The most terrifying man on television is having a quick blast of his asthma pump. “Just when you thought he couldn’t get any cooler,” says Jamie Dornan with a smile, padding his way from the dressing room through to the studio for today’s photoshoot. Putting aside the incongruity of this image for a second, Dornan is a man who – at the moment at least – you wouldn’t begrudge a spot of anxious breathlessness.
In less than 18 months he’s gone from a model and occasional actor mostly known for a series of monster Calvin Klein billboards – you know the ones: Eva Mendes, tiny briefs, liberal dousing of Crisp ’n Dry – to one of the most dropped names in Hollywood’s juice bars of power. He’s been nominated for a Bafta, appeared in acclaimed TV dramas and, the week we speak, he’ll finish work on a new Bradley Cooper comedy. He is very much on the brink. And so, of course, he’s utterly knackered.
“It’s been a fun couple of years, but I’m due a break,” he says sleepily, when we eventually sit down for a chat. “I've got the next few weeks off and, mate, I’m going to enjoy that.” He’ll need to. The show that made his acting career will soon return, bringing more opportunities, far-flung film sets, awards show appearances.
And that’s before we even touch on his biggest role to date – a gigantic, ballsy career gamble that could yet torpedo the whole enterprise and see him surrender his relative anonymity for a life dodging paparazzi lenses, as well as fans looking to get spanking paddles autographed.
So, yeah. He may want to keep that inhaler close at hand.
Falling upwardsMarie Antoinette
In the years that followed that breakthrough he fitfully attempted to bulk up his IMDb entry but, looking back at his wayward mid-twenties as a very settled 32-year-old, he admits his heart may not have been truly in it. There were disastrous auditions (“I once attempted a Geordie accent, having never practised it,” he says in his decidedly Belfast burr. “I had to just walk out”), and few breakthroughs.
But without actors a concept is just that. And Dornan – twitchy and terrifying, pathetic and relatable – was a revelation as Paul Spector, the ladykiller who looks like, well, a ladykiller. And Gillian Anderson, on the trail of Spector as Stella Gibson (AKA Sarah Lund in a silk blouse), provided the perfect steely counterpoint to his convincing sadism. So did he always know he could be so creepy?
“I’m trying to think back to bad dates I’ve been on and what my feedback was,” he says with a laugh. “Was it ever, ‘He was creepy and I feared for my life?’ Obviously, I’m nothing like [Spector], but I think I’ve surprised even myself with the darkness that’s there.”
He did his homework, too, studying outwardly ‘normal’ real-life murderers such as Ted Bundy to a troubling degree. “I’m still carrying some aspects of it with me,” he says. “It always takes me a while, and it affects me. I’ve read a lot of horrific stuff.” How did he cope with having to go to those dark places on a daily basis?
“I didn’t find it healthy to occupy that headspace at all times,” he admits. “Also, I have quite a lot of energy and find it hard to sit still, but I’d made a choice with Spector that he is very still. So between takes I had to f*cking run in circles, run around corridors, scream constantly. It was probably really irritating, because I was going a bit mental.”
Grumbles aside, that final episode afforded an opportunity – albeit via a slightly hokey villain vs hero phone conversation – for the two leads to actually have a proper scene together. And, while the upcoming second series finds Spector on the run after a botched kill, Dornan hints that this may not stand in the way of more scenes with the “incredibly talented, but surprisingly daft and childish” Anderson.
“When I got the breakdown for the second series, I was shaking,” he says, choosing his words carefully in an attempt to not blow the plentiful surprises. “The scale of it has grown, there are twists and turns and there are moments [with Gillian] which I can’t say too much about. What’s fascinating about these guys, like Ted Bundy, is they feel they’re on a different level and can’t be harmed. Their arrogance is phenomenal.
“And that’s why it’s so interesting when you see Spector slip up. Cracks start to appear and Stella gets a bit of a foot in. That’s what makes it great television, and it’s probably explored slightly more in the second series. It’s what I love most about him. Obviously what he’s doing is horrific – pure evil – but we get to see a human, relatable side to him at work and with his family, which makes it more chilling to watch. You are literally thinking that it could be your next-door neighbour. And I’ve had people say, ‘He’s a sick bastard, but I kind of wanted him to get away with it.’”
Grey matterThe Fall
In fact, a brunette friend of mine, tongue only slightly in cheek, once proudly trilled about being “his type”. Has he found that playing a psychopath has, bafflingly, only increased his admirers? “It’s mad, but I don’t know if it’s about aesthetics,” he says, looking slightly embarrassed. “I think it’s just very clever writing, based on the layers he’s got and the moments we see in his personal life.”
“Usually with those things people say ‘Take your time’, but I didn’t really have a huge amount of time,” he laughs. “So you just call on the people that represent you and the people you love and collectively make a decision.” That mention of “people he loves” nods to the fact that his wife, musician and actor Amelia Warner, was heavily pregnant with their first child at the time, and probably not keen on uprooting to Vancouver so her husband could roll around on camera with Dakota Johnson. How did he package that one?
“Well, my wife is a brilliant, hugely understanding person,” he says. “Plus, she was an actress for 10 years, so she’s aware of what it’s like. A lot of people would have had a sh*t fit at 30-something weeks pregnant, hearing, ‘Darling, we’re going to Vancouver this week for four months – we’re going to have a Canadian baby and I’m going to do a film where, for parts of it, I will be naked.’ That’s a tough pitch, but my wife is an incredible person.”
For his part, despite the last-minute nature of his casting, Dornan threw himself into it as best he could. He read the book and, off his own back, employed the services of an S&M expert to show him the ropes (knots, chains, handcuffs).
“It’s such a big part of the character that I wanted to know what I was doing,” he says with a smirk. “This guy came along with his submissive, I sat in the corner with a beer and watched. My driver was on the other side of the door, God knows what he thought.”Mills & BoonThe Notebook
In fact, Warner is on her way to meet him now, leaving me time for just one more question. I blurt something about the increasing pressure on leading men to be absurdly ripped. Has he found it hard? Training, avoiding carbs, pints and other vices? “Erm, I haven’t given up anything,” he says. “My only vice is crisps, but I can get away with that. I’ve never really found myself out of shape."
And there I was starting to like him...
[Images: David Venni]