He’s the man about to star in a million worldwide fantasies as he takes the lead in Fifty Shades of Grey, the most anticipated film of the year. Is he ready? Are we?
What else can you do but become a movie star if your earliest memory is of being surrounded by screaming women as you’re rushed to a plastic surgeon to get your face done, at the age of three, in Hollywood? Sorry, I mean Holywood – the small town where Jamie Dornan grew up in Northern Ireland. He’d slipped on a dog, you see.
“Well, I suppose I actually slipped on the soap,” he says sitting in a West London cafe, drinking a peppermint tea. “We were washing our Border collie out the back of our house and I ran out into the suds, [slipped] and cracked my head on a stone step. I remember being put on the kitchen counter and my mum crying, and my granny crying, and loads of blood. And I remember the lift doors in the hospital, and my mum not being allowed in,” the 32-years-old explains. “There was a problem with doing stitches, the position of the cut – they had to do some kind plastic surgery,” he adds. “Well according to my dad, who’s a doctor, and I think they tell fewer lies than regular people.”
He smiles, lifts his fringe to show me the scar on his forehead, and I lean in as close to the former Calvin Klein underwear model as societal norms will allow. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, there will soon be many more women screaming at the sight of him and, oh, how he knows, even though he’s still awkward and uncomfortable when presented with the prospect, and the obvious fact of his own allure.
But on 13 February, cinemas will fling open their doors to hyperventilating Fifty Shades fans on both sides of the Atlantic, desperate to see Dornan play the object of their bondage-lite fantasies: Christian Grey. To say there has been quite a lot of hype about this movie is a bit like saying that the book sold quite a few copies: the tale of the charismatic billionaire sadist with childhood demond to assuage and the ingénueliterature student (played by Dakota Johnson) who he seduces in his Red Room of Pain has probably been read by more people than Bible.
Every director in LA wanted it, but the job went to British artist and director Sam Taylor-Johnson – quite a left-field choice for such a huge blockbuster. And the lead role was first given to actor Charlie Hunnam, but he dropped out because of schedule conflicts. Dornan had done a video audition early on, “But I didn’t hear anything, not even the tiniest bit of feedback. For months. So I thought, ‘Well, I gave it a go.’ And then, suddenly… Maybe they stumbled upon my tape in the archives.” He starts laughing.
Sam Taylor-Johnson called him late one night, when he was in bed with his wife watching “some awful television – oh, I know, Storage Wars. I love the gist that they wanted to meet. So I told my wife…”
And let me guess, she said: “Oh, darling, let’s help you get into the role immediately…”
“Certainly not,” he says firmly, just as I’m getting into my dream sequence. “We went to sleep. It was 3am! But, on set, Sam had an amazing way of making it feel like it was no scarier on bigger than any other shoot. We were able to block out what was going on outside – the hysteria and the noise – and focus on making the best picture we could.”
The research involved visiting a private dungeon in someone’s house, “With just me as the only audience member. But I went there, he offered me a beer, and they did… whatever they were into. I saw a dominant with one of his two submissives, and he became our kink advisor on the film.” So you were just sat there on your own, drink in hand, watching them, er, you know… Weren’t you squirming to death? “I was! I was sort of taking notes. I don’t know if it’s because they were uncomfortable having me in the room, but there were a lot of breaks while they had giggle fits. I was like: ‘Come on, guys. I know I’m not paying for this, but I am expecting a show!’ It was an interesting evening. Then, going back to my wife and newborn baby afterwards… I had a long shower before touching either of them.”
Dornan’s bondage billionaire has an emotional backstory of childhood trauma, which will be told, too. “You have to reveal where it has stemmed from, and that’s a vitally important part of his character. And the love story is more important than the BDSM aspect. I mean, we are going to thell a love story, you know, it can’t just be…” he pauses, “what happens in the Red Room, that’s not a film. There’s so much more going on than that.”
Dornan has already played a role that could in some ways be compared to this one. Paul Spector in BBC crime drama The Fall: a husband, father and bereavement counselor, who is also a serial killer of women being tacked by a detective played by Gillian Anderson. Dornan played the psychopath with an unfathomable stillnes that won him a Bafta nomination, but he wants to stress the difference between two roles. “They’re both tying women to beds, yes; but for very different reasons. If the motives are so different, then the action has to be different. I’d be really upset if people think that I’m giving the same performance twice.”
And as for the people whop find the whole Fifty Shades thing a bit anti-feminist? He does get it. “But, you know, the people that are into that scene, no one’s dragging them into it; it’s all consensual. Personally, I!m into golf, and I spend my life defending golf, because some people can’t get their head around that. I can understand why people say tying a woman up and spanking her is misogynistic. But actually, more men are submissives than women. Very powerful men. I 100% know there are people you’ve had dinner with that have done it. It’s a far bigger scene than I imagined: in pretty much any city in the world you could name, people want to get spanked with a paddle with studs on it. I personally don’t want that, but you can’t get angry about it.”
It has to be said, Dornan probably does know all about feeling objectified: a decade ago, as the male model dating Keira Knightley. Not that his modelling was some kind of hobby- he was huge, starring in campaigns with Eva Mendes and Kate Moss; brooding in Dior and Armani ads. Though he tries to speak politely about modelling now, to me, at least, it’s fairly clear that he hated it.
He won’t mention Keira directly, but the level of fame she enjoyed- and the attendant paparazzi flashbulbs – has had an impact on him, and made him question his motivations for becoming an actor: “You don’t do it to have some guy sitting in a f*ucking bush outside your house with a camera. That’s not why you do it. I just couldn’t do an office job; I don’t have that temperament. But yeah, I don’t know how you can prepare for it. You can’t get in sandbags. But loads of hoodies and caps? I’ll deal with it when it comes. I feel pretty secure who I am. It’s not my first time at the rodeo.”
In 2013, he married fellow actor Amelia Warner in Somerset, while she was pregnant with their daughter – now a two-year-old who eats Marmite on toast every day. Fatherhood is ‘incredible’. “I’ve had to be away the last couple of weekends, and I come back and I barely recognise her, and it’s awful; she changes so much,” he says. “And then I have this huge fear that she won’t recognise me. The beard helps, but I had to shave it off a couple of times, so she’s been shocked for the first few hours. She looks at me like: ‘Do I love you? I think I love you.’ I have to win back her trust.”
His daughter was born in Canada, two days before Fifty Shades began shooting: “Kind of a mental time.” I wonder how she will explain to her friends when she’s older, exactly why she has a Canadian passport. “My wife and I have been having discussions about that,” Jamie admits, grinning. “Yeah. We‘ll deal with that when it comes.”
The family of three currently lives in west London, but might not stay forever. Jamie grew up beside a beach and would like that for his children one day, though he won’t move back to Northern Ireland. “But in London, you go to a class at the gym and there are no spaces left, and it costs that much to play football on a Tuesday night, and it’s booked up for six months. In west London, it costs such an insane amount of money just to buy a basement flat, and I don’t know if I want to become the sort of person who thinks that’s OK.”
Having said all that, he enjoyed a wild night out at a members’ club in east London recently, “But then I came outside and thought: ‘It’s four in the morning and I’m so far from home and my wife.’ I had to get in a minicab, which is always so depressing. Though, actually, I always have the best conversations with minicab drivers. Well I think they’re good conversations – the driver is probably thinking: ‘Why did I have to pick him up?’ And they always play Magic or Heart radio, so you’re just singing along to The Carpenters all the way home.”
He has also recently been to a stag dog. “But it was the most un-staggy stag. We were in an Edwardian country house in Norfolk doing archery and, you know, sitting around a fire. We had a chef and everything! Disgustingly middle class. And then, of course, the rail replacement bus service back from Norfolk, so it took five hours to get home.” Sorry, Jamie Dornan got stuck on a rail replacement bus service in Norfolk? He laughs. “I had left the car at home for my wife to use.”
Fame? He’ll handle it just fine.