Can Jamie Dornan Dominate Hollywood?
When Dornan landed the role of Christian Grey in the hotly anticipated adaptation of E L James’ BDSM-themed bestseller, the 32-year-old Irish model turned actor was asked not only to play a dashing billionaire with a taste for bondage—but also to bear the weight of millions of women’s sexual fantasies. No pressure, though.
“You bitch!” Jamie Dornan mutters. “Sorry,” he adds with a guilty glance. The Irish actor—who, as the star of the big-screen adaptation of the bodice ripper Fifty Shades of Grey, will either stoke or douse the sexual fantasies of millions of women—has just shot a female antelope on the virtual savannas of Africa. “The point is to only shoot the guys,” he says, before pumping his plastic rifle and firing again, taking down a male. He quickly reloads and bags another.
It’s early afternoon—a rare beautiful fall day in Vancouver, a city known for its own shades of gray and the rain that goes with them—and Dornan, a pint of beer at his elbow, has dragged me to the Lamplighter, a dark wood-paneled Irish pub, so that he can play Big Buck Hunter HD. “Addiction is a terrible thing,” he says with a soft chuckle, lifting his rifle for the next round. “There are three dudes per stage that you have to kill, but there will be other shit running around, other animals and women—not actual women, not like Anita.”
Anita is one of the game’s scantily clad tour guides—also known as Big Buck girls—who appear between stages, rewarding hunters by striking suggestive poses or blowing kisses. I wonder aloud if an exception can be made to the no-killing-females rule. “My wife hates the girls too,” Dornan says. “She introduced me to Big Buck—it was one of the things I loved most about her.” Realizing this sounds like a less-than-ringing endorsement, he soon corrects himself. “It was a bonus aspect of her character.”
To wit: Soon after he married the actress and singer Amelia Warner in April 2013, she bought him tickets to see Don Rickles in Atlantic City. “I’m the biggest Rickles fan,” he says. “If I didn’t know I’d married the right woman before then . . .” This is unexpected: a 32-year-old former fashion model born in Belfast infatuated with the quintessential insult comic from Queens. “New York Jewish humor’s my favorite thing, and he’s the epitome of that,” Dornan says. “He’s the only person in the world I’d do this for, but I had my publicist get me a signed photo of Rickles, which hangs framed over my bathtub in London.”
Dornan is here making a film, the supernatural thriller The 9th Life of Louis Drax, written by his friend Max Minghella. It’s his third time shooting in the Hollywood of Canada: Much of Fifty Shades was filmed in Gastown, the neighborhood we’re in now, and in 2011 he had an eight-episode arc on the ABC drama Once Upon a Time, also shot here. During that time, he lived around the corner from another Irish pub, where his Big Buck Hunter habit blew up. “I was really bad at the beginning, and I used to get so worked up playing—I’m so competitive,” says Dornan, whose parting gift from his Once Upon a Time costars Jennifer Morrison and Ginnifer Goodwin was an arcade-size version of the game that he keeps in his London home. “But one thing I learned from 10 years of audition fails is that I’m a persistent motherfucker.”
That decade of futility led up to and followed his first film role, a small part in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Before that he was best known for high-end modeling campaigns (Calvin Klein, Armani) and his two-year relationship with Keira Knightley. It took him another three years to land a second feature film, and four more after that to win the role that made him a star in Britain: serial killer Paul Spector on the BBC series The Fall, costarring Gillian Anderson. Regardless of how Fifty Shades is received when it opens on February 13, auditions and anonymity should no longer be a problem.
When it’s my turn to hunt virtual big game, Dornan offers what could qualify as life advice: “It goes very fast, and you have to remember to reload between each shot.” Anita returns to the screen, gyrating rather unenthusiastically. “She doesn’t seem to be as thrilled for you as she was for me,” he observes, raising his pint glass.
Draft beer, arcade games, safari girls, shambolic clothing, scruffy beard. We’re a long way from Christian Grey, the clean-shaven, bespoke-suited, BDSM-inclined billionaire Dornan plays in Fifty Shades. How disheartening this afternoon of casual masculine posturing might be for the book’s palpitating female fans—though, for my money, the self-deprecating, lighthearted reality of Dornan is more appealing than the dark, pristine Grey.
When we finish the bonus rounds, about 10 minutes later, Dornan’s initials place him seventh among the high scorers. “Right between Choda and Retard“—though it’s spelled Raetard. “I’m just below Retard,” Dornan says. “That’s fantastic. Says it all, really.”
Even if you haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, the hype and the ubiquity of the book—in the hands of commuters, sticking out of beach bags and coat pockets, dog-eared on your mother’s or even your girlfriend’s nightstand—were impossible to avoid. “I’m one of those snobby pricks who never reads anything that’s hugely popular,” says Dornan, who didn’t crack it open until he got the part. “But I was acutely aware of the book. How could you not be?”
Critics have not been kind to Fifty Shades (the phrase “mummy porn” regularly crops up) and its two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, all by the British author E L James. The prose is particularly purple when describing the preposterously perfect Grey, whose every square inch of flesh is examined and acclaimed. (“He’s not merely good-looking,” the hot-and-bothered heroine thinks in Chapter 2, “he’s the epitome of male beauty, breathtaking.”) The success of the series has nothing to do with literary merit and everything to do with the age-old female fantasy of a bookish, insecure (yet spunky!) woman—with the epically overwrought name of Anastasia Steele—being desired by a fabulously wealthy, worldly, and supremely powerful guy who is not, let’s face it, Rupert Murdoch. “When I first read the book, I saw centuries of love-story archetypes, like Beauty and the Beast—where the mysterious, wounded Prince Charming is redeemed by the love of a woman,” says Michael De Luca, who coproduced the film.
For all the discussion of S&M, the amount of actual bondage and erotic torture in the book is minimal. In the end, it’s a slightly racier, girl-power version of a Victorian romance novel—vibrator not included. Despite or perhaps because of this, the trilogy has sold more than 100 million copies. Universal paid a reported $5 million for the rights and spent another estimated $40 million to make the film.
The prospect of a grown-up version of the Twilight franchise was no doubt tantalizing, but the odds for adult dramas aimed at women are long: Only two—Pretty Woman and Gone Girl (which went to great lengths to market itself to men)—are among the top 25 highest-grossing R-rated films of all time. Then again, few movies can claim the rabid fan base of Fifty Shades: Judging by the response to the first few trailers, cougars can geek it as well as the Comic-Con crew. Although the first Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer is likely to overtake Fifty Shades’ first for the most views of 2014, it’s clear that Christian Grey awakens a force deep within women of a certain age. Indeed, disappointment over the announcement that Dornan’s junk would not be on display, per his contract, caused a louder uproar than Ben Affleck’s flashing his in Gone Girl.
De Luca concedes that men might have to be dragged to the film, but he also thinks they will be pleasantly surprised—even aroused. To that end, he hired as director the British visual artist and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson, who has devoted a good chunk of her career to observing men—most famously in a video portrait of a sleeping David Beckham, commissioned by London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the book Crying Men, which featured 28 weeping Hollywood icons (from Paul Newman to Sean Penn). But it was her 2008 short Love You More that proved to be “the perfect calling card for Fifty Shades,” De Luca says. It was erotic without being exploitative or gratuitous, and it showed she understood what’s sexy to women and men.
The classy and sophisticated Taylor-Johnson was drawn to this very mass-market project by the balance of power between Steele and Grey. “I’d not seen a love story as complex, or with sex as complex,” she says. “You feel you’re in his world, then slowly it’s revealed that you’re in hers. To be able to flip this tale, without the woman becoming a victim, was something I felt strongly about.”
This is Taylor-Johnson’s second feature (after 2009’s Nowhere Boy, a biopic about the young John Lennon), and by the time it opens, she will have worked on it for close to two years; the editing alone has taken more than nine months. The biggest challenge involved the calibration of sex. “There’s so much of it!” Taylor-Johnson says with a laugh. “The difficult part has been to give each sex scene its own identity and character, so that the first is incredibly different from the last—and to try and do it in a way that feels powerful, not just salacious.” Equally concerning was the balance of nudity, which is plentiful; Taylor-Johnson was committed to making sure that both stars were naked an equal amount—without “feeling that just she is objectified or just he is.”
I’m sensing a theme with Jamie Dornan: keeping still seems like a terrible hardship—being tied up must be unimaginable for him. We’re waiting for breakfast in the corner of an empty restaurant called Secret Location, a few hours before our Big Buck Hunter session, and the restlessness is spilling onto the table. After repeatedly removing and replacing a mustard-colored baseball cap, Dornan sets it down, and immediately his hands begin a rabid dance: He runs his fingers through his hair, massages a bum shoulder, claws at the skin under his shirt, scratches his beard. His costar in Fifty Shades, Dakota Johnson, describes his energy as borderline manic. “Sometimes,” she says, “you’d walk by Jamie’s trailer and it would literally be rattling.”
The waitress arrives with complimentary mini raspberry doughnuts. “Jesus, it’s dessert,” Dornan says. “What movie is it where the girl starts with dessert? Oh, I’m going to embarrass myself here because it’s some tragic rom-com.” He notes my incredulity. “I think when romantic comedies are done well, it’s a great genre,” he continues. “When Harry Met Sally is kind of a benchmark for me, but I’m very happy to admit that I love Pretty Woman.” More incredulity. “I do! It’s a great film, and so is Sixteen Candles. I was a big John Hughes fan—still am. I have moments where I have to watch a Hughes film.”
Dornan’s in agreement with De Luca and Taylor-Johnson: Fifty Shades is, essentially, a love story—”quite a sweet one, actually,” he says. It’s one of the reasons he took the part, and sacrificed his rather patchy beard, which he is fiercely devoted to: “There is probably some fucking awful psychological message in the whole thing, but I don’t feel like myself without it.” Also, he hates (really hates) shaving—”the whole fucking palaver. Some guys spend 300 quid on equipment and have special soap and wee fucking brushes. They have their bathrooms set up like a fucking shop. I am not that guy.” Besides, there’s his welfare to consider. “I get red here“—Dornan strokes his neck—”and I always cut myself.”
Dornan laughs to himself. There is a shiver of merriment behind much of what he says, a note of skepticism played to comic effect. Ask him a question and it will inevitably lead to an anecdote, one that generally, in the Irish way, ends with a joke at his own expense. “None of my mates back home have read the book,” he tells me at one point. “They might not watch the movie, to be honest. Probably less likely now that I’m in it.”
Those mates are many—schoolmates from back when he excelled as a rugby player and bandmates from his short-lived career playing guitar and singing in a folk-rock band called Sons of Jim, which disbanded in 2008. (“Let’s move on. That’s ancient history,” he says when I bring it up.) “One of my favorite things about my life is that I have the same group of friends that I grew up with,” he says. “I love them so dearly, and we give each other a hard time.”
In some ways, Dornan’s much-delayed movie-stardom seems to have been preordained. First, there’s his hometown: He was raised in Holywood, a suburb of Belfast in County Down. Then there’s his pedigree: The 1940s Oscar winner Greer Garson was Dornan’s distant cousin.
His father is a noted and published obstetrician (who had considered acting). Dornan’s late mother was a nurse, and he has talked openly about the devastating effect of her death from pancreatic cancer when he was 16—a topic he brings up when I ask him about his interest in playing Christian Grey. To some extent, it had to do with “an attraction and understanding I have for people that are broken in some way,” he says. “Not that I’m some broken bird, but there’s a massive element of me that’s fractured from losing my mother so young, and I’m drawn to characters who are wounded.”
What he couldn’t relate to was nearly everything else about his twentysomething business titan. “Christian’s wild level of achievement and success at such a young age,” he says, laughing, then pushes that very Irish self-deprecation button. “Christian’s power—I don’t really have any.”
Even before it was announced that Fifty Shades of Grey would be made into a movie, the book’s legions of fans were debating who should play the leads. Dornan submitted an audition tape (since the script was kept top-secret, he did a scene from True Romance) through a London casting agent. After two months passed without a word, he figured, “it would just be a funny story about going up for Fifty Shades.”
Suddenly there was a bit of heat—”as if they’d found my tape in the bottom of a dusty bin, like Dylan’s basement sessions,” Dornan says. He was in the running and was told to prepare to fly to Los Angeles to test for the part.
Then just as suddenly, it was over. In September 2013, E L James announced that Steele would be played by Dakota Johnson—the relatively unknown 23-year-old daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson—and Grey would be played by Charlie Hunnam (Ryan Gosling, assumed by many to have been the first choice, wasn’t interested in the part). Where Johnson’s casting provoked surprise, Hunnam’s sparked the virtual equivalent of keening and rending of garments from irate fans hoping for the less macho Ian Somerhalder or Robert Pattinson, not the burly blond star of Sons of Anarchy. When, less than a month later, Hunnam dropped out, purportedly because of scheduling conflicts, you could almost hear a collective cheer go up in cougardom.
Once again, Dornan was in the running. This time he did go to L.A. to screen-test, and Taylor-Johnson says that it was immediately clear he was the one (he got the role days after). “It was such a long process, and I had gotten to the point where I was like, ‘Next, next, next,‘” she says. “Jamie had a calmness and a confidence that really worked. And there’s a part of him, when he’s not playing Christian, where you really don’t know what’s going on in his head.” That worked for the character, too.
One of the book’s saving graces is the dry wit displayed by both characters, and that, Taylor-Johnson assures me, is represented in the film. “Dakota and Jamie are both so funny—they met their match in humor, so it couldn’t not go into the movie. It also helped in shooting some of the darker scenes—to be able to have that sense of humor was a blessing.” (“Dakota’s funny, but I’m funnier,” says the ever-competitive Dornan.)
He got the part on October 23, a month before shooting was scheduled to begin. Dornan’s wife was more than eight months pregnant with their daughter when they had to pick up and move from London to Vancouver. “The baby came three days before filming started,” he says. “It was a mad time. Not ideal preparation for any job, to be honest.” Wasn’t a lot of bodywork required for all that objectification? “Not a crazy amount,” he says. “I didn’t want him to be some kind of . . . animal, but I had some work to do.”
Appearing in various degrees of undress was nothing new to Dornan. After moving to London in 2002 with hopes of finding work as an actor, he paid the bills by modeling (see two particularly steamy partnerships: one with Kate Moss for Calvin Klein jeans and—shades of Fifty—a bondage-esque spread with a then-19-year-old Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in 2006). He was exceptionally successful for a male model—so much so that he was profiled in the New York Times in 2006, just as he was, at long last, transitioning to acting. The writer, Guy Trebay, saddled him with a moniker, “The Golden Torso,” that Christian Grey is unlikely to put to rest.
Dornan chafes at the notion of becoming a global sex symbol. “What does that even mean?” he asks with a derisive snort. “When I think of sex symbols, I think of posters my two sisters had on their bedroom walls. What was he called? Luke Perry? Even then, the label was more definitive. There are so fucking many young actors in that bracket now that it’s a bit of a hollow crown. You’d be hard-pressed to find an actor who isn’t a sex symbol somewhere.”
In addition to the physical work, Dornan had to bone up on a hitherto mysterious subject: BDSM. He surveyed books, NSFW videos, and enthusiast websites, and he carried out further research in a Vancouver S&M dungeon—though not, Dornan pointedly tells me, as a participant: “I didn’t let anyone dominate me.” He says he wasn’t aroused so much as “intrigued” by what he encountered. “Even if you didn’t have Christian’s history of childhood abuse and abandonment, I totally understand why a person would be into it. Something like trainspotting or planespotting? I actually don’t get that. But I do understand the psychology of being tied up and getting turned on.”
Dornan is pleased that Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the BDSM world up to a wider audience—”Anyone who’s into kink who I’ve spoken to, it’s certainly done good things for them“—and he believes the film could help spark wider acceptance of sexual liberation. As for how his own performance will be received: “Some people will think it’s cool and sexy, some people will think the polar opposite,” Dornan says. “There will be people who think I’m terrible without even seeing the film!”
I ask Dornan to name his biggest fear regarding the reception. He pauses. I’m expecting something about getting pigeonholed as an S&M poster boy (he’s signed on for two Fifty Shades sequels, should they happen) or a joke about joining a survivor’s support group with Charlie Hunnam. “I almost don’t want to put this out there into the ether, but I fear I’ll get murdered, like John Lennon, by one of those mad fans at the premiere,” he says. “Because a lot of people are very angry that I’m playing this character. And I’m a father now, and a husband. I don’t want to die yet.”
Dornan laughs. He can’t quite believe he’s giving this far-fetched notion the breath of life. But he also can’t resist a final dramatic flourish. “And when I do get murdered,” he says, “people will say, ‘God, isn’t it haunting how he did that interview in Details magazine and predicted his own death on the red carpet?‘”