From serial killers to Christian Grey, Jamie Dornan isn’t afraid to plumb the depths of male depravity. ShortList meets a normal bloke with a taste for the dark stuff
The most terrifying man on television is having a quick blast of his asthma pump. “Just when you thought he couldn’t get any cooler,” says Jamie Dornan with a smile, padding his way from the dressing room through to the studio for today’s photoshoot. Putting aside the incongruity of this image for a second, Dornan is a man who – at the moment at least – you wouldn’t begrudge a spot of anxious breathlessness.
In less than 18 months he’s gone from a model and occasional actor mostly known for a series of monster Calvin Klein billboards – you know the ones: Eva Mendes, tiny briefs, liberal dousing of Crisp ’n Dry – to one of the most dropped names in Hollywood’s juice bars of power. He’s been nominated for a Bafta, appeared in acclaimed TV dramas and, the week we speak, he’ll finish work on a new Bradley Cooper comedy. He is very much on the brink. And so, of course, he’s utterly knackered.
“It’s been a fun couple of years, but I’m due a break,” he says sleepily, when we eventually sit down for a chat. “I’ve got the next few weeks off and, mate, I’m going to enjoy that.” He’ll need to. The show that made his acting career will soon return, bringing more opportunities, far-flung film sets, awards show appearances.
And that’s before we even touch on his biggest role to date – a gigantic, ballsy career gamble that could yet torpedo the whole enterprise and see him surrender his relative anonymity for a life dodging paparazzi lenses, as well as fans looking to get spanking paddles autographed.
So, yeah. He may want to keep that inhaler close at hand.
The neat version of the Jamie Dornan story presents him as something of an overnight success, striding from the world of modelling straight into the role of a lifetime. Of course, the truth is it wasn’t anywhere near that easy. Having acted since he was a schoolkid in Northern Ireland, Dornan’s two careers ran in tandem for a while, and his first major role came in 2006, playing a bewigged hunk in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
In the years that followed that breakthrough he fitfully attempted to bulk up his IMDb entry but, looking back at his wayward mid-twenties as a very settled 32-year-old, he admits his heart may not have been truly in it. There were disastrous auditions (“I once attempted a Geordie accent, having never practised it,” he says in his decidedly Belfast burr. “I had to just walk out”), and few breakthroughs.
His big chance would come, surprisingly enough, not as a square-jawed hero, but as a cold-eyed villain. Allan Cubitt, the crime drama auteur behind Prime Suspect 2, had a vision for a murder investigation thriller where, for a change, the serial killer wasn’t the drooling loner in the overalls, but the good-looking family man and grief counsellor no one would suspect. Throw in an icily efficient detective-out-of-water, a grubby smear of Belfast police corruption, bubbling sexual politics, terrifyingly plausible home invasion scenes (plus the residual joy of spotting local Game Of Thrones actors in modern dress) and you had The Fall – one of the most electrifying, and audacious, new TV show concepts in recent years.
But without actors a concept is just that. And Dornan – twitchy and terrifying, pathetic and relatable – was a revelation as Paul Spector, the ladykiller who looks like, well, a ladykiller. And Gillian Anderson, on the trail of Spector as Stella Gibson (AKA Sarah Lund in a silk blouse), provided the perfect steely counterpoint to his convincing sadism. So did he always know he could be so creepy?
“I’m trying to think back to bad dates I’ve been on and what my feedback was,” he says with a laugh. “Was it ever, ‘He was creepy and I feared for my life?’ Obviously, I’m nothing like [Spector], but I think I’ve surprised even myself with the darkness that’s there.”
He did his homework, too, studying outwardly ‘normal’ real-life murderers such as Ted Bundy to a troubling degree. “I’m still carrying some aspects of it with me,” he says. “It always takes me a while, and it affects me. I’ve read a lot of horrific stuff.” How did he cope with having to go to those dark places on a daily basis?
“I didn’t find it healthy to occupy that headspace at all times,” he admits. “Also, I have quite a lot of energy and find it hard to sit still, but I’d made a choice with Spector that he is very still. So between takes I had to f*cking run in circles, run around corridors, scream constantly. It was probably really irritating, because I was going a bit mental.”
This primal off-camera approach clearly worked. The Fall was recommissioned for a second series – having ended on an agonising cliffhanger – amid reports that the show’s makers had filmed two different endings to hedge their bets. Dornan is quick to dismiss those rumours. “As if the BBC would fork out all that money for an alternative ending,” he chuckles. “It was a lie. I think certain people were disappointed with the ending, but the thing was, Allan went to the BBC and said he wanted 12 episodes, and they said, ‘We’ll give you five.’ Allan, who’s almost too intelligent for his own good, always knew that if the first five were received well, we’d get the chance to finish it off. Or keep it going.”
Grumbles aside, that final episode afforded an opportunity – albeit via a slightly hokey villain vs hero phone conversation – for the two leads to actually have a proper scene together. And, while the upcoming second series finds Spector on the run after a botched kill, Dornan hints that this may not stand in the way of more scenes with the “incredibly talented, but surprisingly daft and childish” Anderson.
“When I got the breakdown for the second series, I was shaking,” he says, choosing his words carefully in an attempt to not blow the plentiful surprises. “The scale of it has grown, there are twists and turns and there are moments [with Gillian] which I can’t say too much about. What’s fascinating about these guys, like Ted Bundy, is they feel they’re on a different level and can’t be harmed. Their arrogance is phenomenal.
“And that’s why it’s so interesting when you see Spector slip up. Cracks start to appear and Stella gets a bit of a foot in. That’s what makes it great television, and it’s probably explored slightly more in the second series. It’s what I love most about him. Obviously what he’s doing is horrific – pure evil – but we get to see a human, relatable side to him at work and with his family, which makes it more chilling to watch. You are literally thinking that it could be your next-door neighbour. And I’ve had people say, ‘He’s a sick bastard, but I kind of wanted him to get away with it.’”
It’s here that we come to one of the stranger aspects of The Fall kicking off a spate of Dornan-mania. Despite his stubbly good looks, you’d think playing a twisted killer who preys on innocent single women would hurt his dream boat status. Not a bit of it.
In fact, a brunette friend of mine, tongue only slightly in cheek, once proudly trilled about being “his type”. Has he found that playing a psychopath has, bafflingly, only increased his admirers? “It’s mad, but I don’t know if it’s about aesthetics,” he says, looking slightly embarrassed. “I think it’s just very clever writing, based on the layers he’s got and the moments we see in his personal life.”
Dornan may feel understandable discomfort around Spector’s standing as a hugely unlikely sex symbol, but he’ll soon be seen depicting a more conventional, if similarily warped, lust object. Late last year, after Charlie Hunnam abruptly left the role, Dornan was offered the chance to play Christian Grey in the film adaptation of EL James’s arse-spanking juggernaut Fifty Shades Of Grey. He had lost out to Hunnam initially but, with cameras due to roll, he was hauled from the set of Channel 4 drama New Worlds for meetings in LA, and offered a second chance at the horndog with the helicopter.
“Usually with those things people say ‘Take your time’, but I didn’t really have a huge amount of time,” he laughs. “So you just call on the people that represent you and the people you love and collectively make a decision.” That mention of “people he loves” nods to the fact that his wife, musician and actor Amelia Warner, was heavily pregnant with their first child at the time, and probably not keen on uprooting to Vancouver so her husband could roll around on camera with Dakota Johnson. How did he package that one?
“Well, my wife is a brilliant, hugely understanding person,” he says. “Plus, she was an actress for 10 years, so she’s aware of what it’s like. A lot of people would have had a sh*t fit at 30-something weeks pregnant, hearing, ‘Darling, we’re going to Vancouver this week for four months – we’re going to have a Canadian baby and I’m going to do a film where, for parts of it, I will be naked.’ That’s a tough pitch, but my wife is an incredible person.”
For his part, despite the last-minute nature of his casting, Dornan threw himself into it as best he could. He read the book and, off his own back, employed the services of an S&M expert to show him the ropes (knots, chains, handcuffs).
“It’s such a big part of the character that I wanted to know what I was doing,” he says with a smirk. “This guy came along with his submissive, I sat in the corner with a beer and watched. My driver was on the other side of the door, God knows what he thought.”
And here we’re back to the gamble of leaping from a small critical hit to one of the strangest blockbusters (Mills & Boon with ballgags, The Notebook with nipple clamps) in recent memory.
I remind Dornan that the Fifty Shades trailer is the most watched of 2014, and he suddenly looks quite pained, perhaps reminded of its looming hugeness. What’s more, you sense some critics are already lacing up their jackboots for it (months after our interview, Dornan returns to Vancouver for reshoots, as the internet burbles with talk of disappointing test footage and absent chemistry between Dornan and Johnson).
Dornan, it’s clear, has no regrets (“I’d have been mad not to do it,” he reasons) and is already looking to the future. There’s that Bradley Cooper film (a comedy in the world of elite chefs) and he keeps dropping hints about his role in The Fall, implausibly perhaps, having a life beyond this series (“If people want something, you want to give them it”), but more than that he wants to play golf, hang out with his daughter, see his wife.
In fact, Warner is on her way to meet him now, leaving me time for just one more question. I blurt something about the increasing pressure on leading men to be absurdly ripped. Has he found it hard? Training, avoiding carbs, pints and other vices? “Erm, I haven’t given up anything,” he says. “My only vice is crisps, but I can get away with that. I’ve never really found myself out of shape.”
And there I was starting to like him…
The Fall returns on 13 November, BBC Two at 9pm
– Jamie Dornan > Photoshoots > 2014 > David Venni for ShortList Magazine