Has Jamie Dornan’s penance for ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ finally paid off?

He accepted one of the most coveted acting roles of the century, but paid a high price at the hands of the critics. After a few years spent away from Hollywood, the actor’s role in ‘Belfast’ is expected to win him an Oscar

Jamie Dornan at the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Belfast.’

Jamie Dornan is a very ordinary guy. Far from collecting top-of-the-range cars or squandering his fortune on luxury labels, his most prized possessions are a horse, five chickens, three goats, a dog and a cat. He could afford a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, but the actor and former model lives on a peaceful farm in the English countryside with his three daughters and his wife, actress-turned-composer Amelia Warner. After a few years living through the hangover of the blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey, he now returns as the protagonist of Belfast, a landmark new film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Some insiders are betting on a clean sweep for the Oscars, and just maybe he can shake off the tragic series of events that have marked his life and began long before he became Christian Grey.

Jamie was a happy child. He was born in Holywood in Northern Ireland – not to be confused with Hollywood – and raised in a Methodist family, he attended church regularly until he was six years old. His grandparents on both sides were preachers. But young Jamie was much more interested in sports, especially rugby, than in cultivating his faith. He also showed a precocious interest in acting. At Belfast Methodist College, he was an active member of the drama club. Although he was unaware of it himself, everyone else knew he was star material. That included his father, obstetrician and gynecologist Jim Dornan, who died last March of Covid-19 at the age of 73.

While his childhood was ordinary, everything changed in 1998. Shortly after his 16th birthday, his mother, Lorna, died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. “It’s something that affects you in a thousand different ways every day. I doubt I’ll ever come to terms with it, unless I go see a therapist who can explain how. Maybe it made me more determined... I still get very angry when I think about it. At my age, I get very frustrated that my mother isn’t here, because I have daughters that she hasn’t been able to meet. It makes me very sad,” he told EL PAÍS in 2016.

Jamie Dornan and Kate Moss at a Calvin Klein event in New York in 2016.
Jamie Dornan and Kate Moss at a Calvin Klein event in New York in 2016.Patrick McMullan (Patrick McMullan via Getty Image)

Then in 1999, Dornan lost four of his best friends from high school in a car accident. In 2019, on journalist Jay Rayner’s Out To Lunch podcast, he talked about how the back-to-back tragedies sunk him into depression: “I had a very rough couple of years that I guess I’m still dealing with, both of [those] things today, every day. I had this summer where I’d go out a lot, drink, not really achieve anything. I dropped out of university and I was doing a marketing degree and [had] no interest in any aspect of marketing, and I thought ‘Well fuck this, I’m going to leave’.” His two older sisters, Liesa (who works for Disney in London) and Jessica (a fashion designer based in Falmouth), staged an intervention.

Modest man

Dornan told The Guardian in 2014 that he has never considered himself particularly attractive. “I didn’t do particularly well with girls at school. I was always very young-looking. And my sister’s friends would always say: ‘You’re so cute.’ I fucking hated that. If you are a skinny, baby-faced teenager, the last thing you want to hear is that you’re cute.” His sisters begged to differ and persuaded him to enter the reality TV show Model Behaviour, which offered a prize of a one-year contract with the Select modeling agency and an appearance on the cover of GQ magazine. Liesa and Jessica thought that a change of scenery could be good for him, but he didn’t win.

Soon afterwards, however, he showed up at the agency’s London offices on his own and was signed. “Aged 21, I was doing some big, big campaigns – they were a huge deal – earning good money, but because I never really saw modeling as a career I guess I didn’t let it get to me too much,” he told GQ. Every time he went on a date or met a girl in a pub he would say he was a “landscape gardener or worked for Google.” Anything but admitting he was a model. He eventually started dating the actress Keira Knightley, and they were an item for two years.

As The New York Times reflected in a 2006 article entitled The Golden Torso, Dornan dazzled for brands like Dior, Calvin Klein, Armani and Abercrombie & Fitch because he seemed like a typical young man who could go unnoticed in a crowd. “He’s like the male Kate Moss,” Jim Moore, then creative director of GQ, said in that piece. “His proportions are a little off. He has a slight build. He’s on the small side for male models. But his torso is long, and so he looks taller, and he brings a relaxed quality to modeling. He knows what he’s there for, but unlike a lot of people, he’s not trying to be a male model. He is not modeling.”

And that was the key to his success. “I question why all of this has happened to me,” he told the US newspaper. “I don’t see myself as particularly good-looking. The reason it’s all worked so well for me is that I don’t take it all too seriously,” he added. “It’s a great business for now, a great way to make money and have a laugh. I put a lot of what’s happened so far to luck and right place, right time.”

Jamie Dornan (middle) attends the casting for the '9 Countries, 9 men, 1 Winner' Calvin Klein competition in 2009.
Jamie Dornan (middle) attends the casting for the '9 Countries, 9 men, 1 Winner' Calvin Klein competition in 2009.Dave M. Benett (Getty Images)

He never walked the runway, but rather posed with a melancholy look for some of the most famous photographers in the industry. “I’m sure there are people who dream about it, but not me. I did well and I respect that, but I always did it with some reluctance. I wouldn’t go back to modeling in any way,” he told EL PAÍS in another interview in 2019. This stage of his life would allow him to devote himself to what he had always dreamed of: acting.

Killer seeks interpreter

In the aforementioned Guardian article, journalist and writer Nigel Farndale portrayed Dornan as a folksy, feminist and hyperactive man by nature. We know that he usually drinks beer, opens a bottle of wine after putting his daughters to bed and that he doesn’t work out at the gym because he doesn’t put on a gram when he gorges on junk food.

His first real opportunity to act came in the form of a cameo Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in 2006. But if there is one character that Dornan holds in high esteem, it’s playing psychopath family man Paul Spector in the British series The Fall, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. “That show has given me ev-er-y-thing,” he acknowledged in The Guardian in 2015. “I know that every opportunity I get from now on is because of The Fall.”

The early days were not easy because he had to prove that he was not just a pretty face. “In some ways, it benefits you, but in general it’s a big stigma. I’ve always found it infuriating that just because you’ve been a model for a few years, you can’t be a valid actor. Especially in the UK. In the US I’d say they don’t give a shit,” he told EL PAÍS.

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson at the premiere of ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ in Paris in 2018.
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson at the premiere of ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ in Paris in 2018.PATRICK KOVARIK (AFP via Getty Images)

When the first rumors of a possible film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey began surfacing, the whole world began to speculate who would play the protagonist. The debut novel was universally panned for being badly written, but it was still a literary phenomenon. The toxic relationship between secretive businessman Christian Grey and shy college girl Anastasia Steele revitalized erotic literature, a genre that had lain dormant for decades. Since its publication in 2011, the first installment alone has sold more than 165 million copies worldwide.

On September 2, 2013, the news was made public that Charlie Hunnam had been chosen to bring Christian Grey to life. But on October 12 of that same year, Hunnam dropped out. Days later, Dornan agreed to be his replacement. The first trailer of Fifty Shades of Grey accumulated more than 36 million views in its first week on YouTube in 2014. The teaser for Fifty Shades Darker, a sequel, reached 144 million in 24 hours in 2016. Dornan was fully aware of the monster he was facing, and that from minute one the press was going to attack him mercilessly.

“You do know what you are getting into and I did spend a lot of time weighing up whether to take the Fifty Shades role. The majority of people hated the books. And I’m not saying I don’t recognize why those books were so powerful for millions of people, but you aren’t going to have books that were horrifically critiqued turned into movies that will be critically acclaimed,” he told GQ, adding he had no regrets: “It’s done no harm to my career to be part of a movie franchise that has made more than $1 billion. Every working actor would say the same thing. It’s provided – a lot. There’s no shame in saying it’s transformed my life and my family’s life financially.”

He may downplay it now, but in 2015 he was stung by some of the reviews that were published when the first film was released. “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,” he told Variety. Others said he had “the charisma of a hologram.” In 2016, with Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed still to be released, he tacitly agreed with his critics, telling EL PAÍS: “I don’t think I was right in Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m pretty sure it’s my worst performance to date. I don’t mind admitting it.”

Although he told GQ, “I am still paying penance for that choice,” he keeps getting sent scripts. Like Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart (the stars of the Twilight saga), or Daniel Radcliffe (who will be forever haunted by Harry Potter), Dornan has built a solid career outside of Hollywood blockbusters. Now his performance in Belfast is destined for Oscar glory, according to Insider. Soon enough, the guy who hated being a model may return to his farm with a golden statuette.

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