Hobbit forming: how Dominic Monaghan became obsessed with scorpions

To be part of one cultural phenomenon could be considered fortuitous. To be central to two looks downright spooky. Such is the life of Dominic Monaghan, the puckish Mancunian actor who played Merry, a hobbit in the Lord of the Rings movies. A year after that trilogy ended, he was the drug-addled rock star Charlie Pace in Lost, one of the most mind-bending and widely watched TV series of all time. Today, Monaghan is speaking to me via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “Look down from the D in the Hollywood sign,” he says, “go over about a mile, and that’s me.” He’s sporting a Manchester United tracksuit top and reflecting on his Lost years.

“It might be the last show you actually had to be there to see,” says the affable 44-year-old of the pre-streaming hit, his boyish face and tufty hair offset by the gravelly Steptoe timbre of his voice. “Nowadays, we’re all bingeing. When Lost was first on, it went out on Wednesday night, and if you missed it there was the chance someone would ruin it for you the next day.” He thinks we might have sacrificed something in the age of instant gratification. “I used to pride myself on being able to watch two or three movies back to back. Now my attention span is awful.”

His latest project won’t take too large a bite out of anyone’s evening. The Kindling Hour is an online interactive quest designed for teams of up to six players, with ingenious clues ranging from fun to fiendishly hard. Monaghan, who appears as a twitchy agent, is a sucker for games. “I had so much fun playing this one. It’s like an online escape room.” Then again, his brain is wired for the sort of close reading demanded by The Kindling Hour. “I’ve always been interested in minutiae. Sometimes I miss the bigger picture. Maybe that’s an actor thing. Actors are always interested in subtext. And I’m a gardener, too. I love cultivating tiny seeds into something bigger.”

That hobby poses certain challenges in LA. “There’s no rain and I live on a hill so all the nutrients travel away. Over the years, I’ve introduced drought-tolerant plants like lavender, salvias, cactuses. My garden is the place I go to if I’m ever struggling with something. It’s an investment in the future, which has felt especially important lately.” His father, a retired biology teacher, is his green-fingered mentor, though Radio 4 also helps. “I listen to Gardeners’ Question Time. It’s beautiful, right?”

Insects are his true love. “As a kid, I loved polar bears, gorillas and lions but I wanted my connection to nature to be something I could get my hands on.” Fans of his nature series Wild Things, where he travelled the globe seeking out creatures most of us would cross a six-lane motorway to avoid, will not be surprised to learn that he currently shares his home with a tailless whip scorpion, a vinegaroon whip scorpion, four types of millipede, 12 types of woodlouse, three rattlesnakes and a lizard from Guatemala. Running through that roll-call, he knows he’s left a few out. One of his housemates is bound to be offended. Let’s hope it’s not one that bites.

He has also been known to help rehabilitate snakes rescued from theme parks, “getting them healthy, getting the parasites out of their gut system then putting them back deep into the wild where hopefully they’ll never see humans again.” What does he get out of all this? “The gifts I’ve been given over the years by nature are hard for me to quantify,” he says, with an air of reverence. “But they’ve got me through deaths and breakups, and they’ve kept the joy of life very close to my consciousness. Nature has made me want to wake up and get into the garden or hike in a forest. Any ability I might have to get an animal healthy is in some way me trying to pay that gift back.”

Monaghan finished shooting two movies prior to the first lockdown: the historical adventure Edge of the World, shot in Borneo; and a brief turn in the oddball thriller Waldo, starring Charlie Hunnam, Mel Gibson and the rapper Method Man. But as someone who has pivoted during the past year toward voice work (audiobooks, videogames), Monaghan is aware of how unstable Covid-19 has made the arts. On the day we speak, the splendid Arclight cinema has announced it will not reopen. “It’s an LA institution. I was talking this morning with the boys – Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Billy Boyd – and we were saying we wished we’d known, so we could have done a charity Lord of the Rings screening.”

What he would like to do most in his own career is theatre, once that becomes possible again. His US agents aren’t keen. “They know they can put me in a play for nine months, or they can put me in a movie for nine days and I’ll make them 15 times more money. I’m interested in the artistic journey. Agents are interested in their 10%.” Natural imagery is prone to crop up during a conversation with Monaghan, but for once it’s a cash cow that springs to mind, or a goose on the golden-egg treadmill.

As a young actor in the late 1990s, Monaghan felt he had fallen through the cracks. “I really wanted to be part of the new generation establishing itself but I wasn’t in any gang – the Trainspotting gang, or whichever gang had gone to Rada or Lamda or Oxford. I was the northern regional guy coming down to London to get jobs, and it wasn’t happening.” That he found work almost immediately when he moved to the US is something for which he still sounds grateful. Perhaps that explains why he doesn’t want to push his agents too hard: all is rosy in the garden. But at least he’s planted the seed.

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