Born in Holywood, Co Down, Jamie Dornan possesses many of the understated traits one associates with south Belfast and its satellites: dryly amusing, sound-as-a-pound, Ulster brand posh, a real Sport Billy.
Hence, today, he’s contemplating his beloved Manchester United’s victory over fourth- round FA Cup rivals Cambridge United: “I think it’s ours for the taking. Do you know Wayne Rooney has never won an FA Cup? Isn’t that unbelievable?”
And today, for the first time in a long time, he’s heading for the driving range: “It’s been five months since I hit some golf balls,” he says.
’Twas ever thus with Jamie Dornan (32), who has a condition that means his adrenaline levels are abnormally high and who, as various viral images attest, can do an impressive planche push-up.
“At my age it’s a harder thing to pull off saying you’re sporty. It was fine back in the day when you’re playing rugby. Ideally, I would love to go around and knock on my mates’ doors and have a kick-around. But we’re married with kids and jobs.”
Perhaps predictably, PE was by far Dornan’s best and favourite subject while “studying” at Methodist College in Belfast.
“I don’t think it’s cool to say it now. I really didn’t do any work at school. I had no interest in it whatsoever. I loved school for sports and because that’s where I met the friends I have now. But I was not a worker. I couldn’t give a fuck. I never revised. I was terrible at exams.”
But surely Jamie, the son of obstetrician professor Jim Dornan, had some academic bent?
“No. It was certainly frustrating, particularly for my father. He was always trying to get me to change. Never in a ‘you will be a doctor, my son’ kind of way. He just did want me to apply myself more. To something that wasn’t PE or drama.”
Shades of calm
He chats away amiably. Not a bother on him. It’s hard to square: isn’t he starring in
Fifty Shades of Grey
this week? Isn’t the movie adaptation of EL James’s BDSM
fan-fiction turned 100 million-unit-shifting blockbuster kind of a big deal? Hasn’t that same picture already sold 60,000 tickets in Ireland ahead of release? And something like $60 million worth of tickets worldwide?
“I was just trying to block all that out and just see it as a good job,” he shrugs. “It was an opportunity to work with people I admire. I always trying to see it like that, you know? But it can be hard to completely negate the fact that 100 million people have an interest.”
He speaks very highly of Fifty Shades helmer Sam Taylor-Johnson, who he compares favourably with Sofia Coppola, who directed him in Marie Antoinette in 2006.
“She’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Sam and Sofia are quite alike. They’re very, very comfortable in their own skin. Assured of themselves in a very no showy way. And both seriously brilliant directors. It’s a really lovely energy to be around.”
From the get-go, all eyes have been on the production of Fifty Shades of Grey. Would drafting in a female Turner Prize nominee such as Taylor-Johnson make the material classy? Or would it just be this year's Nine 1/2 Weeks?
Inevitably, the words “troubled production” were bandied about. Dornan replaced Charlie Hunnam in the titular role. There were reshoots and murmurs that Dornan and co-star Dakota Johnson, the daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, were not exactly blazing up the screen together.
Yeah, right, says Dornan. “We’ve had reshoots on every movie I’ve ever done. But everything that happened on
was so heightened. Of course they were going to make a big deal out of it.”
But what of the material? Dornan is enough of a Guardian-reading feminist to have once been described by The Guardian as a "Guardian-reading feminist". He lives in London in a house "littered with ukuleles and guitars", which he shares with his wife, the singer-songwriter Amelia Warner, and infant daughter Dulcie. She will not be watching the film any time soon.
“Who the hell wants to see their dad in them kind of scenarios?” laughs Dornan. “I can’t ever imagine her turning around and saying, ‘oh, I really want to see that’.”
Christian Grey is a spanky billionaire who dominates and brutalises his primary love interest. Worse still, he makes her diet and go to the gym. Isn’t he kind of a jerk?
“I always say that you have to find something in the character that you can . . . well, I used to say relate to, but that’s not quite right. Something you can understand about them. It doesn’t mean you have to like them.
“He’s not my kind of guy. I don’t like the idea of someone telling a girl what she should eat and how much she should exercise and all that stuff. That’s not right. Obviously.
“I don’t know anyone in Belfast like him at all. None of my mates would carry on like that.”
Those same mates gave him “plenty of stick” during his early career as a model for Dior, Armani and Calvin Klein. “There were some dubious poses,” he laughs.
Won't they have even more ammunition after Fifty Shades? "It's an easy target. Lucky none of my mates are funny."
Being a male model-turned-actor, particularly one of the planet’s best paid male models, isn’t any easier than being a similar female hyphenate: “I’m not sure I’m ever going to shake the model-turned-actor tag completely. I understand why. That is the way of things. You just have to let the work do the talking.”
Dornan says he never took modelling very seriously. It was the same with acting at first. And then the role of Paul Spector in BBC's The Fall – bereavement councillor by day, serial killer by night – came along.
"Marie Antoinette was my first audition and my first job," he says. "I had just got an agent. And I was in a movie by Sofia Coppola, who was rightly a really big deal at the time, shooting in the Palace of Versailles. I had no idea how to approach it.
"I had a bit of an attitude about being an actor. I did no work. Just like at school. It wasn't until The Fall that I realised, 'Oh fuck, you have to work really hard at this'. Until then I was winging it."
One has to wonder about genetics. Before he took his place in medical school, Dornan’s dad was accepted into Rada. Jamie’s second cousin once removed was Oscar winner Greer Garson. Did he watch her films growing up?
"I was definitely made aware of her. Movies like Mrs Miniver and Goodbye Mr Chips were often on TV. I was told she was my Nana's first cousin. I remember we eventually found an address for her. This was pre-internet and she had married some Texan oil tycoon. I had drafted a letter. But then we heard on TV that she had died."
Does he remember what he wrote? "I was telling her about winning the drama prize at school. I was 12. It was the only time I was on stage during awards day in 14 years of school. I was the Widow Twanky in Aladdin."
So even then he was working towards sexual transgression? “Oh, yeah. I was oddly comfortable in that dress.” It’s hard to imagine that success – or more success – will change Jamie Dornan. But one does wonder how he’ll cope with a whole new contingent of maiden aunt fans approaching him on the street?
“I’ll be grand,” he promises. “Lucky for me I’m a very fast runner.”
Fifty Shades of Grey
is on general release. See the review at Irishtimes.com