He’s living proof of a female deity and he’s about to become one of the world’s biggest stars thanks to Fifty Shades. Stylist meets the charming Mr Dornan
Words: Helen Bownass Photography: Mary McCartney
Waiting to interview Jamie Dornan is a bit like getting an email from your boss saying, ‘Have you got a minute?’ You have no idea what to expect. It could be good. It could be bad. Or it could be catastrophic.
Because he could have gone all ‘Hollywood’. Might not be quite so charming in real life. Or could take his role in the highly anticipated Fifty Shades Of Grey a little too seriously. But as a barefooted Jamie welcomes me into his hotel suite at LA’s infamous Chateau Marmont with a cheerful, “Sorry, I just had to take my socks off, my feet got hot. Can I get you a drink?” I start to relax.
But only for a bit. Because on Friday everything really will change for the 32-year-old, as he becomes the physical embodiment of more than a million women’s sexual fantasies as the film’s protagonist, Christian Grey.
In the flesh he is precisely as good-looking as you think he’ll be. He’s tall, slim and beardy, wearing a white shirt and navy trousers while drinking a bottle of Orangina – the sort you used to get on holiday in France. He seems very relaxed, but his inner goddess must be very aware of what’s to come. Not since 2008’s Sex And The City has there been such speculation over a film release.
Fifty Shades , directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, is the adaptation of the bestseller – that’s bestseller in the ‘over 100 million copies’ sense of the word – by EL James. When I meet Jamie, who stars alongside relatively unknown actress Dakota Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), in mid-January, the 18-rated film is still shrouded in secrecy. Even he has only seen “an early version”.
And for every fan of the book there is a detractor. Pages of critique have been devoted to the book’s lack of narrative, weak characters and frustrating dialogue. Taking on the role of Christian Grey is a huge step for the Northern Irishman, who until now is best known for his role as serial killer Paul Spector in TV drama The Fall . Despite being BBC2’s highest rated drama in 20 years, it is small fry compared to the Fifty Shades juggernaut.
Jamie himself hadn’t read any of the books before signing up for the trilogy. “I’ll be brutally honest, I doubt I would’ve ever read the books had I not been interested in the project,” he admits, his County Down accent showing no sign of dilution.
“I was acutely aware of them though – there’s no-one in the civilised world that isn’t. Sometimes something really captures people, and I think this may have unlocked something in lots of people – mostly women – that they haven’t let themselves explore before. That’s really liberating. I think we’ve made a classy movie. Sam provides a massive element of sophistication to the project.”
Fifty Shades , for anyone not in the civilised world, tells the story of Anastasia Steele, a student who’s introduced to a world of bondage, sadism and dominance when she meets business mogul Christian Grey. While he is a romantic hero, he’s also a sadist – Jamie is clearly not his biggest fan.
“You have to find something relatable or likeable about every character you play,” he says when I ask what he likes about Grey. “There are aspects of him that I’m maybe impressed by, but I don’t think I would like him if I met him at a dinner party. I think I’d be a bit like, ‘F***ing hell!’”
Famously, Jamie wasn’t the original choice to play the successful entrepreneur – he was offered the part after Sons Of Anarchy actor Charlie Hunnam quit, blaming scheduling conflicts. Was it the biggest decision of his career? “I would say it was,” he muses. “But I didn’t have a huge amount of time to think about it because it was this madcap series of events that led to it. And then the time from me being cast to day one action was four weeks. It was f***ing insanity.”
Now is a good time to point out – in case you hadn’t noticed – that Jamie swears a lot. Expletives fall out of his mouth like extra adjectives. He also has a dry wit which doesn’t always translate. In a recent interview he said, “I fear I’ll get murdered, like John Lennon, by one of those mad fans at the premiere.”
He laughs when I mention it. “My tongue was in my cheek when I said that,” he says. “All my humour’s based on f***ing sarcasm, like most people where I come from. I probably shouldn’t have said it but it has maybe lit an actual fear. Maybe someone’s like, ‘Ah, it’s not a bad idea. I think I will kill him.’”
He’s joking. But it’s a pertinent point. After years of skirting round the edges of fame he’s about to be catapulted headlong into the foray of crazed fans, paparazzi and red carpets. Is he ready? “I can’t do anything about it,” he says fervently.
“There’s nothing tangible I can do, unless I buy a load of masks and balaclavas. I’m not going to walk around in really expensive suits, clean shaven with neat hair, because I’ll look like [Christian Grey] too much but I won’t be a hermit. I enjoy my life. I’m glad this has happened to me – whatever the f*** this is – when I’m 32, not 22 when you’re young and you get carried away. Those two things combined is quite dangerous territory.”
Dornan’s constant throughout the coming madness is his wife Amelia Warner, 32, an actress and musician who accompanied him to Vancouver to film Fifty Shades while she was heavily pregnant. He’s made much of how understanding she is but ‘Darling I’m going to spend 10 weeks spanking someone in a Red Room’ is never going to be an easy pitch. “Her background helped massively,” he explains.
“Any moments she’s uncomfortable with, she’s very aware that it’s work and there are 10 crew members also in the room and it’s not sexy. I’m not sure what her plans are about seeing it. It’s totally her prerogative how she approaches it because I know it’s probably not an easy thing. She’ll come to the premiere; I’m not sure if she’ll sit through the movie.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s not too keen on their 14-month-old daughter seeing the film when she’s older. “I really hope it’s not something I have to deal with,” he laughs. “She’s well entitled to see it at some stage. Certainly not for 17 years, but I doubt she’d want to. I am certainly not going to be putting a DVD in her stocking for Christmas. ‘Now’s your time, you’ve waited long enough…’”
Becoming a father has been life-altering. “I was very much there for the birth; it’s a mad situation! My father [Jim, an obstetrician] has delivered over 6,000 babies, my stepmother’s an obstetrician gynaecologist and I’ve been around a lot of baby talk in my life. But still, nothing actually prepares you. I hope I’m a good dad. It’s the most joyous thing imaginable. It’s totally changed our lives but only for the positive."
“People are so f***ing down about having kids – in those early months when people are saying, ‘Say goodbye to sleep.’ Well of course, you’ve got a baby! I was discouraged by people’s attitude so it was refreshing when we occasionally met people who said, ‘It’s the best thing, you’re going to love it.’ I saw a pregnant friend the other night and I was like, ‘Embrace it! Don’t listen to all the people who are down on it, because it’s only good.’”
As with the majority of newish parents, the conversation soon veers to nappies. “Before I had my daughter I changed my niece’s nappy on a horrific occasion in Hyde Park. And it was like more s**t than I’d ever seen in my life,” he laughs.
“I was with my wife, who wasn’t my wife at the time, and it was quite early on in the relationship. I was like, ‘I’m not sure I could ever get used to this.’ But you do, and you don’t even think about it. Weirdly, I get enjoyment out of changing a nappy. I find it such a levelling thing. I don’t mind getting up in the middle of the night with her – although we’re lucky because she sleeps for 12 hours.”
It doesn’t take much to suspect that doing those mundane things is important to him to stay ‘normal’ in his altering life but when I suggest as much, I’m faced with a confused expression. “Why would I want to avoid those things?” he asks. “I don’t know why it would be anything else but normal?”
RISE AND THE FALL
Jamie grew up in Holywood in County Down (much has been made in the press of the similarity between his hometown’s name and Hollywood) with two older sisters. He was as a teen “full of energy, still am”, who was sport-obsessed but also active in the school drama department. He still has the same group of friends from school – a fact he brings up more than once. It is clearly hugely important to him and his sense of self.
Then at 16, a devastating event changed his life. His mum, Lorna, died after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “It shaped me massively in ways that I’m not even aware of,” he tells me. “It has shaped my career in that it shaped me totally as a person. It must’ve had an effect on how I approach every aspect of my life. It’s a horrific thing to happen and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I think about it every day.”
Rather than being reticent about something so personal, Jamie is extremely open about his experience of loss. “Grief is kind of fascinating,” he says. “I did some research on it because of The Fall . I had a bit of counselling at one stage. I didn’t keep it up for long, but I definitely found it helpful. Grief comes back in waves; it will hit you like a tonne of s**t when you’re totally unaware.”
“It also takes on a different meaning the older you get, especially now I have a baby myself. Suddenly, I see my wife as a mother, and that can only spark memories of my mother. It becomes very poignant. But sadly, that’s life, and life has to move on. One thing we’re good at as human beings is adapting. You’re not doing yourself any favours constantly being in grief. Take your moments, but don’t let it define you.”
After he left school, Jamie veered between music (with band Sons Of Jim), modelling (for the likes of Calvin Klein alongside Kate Moss and Eva Mendes) and acting – he got his first break in 2006’s Marie Antoinette. There was also a much reported relationship with Keira Knightley.
He admits for a long time he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do and was just mucking around. The turning point came in 2011 with a role in TV fantasy drama Once Upon A Time when he realised acting could afford him a living. Life then screeched a hard left in 2013 when he landed the part of Paul Spector in The Fall . It was a role that, without hyperbole, changed everything. “Without The Fall , there’s nothing,” he states, simply.
“It totally transformed my professional life. People will think Fifty Shades has, and it has on a different level, but that wouldn’t even be in the ether if it wasn’t for The Fall.”
He looks surprised when I ask how he feels when people say he’s something of an overnight success. “I didn’t realise people were saying that. I guess they do think that, and they’re well within their rights. How would they know I’ve failed numerous auditions? That I’ve had the same agent for 10 years?”
Now that the years of struggling to land roles are behind him, what’s the plan? “I want to have a varied career,” he explains. “I don’t just want to do big studio movies. I don’t just want to do franchises. I want to do indies and theatre one day – I’ve never done that.”
Another thing Jamie is yet to tackle is comedy – although anyone who has seen his comic walk on The Graham Norton Show might disagree. “I certainly don’t want to play psychopaths or sociopaths my whole life,” he deadpans.
“On a general level, I err on the lighter side of life. Although I have moments of solitude and sadness people wouldn’t think of me as a morose dude, you know? I like to try and be happy and make other people happy.”
As well as his school mates, Jamie is friends with a host of British actors, including Robert Pattinson and Eddie Redmayne. It must be hard not to compare yourself to your peers, especially when they are Oscar nominees.
“We’re all supportive,” he says. “It gets tricky because there are some jobs that maybe you’ve been circling… but then it’s healthy competition.” He’d like Eddie to win the Best Actor Oscar, admitting, “I cried watching the trailer for The Theory Of Everything.”
That Jamie Dornan is interesting, fun and not hard to look at, there can be no argument. Whether this role is perfect for him remains to be seen. I leave with the sense that although his life is about to change irrevocably, he’s emotionally intelligent and determined enough to deal with it. Later that day, as I reflect on our interview, I keep thinking about a story he told me which sums him up.
“I love talking to black cab drivers in London,” he said excitedly. “I had such a good chat with one the other night when I was smashed. He was telling me all about his family and we were talking about loss; it got really deep. When I got out he said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ So we hugged.”
Christian Grey, he is not. But will Jamie Dornan still be the kind of guy who hugs cabbies when the hype of Fifty Shades takes hold? We’ll put money on it.
Fifty Shades Of Grey is in cinemas nationwide on Friday 13 February. Turn over to read our interview with director Sam Taylor-Johnson