Dominic West and Ruth Wilson don't get to do much laughing in their roles on the Showtime drama "The Affair," in which they star as a couple caught up in an adulterous romance that has devastating implications. The English actors spend much of their screen time looking tormented, but in person for a recent conversation about the Golden Globe-winning series and its postmodern take on relationships, both actors were quick with the jokes — particularly ones aimed at each other.
"The Affair" uses multiple viewpoints to tell the same story. Did this approach appeal to you as performers?
Wilson: Definitely, it's constantly surprising. It sets up one thing and then it turns it on its head in the second half. I thought the ability to play two or three versions of yourself was exciting.
West: I'm amazed it's not done more often, really. It's such an obvious truism that there is very little objective reality, especially in personal relationships.
Have you had experiences in which your memory of an event diverges completely from someone else's, the way your characters' recollections often do?
Wilson: I've become more conscious of how you embellish a memory; you remember something and then you keep telling that story, and as you tell it more and more, you embellish it more and more, and it becomes more and more colorful and probably not anything like what actually happened.
My father doesn't have any memory before the age of 8. It was quite traumatic for him growing up. People delete the past if they don't want to go back there.
West: When I was 8, we were in two cars, and my father, brother and one of my sisters were in the front car and they were very badly injured. The next day I had no recollection of what happened.
Has working on this show changed your thoughts about marriage or monogamy?
West: I don't know if this is true, but the American attitude to infidelity seems a lot more, I don't know, conservative than I thought. But then anything you say about America, the opposite is also true because it's such a vast place. But that struck me. This show probably wouldn't be understood in France.
Wilson: They have five mistresses each.
West: I think monogamy is a tough one. I'm not sure we're monogamous people, really.
Wilson: My parents are still together, and it's made me appreciate how hard it is for a couple to remain faithful and to stay together. Economically, everything has changed. Women have got much more independence and don't have to remain in marriages for economic reasons. So the whole idea of love is changing. I think that's why there's an increase in divorce, because women can afford to be on their own. That, and we're living longer.
West: It was fine when we all died at 50.
What kind of conversations did you have about the sex scenes in the show?
Wilson: Every job you do when there's sex in it, it's vulnerable for everyone, so you want to make sure the scene is justified, as any scene should be justified and not just in there to please the bosses.
West: I was watching "Game of Thrones" the other night, and I did find myself watching it because there might be a sex scene coming up, mainly because I'm an old perv. But I think that's quite recent where actresses — it's just expected that you get naked and there's a lot of sex in a show. And I don't think that's a very good thing.
Wilson: The build-up is interesting, because that's where the chemistry is. It's anticlimactic when you get to the sex. It feels like there's a weird desire to have them in when I'm not sure that's what the audience actually wants.
West: Well, I think it is. I remember hearing a gaffer saying about a show, "That won't last because there's no sex in it." And he was probably right. What was women's liberation all about?
Wilson: I saw the very first episode of "Game of Thrones." And I was, like, whoa. I just felt for [Emilia Clarke], because she was just naked, topless the whole way through. I thought, that's her first job … I wonder how much choice she felt like she had.
West: It doesn't happen with men. You are not expected to get your … out.
Wilson: You're not allowed to! You're not allowed to see it on TV. Women should have a choice and be allowed to express that choice if they don't want to get their breasts out. There's an assumption around it, which I think is unfair.
[To West] You're a rarity in that sense.
West: Having to get naked? I always seem to get naked. I just did a film with a Victoria's Secret model, and I was the one who got bloody naked. She was fully clothed the whole time, and there's me with my arse out.