Epic historical drama New Worlds hits our TV screens later this month, bringing with it a new generation of talented actors. Lucy Hunter Johnston meets the show’s rising stars, including a certain Jamie Dornan, aka Christian Grey in the new film adaptation of Fifty Shades — scream!
The corset crew is getting some new members, thanks to the forthcoming Channel 4 historical drama New Worlds. The four-part mini-series comes from the creators of the 2008 BAFTA-nominated The Devil’s Whore, which starred Michael Fassbender and Dominic West. Set during the Restoration, as Charles II takes back the throne with a reign of terror, it stars Jamie Dornan, Joe Dempsie, Alice Englert and Freya Mavor as young revolutionaries and star-crossed lovers, fighting on both sides of the Atlantic. Expect sex, murder, plotting and treason. This will fill a Game of Thrones-shaped hole until the new season starts in April.
New Worlds begins on Channel 4 at the end of March
JAMIE DORNAN, Abe Gough, revolutionary outlaw
Do you want me to do it now?’ asks Jamie Dornan in a low Northern Irish lilt. He composes himself with a swig of tea then directs the full force of his piercing gaze towards me. Wham! There it is: the trademark ‘Dornan furrow’, the face that sold a thousand pairs of pants for Calvin Klein, terrified an audience of 3.5 million in the BBC Two drama The Fall, and will be glaring down upon Anastasia Steele’s backside, spanking paddle in hand, as the billionaire BDSM fanatic Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey film.
Dornan is adamant he always wanted to act and that his supermodelling career, working with brands from Dior to Hugo Boss as the so-called ‘Golden Torso’, was merely a lucrative distraction. Brooding aside, he’s far from your stereotypical clotheshorse. He’s a hard-drinking, rugby-playing, Man United-supporting 31-year-old who listens to The Kinks, reads Oscar Wilde and litters his conversation with expletives. ‘I’ve never felt massively satisfied from standing there while someone takes my photograph,’ he says. ‘It’s never given me a thrill.’ So why did he do it? ‘It would take a very foolish man to turn down the stuff that was offered to me. You’re in your twenties, and people are going to give you a silly amount of money to lean against a wall with your head down. F*** me, you’ve got to do it.’ In fact, he’s still at it. This season he is being paid a small fortune as the face of the chic Italian suit label Zegna and upmarket trainer brand Hogan.
His first acting gig was a small part playing Kirsten Dunst’s love interest in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, but numerous failed auditions followed. ‘I mean f***ing hundreds of them. Some of them totally humiliating experiences,’ he says. ‘People attach too much to the idea of being a model, that you can only be a certain way to have done it. You will always be dealing with it. You’re an actor who used to be a model who never trained; there are not many directors queuing up.’
Then last year he got lucky. He originally auditioned to play a police officer in The Fall, but was summoned back from a thankless LA pilot season to read for the lead, the disturbingly alluring killer Paul Spector. After a ‘really brutal’ six-hour session he got the job, opposite Gillian Anderson’s DSI Stella Gibson. ‘I felt shocked and bewildered, and above all else very frightened,’ he remembers. ‘I was hungry to prove it was within my capabilities, but f***ing over the moon.’ After years of being pushed to audition for dry, ‘shit’ parts, and then not even getting them, it was the biggest of breaks. ‘They took a risk. I wasn’t who people were thinking of for that part. Right from the start the writer, Allan Cubitt, had this underlying belief that I was the guy, and I am massively thankful to him for that. But I feel like I f***ing earned it. I worked my dick off for that role.’ The series went on to become BBC Two’s highest-rated drama launch in almost a decade, in no small part due to the sickening appeal of Dornan’s portrayal, and the second series will start filming in his native Northern Ireland this month.
If Spector was part of a plan to kill off the pretty-boy alter ego, then it was a stroke of genius. But I wonder if being recognised as a sadistic killer, rather than for how he looks in his underwear, was actually the aim. ‘I had one incident in Notting Hill Gate where someone pointed at me and screamed, “There’s that serial killer!” That created a bit of a stir. But I love it. I loved playing that sick, sick man… whatever that means.’
And from one sick man to another. Dornan has just returned from Vancouver, where he was filming Fifty Shades, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of EL James’ erotic novel series that outsold Harry Potter and got housewives the world over hot under the collar, allegedly bringing about its own baby boom. Dakota Johnson, daughter of the Miami Vice actor Don and Melanie Griffith, will play Anastasia Steele, the shy, virginal student who has her sexual awakening in Grey’s ‘Red Room of Pain’. ‘I’ve never felt that Christian needs to be some kind of monster,’ he has said previously of the role. ‘I certainly don’t fear it. I already got a glimpse into working with Sam at the test, and I’d met Dakota by then. So I had an idea of how I felt it would be if I got the part. None of it scared me.’ Dornan wasn’t Taylor-Johnson’s first choice. He sent in an audition tape, but had lost out to Queer as Folk and Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam. ‘You know, one door closes, another opens,’ he has said. ‘When he dropped out, I didn’t instantly think, “Oh, here we go, maybe I should cancel that holiday,” but I did feel that maybe we’d revisit the idea of me.’ Christian Grey is the second severely damaged character he’ll have played in as many years, so I suspect that New Worlds’ Abe Gough, a revolutionary outlaw who roams the woods, but is a man of principles, was a welcome respite.
Dornan is no stranger to tragedy. He grew up near Belfast, with two older sisters and an obstetrician father. When he was 16 he lost his mother to pancreatic cancer. The following year, four schoolfriends were killed in a car crash. ‘Going through that certainly has had an effect on the darker side of my psyche,’ he says, talking slowly. ‘I was 16… Look, I’m not saying that experiencing loss is why I can cope with darker worlds, I’m not saying that for a second, but I think it opens up a side of you in terms of work that wouldn’t be as accessible had that stuff not happened.’
He lives in Notting Hill with his wife Amelia Warner, 31, an ‘amazing musician’ who controversially covered The Smiths three Christmases ago for a John Lewis advert, and their three-month-old daughter. The couple met through friends on the LA scene (she used to be an actress, and in 2001 ‘married’ Colin Farrell on a beach in Tahiti, although the ceremony wasn’t legally binding and they split soon after).
Is Dornan a romantic? ‘I don’t know what the template is or what the parameters are,’ he replies, ‘but I think I’m pretty decent at all that kind of stuff.’ Does he have a romcom in him somewhere? ‘Definitely, one hundred per cent if it was well crafted, which loads of them aren’t. I like the idea of comedy. Being a leading man can come in many different forms.’
Whether it’s a roaring success or a colossal disappointment, the release of Fifty Shades next year will undoubtedly change his life. But he’s had the best kind of preparation for stardom: he’s already been on plenty of billboards, sometimes half-naked, and he attended red- carpet dos on the arm of Keira Knightley when they dated a decade ago. ‘It was a strange environment to find yourself in, being hounded and followed. It’s really hideous. F***ing hell, [the paparazzi] are cretins. I couldn’t have less respect for those guys. There are so many ways to make a living that don’t involve hiding in bushes opposite houses of 18-year-old girls with a camera in your hand. That’s not making a living, that’s making a choice to be a perverted f***head.’ He’s thankful his own big moment has arrived in his thirties. ‘That scrutiny when you’re older will be easier to take. And I don’t think I’m ever going to be as famous as her.’ It also helps that he has friends from home who keep him grounded via WhatsApp, sending round embarrassing photographs of him as a teenager. ‘A friend of mine said, “I heard about Fifty Shades. Congratulations on the role. That’s going to be disgusting. I won’t watch it.” ’ I think the rest of the world just might.