Jamie Dornan: ‘I keep playing sick psychopaths. It worries me’
When Hadley Freeman first befriended the Fifty Shades of Grey star a decade ago he was an unlikely supermodel who never dropped names, and refused to flirt or sleep around. How did he end up as the go-to actor for serial killers and S&M freaks?
The only thing worse than a model/actress, the old snarky joke goes, is a model/actor. And I might once have snarked along with that joke, until I met Jamie Dornan. Jamie and I became friends exactly a decade ago, when he was 22 and I was 26 and a mutual friend introduced us at a party. Neither of us, to be honest, was in the best of shape at the time. He was heartbroken after the recent end of his long-term relationship with Keira Knightley (it took about a month before I even saw him smile) and I, meanwhile, was deep in my belief that the way to make the most of my 20s was to get as wasted as possible, as often as possible. But somehow, through our own personal fogs, we clicked.
Someone whispered to me early on that Jamie was a model, but I didn’t pay much attention to this information. It wasn’t until I went to New York for fashion week a few months after meeting him and saw him nearly naked on a giant billboard advert for Calvin Klein that I began to think my condescension might have been a tad misplaced. In fact, my new sweet and sweary friend from Belfast was one of the most successful male models in the world at the time, working for Dior Homme, Aquascutum, Zara, Armani and dozens of others. But you would never have known it from talking to him: as much as I tried to goad him by quoting Zoolander, he would just shrug and smile and change the subject. He never mentioned that he had spent the day, say, writhing naked with Gisele or Eva Mendes for a shoot, as most young men might reasonably have done, and in 10 years of knowing him I have never once seen him glance at his reflection in a mirror or window. I’ve never even heard him mention going to the gym.
He’s married now, to film composer Amelia Warner, and father to [a] 16-month-old [daughter]. But when he was single, he was neither a shagger nor a flirt. Though some of my female friends made it very clear they would be happy to do either with him, he simply seemed to have no interest in his looks, or the benefits they could bring.
Today is the first and only time I’ve seen him wear a fashion freebie; we meet for this interview in a west London cafe and he turns up, having come straight from the golf course, wearing a cap with the slogan “Double Bogey” on the rim. “A golfwear company gave it to me; isn’t it cool?” grins the former face of Calvin Klein.
It wasn’t that he was ashamed of being a model, exactly, just that he knew he wanted to be something else, and that something was, of course, an actor. And to be honest, that puzzled me as much as his fondness for golf. I used to assume that when people said they wanted to be an actor, they really meant that they wanted to be famous. But Jamie didn’t show interest in any of that. He is the only celebrity I’ve met who never namedrops, even now when he is working with A-listers. “I just never thought any of that was relevant,” he says, looking surprised that I find this surprising.
He does have a group of acting friends (including Eddie Redmayne, Rafe Spall and Andrew Garfield), but the only people he ever brings up in conversation are his father and two sisters (his mother died from cancer when he was 16) and the tight group of friends from Belfast he has known since childhood. I couldn’t imagine him hanging out with luvvies in the Groucho, competing about who knows Harvey Weinstein the best. Why does he want to be an actor, I’d wonder? Why not just take the modelling money and spend the rest of his life on the golf course? It never occurred to me that it might be because he was good at acting.
In 2013, I eventually learned that I had underestimated him, when he appeared as Paul Spector, the psychopathic murderer in Allan Cubitt’s acclaimed BBC2 series, The Fall. Jamie, who was almost unrecognisable to me in the role, promptly won several awards. “That show has given me ev-er-y-thing,” he says, with rolling Irish emphasis on the last word. “It’s a serious bit of fucking culture and just such a treat to do. I know that every opportunity I get from now on is because of The Fall.”
A third series of the thriller has just been commissioned, although the critical consensus turned during the last season, which was widely panned for plot implausibility. “The thing is, the show had to develop and expand. You can’t just regurgitate what you did in the first series. But then, some people’s argument is that you should stop after the first series,” Jamie says. “But I would happily play Paul for ever and one thing I’m learning is: ‘Ah, fuck it, you can’t please everyone.’” Which is hard for you because you’re a people-pleaser, I say. “Yeah, exactly. And now I’ve chosen a job where I see just how much or little I’m pleasing people!”
There is, though, another character that’s as little like Jamie as The Fall’s serial killer; Fifty Shades’s cold, money-obsessed S&M freak Christian Grey. “I know, I know, that’s the thing,” he says. “I consider myself quite light-hearted, pretty easy-going, and I keep playing sick psychopath bastards! It kinda worries me sometimes how comfortable I am in that zone.”
When it was announced that he had the part in Fifty Shades of Grey, I texted him to say it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. “And I still feel that way myself!” he laughs. “There are times when I’ll be like: ‘Huh, someone made a Fifty Shades movie, that’s funny.’ And then I’ll be like: ‘Wait, I’m the guy?!’”
It’s not easy to find a tactful way to ask a friend why he is doing something that you find hilarious but, well, why did he take the part? “You know, I’m not naive as to why people would think it was a bad [career] choice, or why there is a snobbery about it. But I’m also not stupid, and I knew with [director] Sam [Taylor-Johnson], and [cinematographer] Seamus McGarvey, the film would be in safe hands. And, you know, it does no harm to be in a film that makes half a billion dollars.”
Aside from the occasional awkward moment, of course: Jamie recently took [his daughter] to a playgroup, which was being held in his local cinema. As they walked in, a screening of Fifty Shades was ending. He held his daughter up in front of his face and used her as a mask until he was safely beyond the Christian Grey fans.
The film has, unsurprisingly, been a massive commercial success, but, just as predictably, not a critical one (“The Guardian’s my homepage, but of course it would give it one star!” he laughs). But in its defence, it is a thousand times better than the book; classier and free of EL James’s verbal diarrhoea. The Daily Telegraph, which loved the movie, described Jamie’s performance as “a good kind of absurd … a cold slate with questioning eyes”. (Jamie, however, prefers to quote his bad reviews.) It is a testament to both the film and the actor that Christian Grey feels like a character at all considering that in the books he’s barely a cipher. I didn’t fall off my cinema seat laughing when Jamie/Christian snarls: “I don’t make love, Miss Steele – I fuck. Hard.” Which surely says something, although I did have to cover my eyes during the sex scenes. “So did my sisters,” he says. “But Dad was well into it …”
Since the film’s release, there have been rumours of discord from the set: that James and Taylor- Johnson hate each other; that Jamie and his female co-star Dakota Johnson loathe one another; that both Taylor-Johnson and Jamie are desperate to get out of the next two instalments. Jamie is far too tactful to comment on personal relations, but is he on board for the next two Fifty Shades shag-a-thons?
“That was always the plan,” he replies with careful wording. And Taylor-Johnson? “The plan was always for her to do them, so hopefully that will happen. But I don’t think it’s going to be imminent.”
More imminent are his other projects. As well as the next series of The Fall, he has a slew of films coming up, including two war movies that he’s shooting back-to-back this year, and an untitled project in which he’ll co-star with Bradley Cooper. Pretty validating for that 22-year-old model who so desperately wanted to act, right? “I know, I know,” he smiles, with an embarrassed tug on his Double Bogey cap. But honestly, I still think he’d be just as happy playing golf.
The Fall returns to BBC2 next year
– Jamie Dornan > Photoshoots > 2015 > Graeme Robertson for The Guardian