The fictional counterparts of English actor Dominic Monaghan have had run-ins with all sorts of formidable creatures, from orcs in The Lord of the Rings to fellow mutants in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But lately, he’s been capturing on camera his encounters with creatures far more real and often just as fearsome — if not more so.
The Lost alum’s nature-trekking, animal-searching show Wild Things With Dominic Monaghan airs its season 1 finale tonight on BBC America. The series is viewers’ chance to join Monaghan on what he calls “the way I’m used to holidaying”: journeying deep into the middle-of-nowhere places of the world to catch a glimpse of some wild, often dangerous animals. Among the creepy-crawlies he’s showcased on Wild Things are scorpions, snakes, beetles, centipedes, leeches, and giant bees.
When EW caught up with Monaghan before the finale, he told us about his favorite childhood encounters with animals, how the show’s influences range from nature enthusiasts like Steve Irwin to a certain famous chef, what fans can expect for tonight’s finale, and what he has in store for the future of the show — which he is hopeful will get a season 2 renewal.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve said that you’ve been into animals ever since you were a kid. Are there any particular childhood encounters with animals you look back on fondly? Were you always that kid digging up worms and snakes in the backyard?
DOMINIC MONAGHAN: Yeah, I was. I was that kid that always had different insects in my pencil case — bees and ants and wasps. Any insect that I found that was dead, I would bring in and check it out, but the live ones as well. I had worms in jars, and snails and ants and things like that. I have very, very fond memories of collecting frogspawn when I was a kid. And once they became little miniature frogs, we’d take them back down to the pond and let them go. I used to go around to all the webs in my garden and grab insects and put them in the web and watch the spiders come out. So I was certainly very curious about anything in the natural world. Insects was just something I was able to interact with on a daily basis, but at nighttime I was reading books about wild and glamorous animals like tigers and elephants and gorillas and orangutans and things like that.
It must have been fun to be in your class when it was show and tell time.
[Laughs] I don’t know about that. There were a few times in school where I was a little bored in class, so I would open my pencil case and 10 wasps would be flying around in the classroom. I was a little bit of a tearaway at school. I was obviously enthusiastic about some lessons and not in any way interested in others. I was fiercely protective of the natural world. I remember getting into a fight at school with a bunch of kids — they were harassing a hedgehog that they’d found on the ground at the school, trying to play football with this hedgehog and stuff like that, and I tried to break it up, which didn’t prove too fruitful for the hedgehog. Unfortunately I got there a little bit late. I would always be completely devastated to watch any animal being teased or hurt.
Which nature shows or films are you a fan of or do you consider influences?
I was a massive Steve Irwin fan. I’ve really found that the unfortunate and tragic death of Steve Irwin was probably the major reason why I really kickstarted making Wild Things. I’d wanted to do a nature show for a long time, but I used his death as a real positive influence to make me actually go and do it.
Obviously David Attenborough, who I think has made the greatest natural history shows of all time. Jacques Cousteau is obviously someone whose work is amazing, and his son as well, Philippe Cousteau, is fantastic. And a couple of names that might not be as well known: Simon King is someone who I really like. There are a couple of other influences that aren’t necessarily nature shows either. I really like the way Anthony Bourdain travels. He’s kind of fearless. He does it with a certain wry sense of humor. He obviously jumps straight into food and local culture without being intimidated. No Reservations — I like the tenacity of it. I like the fearlessness of travel associated with it.
What is your preparation and research process like for each episode?
The production company, Cream, has field researchers, so I’ll sit down with them, and we’ll work out the animals that we’re going to go after. So for example, when we go to Vietnam, we’re looking for the world’s most dangerous aquatic insect because we thought that sounded like a pretty great way of selling [the episode] in one sentence. So as soon as we pick that particular animal, we probably have between three weeks and a month to prepare. We will all do as much of our research as possible online. So I’ll find out exactly where it lives in Vietnam, what it feeds on, how it behaves, how aggressive it is, anything interesting that I might need to know, and I’ll jot that down. Then, similar to kind of a spider web effect with our target animal being in the middle, we’ll do all these things that branch off from it. What animals does it feed on? What animals feed on it? And I’ll learn all about those animals. As I’m doing my work, I’m constantly getting sent biological, scientific papers about that animal or about other animals that we might have a chance to see, and we start to build a kind of map for that particular journey. By the time I get on the plane, I have a relatively big folder about my trip that I can use to cross-reference. My general knowledge about animals is okay, so if I see something that we’ve not necessarily researched, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll have an idea of what it is.
I love all those moments when you discover other animals while you’re on the search for that target animal, like when you found the porcupine in last week’s episode. How serendipitous is that really, or are you seeking out these other animals too?
It’s a combination of a few things, really. The vast majority of the time, we’re just on our way to somewhere. We’re finishing up a scene and another animal crosses our path, or we’re on our way to a scene. We shoot a lot of traveling shots, me walking through the jungle, passing by beautiful trees, or me walking over a hill looking at a view. I’m pretty good with knowing where animals are going to be, and my spidey sense, for want of a better word, is pretty good with those types of animals. With the porcupine, [our guide had told us] there was a porcupine living in that area. We said, “Okay, let’s start rolling. We’ll walk into that area, and we’ll just see if it’s hanging out,” and we were lucky enough that it was feeding at that particular time. That one was probably a little more set up than it ordinarily happens. Because it’s a six-man crew, because humans tend to make an inordinate amount of noise in comparison to other animals, we just find ourselves disturbing a couple of animals, and they come to us.
You have to have talented camera operators to be really fast at catching shots of animals scurrying past.
We’ve got two great guys, Mike Reid, a young, enthusiastic guy in his early 20s. He’s very strong and not scared of anything. He shoots all our macro photography. And Frank Vilaca, who I wanted to establish as a real character in the show, so I’m constantly talking to him throughout the show, is an ex-military cameraman who doesn’t seem to feel pain and isn’t too scared of anything.
I think one of the great strengths of the show is how beautifully the animals are shot. I wanted all the sequences that don’t include animals to feel kind of jagged and fun and very street-wise and funky and cool, but then as soon as we start shooting the animals, I didn’t want any tricks at all. I wanted it to just be beautiful shots of their amazingly, vibrantly colored skin and just showing how varied and stunning these animals can be.
When you went after the Malaysian Honey Bees in last week’s episode, were Frank or Mike strung up in that tree with you?
Yeah, Frank went up before me. I am very scared of heights, and I did not want to be the first person up there waiting for Frank to bring all his gear up there. He actually made me feel very comfortable because Frank is not scared of heights at all. Paul [Kilback], our director, was at the bottom, and Paul just shouted up to me, “Talk to Frank about everything you know about honey bees. That’s it. I’m not going to ask you to do anything else.” So once the camera was rolling, I probably spoke for 15 or 20 minutes, everything I knew about honey bees in general, and then about these particular honey bees, and once we were done, Paul yelled “cut,” and I said, “Is that it?” and he said, “Yeah,” and I said, “Take me down now!”
It’s amazing that you were able to think clearly enough to remember everything you know about honey bees and speak articulately about them while up 140 feet above the ground with a fear of heights.
I knew that we had to get the shot. I also knew that if I did it sooner rather than later, I would get down onto terra far more quickly. To be honest, with all the distractions around, with the beauty of these bees with me being 140 feet up with all this equipment and ropes, there’s an element of it feeling so surreal that you kind of forget for a minute, and then you just get on with it.