Jamie Dornan was in lockdown with his family when he received a fan letter that was more than a little creepy. The star of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies was sent “a collage of photographs of a kid,” with a note about his most famous role.
“Someone saying that it was my kid, and my wife should know that I have this kid who’s 7 years old,” Dornan, 38, says over a Zoom call. He squints to absorb the weirdness of this allegation. “I think they were trying to say that the kid was mine and Dakota Johnson’s, and we’d had this baby while we made the first ‘Fifty Shades’ movie,” Dornan says. “It piqued our interest, let’s say. It was a bit freaky.”
Dornan learned all about freaky things when he suited up as Christian Grey, the sexually adventurous businessman based on the E.L. James books that became a cultural phenomenon. The first “Fifty Shades of Grey” film, released in 2015, catapulted Dornan from a character actor (best known for the BBC TV series “The Fall,” in which he played a serial killer) into a movie star. Next came two sequels, which concluded in 2018 with the cheesy “Fifty Shades Freed,” set in the newlywed days of Christian and Anastasia’s relationship. The snarky reviews didn’t keep fans from flocking to theaters: Overall, the trilogy grossed a whopping $1.3 billion at the worldwide box office for Universal Pictures.
Since then, Dornan has pivoted. Outside of a supporting turn in 2018’s “Robin Hood,” the Irish actor hasn’t gravitated toward studio material. “I love the energy of independent film,” Dornan says. “I love that sort of kick, frolic, scramble-to-the-finish-line every day, and you can take liberties and everyone’s in it together.” He especially appreciates the camaraderie with the crew on a small set. “No one’s getting paid what they have been paid, and we have to make this work,” he says. “It brings out the best in people.”
Two years ago, Dornan received stellar reviews for “A Private War,” playing real-life photographer Paul Conroy to Rosamund Pike’s war correspondent Marie Colvin. His other recent roles have been similarly character-driven: the journalist Danny Tate in the HBO movie “My Dinner With Hervé,” a writer in Drake Doremus’ semi-improvisational “Endings, Beginnings” and a paramedic in “Synchronic,” a twisty sci-fi thriller now on VOD.
Dornan seems to be on the same path taken by Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, who experimented with indies after the massive success of “Twilight” (on which “Fifty Shades” is loosely based) before ultimately returning to mainstream movies. “Rob’s a friend of mine, and I have nothing but respect for him in the way he’s done that, knocking out a David Cronenberg movie and doing all of this really obscure stuff,” Dornan says, although he’s open to returning to blockbusters in the future: “If there’s an opportunity to show what I can do in a different world, in a franchise that has a different audience than what ‘Fifty Shades’ was, then I’d be crazy to not consider that.”
Dornan’s first stab at broad comedy, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” was supposed to open in theaters last summer, but Lionsgate postponed it until July 2021 due to COVID-19. In the romp, Dornan shape-shifts (think Jon Hamm in “Bridesmaids”) to portray a mysterious hotel guest who gets involved with vacationing BFFs Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo. “Those two together, they’re just an unbelievable force,” says Dornan, who shot the film in Cancún, Mexico. “I wanted to do comedy for a while. And then I did ‘The Fall’ and I played a psychopath, and you’re not on people’s lists for comedy if you played a character like that.”
For now, Dornan’s lighter side can be seen in the love story “Wild Mountain Thyme,” which opens in theaters and on demand on Dec. 11. “It’s like an injection of joy into the veins,” Dornan says. The Bleecker Street release is based on a play that director John Patrick Shanley wrote about his own Irish family. Dornan’s character, Anthony, is an awkward son who won’t return the flirtations of his obviously perfect-for-him neighbor, Rosemary (Emily Blunt). Meanwhile, his father, Tony (Christopher Walken), threatens to leave the family farm to an American nephew (Hamm).
Shanley offered the role to Dornan without asking for an audition, after a short phone call. “I started from the place of ‘I want a dark, brooding romantic lead,’” Shanley says. “As I looked at the landscape of international English-speaking actors, I couldn’t find anybody that fit the bill as well as Jamie.” Shanley laughs before adding: “He’s already thought of as connected with romance — perhaps more lurid than I was going to do.”
The film, which cost $5.5 million to make, took more than two years to finance. It feels like a throwback to the lighthearted feel-good indies of the ’90s, which sold tickets in part through word of mouth. As for the notion that audiences would see the movie in a theater now, Shanley advises caution: “I want everybody to be OK. I think we’re about to enter into an absolute bloodbath nightmare on a national level. You shouldn’t watch it looking over your shoulder, asking: ‘Am I contracting a serious illness to see the film?’”
“Wild Mountain Thyme,” he says, would play just as well on a big-screen TV. The movie, a love letter to Ireland, filmed over five weeks in the small western town of Ballina, where the locals put up posters welcoming the cast. “What’s interesting about shooting in rural Ireland where we were, it is like another time,” Dornan says. “It’s about the simple things and living off this farm, and that being the main focus of your day.”
Both Dornan and Blunt worked with the dialect coach Brendan Gunn, listening to tapes of people from the region. Dornan, who grew up in Belfast, wanted to sound less metropolitan, which is why he doesn’t speak in his normal voice. While some on Twitter have ridiculed the accents in the trailer, Shanley says if the characters sounded exactly like his relatives spoke, no one would understand them. “You have to make the accent more accessible to a global audience,” he says.
As they prepared in rehearsals, Blunt felt connected with Dornan’s approach to the character. “There was a real essence of Jamie and I being kindred spirits,” Blunt says. “And I just found him to be so utterly charming in this role and so willing to look silly and be silly and be breathtakingly uncomfortable in his own skin. I think all those qualities are so touching in this character of Anthony.”
Anthony allowed Dornan to tap into a part of himself that he hadn’t channeled on-screen before. “Let’s be honest: Anthony is probably on the spectrum in some way,” Dornan says. “He is unlike anyone I’ve ever played, but he has insecurities and an oddness and quirks within him that I felt I definitely possessed myself. I loved the opportunity to show that off and really heighten and explore and exploit my own weirdness, which I have plenty.”
Dornan lives on a farm in the English countryside with his wife, Amelia Warner (who composed the music for “Wild Mountain Thyme”), their three young daughters (all under the age of 8) and an assortment of animals: “a horse, five chickens, three goats, a dog and a cat,” he says. “As I look at you, I look at two of my goats. And the light is fading, and they’re looking at me as if I’m going to feed them more. But yeah, I’m a million miles from the Hollywood sign.”
He never really took to the lifestyle of a movie star, to the notion of being comfortable with the spotlight, or trying to make small talk with strangers at an industry party. “I think a lot of us are hiding aspects of ourselves, particularly in Hollywood, and how heightened those interactions are,” Dornan says. “It’s a show, and everyone’s on show and trying to give their best version of themselves, and you’re trying to give everybody the hits all the time. It’s kind of exhausting.”
In talking about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Dornan is careful. He’s respectful of the franchise that made him into a star, while acknowledging that the movies weren’t for everybody. “I want to try to do as much great work as I can, diverse and interesting work,” he says. “The thing that I’m probably most famous for is a monsterly successful franchise that was not critically loved. It’s a strange thing going into those films knowing that you’re going to be in a franchise that will probably make so much money and get negatively reviewed, because those books made so much money and were really negatively reviewed.”
While Dornan says he doesn’t generally read his own reviews, he couldn’t help himself back in 2015. “I went through a bad stage with ‘Fifty Shades’ of reading a couple of really bad ones, but then just finding them funny and letting them drive me,” he says. “One of them was ‘Jamie Dornan has the charisma of oatmeal,’ which — some people like oatmeal, so I thought it was kind of harsh. I remember that stuck with me, and I don’t entirely disagree with it either.”
By the time he retired from Christian’s famous Red Room, “I was ready to move on from this crazy chapter in my life,” Dornan admits. “No matter who I was playing, I don’t think I’d want to play a character for multiple, multiple films. I think I’d just get really bored of that.”
When he talks about meeting his wife, he sounds less like Christian and more like Anthony from “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Dornan achieved success in his early 20s as a model, and then landed his first movie role in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” which led to his being profiled in The New York Times with the headline “The Golden Torso.” Recalls Dornan: “I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ and I still think, ‘What the fuck?,’ 14 years on. I’ve never quite understood what it meant.”
As he continued to pursue an acting career, he lived in Los Angeles, auditioning for pilot season. One night in 2010, along with his friend Eddie Redmayne, he found himself at a karaoke bar in Koreatown, where he heard Amelia’s name — she was an actor whom he’d run into before. “Someone I was doing karaoke with said she was at this party in the Hollywood Hills, and did I want to go? And I fucking dropped the mic and ran for the hills.”
He knew immediately that he’d marry her. “I was just talking to her and I was like, yeah. This is it. And yeah, it was a very weird thing.” They found out they were both headed to London the next day, and — as fate would have it — they were booked on the same flight. “We sat beside each other on the plane,” says Dornan, who attributes his professional success to falling in love. “I started really caring by focusing on work,” he says. “And within a year of meeting my wife, I got ‘The Fall’ and my life changed forever. I started taking it much more seriously, and it’s all down to her.”
Dornan has been busy during this time of quarantine. He wrote his first screenplay with a friend, which he’s careful not to share too many details about. “I’m in it,” he says. “But I’m not the star of it. Here’s hoping we get to make it.”
He also recently wrapped Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical 1960s movie “Belfast,” which shot in Ireland and England under COVID-19 protocols. “The first couple of days, I was like, ‘This is crazy. I haven’t seen Kenneth Branagh’s face yet.’ It’s masks, and it’s strange, but then it’s amazing how quickly you adapt.” In his career, Jamie Dornan is showing how to do just that.