Jamie Dornan: ‘Since my dad died, it’s lit this extra fire within me’

With Belfast, the Fifty Shades of Grey star has planted himself firmly in prestige filmmaking

Jamie Dornan: Belfast is a long way from the critically derided sex trilogy that made the actor famous. Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/New York Times

Jamie Dornan: Belfast is a long way from the critically derided sex trilogy that made the actor famous. Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/New York Times

 

Jamie Dornan sticks his fingers in the fireplace, fussing with a few stray flakes of ash, searching for something small to concentrate on so he wouldn’t have to think about the very big thing that is happening the next day.

“I’m just hoping to not have vegetables thrown at us, and calls for the guillotine,” the 39-year-old actor says. It is the day before Dornan’s new film, Belfast, a coming-of-age story, will screen for the first time in the city that bears its name, a city where Dornan spent the first 19 years of his life. About 1,500 people are expected to attend the premiere, and Dornan anticipates how that hometown crowd might feel about a movie set there: curious, proprietary and quick to pounce if the movie makes even a single misstep.

“We could get all the good reviews in the world, but what we really want is for people from Belfast to like this film,” Dornan says, fidgeting in his armchair. “So it’s going to be interesting tomorrow night. God, it’s going to be emotional!”

Dornan’s eyes are so dark blue that they appear to be all pupil, lending his screen look an otherworldliness that his most notable roles take great advantage of

Those good reviews from the rest of the world weren’t just a hypothetical: since its first screening, at Telluride Film Festival in late August, Belfast has received such fond reactions that many pundits consider it a front runner for the best-picture Oscar. Drawn from the childhood experiences of its writer and director, Kenneth Branagh, the film follows nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), his beloved Pa (Dornan) and his protective Ma (Caitriona Balfe) as they mull whether to stay in Belfast after their neighbourhood erupts in sectarian violence.

Belfast is filmed in black and white, was directed by a five-time Oscar nominee and stars Judi Dench as Dornan’s mother; in other words, it’s a long way from the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, a critically derided sex trilogy that made Dornan famous even as it hung a millstone around his neck. The last time Dornan went to the Oscars, as a presenter in 2017, his very presence was a sop to the viewing audience: here was the handsome, frequently naked guy from an S&M blockbuster that most Oscar voters wouldn’t touch with a 10ft whip.

And now, just a few years later, he may return to the ceremony as the star of their favourite movie. I meet Dornan in early November at Soho Farmhouse, a members’ club in the British countryside; he has driven in from the nearby Cotswolds, where he lives with his musician wife, Amelia Warner, and their three daughters. On screen Dornan often plays solemn and steady, even though off screen he has a quick wit and can barely sit still. He is also cheeky in a way that movie roles have yet to fully showcase: when we sit down by the fireplace and requested glasses of water fail to materialise, Dornan jokes that he is considering making out with me “just for the fluids”.

Jamie Dornan on the reception of his new film: ‘I’m just hoping to not have vegetables thrown at us, and calls for the guillotine.’ Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/The New York Times
Jamie Dornan: ‘I’m just hoping to not have vegetables thrown at us, and calls for the guillotine.’ Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/New York Times

Dornan’s eyes are so dark blue that they appear to be all pupil, lending his screen look an otherworldliness that his most notable roles take great advantage of. In the thriller series The Fall and in Fifty Shades of Grey, even when his lips curled into a knowing smirk, those eyes still kept some secrets, while in the recent comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Dornan’s eyeballs looked more like inky black dots, fitting for a movie that plays as a live-action cartoon. Belfast milks his ethereal gaze for all it’s worth: when Pa’s family is threatened, Dornan’s eyes widen, wounded, then harden into a stare.

“I think his screen presence is truly able to convey danger, both the concern about its potential nearness, but also his personal capacity to produce it,” Branagh wrote in an email. Every time young Buddy looks at his Pa, it’s as if he is beholding the sun itself, and Branagh leans into that hero worship, shooting Dornan in black and white as a literal silver-screen idol who croons Everlasting Love in the movie’s centrepiece scene. Although Pa is based on Branagh’s father, Dornan has imbued it with characteristics of his own dad, a man he similarly adored while growing up.

My dad was the greatest of men, so kind and wonderful, and he gave so much time and honesty and respect to everyone he met. A lot of those elements I definitely tried to put into Pa, because I could recognise the goodness

Dornan warns me that he might cry if we discuss his father; he doesn’t, but it’s the only time he goes completely still. Dr Jim Dornan was a renowned obstetrician and gynaecologist and the president of the Northern Ireland Pancreatic Cancer charity, in addition to being Jamie’s biggest fan. He was so eager to see Belfast – his son was starring opposite Dench, after all – and then, in March of this year, he died of Covid-19. He was 73.

“He was the greatest of men, so kind and wonderful, and he gave so much time and honesty and respect to everyone he met,” Dornan says. “There’s elements that I hope have rubbed off on me, that I’m really trying to take on through for the rest of my life. And a lot of those elements I definitely tried to put into Pa, because I could recognise the goodness.”

Dornan left Belfast just as he was about to turn 20, three years after his mother died from pancreatic cancer. He had spent that in-between time feeling aimless and drinking too much until his concerned older sister signed him up for a modelling reality show, as one does.

Dornan didn’t win the show, but after moving to London he still rose rapidly through the ranks of male modelling, which is to say he posed with Kate Moss, dated Keira Knightley and was dubbed “the Golden Torso” by the New York Times. Before that 2006 photo shoot, he remembers, he stayed out all night. “I’d like to say I’ve grown up since then,” he says, “but I’m not sure I have.”

That isn’t quite true. Half the reason Dornan thrived as a model was because he didn’t care that much about it; his insouciance was the X factor that helped sell even the most ridiculous outfits and tableaus. But to succeed as an actor you really do have to care, and you have to find it in you to keep caring even when you blow an audition, when you lose the role you would have killed for, or when you find yourself the object of public ridicule.

I was so fortunate to start off in Marie Antoinette. Then I barely worked for eight years. It was this weird thing of being shown the carrot, and then the carrot’s taken away, and the crumbs are even taken away

Dornan had always wanted to act but was afraid to start caring, so he stuck with modelling until it began to curdle. “I don’t find standing there getting your photograph taken interesting enough to do it for multiple decades,” he says. “If it satisfies you, and you can sincerely lie in bed going, ‘I feel great about what I’m doing,’ then great. But I just wasn’t. I was, like, ‘This sucks.’”

Once he switched over to acting and began to let himself care, things got hard. His first audition was to play a count who catches Kirsten Dunst’s eye in Marie Antoinette (2006), and he booked the role immediately. But you don’t want to read a profile about a handsome guy who stumbles into success wherever he goes, and this isn’t that.

“I was so fortunate to start at that level; then I barely worked for eight years,” Dornan says. “It was this weird thing of being shown the carrot, and then the carrot’s taken away, and the crumbs are even taken away, and you’re going, ‘Jesus, wasn’t there a carrot here a minute ago?’”

He cast about for ages, trying to find a project that would stick, and even when he landed a series-regular role as the handsome sheriff on the ABC fantasy series Once Upon a Time, he was abruptly killed off after nine episodes. Dornan recalls his castmates celebrating the job security of a show that would run for seven years while he was ejected after three months, desperate to prove to himself and to the world that he actually had some worth.

Jamie Dornan: ‘I’m more ambitious than I’ve ever let on before.’ Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/The New York Times
Jamie Dornan: his role in The Fall put him on the radar of Hollywood casting executives. Photograph: Charlotte Hadden/New York Times

But that’s when he met Warner, whom he credits with being a stabilising influence on his life and career. And not long after they married Dornan booked his murderous role in The Fall, a game-changing gig that put him on the radar of Hollywood casting executives who were searching for the right man to play a handsome sadist.

Did playing Christian Grey at least afford him a degree of finally-made-it career security? “No,” Dornan says, “because of the unique package that Fifty Shades presented of being a much-maligned project, and the books being what they were – how loved they were by fandom and how harshly criticised they were by critics. That’s unique in itself.”

Dornan knows that because of Fifty Shades his most ardent fans are women and gay men. When straight guys ask for his picture he can still sense their scepticism. “They’re always, like, ‘It’s obviously not for me. I’m a straight guy, and I have a wife,’ or, ‘I have a girlfriend, and she likes you; that’s why the photograph’s happening,’” he says. “What have I done, three war movies? You’d think that might help my cause out a little bit with straight men, but probably not. I think you need to be in that comic-book world to really grab their attention.”

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel like Robert Pattinson and his people have played it really cleverly. Everything he’s done since Twilight has been really smart and beautifully crafted

On that front Dornan is trying, and has been for a while. (Even before The Fall he auditioned for Superman, a role he lost to Henry Cavill.) To nab a superhero role now would offer him the chance to return to franchise films not as a newcomer desperate for a foothold but as an established actor who’s proved what he can do. And he knows that narrow path exists because Robert Pattinson has managed to walk it, segueing from Twilight heart-throb to indie film star with such panache that he looped back around and used his newfound credibility to win the title role in next year’s The Batman.

“I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel like him and his people have played it really cleverly,” Dornan says of Pattinson, who is a friend. “Everything he’s done since Twilight has been really smart and beautifully crafted, and those films aren’t financed on his name had he not been in these movies that made billions of dollars.”

Dornan is open about the movies he covets, and he has met with the Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige about donning a cape and tights. “I’m more ambitious than I’ve ever let on before,” Dornan says. Part of it is becoming a parent. “It’s like a necessity to deliver and provide, very caveman-esque: I must succeed for these precious little people. Also, since my dad died, it’s lit this extra fire within me, this extra burner of wanting to succeed.”

That desire isn’t to win the love he never got. “Dad would tell me that endless times every day of my life, so I’m not seeking that,” Dornan says. “But for some reason, since he’s gone, I have a weird thing of wanting to prove something to myself, to prove some sort of succession that is impressive.” And now that he’s channelled his own father, shouldn’t some other heroes be on the table?

Seeing Belfast at the premiere was the first time I watched it where I wasn’t going, ‘God, I hate my face. Why’d I do it that way? Is my nose really that bent? Should I not act any more?’

A few days after our time in the countryside, I hop on a video call with Dornan to ask how his hometown premiere went. He tells me that before his anxiety got better, it got so much worse. “It was crazy; I really felt physically sick leading up to it,” Dornan says.

For the half-hour until the screening began, as he sat in his hotel room surrounded by family and friends, he felt so nervous that he was unable to speak. But once he walked the red carpet, took his place inside the Waterfront Hall and began watching the movie, things changed. The audience hung on every word, and the energy was electric. And, sitting among the people of Belfast, his own performance finally clicked into place. “It was the first time I watched it where I wasn’t going, ‘God, I hate my face. Why’d I do it that way? Is my nose really that bent? Should I not act any more?’”

After the film ended and audience members came up to him for long conversations about Belfast city and the film, Dornan realised he was actually living through one of the best nights of his life. It helped, too, that Branagh had used his introduction to dedicate the premiere to Dornan’s father.

“It kills me that he’s not able to go on this part of the journey with me, but life happens,” Dornan says. “As Dad would’ve instilled in us more than anything, you do just have to put one foot in front of the other and march on.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

Belfast will be released on January 21st, 2022

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