Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan: Playing The Fall's serial killer left me scarred

Dornan stars in 'Fifty Shades of Grey' in the new year. Before that, he returns as a misogynistic murderer in the controversial drama 'The Fall' on BBC2. He tells Gerard Gilbert how the role has transformed his life
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The Independent Culture

The first series of The Fall was described by one newspaper as "the most repulsive drama ever broadcast on British TV", on account of the show's allegedly gratuitous depiction of a sexually sadistic killer at large in Belfast. But The Fall also happened to be BBC2's most-watched original drama in nearly a decade; in fact, viewers were by and large not repelled but gripped by the slowly entwining stories of Paul Spector – bereavement counsellor by day, serial killer by night – and of the ensuing police manhunt, led by Gillian Anderson's icily cool DSI Stella Gibson.

Anderson's performance – and her blouses (shades of Sarah Lund here; can we ever appreciate a female copper without reference to her clothing?) – were widely admired, but Jamie Dornan's turn as the "disturbingly good-looking" (as one female journalist put it) psychopath Spector was star-making. Indeed, it led directly to his casting as billionaire Christian Grey in Sam Taylor-Wood's film version of EL James's S&M blockbuster, Fifty Shades of Grey, due for release on Valentine's Day 2015 (a "date movie"? Really?). "This job has totally transformed my professional horizons," agrees Dornan of the The Fall. "It's totally transformed my life."

When the trailer for Fifty Shades was previewed online last month it broke the record for the most hits – 100 million, or one for every purchaser of the book – a phenomenon that Dornan says he has never read, although he did visit a BDSM dungeon in Vancouver, where the movie was shot, as part of his research. "I am never going to please all 100 million people," Dornan has said. "I know there are campaigns of hate against me already."

Dornan stepped in to co-star with Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) after British actor Charlie Hunnam dropped out – perhaps wisely. If the film does flop under the weight of its readers' expectations and the derision of the same critics who held their noses at the novel, then there is always the consolation that his compelling performance in The Fall also helped him win roles in two other Hollywood movies – one opposite Bradley Cooper and Emma Thompson in an unnamed comedy drama, the other co-starring with Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul in the supernatural thriller The 9th Life of Louis Drax.

 

Before The Fall – in his prelapsarian state as it were – the 32-year-old from Northern Ireland was best known for two things: modelling underwear for Calvin Klein, which earned him the nickname "the Golden Torso" (ironically because his "white Irish body" required repeated applications of oily tanning lotions), and for being Keira Knightley's boyfriend. That two-year relationship ended in 2005, but it's taken far longer for Dornan to shake off the disparaging "actor-model" tag. But then he readily admits that it was the modelling that allowed him to survive "hundreds and hundreds of failed auditions. If I hadn't been paid to model I would definitely have stopped."

Those lucrative modelling contracts also helped finance a pad in Notting Hill and a cottage in the Cotswolds, but the thespian ambitions remained. A "dispiriting" sojourn in Hollywood for the annual "TV pilot season", landed him a role in ABC's 2011 fantasy series Once Upon a Time, but true success was to come from a very different Hollywood – once closer to home; for Dornan grew up in Hollywood, County Down, a town on the edge of Belfast.

"I just think it's very cool decision of Allan [The Fall's creator, writer and now director Allan Cubitt] to set it in Belfast because there's no necessity to," he says. "When I first met for this, I said to him that I was so relieved to read something that's set in Northern Ireland and isn't directly involving the Troubles. And it just serves as a great backdrop, it's a cool-looking place".

Dornan considers himself nominally a Protestant – both of his grandparents were Methodist lay preachers and he himself boarded at Methodist College in Belfast. His father, Professor Jim Dornan, is one of Ireland's leading obstetricians, but had once considered becoming an actor and is related to Greer Garson, best known for the films Mrs Miniver and Goodbye, Mr Chips (Dornan's mother died of pancreatic cancer when he was 16).

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Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

The second series of The Fall sees Spector living alone in Scotland, but getting twitchy to return to his old ways. The unresolved ending of the first series annoyed some viewers, but Dornan says that having Spector still at large has set up a terrific sequel. "I guess with the second series you wouldn't want it to be just a continuation of the first… you've got to move it on," he says. "But this went beyond anything I had in my head… it was very exciting."

Dornan's position as the go-to guy for screen bondage is likely to be reinforced by the second series, especially in an early episode where his character straps his teenage babysitter to a bed – a scene that seems almost like a deliberate provocation to The Fall's feminist critics. Cubitt is robust in his own defence. "My mantra during the first series was that we should neither sanitise nor sensationalise Spector," he tells me. "I'm a bloke so I can't claim to be a feminist, but certainly nothing I have ever written was written with some notion of degrading women."

Dornan says he couldn't call himself a feminist either. "But I do have some values and I'm well aware that what my character is doing is wrong," he says, giving one of his self-deprecating laughs at the absurdity of the thought that he might somehow believe that Spector's crimes were morally justifiable. "People have seen the show as misogynistic and unnecessarily violent towards women. There is violence against women… but we're not just showing it for the sake of it."

The actor has tried hard to humanise Spector, which is partly what makes him so believable. Indeed, Cubitt has said that one of the reasons that Dornan won the part was because he insisted Spector was loving towards his children – kissing his daughter good night, for instance, having just returned from a spot of voyeuristic, pre-murder burglary.

Dornan has an 11-month-old daughter of his own, with his wife, the singer-songwriter Amelia Warner. Was he affected by the role – was it hard not bring it home? "You can't fail to be left slightly scarred by carrying someone like that for two series," he says. "I do carry elements of him with me and, in a worrying way, I find him relatable. I must be careful how I say this but I do have a big understanding of him and why he is how he is… and there are times when I scare myself. You do carry some of that anger and that hatred in you a little bit, especially towards the end of the project and a few months afterwards."

Those disagreeable feelings wouldn't however stop him making a third series if Cubitt were to write it. "I've always considered myself a very loyal person and if Allan wants to keep writing Spector I'll carry on playing him. That's if he's still around at the end of the second season…"

'The Fall' returns on 13 November at 9pm on BBC2

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