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The Saturday Interview

Jamie Dornan on The Tourist and his Fifty Shades stalker: ‘They turned up at my house when my kids were there’

As he returns as a haunted amnesiac in BBC One’s ‘The Tourist’, the Irish actor speaks to Adam White about fame and fandom, the behind-the-scenes ‘breakage’ that spoilt ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, and why that third series of ‘The Fall’ was probably a mistake

Saturday 30 December 2023 07:41 GMT
‘I’m pretty good at just blocking any of the noise associated with whatever fandom is – not letting it affect me, or more importantly my family’
‘I’m pretty good at just blocking any of the noise associated with whatever fandom is – not letting it affect me, or more importantly my family’ (Getty)

Jamie Dornan, Kenneth Branagh once said, is far too interesting a person for someone so pretty. That was the gist, anyway. “He surprises you as being something more intriguing than his exceptional good looks,” were his exact words, right around the time he directed him in Belfast, the 2021 Oscar winner that helped transition Dornan out of his vaguely unhelpful status as “the guy from Fifty Shades of Grey”. When I repeat Branagh’s words back to Dornan over Diet Cokes at a publicity office in central London, I’m taken aback by the sincerity of his response. Dornan doesn’t blush or cringe. He doesn’t scold me for embarrassing him. He just sits there, touched, as if it’s the nicest sentiment he’s heard in years.

“Oh man, I f***ing need to hear s*** like that,” he tells me, rubbing gently at his salt-and-pepper beard. “Sometimes I’m just riddled with self-f***ing-hatred and doubt. It’s very, very nice to hear that.” Branagh, he says, has always treated him like an equal. “The first time I met him, to discuss Belfast, I don’t think there was a job I’d done that he hadn’t seen. He’d seen s*** that I didn’t think anyone had ever heard of, let alone been released. He’d really done his f***ing research on me.”

Dornan is 41, Irish and sweary, that mellifluous brogue of his at odds with the sheer volume of f-bombs. He has been famous for more than a decade – but it’s a fame that has unique peculiarities, ones that help explain why he’s surprised when people take him seriously. He was once, as if his face wasn’t a big enough clue, a highly successful model. Underpants, Calvin Klein, the lot. There’s strike one. Then, in 2013, he starred opposite Gillian Anderson in BBC One’s The Fall, lending menace and subtlety to the role of a father-of-two who moonlights as a serial killer. Everyone, though, still really fancied him. It was weird. And then a couple of years later he was Christian Grey, the freak-in-the-sheets, unrelenting-bore-in-the-streets hero of a franchise of maligned bonkbusters adapted from a series of terrible books. It was a poisoned chalice of sorts, so no wonder he has a bit of a complex. Then again, it started early.

“All I’d ever get to audition for was, you know, ‘the count who comes in on a f***ing horse and ravages the woman’,” he remembers of his days trying to make it as an actor. “I’d come from modelling, so I thought those were the only types of roles I was going to do.”

But then he tried out for The Fall, and got the part, and people liked him a lot in it. The show was one of those big, culture-rattling hits – a twisty cat-and-mouse game between a ludicrously attractive twosome on opposite sides of the law. Dornan found the whole thing personally gratifying. “I’d never had an opportunity to show that darker side of myself – and when you’re told that you do it well, it really makes an impact.” He fiddles with the ring on his cola can, seeming quite touched again.

In The Tourist, his BBC thriller that returns for a second series this week, Dornan is back in scary mode. He plays an amnesiac on the run in the Australian Outback, who slowly learns that he was formerly a very crooked man working for an international crime syndicate. Part of the fun of the series is watching Dornan’s Elliot wrestle with the horrifying deeds he is told he’s committed but has no memory of – it’s a bit like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, if more knowingly zany. Series two shifts the action to the rolling hills of Ireland, where we find Elliot and his protector-turned-girlfriend Helen (Danielle Macdonald) unpacking his family history, and ups the nonsense – its first episode features not only a creep with a sex doll for a wife, but also an eye-gouging granny.

I’m not saying I’d never do anything super high-profile again, but I don’t want big peaks all the time. I’m happy to keep ticking over as I am, then one day just disappear and play golf for the rest of my life

“The way those guys write,” Dornan says, “I’m always asking, ‘What the f*** is happening now? Who’s this f***ing lunatic you’ve just brought in?’” The Tourist stems from screenwriting brothers Harry and Jack Williams, who most recently scripted the Coen Brothers-esque dark comedy Boat Story for the BBC. They’ve been accused of sometimes veering too heavily into the absurd, and while Dornan says he understands those complaints, he also loves it whenever a script takes a sharp left turn. “I know some people didn’t like Boat Story, but I loved that it was just so f***ing mad! I’d far rather watch that than some formulaic mystery f***ing drama with... ” He seems to spot my Dictaphone and clams up. “I was about to start naming actors, but I can’t do that with that thing there. But anything weird as f*** and non-linear – is that not just really interesting?”

The Tourist’s move to Ireland means less yellow-filtered exoticism this time round, which Dornan admits was his idea. More a demand, really. “I couldn’t have done Australia again, if I’m being really truthful – just logistically for my family,” he says. Dornan has been married to the musician and composer Amelia Warner (who has performed under the name Slow Moving Millie) since 2013, and they have three children; they all moved down under for six months while Dornan filmed series one. “We had a great time,” he says, “but I can’t be doing that to my family every other year. It’s not how I want to live my life.”

Man on the run: Dornan peers over a cliff edge in the second series of BBC One’s ‘The Tourist’ (BBC/Two Brothers/Steffan Hill)

He also knows the risk of bringing back a hit TV show for more episodes. A case of diminishing returns did, after all, affect The Fall. The first two series were blockbusters, but series three was a creative black hole – something even Dornan noticed at the time. “I remember getting a sense that people could have done without the third,” he laughs. “The first series was vital and impactful, quite seismic... and it certainly changed my f***ing life overnight. Then the second series was inevitable and needed. But the third might have been over-egging it a bit.”

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Dornan has always found it hard to avoid hearing what the public think about him or his work. He knows people turned against The Fall. He knows people have thoughts about him (maybe, probably not) playing James Bond. He read all those bad reviews of Fifty Shades. I tell him – though I’m not sure he believes me – that I actually quite liked the first Fifty Shades of Grey. It was glamorous, sexy, and seemed to have its tongue firmly in its cheek – no doubt in large part thanks to screenwriter Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson. They both seemed to treat the premise with respect when it was required, yet poke fun at it when it was too silly not to.

Firm grip on things: Dornan and Dakota Johnson in the world-shaking bonkbuster ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Shutterstock)

Taylor-Johnson, Dornan and his co-star Dakota Johnson – the film’s curious naif to his smouldering sex god – were close allies, but their shared vision for the trilogy clashed with that of the woman behind the novels, the enigmatic quasi-wordsmith EL James. Taylor-Johnson once said that “every scene was fought over”, comparing her dynamic with James to “wading uphill through sticky tar”. James got her way in the end, with Taylor-Johnson banished from the franchise and her husband recruited to write the scripts for the subsequent two films (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed). Dornan and Johnson were contractually obligated to make the sequels, so had to grin and, well, bare it.

“It was very different without Sam there,” Dornan says today. “You go into these things where you build all that faith and trust with a person and then that person is taken away. There’s a breakage, and it’s mended in a way that doesn’t fit the same way as it did before.” He cracks a wry smile. “That’s the way I’m gonna say that. It was difficult for lots of reasons. But the sensitivity and understanding that Sam had around it all was, I thought, pretty vital.” The subsequent two films were shot back-to-back, under the direction of James Foley. “The first one made a ton of money, but critics didn’t like it – so that in itself moved the goalposts. It was a uniquely odd experience, and I would have really liked to have seen it be what it was originally set out to be under Sam.”

I begin to ask about the frenzy that surrounded those movies, specifically the contingent of conspiratorially minded fans who insist Dornan and Johnson have been a real-life item for years and are parents to a litter of secret children – but Dornan interrupts. Then the conversation gets quite dark.

Family: Dornan with his wife, the musician and composer Amelia Warner, in 2021 (Getty)

“I tried to put walls up around [the fans], to really try and not let that in,” he says. “I’m pretty good at just blocking any of the noise associated with whatever fandom is – not letting it affect me, or more importantly my family.” He sighs. “I’ve been involved in situations where it’s impacted my family. I had a situation... a stalker-type situation before Covid. That was f***ing scary. Someone turned up at my house when my kids were there. It was not something...” He trails off. “The more I can block that out, the better it is for me and the family.”

When things like that happen, I ask, does that change how he picks work? Would he ever do something so big again? “I don’t know, because obviously that was a whole fallout from Fifty Shades and the hysteria around that franchise,” he says. “There’s never going to be anything like Fifty Shades again. It felt very much like its own thing, particularly because it focused in and around sex. But there are obviously other jobs that bring insane scrutiny, like superhero stuff, or f***ing James Bond – any of that stuff. I’ve done pretty well to avoid that sort of s*** so far.”

But he has expressed interest in it. He told The New York Times in 2021 that he’d had meetings with Marvel and would love a career like Robert Pattinson’s – who can move seamlessly between expensive studio films and wilder indies. And we’re meeting a few weeks after a report claimed that Dornan recently screen-tested for Marvel’s Fantastic Four reboot, only to be pipped to the role of Mr Fantastic by Pedro Pascal. He’s quick to pour cold water on that story.

“I think if you’re an actor of a certain standing, who has a certain sort of recognition, you’re going to be in those conversations,” he says. “I’m not saying I’d never do anything super high-profile again, or a big [intellectual property] with all eyes on it... I probably will. But I’m also really happy with where I’m at right now. I can live a pretty normal life for the most part. I can sit on the Tube and I’m fine. I’m an ambitious person, and I have a fire under me, but in the last 10 years or so, I’ve realised I don’t want big peaks all the time. That doesn’t interest me. I’m happy to keep ticking over as I am, then one day just disappear and play golf for the rest of my life.”

Big screen: Dornan stars alongside Caitriona Balfe and Judi Dench in Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ (Shutterstock)

If Dornan seems ambivalent, it’s only because he’s gone a lot further than most. He was born to parents who were prevented from pursuing their creative dreams – his father was forced by his parents to turn down a spot at Rada, while his mother wasn’t allowed by her parents to study art. Instead they were pushed into more practical endeavours, namely medicine.

“I would have been obsolete if they hadn’t done that, because they only met because my dad went to medical school and my mum went to nursing school,” he laughs. “But there has been something lovely about sort of living vicariously through their dreams.” Dornan’s mother died from pancreatic cancer when he was just 16, but his father – who died in 2021 – was able to witness his acting career flourish. “Some people, and particularly boys, go their whole life without their dad ever telling them that they love them or that they’re proud of them,” he says, “but I got that literally every day from my dad. I was able to bring him to premieres and have him experience a lot of the good stuff that’s happened in my life, and he really got off on that.”

Every time Dornan booked an acting job, his father would ring up and ask him who he’d be working with. “Really f***ing cool people, like Sebastian Stan or Anthony Mackie or Kristen Wiig, but obviously Dad would never know any of them.” Belfast, though, was different. “It was so cool to be able to say, ahh, I’m working with Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, and Kenneth Branagh is directing – he’s like ‘Wow!’”

‘Really f***ing silly’: Dornan sings his heart out in ‘Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar’ (Lionsgate)

Dornan’s father died before he could see Belfast, but he did manage to see Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar – another of the actor’s personal favourites, primarily because it was such a massive departure for him. The 2021 comedy served as Wiig’s follow-up to Bridesmaids, and revolved around an eccentric pair of friends who must stop a supervillain from unleashing a hoard of killer mosquitos upon an unsuspecting public. Dornan plays the villain’s incredibly vapid henchman, who at one point stages an elaborate musical number in which he pirouettes across sand dunes and serenades a seagull. It is, in all seriousness, Dornan’s finest work to date.

“That film got f***ing nailed by Covid, but it’s got such a cult following now,” he says. “I’m probably closer to that character than any other character I’ve played – if a bit smarter. I think at my core I’m just really f***ing silly, you know?”

He remembers his family flying out to see him during filming – and their visit happened to fall on the day when he was shooting his musical number. “I’m on this beached jetski, the wind machine is in my hair, and I’m lip-syncing and doing all this stupid s***,” he says. “They call ‘cut’ and Millie walks over to me and says, ‘Do they know you’re just playing yourself?’ And I’m like, ‘Shuddup, they’re not supposed to know that.’”

I’m beginning to get what Sir Kenneth was on about.

‘The Tourist’ series two begins on BBC One on 1 January

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