The Fall’s Jamie Dornan won the lead in Fifty Shades of Grey. But first he plays a revolutionary in Channel 4’s Restoration drama New Worlds. Serena Davies met him
The actor Jamie Dornan is slighter in the flesh than I expected, and he’s got a mullet. We are on the set of New Worlds, Channel 4’s follow-up to 2008’s critically acclaimed The Devil’s Whore. That first series was set during the English Civil War (and starred Michael Fassbender and Andrea Riseborough); this one, to be aired next week, takes place during the Restoration, a period nigh on as bloody and politically fissured, if Martine Brant and Peter Flannery’s script is anything to go by.
Dornan is playing Abe Goffe, a young outlaw who foments revolution against the ruling elite from a forest in Oxfordshire, and whose head is turned by the beautiful Beth (Freya Mavor), the daughter of Angelica Fanshawe, the ‘whore’ of the earlier drama.
Goffe’s wild existence accounts for Dornan’s unkempt hair. While most of the cast sport rather elaborate full-head wigs, Dornan gets what he explains is a three-quarter-length number: some straggling wisps glued on to his own short back and sides, which he tugs at when we talk. He also has a beard. ‘Abe’s a character who has sacrificed pretty much everything in his life,’ he explains. ‘Including a razor.’
At the time of my set visit – summer 2013 – Dornan is best known for his modelling career (particularly his shirtless campaigns for Calvin Klein), and for his mesmeric performance as an alarmingly attractive serial killer in BBC Two’s drama series The Fall – which also starred Gillian Anderson as the police officer determined to track him down – which aired last May.
Then, days after I meet him again in October 2013, news breaks that he has landed a role that makes him the most talked-about actor in the world. Dornan won the part of Christian Grey, the dazzlingly handsome anti-hero with a penchant for light sadomasochism, in the Hollywood adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestselling (90 million copies worldwide and counting) novel by EL James. Directed by the British artist Sam Taylor-Johnson, the film is slated to be released on Valentine’s Day next year.
Looking back, I slightly worry about how this warm, open man with a flair for comic self-deprecation will adjust to the celebrity this film role will foist upon him. When we meet in a west London pub near Dornan’s Notting Hill home (he also has a cottage in the Cotswolds) one of the most animated points in our conversation is when Dornan becomes splenetic at the circus surrounding modern celebrity, and the people who actively court it.
‘Nobody sane wants just to be famous,’ he says. ‘I hate it when people say you’re asking for it by doing films. No, I’m asking for work, and I’m asking to get paid for doing something I love. I’m not asking to be followed down a street by some f****** pap.’
This sentiment is exacerbated by his previous experience of this world, when he was in a relationship with Keira Knightley for two years, from 2003 to 2005. ‘Being with Keira was an insight into how rotten the whole thing can be. A young girl is being followed around the street, there is nothing positive to say about that.’
Days after we talk a flurry of pictures appear in the tabloids of Dornan and his pregnant wife, the singer-songwriter Amelia Warner (she gave birth to a girl in December in Vancouver, where Fifty Shades was filmed).
His own origins are about as far off showbusiness as you could get, with the startling exception of his great-aunt (whom he never met), who was the actress Greer Garson, best known for Mrs Miniver and Goodbye, Mr Chips. Dornan, 31, grew up in a very different kind of Hollywood from Garson’s – Holywood, Down, a town on the edge of Belfast, with two older sisters and his father, Jim, now one of Ireland’s leading obstetricians and ‘the most energetic man I know’, and his mother, Lorna, a nurse.
The Troubles were still rumbling along in the background during his childhood, which inevitably affected him. ‘I think people from Northern Ireland have some kind of unspoken general feeling of what it is to be around segregation,’ Dornan, who considers himself, nominally, a Protestant, says. ‘You have an awareness of it because you know how much grief it’s caused. It’s a tiny percentage who have ruined it for that country, that pisses everyone else off.’
When he was 16 the rugby-mad Dornan’s childhood was devastated by the death of his mother from pancreatic cancer. ‘There’s no easy time to lose a parent,’ he says. ‘But it’s a very transitional time being that age, and a very impressionable time. It was a horrific period in my life.’
Then a year and two weeks later four friends from his school, the private Methodist College in Belfast, died in a car crash. He describes this to me as a ‘totally hideous, life-changing circumstance that you carry every day, I guess, and that’s not going to change. These are events that form your identity, I think.’
In what way, I ask. ‘I don’t know, probably nothing too positive, I think it’s changed my view on mortality and death.’
It was his father’s second wife, Samina, also an obstetrician, who encouraged Dornan to go to London to seek his fortune modelling in 2002. Having enrolled at Teesside University, where he was studying marketing, he dropped out during his first year to become a model, despite having tried and failed to get into the modelling industry by applying to go on the Channel 4 reality show Model Behaviour the year before.
After a few months of catalogue work, while he supported himself working in a pub, he soon picked up some big-name contracts with the likes of Armani, Dior and Asprey’s (where he met Knightley), and found himself booked for shoots alongside supermodels such as Kate Moss and Eva Mendes.
Calvin Klein came knocking too, and the resultant pictures in pants earned him the nickname ‘the Golden Torso’. ‘What does that mean? Is it a colour reference? I think it is meant to be a compliment. I hope it is,’ Dornan says now. The chief thing he recalls from the Calvin Klein shoots is ‘a lot of people rubbing me down with dark, oily tanning stuff – I mean, I’m a white Irish guy, it was a problem.’
He had done a bit of drama at school and knew he wanted to work in a creative field. ‘I’d always really wanted to act; but the modelling contracts came more easily.’ There was a brief flirtation with being a musician in an unsuccessful band called Sons of Jim, before his acting career really took off.
He played a Swedish paramour to the doomed queen in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette. And then he went to LA for auditions during the pilot season, which he describes as ‘one of the most dehumanising things anyone could ever go through – on an entertainment level, that is.’
He ‘got lucky’, with a reasonably big part in the first season of the hit ABC fantasy series Once Upon a Time, playing a sheriff who turns out to be the Huntsman from Snow White. It premiered in America in 2011 and netted ratings of 12 million a week. ‘That was the first job I did when I committed to being an actor,’ Dornan says. ‘Before that it was just something I did now and again and got enjoyment out of.’
But it is The Fall, the second series of which Dornan is filming now, that will probably be seen as the turning point on his acting cv. Pulling in the BBC’s highest ratings for a drama launch in eight years (audience numbers averaging 3.5 million), the show won Dornan praise for his ‘icy charisma’. He tells me the success of the role is the reason he got the dashing, rugged lead in New Worlds.
Doubtless the air of brooding wickedness behind outward charm that he cultivated so well in the series – since shown in America – also helped him secure the part of Christian Grey (replacing Charlie Hunnan, who dropped out) in the final cast of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Dornan’s character in The Fall, Paul Spector, was a conundrum. We saw him strangle women in the night then make his two young children breakfast in the morning. He would hover in doorways and slip through windows to attack his victims – a terrifying figure who loomed over the screen – and then settle into an armchair and offer bereavement counselling at work a few hours later, sometimes without having been to bed in between.
Gillian Anderson had been cast before Dornan got the part. ‘Gillian is extremely minimal in what she does, very internalised, very thoughtful, very unshowy,’ Allan Cubitt, The Fall’s writer and creator, tells me. ‘So I knew I needed someone who could match that.’
He cites a scene they used in auditions where Spector had come back, after perpetrating a fetishistic, voyeuristic burglary, to his children, whom he had left on their own while his wife worked a night shift as a nurse. ‘Some people were playing it as if he wanted to murder his child… But Jamie came in and spoke very kindly to the boy, then kissed his daughter goodnight, and that’s much more disconcerting for the audience.
I had in mind someone who is very still in what they did and who the audience would project quite complex feelings on to,’ Cubitt continues. ‘In the way, for example, Al Pacino did in The Godfather. He had that quality where he was watchful, where he didn’t reveal very much about himself and bit by bit you were drawn into trying to decipher what sort of person he was.’
Dornan is softer on Spector than Cubitt. ‘I think Allan would say Spector doesn’t love his children but he has a bond with them,’ he says. ‘But I wanted to prove he did love them. I think there’s empathy to be had with him on that tiny level, and that’s all you need to play him. A hint that he’s human.’
Dornan had a more straightforward job playing New World’s Abe Goffe, a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve. ‘Abe’s a young idealist, a bit of a renegade, a Robin Hood-esque figure in that he has a group of men who are fighting a cause for him, the cause to make England a true republic and to end the tyrannical rule of Charles Stuart the second,’ Dornan says. ‘He’s also continuing on the course his father fought before him.’
In the drama fact and fiction are mixed up to create an imaginary but plausible tale of young people grappling with establishment powers, both in England and in the ‘new world’ of the early settlements in North America. Dornan’s character Abe may be fictional but his father is the real William Goffe, who signed the document that ordered the beheading of Charles I. ‘The drama considers, if William Goffe had a son, what he would be doing,’ Dornan says.
Both Goffe and Spector are creatures of intense passions, which is perhaps what Dornan is best at conveying so convincingly. ‘He has enough anger, enough fire in him generally for the part,’ Peter Flannery, the New Worlds writer most famous for his 1990s hit Our Friends in the North, says. ‘He also has great commitment.’
As for Christian Grey, Dornan’s remarks on playing the tortured lead of EL James’s story have been only fragmentary since he got sucked into the studio machine of what many expect to be a Hollywood money-spinner – although the fact that Sam Taylor-Johnson is its director suggests it will aim for a sophisticated feel.
‘A lot of people care about this book and I’m not under any illusion that they don’t,’ Dornan said in a recent interview with the American magazine Entertainment Weekly. ‘All I can say is I’m going to do everything in my power to portray Christian Grey as truthfully as possible. I can’t guarantee that’s going to please everyone – just me being cast doesn’t please everyone, but it’s happened and I’m going to give it everything.’
That earnestness sounds authentic. Jamie Dornan is a man who finds it hard to tell a lie – although he had to sling me a whole set of them at our meeting last October when pretending his Fifty Shades part wasn’t happening and he had nothing planned between then and now except having a baby.
He has learnt not to give much away about his romantic relationships, too – on Knightley he says only, ‘It was a long time ago,’ which has been his stock answer for a few years now. He demurs too on Amelia Warner, his girlfriend of five years and wife of one, although he is expansive on the joys of fatherhood. ‘That’s a new challenge and adventure, and I can’t wait.’
I like his dismissiveness of new parents who can only moan about the lack of sleep they’re getting – ‘you might sleep a bit less but you’ve got this small life to look after.’ He adds, ‘I am quite good on little sleep. I think a lot of that is an attitude thing. I think the same about hangovers. You can compound your misery by not getting out of bed and not facing the day. But if you actually get the f*** up you might not be as miserable.’ It is a philosophy that is hard to argue with.
‘New Worlds’ begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday, April 1, at 9pm
Epic historical drama New Worlds hits our TV screens later this month, bringing with it a new generation of talented actors. Lucy Hunter Johnston meets the show’s rising stars, including a certain Jamie Dornan, aka Christian Grey in the new film adaptation of Fifty Shades — scream!
The corset crew is getting some new members, thanks to the forthcoming Channel 4 historical drama New Worlds. The four-part mini-series comes from the creators of the 2008 BAFTA-nominated The Devil’s Whore, which starred Michael Fassbender and Dominic West. Set during the Restoration, as Charles II takes back the throne with a reign of terror, it stars Jamie Dornan, Joe Dempsie, Alice Englert and Freya Mavor as young revolutionaries and star-crossed lovers, fighting on both sides of the Atlantic. Expect sex, murder, plotting and treason. This will fill a Game of Thrones-shaped hole until the new season starts in April.
New Worlds begins on Channel 4 at the end of March
JAMIE DORNAN, Abe Gough, revolutionary outlaw
Do you want me to do it now?’ asks Jamie Dornan in a low Northern Irish lilt. He composes himself with a swig of tea then directs the full force of his piercing gaze towards me. Wham! There it is: the trademark ‘Dornan furrow’, the face that sold a thousand pairs of pants for Calvin Klein, terrified an audience of 3.5 million in the BBC Two drama The Fall, and will be glaring down upon Anastasia Steele’s backside, spanking paddle in hand, as the billionaire BDSM fanatic Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey film.
Dornan is adamant he always wanted to act and that his supermodelling career, working with brands from Dior to Hugo Boss as the so-called ‘Golden Torso’, was merely a lucrative distraction. Brooding aside, he’s far from your stereotypical clotheshorse. He’s a hard-drinking, rugby-playing, Man United-supporting 31-year-old who listens to The Kinks, reads Oscar Wilde and litters his conversation with expletives. ‘I’ve never felt massively satisfied from standing there while someone takes my photograph,’ he says. ‘It’s never given me a thrill.’ So why did he do it? ‘It would take a very foolish man to turn down the stuff that was offered to me. You’re in your twenties, and people are going to give you a silly amount of money to lean against a wall with your head down. F*** me, you’ve got to do it.’ In fact, he’s still at it. This season he is being paid a small fortune as the face of the chic Italian suit label Zegna and upmarket trainer brand Hogan.
His first acting gig was a small part playing Kirsten Dunst’s love interest in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, but numerous failed auditions followed. ‘I mean f***ing hundreds of them. Some of them totally humiliating experiences,’ he says. ‘People attach too much to the idea of being a model, that you can only be a certain way to have done it. You will always be dealing with it. You’re an actor who used to be a model who never trained; there are not many directors queuing up.’
Then last year he got lucky. He originally auditioned to play a police officer in The Fall, but was summoned back from a thankless LA pilot season to read for the lead, the disturbingly alluring killer Paul Spector. After a ‘really brutal’ six-hour session he got the job, opposite Gillian Anderson’s DSI Stella Gibson. ‘I felt shocked and bewildered, and above all else very frightened,’ he remembers. ‘I was hungry to prove it was within my capabilities, but f***ing over the moon.’ After years of being pushed to audition for dry, ‘shit’ parts, and then not even getting them, it was the biggest of breaks. ‘They took a risk. I wasn’t who people were thinking of for that part. Right from the start the writer, Allan Cubitt, had this underlying belief that I was the guy, and I am massively thankful to him for that. But I feel like I f***ing earned it. I worked my dick off for that role.’ The series went on to become BBC Two’s highest-rated drama launch in almost a decade, in no small part due to the sickening appeal of Dornan’s portrayal, and the second series will start filming in his native Northern Ireland this month.
If Spector was part of a plan to kill off the pretty-boy alter ego, then it was a stroke of genius. But I wonder if being recognised as a sadistic killer, rather than for how he looks in his underwear, was actually the aim. ‘I had one incident in Notting Hill Gate where someone pointed at me and screamed, “There’s that serial killer!” That created a bit of a stir. But I love it. I loved playing that sick, sick man… whatever that means.’
And from one sick man to another. Dornan has just returned from Vancouver, where he was filming Fifty Shades, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of EL James’ erotic novel series that outsold Harry Potter and got housewives the world over hot under the collar, allegedly bringing about its own baby boom. Dakota Johnson, daughter of the Miami Vice actor Don and Melanie Griffith, will play Anastasia Steele, the shy, virginal student who has her sexual awakening in Grey’s ‘Red Room of Pain’. ‘I’ve never felt that Christian needs to be some kind of monster,’ he has said previously of the role. ‘I certainly don’t fear it. I already got a glimpse into working with Sam at the test, and I’d met Dakota by then. So I had an idea of how I felt it would be if I got the part. None of it scared me.’ Dornan wasn’t Taylor-Johnson’s first choice. He sent in an audition tape, but had lost out to Queer as Folk and Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam. ‘You know, one door closes, another opens,’ he has said. ‘When he dropped out, I didn’t instantly think, “Oh, here we go, maybe I should cancel that holiday,” but I did feel that maybe we’d revisit the idea of me.’ Christian Grey is the second severely damaged character he’ll have played in as many years, so I suspect that New Worlds’ Abe Gough, a revolutionary outlaw who roams the woods, but is a man of principles, was a welcome respite.
Dornan is no stranger to tragedy. He grew up near Belfast, with two older sisters and an obstetrician father. When he was 16 he lost his mother to pancreatic cancer. The following year, four schoolfriends were killed in a car crash. ‘Going through that certainly has had an effect on the darker side of my psyche,’ he says, talking slowly. ‘I was 16… Look, I’m not saying that experiencing loss is why I can cope with darker worlds, I’m not saying that for a second, but I think it opens up a side of you in terms of work that wouldn’t be as accessible had that stuff not happened.’
He lives in Notting Hill with his wife Amelia Warner, 31, an ‘amazing musician’ who controversially covered The Smiths three Christmases ago for a John Lewis advert, and their three-month-old daughter. The couple met through friends on the LA scene (she used to be an actress, and in 2001 ‘married’ Colin Farrell on a beach in Tahiti, although the ceremony wasn’t legally binding and they split soon after).
Is Dornan a romantic? ‘I don’t know what the template is or what the parameters are,’ he replies, ‘but I think I’m pretty decent at all that kind of stuff.’ Does he have a romcom in him somewhere? ‘Definitely, one hundred per cent if it was well crafted, which loads of them aren’t. I like the idea of comedy. Being a leading man can come in many different forms.’
Whether it’s a roaring success or a colossal disappointment, the release of Fifty Shades next year will undoubtedly change his life. But he’s had the best kind of preparation for stardom: he’s already been on plenty of billboards, sometimes half-naked, and he attended red- carpet dos on the arm of Keira Knightley when they dated a decade ago. ‘It was a strange environment to find yourself in, being hounded and followed. It’s really hideous. F***ing hell, [the paparazzi] are cretins. I couldn’t have less respect for those guys. There are so many ways to make a living that don’t involve hiding in bushes opposite houses of 18-year-old girls with a camera in your hand. That’s not making a living, that’s making a choice to be a perverted f***head.’ He’s thankful his own big moment has arrived in his thirties. ‘That scrutiny when you’re older will be easier to take. And I don’t think I’m ever going to be as famous as her.’ It also helps that he has friends from home who keep him grounded via WhatsApp, sending round embarrassing photographs of him as a teenager. ‘A friend of mine said, “I heard about Fifty Shades. Congratulations on the role. That’s going to be disgusting. I won’t watch it.” ’ I think the rest of the world just might.