British actor Dominic West has a dash of that old Hemingway machismo. He has run (twice) with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and still enjoys a swim in the ice-cold North Atlantic. Even so, going out on patrol in January with Baltimore homicide cops gave him pause. It was a mere two weeks after West had been cast as James McNulty, a maverick Baltimore police detective trying to bring down a drug kingpin in HBO's summer series The Wire. Hoping to soak up ambiance, West says he found himself at a hospital trauma ward "next to a guy who'd been shot eight times, three times in the head. I was thinking, 'What the hell am I doing here?' This guy takes eight shots, and he's alive. If somebody showed a gun to me, I'd probably die."

Viewers of The Wire wouldn't think so. West, 32, has the hard-boiled American accent down pat, matching the gritty landscape created by producer David Simon, the former Baltimore reporter whose book inspired NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street. And West's dark, lived-in good looks are perfect for troubled McNulty, a man with a drinking problem. "Dominic isn't some fair-haired boy of the moment," says Sonja Sohn, who plays Det. Shakima Greggs. "He carries a very mature male energy."

And a new camcorder. On his days off the never-wed actor has been shooting everything from the Preakness at Pimlico to Pennsylvania Dutch country. When a long weekend opens up, says a friend, London acting student Dominic Geraghty, "he flies to England and spends his time with Martha," West's 3-year-old daughter with former girlfriend Polly Astor, a journalist turned homemaker.

West grew up in Sheffield in the north of England, where he was one of seven children—five girls, two boys—of George West, owner of a plastics-manufacturing plant, and his wife, Moya, a theater-loving home-maker. Dominic, whose parents divorced in 1996, began appearing in community theater by age 9. Four years later he enrolled in the drama program at Eton, the famously privileged boarding school where, as an upperclassman, he admits, "you feel like you're a feudal lord."

After graduation he just wanted to be a dude. "I was 18, and it was my dream to do something different," he says of his four months as a cattle herder in Argentina in 1988. "I lived with gauchos. I ate armadillo and guinea pig—and downed them with wine." Later that year he enrolled at Dublin's Trinity College, graduating in 1993 with a B.A. in English lit.

Despite a collegiate stint on the rugby field—and those bulls in Pamplona—West focused on stage and film roles in the '90s. Onscreen for seconds as a palace guard in 1999's Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace ("to be a hero to my seven nephews"), he was in 28 Days a year later, sharing a love scene with Sandra Bullock. To break the ice, "she tore off her robe," he says, "and revealed a bikini made out of bagels."

In August, after The Wire wraps, he'll be jetting back to London to spend more time with Martha—"I miss her like mad," he says—and to prep for his first-ever triathlon. If that's not quite the same as herding cattle on the high plains of Argentina, well, heck, he's a star now. "I am an adventure seeker," West says. "A fair-weather adventure seeker."

Tom Gliatto
Melody Simmons in Baltimore

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