ll just give it my best shot and have fun.’ When I went in to read I met a woman who has become a really good friend of mine, Carol Parks [Hetty Wainthropp Investigates producer]. We spoke for half an hour and I think she found it refreshing that I wasn’t a professional actor. I had five more auditions, including those that required me to go down to London and meet with the writers as well as the director at the time. It was after that that they offered me the part. I had to leave college for six months and film the first series, and then went back to school for another six months before leaving again to do the second season, etc. It just so happened that the thing I was trying to achieve through education actually landed in front of me. I was very lucky.”

Based on characters from the David Cook novel Missing Persons, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates follows the exploits of a Lancashire housewife-turned-sleuth (Patricia Routledge of Keeping Up Appearances fame) and her young business partner Geoffrey Shawcross (Monaghan). In the series’ premiere, “The Bearded Lady,” Hetty suspects a young couple of fraud and decides to investigate. She enlists the help of Geoffrey, a 17-year-old who she catches shoplifting. Together they crack the case and become overnight celebrities. With her husband Robert’s (Derek Benfield) encouragement, Hetty opens her own detective agency. It’s not long before she and Geoffrey are hired to probe the mysterious death of a professor. Although this episode was shot many years ago, Monagahn still fondly remembers starting out on the show.

“I didn’t know anything about the business. I mean, I turned up to the set on the first day with money to pay for my lunch,” laughs the actor. “Someone had to tell me, ‘No, you’re working here so your lunch is free.’ However, even though I was wet behind the ears and naïve about a number of things, it didn’t seem to come across too much in my work, you know? Yes, it looks like I’m learning — as I continue to do so today — and trying to wrap my head around things, but overall I’m happy with my early work on the program. At least I can look back on it today and not cringe,” he jokes. “I was nervous and scared but I just kept on going, and I’m more proud of that than probably anything else.”

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Geoffrey and The Wainthropps started out as just friends and business associates but they quickly became a family. “Of everyone in his life, Geoffrey was probably the closest to Mrs. Wainthropp,” notes Monaghan. “I don’t believe his real mum was too bothered with what he got up to and was more interested in doing her own thing after she and Geoffrey’s father were divorced. Hetty took on that motherly kind of role and Geoffrey was extremely grateful for the chance she’d given him. He also respected the fact that Hetty was a very intelligent and forward-thinking woman who refused to even consider retiring.

“As for Mr. Wainthropp, I really liked the relationship between him and Geoffrey. They enjoyed each other’s company and liked to tease Mrs. Wainthropp every so often. I’m sure he missed his son, who had married and moved with his wife to Australia, so in many ways he treated Geoffrey as if he were his own flesh and blood.”

According to Monaghan, his off-screen relationship with his fellow cast members was just as amicable. “I was well aware of Patricia Routledge’s work and that she was a well-respected actress,” he says. “She knew that our two characters would have to have a close relationship, which is something we founded early on. Patricia and I spent nearly four years on and off hanging out together. The two of us got on very well. It was the same with Derek and me. As a young actor it was a wonderful learning experience to be around two actors who have been so successful in the business. Patricia and Derek were both quite helpful in suggesting what they felt I should be doing with my life and career.”

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Along with four seasons of Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, Monaghan’s other small screen credits include Chuck, FlashForward, The Unknown and Children’s Hospital as well as the made-for-TV movie Hostile Waters and the miniseries This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. He also played Etienne in Monsignor Renard, a four-part drama in which a priest, portrayed by the late John Thaw (Inspector Morse), tries to keep the faith during the German occupation of France during World War II.

“Certain scenes in Monsignor Renard were particularly challenging for me,” explains the actor. “In one, Etienne has to rape his girlfriend. As a human being and a man it’s uncomfortable to put a woman in such a position. From an acting standpoint, you have to do the scene to the best of your ability and at the same time instill in the other person that this isn’t what you’re about and it’s not what you want to do. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk. Fortunately, I was quite close with the actress I was playing opposite. She and I talked about the scene for a couple of nights beforehand and she said to me, ‘I trust you and know that you wouldn’t put me under any undue stress. Just do what you’ve got to do and I’ll do the same.’”

The actor has nothing but praise for Monsignor Renard star John Thaw. “He was a true gentleman. Once again, here was someone who’d worked in the business for a long time and made a huge success of it. Not only did I admire the work John had done but also what he’d achieved in his lifetime. As a man, he was incredibly nice and was totally giving as an actor. We had some stressful scenes together including the one towards the end where my character breaks down in front of the priest and begs his forgiveness. John was nothing but supportive. At the time he was quite ill and yet didn’t allow that to affect his performance. I was really upset when John died because I would have loved to have worked with him again and show my gratitude for how he helped me out as a young actor.”

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No stranger to performing onstage, Monaghan has appeared in a variety of UK productions. The actor was playing a skinhead on the London stage when he was spotted by John Hubbard, the UK casting director for The Lord of the Rings, who invited him to read for the part of Merry. “It was a very relaxed process and I thought it went rather well,” he says. “Shortly after that I booked the job in France working on Monsignor Renard. I’d been shooting on that project for three of four months when my agent called. He told me they were interested in me for the part of Merry in The Lord of the Rings and that I might have to go to Los Angeles or New Zealand in a couple of days to meet with [director] Peter Jackson.

“Naturally I was excited and even more so when, a day later, I found out I didn’t have to fly anywhere and that I had just been offered the part. I had four or five days of filming left on Monsignor Renard and then a week back in England before having to go to New Zealand. I rang my parents to tell them the news and then went out that night to celebrate with my mates. It was one of those few moments when you’re acutely aware of your life turning on a right angle. In years to come I’m sure I’ll look back on it and think, ‘Wow, that was an amazing time for me.’”

In The Fellowship of the Ring, a Hobbit named Frodo (Elijah Wood) gains possession of an ancient ring thought lost for centuries. It is, in fact, the One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron, and Frodo has to risk his life in a dangerous journey to the Cracks of Doom where he must destroy the ring. He is joined by a cast of colorful characters including three of his fellow Hobbits, Merry, Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Sam (Sean Astin). Life as they know it changes forever as their quest continues in Two Towers and ultimately ends in Return of the King.

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“When I first played Merry I saw him as this innocent and loveable 11- or 12-year-old boy who wanted to be funny and always looked on the bright side of things,” muses Monaghan. “In Two Towers there is increased jeopardy and he has no choice but to take the bull by the horns and do something with his life. When we next meet up with him in Return of the King, Merry goes into battle, which is a first for a Hobbit. As a character he grew and developed in a multitude of ways and it was a great pleasure to be a part of that.”

In addition to The Lord of the Rings adventures, the actor has also appeared in such feature films as The Purifiers, Spivs, Soldiers of Fortune and the upcoming Deep Burial and Molly Moon: The Incredible Hypnotist. From teenage sleuth to Hobbit, Monaghan enjoys nothing more than being a “chameleon” and changing to suit whatever character he might be playing at the time. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve had the ability to ‘alter’ the way I look and sound,” he says. “It’s all part of that acting process I spoke of earlier and is what continues to make this job fun for me.”

Please note, all Hetty Wainthropp Investigates photos copyright of the BBC. Hetty Wainthropp Investigates: The Complete Collection can be ordered from Acorn's website.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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