Onward Christian’s Soldiers
Ruth Shalit Barrett meets the actor poised to satisfy millions of women’s deepest yearnings – as Fifty Shades’ brooding, billionaire sex god, Christian Grey
My heart is pounding. My legs are pure jelly. I’m a quivering mess. Christian Grey is sitting across from me.
He’s so good looking, it’s unnerving. His hair is tousled. His gaze is steely, like molten gray fire.
Oh my. I swallow my Diet Coke convulsively. What’s happening? What’s he going to do now?
His long fingered hands reach for the cheese plate. I gasp and flush scarlet as he piles Manchego and chorizo on crusty bread. “Mmmm,” he says.
He looks up at me, his eyes full of some unfathomable question.
Holy cow. Could this be more erotic?
“Is this whole-grain mustard?” he asks.
My heart pounds faster. The blood thrums in my ears. I go into cardiac arrest.
Okay, so it’s not really Christian Grey. It’s Jamie Dornan, the 32-year-old Irish actor who plays the wayward billionaire in the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey movie. And we’re not in wooden chalet in the middle of a forest. We’re having lunch in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.
But still. The sculpted features. The chiseled body. The heart-melting charm. And that intense, smoldering gray gaze.
Oh, douple crap. Oh, triple crap.
“As you can imagine, casting Christian Grey felt near impossible,” says Sam Taylor-Wood, the glamorous, plummy-voiced English director who is helming the film adaptation of E.L. James’ best-selling erotic novel. “Charismatic, successful, powerful. On the page, you’re looking at a total fantasy figure. You had to narrow down the possibilities to, maybe, three people in the world.” And so when Charlie Hunnam, the filmmakers’ first choice for Christian, dropped out of the project shortly after he was cast and was replaced by Dornan, Fifty Shades fans yowled like a gaggle of spanked coeds. The hashtag #NotMyChristian started trending on Twitter. Even the release of a steamy trailer failed to placate the diehards, who feared the baby-faced Dornan – a former Clavin Klein underwear model whose credits include the ABY fairy-tale series Once Upon A Time – was too adorable to truss anyone up. ‘FIFTY SHADES OF GREY’ TRAILER DISILLUSIONS MASOCHISTIC FANS, proclaimed one headline.
But the Grey groupies need to put on their big-girl panties. Jamie Dornan has got this. “As an actor, he’s incredibly versatile and skilled,” Taylor-Wood says. “He can do the full range or darkness and vulnerability. If he needs to be an adorable puppy, he’s an adorable puppy. But if I need him to be dark and dangerous, he’s dark and dangerous. I think people will be surprised to see what he’s capable of.”
Dornan was born in suburban Belfast in 1982, his father a prominent obstetrician, his mother a nurse who died of pancreatic cancer when he was 16. Following brief stints as a musician, a rugby player, and an amateur actor, he dropped out of college and became a wildly successful model, dubbed “the golden torso” by The New York Times. In 2005, then-girlfriend Keire Knightley introduced Dornan to her agent and he made jump to the big screen, playing the seductive Count Axel Fersen in Sofie Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
But the Fifty Shades role is a triple axel. “I wonder what it is about this set of books that hasm excuse my pun, penetrated the global market,” he says in his soft-grained Irish brogue. “What is it that’s just so on the pulse of what women want?”
He helps himself to some soppressata. “I think a lot of people try to undermine the whole thing,” he says. “But it’s hard to undermine something that’s so successful. Mass appreciation doesn’t always equate to something good. Think of Hitler! But I think, in this case, it must. It simply must. There’s got to be merit in it if so many people agree.”
Dornan, who lives in London with his wife and year-old daughter, is in L.A. only for a few days; he’ll soon be jetting to Vancouver to film a supernatural thriller by French director Alexandre Aja called The Ninth Life of Louis Drax.
Although impossibly handsome, he’s been battling shoulder problems, and his posture, as he leans over the cheese plate, is a tiny bit hunched and Uriah Heep-ish. No Christian Grey-style bespoke suit for him this morning; he’s grown a scruffy beard for Louis Drax and sports a raglan-sleeved baseball tee, jeans, and sneakers, all courtesy of Nike. “They’re just nice people,” says Dornan. “They said ‘Hey, we want to give you some stuff.‘ And I said, ‘I’m cool with that‘ So they came over yesterday. Sorted me out with some stuff. And this morning, I thought, Hey, I’ll put this on. This is clean. I’m basically living out of a suitcase this week, so it’s perfect.”
Is Dornan a Nike brand ambassador? “I don’t know how it works,” he says. “But look at me. Here I am, all kitted out. Talking about them. Everyone’s a winner!”
Not everyone in L.A. has been as welcoming. “The other day, this woman came up and started shouting at me, ‘Matt Bomer’s the real Christian Grey,‘” Dornan says. “And I was like, um, okay.”
He sips his espresso, looking baffled. “I mean, even if you cast Matt Bomer, or Alexander Skarsgard, or Charlie Hunnam, or any of those other guys – we’d all just be doing our best, you know? Christian Grey – he isn’t a real person. He’s a superhero – a myth. He’s like Bigfoot! He’s unbelievable. He’s unattainable. There’s no actor in the world who could live up to that.”
But Dornan is being too hard on himself. Sure, Christian Grey is a brooding sex god who smells of expensive body wash, drives an Audi R8 Spyder, and sits atop an insane fantasy conglomerate encompassing communications technology, eco-manufacturing, and “advanced crop rotation.” Sure, he has practically all the money in the world, possesses a state-of-the-art range, and also happens to be “the epitome of male beauty,” according to Anastasia Steele, the wide-eyed orgasmatron who serves as his amanuensis. And yes, he reads Tom Hardy, cranks up Renaissance madrigals, and murmurs vague blah-blah about Darfur and sustainability. But if you’re looking to anoint a thinking woman’s sex symbol, Dornan leaves Mr. Control Freak in the dust. Who can resist a Northern Irish hottie who collects late-period Elvis memorabilia, has played in a folk band, and has read every novel by Paul Auster? “His wife is a great writer as well,” Dornan says eagerly. “Siri Hustvedt… What a swell couple they must be! That’s who you want at a dinner party, those two.”
Chiseled abs and existentialist fiction? What a dream-boat! The question isn’t whether Dornan is up to the task of playing a flogger-wiedling nutcake – but rather, whether the rolse will be worthy of such a wry, erudite, and soulful actor. Surely this lovely man deserves better lines than the Fifty Shades blue plate specials: “I’m fully aware that this is a darf path I’m leading you down.” “Why didn’t you safeword, Anastasia?” And so on, into the red-bottomed twilight.
There are no safewords around Paul Spector, the serial killer, Dornan currently plays in the BBC Two series The Fall. By day, Spector is a kindly bereavement counselor; by night, a sadistic, sexually motivated murderer of women. “My last few jobs, I’ve found myself playing characters who are not exactly Mr. Funny” says Dornan, in the understatement of the year. “You know, they’re not roles Steve Martin would have played in the ’80s.”
On the plus side, the actor has been able to make use of his teenage stint as a competitive sailor. “Knots,” he says “I can do a few. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Fall, but I tie up women a lot. This year, I had maybe a week off between wrapping Fifty Shades and starting the second season of The Fall. So it was like seven months straight of tying up women. I think I’d like to do a comedy next.”
Dornan began filming Fifty Shades in November 2013m three days after his wife, the singer-songwriter Amelia Warner, gave birth to their first child. Instead of savoring the joys of new parenthood, he had to kiss wide goodbye at 6 A.M and head to the set to spank Dakota Johnson with a riding crop. “It was a mad time,” Dornan says, “insane.” Says Taylor-Wood, “As you can imagine, there were some difficult scenes for me to shoot, as well as for them to be in. But all of that was made possible with Jamie and Dakota. If one of them was struggling, the other would try to life that moment with buoyancy and lightness.” Taylor-Wood dismisses rumors of lackluster chemistry between her two leads: “The chemistry, you’ll see, is very much there, and appropriate.” Johnson herself says, “I think [the sex scenes] are really sexy. People will be very happy.” She pauses. “God, I hope so. Or we have a giant failure on our hands!”
If Fifty Shades vaults Dornan into ranks of A-list stars, all those hours spent in the psychosexual selt mines will have been worth it. “Every actor craves choice” he says. “Doing this film already seems to be giving me an element of choice in what I do next, and I’m finding that quite liberating.”
“I’m so impressed with Jamie,” says Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Christian’s mother, Dr. Grace Trevelyan Grey. “I admire his incredible bravery as an actor, taking on some suoer-intimate material that is extremely well-known, where there will be many opinions about how it should be done, and just taking it all in stride.” She sees Dornan following the career arc of Brad Pitt. “Brad and Jamie are both exquisitely beautiful. And because they’re excuisitely beautiful, some people might be dismissive of them. But Brad was a heartthrob who wanted to transform, who did transform. So will Jamie.”
In the meantime, she says, Fifty Shades fans should sit back and enjoy the eye candy. “Let’s face it, it’s all about sexual fantasy. You have a hundered million women who’ve read about things Christian does to Anastasia, and imagined him doing the very same things to them. Now, the question is: Who would want doing these things to you? No one single person could ever satisfy everyone’s fantasies.”
Harden laughs. “But Jamie’s going to satisfy quite a few.”
– Jamie Dornan > Magazines Scans > 2015 > ELLE Magazine US (February)