On a hilly Hawaiian road, the centuries-old trees tower over the tarmac, forming a green pavilion that dwarfs the Toyota Prius driven by the twenty-eight-year-old Dominic Monaghan. He interrupts his anecdote about fleeing from Paul McCartney at an Oscars party and marvels at the verdant world around us. “Isn’t that great?” Monaghan says with a grin. “It’s like the Shire.”
Identifying an island in the Pacific Ocean as Middle-Earth is an easy mistake for Monaghan. He spent almost two years in New Zealand filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy, playing the hobbit Merry Brandybuck. Now he’s part of the ensemble on Lost, the hit ABC show about the survivors of a plane crash on an uncharted desert isle. Monaghan plays Charlie, formerly bassist for the band Drive Shaft, who has gone through heroin withdrawal with only a few aspirin to help him out. Charlie is a pleasant bloke trying to shake off some of the darkness of his past. That description fits Monaghan as well. While we drive around Oahu, he flips through the discs in his CD changer: Interpol, the Beatles, Jay-Z. Monaghan likes Interpol, although he disapproves of lead singer Paul Banks, who he once spotted wearing an Interpol t-shirt at another band’s gig. Shaking his head, he says, “I’d never wear an ‘I Am Merry’ t-shirt to get laid.”
Monaghan was born in Berlin to British parents who moved there to work in support roles to British troops: his mother, Maureen, as a nurse, his father, Austin, as a science teacher. “Nobody in our family has anything to do with acting,” says Austin. “We thought it was a pipe dream.” Not Dominic. “When we were kids, I was always convincing my brother to do little dramatic things in front of my mum and dad,” Monaghan says. At age seven, he starred in a school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and immediately loved it. “I always wanted to be an actor,” he says. “But there was an embarrassing element to it, which I’m still trying to understand. Maybe it was from this English stereotype of ‘If you’re an actor, you’re a homosexual,’ which is a strange thing.” When I tell him that stereotype also exists in the United States, he seems genuinely surprised.
When Monaghan was eleven, his family returned to Manchester, England. “Manchester’s a rough place,” he says, although he concedes that his upbringing was safely middle-class. “It’s guys walking around in thick anoraks in the pouring rain, smoking the last cigarette they’ve ever had and jonesing for a fight.”
Monaghan lost his virginity at age fourteen: “It was a very disappointing, almost forgettable moment in my life. I remember having to sit down a couple of years later and say ‘Who did I lose my virginity to?’ In hindsight, it screwed up some of my attitudes about sex. I would like to go back and make it about exploring an amazing new adventure instead of getting it over with.”
When Monaghan got into trouble at school, he could usually talk teachers out of punishing him, but his charm didn’t help him when he got arrested at age eighteen–for stealing a cheesy horror movie from a video store. “Not even a good movie,” he moans. “I didn’t have the brains to steal Apocalypse Now.” He attempts an explanation: “I had been drinking all day and I tried to leave the shop with it, and it didn’t work out. My girlfriend was terribly upset and my mate was just embarrassed.”
Meanwhile, Monaghan was appearing in local theater productions and working on his own scripts. They were intended, of course, as starring vehicles for himself. They featured lots of monologues by likeable rogues: “always with a twinkle,” he says. In the middle of his first year of college, he auditioned for the TV show Hetty Wainthropp Investigates; when he was cast, he left school to take the job.
“We had a big party at home,” his father says. “I remember thinking that this was possibly what his career might amount to.”
The show, the BBC’s answer to Murder, She Wrote, starred Patricia Rutledge as an elderly female detective. Monaghan recalls, “I played a young, greasy-haired, spotty rapscallion kid, who at first is stealing from her post office. And then she feels sorry for me and we make a weird team.”
The series lasted two years; after that, Monaghan did a couple of small films and some London theater. He also auditioned, via videotape, for the role of Frodo in Lord of the Rings. When the producers were having trouble casting Merry, they returned to those English Frodo tapes. Producer/screenwriter Fran Walsh remembers: “He had the flu and spent some time apologizing for the gravelly sound of his voice. He made Frodo sound like an orc with a hangover, but he managed to crowbar the audition script off the page, which was no mean feat, and he did make us laugh.”
Monaghan got the good news in France, where he working on a TV show, riding home from the set in a van with seven or eight other actors. After Monaghan got the news on his cellphone, all the other actors fell silent, chewing on their own jealousy. Monaghan spent the rest of the ride with one arm around his then-girlfriend, feeling euphoric and uncomfortable.
Monaghan is such a good host, it’s almost comical: our meeting for an interview in Honolulu turns into drinks, dinner, a long drive around the island, lunch, a stop at his house, a hike through the hills where he points out insects, a visit to the set of Lost, and a surfing expedition at Waikiki Beach.
Or more precisely, Monaghan surfs, while I get the snot knocked out of me. Every time a big wave comes our way, I fall off my board as he twists his scrawny body, somehow using his torso to gracefully steer a board larger than his five feet seven inches towards the shore. Between waves, he offers tips on how to balance myself better; after an hour, the waves die down, so we head back to the beach. “You cowboyed up,” Monaghan says approvingly. “I like that–a lot of people give up right away.”
Monaghan learned to surf in New Zealand while filming the Rings trilogy. But his ultimate wave came this most recent New Year’s Eve, when he went surfing with fellow hobbit Billy Boyd. After catching a big one, he shot to the top, only to realize the water behind him was about to collapse on him. “I crouched down like I was hiding behind a tree,” he says. Then he got hammered. “For about three seconds, I was surrounded by cascading silent walls of water–then I shook the spray from my face and emerged on the other side, ten feet taller.”
Boyd saw the whole thing happen but doesn’t want to give Monaghan too much credit. “His surfing’s all style and no substance,” he says. “I’m a better surfer, by about a million.” He laughs. “Make sure you print that–it’ll piss him off.”
The Rings cast pledged they would keep getting together annually. That hasn’t happened, but Boyd and Monaghan have remained close. Boyd reports, “Dom’s really good about letting you stay at his house, but when you’re trying to watch a movie, he does insist on walking around the house in the nude and making cereal.”
After Rings wrapped in 2000, Monaghan found himself at loose ends. He had just been on an epic quest to the other end of the world and now he couldn’t go home. He tried anyway. “You’ve changed,” a Manchester friend said accusingly. Monaghan thought, “Of course I’ve changed. I’ve done more in the last two and a half years of my life than ever before. If I hadn’t changed, I’d have to kick myself in the ass.”
Not knowing where else to go, Monaghan moved to Los Angeles. He says quietly, “I never wanted to come to L.A .and feel backed into a corner, but that’s exactly what happened.” Every night, Monaghan would stay up until 5 am, drinking and smoking too much weed, playing videogames and writing in his diary. Then he’d sleep until 4 pm and have the same day all over again, totally alone.
“I didn’t have a car,” he says. “I didn’t have a phone–but I didn’t have any friends in L.A. anyway, no one that I could call up. I wasn’t going out, I wasn’t trying to get back on track; I was just spending a year doing nothing. It was unhealthy and melancholy for no real reason–and it was cumulative, because I got pissed off that I was depressed.”
When The Fellowship of the Ring started having premieres around the world in 2001, Monaghan was reunited with his castmates, all of whom had enjoyed more success than he did: “I was filled with shame and a little too invested in Fellowship–my whole year was aiming towards the premiere. I was in this paradox state of clearly needing help but denying it when people offer it.”
He visited Mexico, where Boyd was filming Master and Commander. Boyd said he couldn’t help with getting a job, but advised him to do something that made him happy. “So he surfed a lot,” Boyd says. “Being able to get in the water really helped him.”
Some of the people you meet who are happy made a conscious decision to be that way–which makes it that much more precious to them. One morning, Monaghan woke up, and he felt like he wasn’t carrying a concrete block on his chest anymore. He started answering the phone and eating better. “I just snapped out of it,” he says, shaking his head at this small miracle that took place inside his skull.
After J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof wrote the pilot for Lost, they had just twelve weeks to cast the show’s fourteen lead roles (and one dog). There was no part for Monaghan–Charlie was meant to be a faded pop star in his forties, someone of George Michael’s ilk. “I remembered he was one of the two little guys in the tree,” Abrams says of Monaghan. But when they met, they hit it off; the part was turned into a younger one-hit-wonder. Monaghan soon showed that without his curly Merry wig, he could play a grungy, unreliable guy–but with a twinkle. He soon proved so popular that the show’s producers made an unusual public pledge that Charlie would never be killed.
Halfway through the season, Charlie has already endured the plane crash, a cave-in, a near-death from hanging, and a surprisingly quick withdrawal from heroin. (“It’s a Disney show,” Monaghan shrugs. “They don’t want me shitting in a bag and puking into the sand every night.”) We’ve also seen the painful breakup of his band Drive Shaft. That sequence, told in flashback, revealed that Charlie had a strong sibling rivalry with his singer brother Liam–much like Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis. “He was initially called Ian,” Monaghan says, “and I said, ‘If the idea is that we are the Gallaghers, then it’s kind of silly to be that close and not call him Liam. You might as well call him Iam.” Monaghan did not, however, succeed in his campaign to insert lines of Spinal Tap dialogue about sandwiches into a scene set in the band’s dressing room.
Although so far its episodes have been split evenly between excellent and ordinary, Lost is a big hit, consistently in the top ten. A large part of that success is that every episode seems to introduce new mysteries: How did a polar bear get on the island? What do people see when they look at the monster? Why would anybody go swimming in a pair of blue jeans?
“I honestly don’t know how they make sense of where we are,” Monaghan says of the show’s creators. “They say they know. But they could say they know until September of 2011 and then go, ‘Oh fuck, you know what? We don’t know. See you later, enjoy the DVDs!'” He laughs.
Monaghan knows the events in store for Charlie this season–he wanted to make sure he could modulate his characterization properly–but the cast is kept in the dark on the show’s big mysteries. “It would be interesting for us to have dinner with a bunch of fans,” he says. “They’d realize we talk about the same shit they do: Who’s going to die next? What do you think the monster is? When are we going to cook the dog?”
Monaghan takes another bite of salad. We’re eating lunch by the Lost beach set, under a tent with a view of the ocean. The show’s ensemble seems cheerful and has good camaraderie. Part of this is common sense: they’re on a hit show, the large cast means the work isn’t too punishing, and they’re living in Hawaii. But they’ve also instituted a tradition: whoever is featured in that week’s flashback has everyone over on Wednesday night to eat dinner and watch the episode. There was an unbroken streak until the episode featuring Josh Holloway (Sawyer), when Holloway flew back to L.A. that week. To torment him, Fox called Holloway’s home phone on Wednesday evening, announcing that he was pulling up with his whole family and a 12-pack of Corona–how did he get into the building again?
Monaghan’s phone pranks are the fake voicemails he trades with J.J. Abrams: “I call up as his Indian chiropractor, he’ll call me as a gay DJ from Orange Country, and I’ll call him back as a German professor wanting to get his waist measurements. I think that’s going to continue for years.”
According to Monaghan, many of the actors replicate their social roles off-camera: Matthew Fox (Jack) is the leader of the group, Maggie Grace (Shannon) is the center of attention for the boys, Terry O’Quinn (Locke) is mysterious and a step removed from the crowd. “Dominic’s reliable,” says O’Quinn. “That’s one of the nicest things I can say about an actor. Our first scene, he told me that he does his best work when he barely knows his lines. I thought, ‘Shit. The better it’s going to be, the longer it’s going to take.'”
Abrams says, “Dom’s given us the best possible view of what we were hoping we would get. On paper, you wouldn’t sympathize with the character, but he’s brought him to life.” On the future for Charlie, Abrams says, “Every character is going through a test on this show. We introduced the notions of Charlie’s addiction and tormented personal life–that’s something we will definitely see a return to.”
After lunch, Monaghan heads for the makeup trailer to get touched up. The marks on his skin tell a history. He’s already sporting simulated bruises around his neck, the aftereffects of Charlie dangling in a noose. Tattooed on his right shoulder is the Elvish symbol for nine, a mark famously shared by the principals of the Lord of the Rings movies. On his left shoulder is a quotation from the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”: “Living is easy with eyes closed.”
The Beatles are a huge influence for Monaghan: when he fled from McCartney, it was because the idea of talking to him was overwhelming. He’s always being of an artistic gang, and so it’s no accident that in his twin career peaks, Lord and Lost, he’s served as part of a much larger ensemble. The second half of that lyric is “misunderstanding all you see,” which explains how Monaghan chose the tattoo: as a caution to himself. He wants to keep his eyes open, be receptive to the world, and ask himself “What Would Lennon Do?”
Monaghan has one other tattoo, on his right foot. It’s two small stars, one black, one white; he got them after his first year in L.A., when nothing was going right. “I wanted something that would inspire me to get freer, to get lighter,” he says. “I came to understand that the black star was where I was at, and the white star was where I wanted to be.”
Last year, when he was visiting New York, a woman wearing stiletto heels stepped on his foot. She apologized and left him bleeding. When his skin healed, there was a nick in the black-star tattoo. Some of his friends told him to get it touched up, but Monaghan knew he shouldn’t: some of his darkness had vanished.
Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a somewhat shorter version) as “Lost Boy” in Rolling Stone 967 (February 10, 2005).