Click the jump for his interview.Before he became "a working actor," as he now proudly calls himself, Jamie Dornan initially caught the public's attention as a model—you may remember him from those greasy underwear ads with Eva Mendes, among many others. His first real acting gig, a small role in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006), similarly treated him as little more than a sex object. But what finally cemented his status as an overnight success—and the years of toil that generally goes with (and contradicts) that phenomenon—was his landing of the coveted lead in the forthcoming adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.
"I'd been auditioning for parts for years," Dornan, 32, says on the phone from London. "I never got any better at it. I'm crap at auditions. I know there are people who can walk into those rooms and make those lines sing on the page and get the job immediately. I wasn't one of them." He pauses and laughs. "I'm still not one of them. Even after I got my first acting job, thanks to Sofia, I still went a while without working. If you ever wonder why some actors end up taking shit jobs, it's because they have to pay the mortgage—or because they just want to work."
All along, Dornan hoped he could convince producers that if only given the chance, he could do the work. That finally happened with his brazenly empathetic—and seductive—take on a serial killer, Paul Spector, in the British series The Fall. In it, he plays a bereavement counselor and apparently loving family man whose placid demeanor belies his appetite for inflicting extreme suffering. Dornan's gripping performance is localized in his hands. "I wasn't aware of it at first," he says, "but the way I used my hands became a way for me to play Spector's awareness. You see the difference in how he deals with his family, with his kids, and the way he approaches other things in his life."
Stillness and wariness have informed many of his performances, from the alluring Count Fersen, in Coppola's pop-inflected Versailles, to an unusual watchfulness in the 2009 slice-of-life short Nice to Meet You ("I can't believe you saw that," Dornan says, incredulously), to the breakthrough role in The Fall—and more than likely, as Christian Grey in next February's adaptation of the soft-core novel Fifty Shades. He attributes his measured onscreen quality to preferring actors of the less-is-more approach, citing Al Pacino's Michael in The Godfather and connecting that to the pantherish calm that Robert De Niro employed as Michael's father in the sequel to the Mafia classic. "I don't want to be showy," Dornan says. "I'm not interested in seeing that, and I don't want to do it." He suggests that the quiet he performs rises from the types of men he's taken on. "I've played a lot of broken people. Maybe the silences are about the different kinds of vulnerability in all of them." When I mention that he's often played characters with two sides, he agrees. "That's true. Even Christian has two sides. Come to think of it, he has 50." When I laugh, he barely suppresses a chuckle in response. "I guess I'm gonna be using that line all over the planet in a few months. Shouldn't waste it."
Mostly, Dornan comes off as a down-to-earth and forward-thinking guy, one who's more than slightly abashed about his work. "I don't like my physique. Who does? I was a skinny guy growing up, and I still feel like that same skinny kid." When I noted that he will be unveiling the torso that has made him famous around the world for a movie-going audience, he again laughs over the absurdity of it all. "I'm still auditioning," he avers. "I don't really have choices in the material I get. So I have to make the choices in the way I play the characters. And I'm happy to get a chance to play Christian."
Something else he didn't have a choice about, but derives particular enjoyment from, is the range of actresses he's been paired with on the big and small screens. Dornan's power of observation, which has been key to his growing fame as an actor, comes to the fore when he discusses his admiration for such co-stars as Gillian Anderson, his detective nemesis onThe Fall. "I can't believe how simply good she is," he says. He's especially struck by the unique opportunity afforded him by the 2009 film Shadows in the Sun, where he performed with Jean Simmons—a star whose career spanned decades and saw her act alongside Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Victor Mature, and in two films with Marlon Brando—in her final role before her death. "She was, what, 79 when I worked with her? And when I think of all the films she was in, and how thoughtful and generous she was ..." After an emotional pause, he resumes the conversation, "I have to be careful here, because I was almost gonna tear up. She started as a kid. She had so many great stories. She worked with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra—in the same movie! I'm sure she got sick of me asking her about that. She told me one of her first jobs was as Vivien Leigh's stunt double. They rolled her up in a carpet and threw her into a pool for a scene where Vivien was to be drowned. She said she stayed underwater for what to her seemed like forever, but when she came up, she knew it was only a few seconds. She laughed about it, then she went from that to starring in Spartacus !"
Such experiences have given the Belfast-born Dornan perspective and a patience that he has made the bedrock of most of the acting he's done. In between bouncing back and forth from London to Northern Ireland for the filming of the second season of The Fall, and tending to his infant daughter ("I don't understand people complaining about babies. Sure, I miss a bit of sleep, but look at the rewards—better than not being able to sleep because of a hangover"), his displays of generosity extended even to me. A technical problem—when the first attempt at this interview was done over a long-distance call, with me in Krakow, him in London, and the recording being done via New York—made the recording unusable. And he graciously made himself available the same day this past May for a second take, no small thing with the demands of both our schedules. That's how good of an actor he is—it never occurred to me that he wasn't as involved for the makeup test.