Just as Daniel Radcliffe outlived Harry Potter and Robert Pattinson survived Edward Cullen, so, too, will Jamie Dornan soon be free of Christian Grey. The final installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy flogged its way through theaters this past February, and already Dornan has begun the work of remaking a name for himself as an actor independent of his star-making role. Fortunately, he found, the big secret to rebranding yourself is to keep on doing what you’re doing. The bump in profile combined with his natural predilection for substantive, character-driven work has led him to a slew of new jobs testing his range: a journalist tunneling to the center of a celebrity’s psyche in HBO’s My Dinner With Hervé, a writer of a different sort in the soulful Tribeca indie Untogether, a less-than-heroic figure of legend in the upcoming tentpole Robin Hood.
But it sounds like he might be proudest of A Private War, a new feature in which he plays yet another writer, one Paul Conroy. The real-world photographer accompanied the daring Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) as she blazed a path through active conflict zones, genocides, and other loci of suffering to capture the human toll exacted by tragedy. She and Conroy had the sort of relationship about which they don’t usually make movies, defined by chaste respect and abiding professionalism, and Dornan proves himself amply capable of relating to a woman without having to smolder. It’s a serious role for a serious actor, which is precisely how those of us not already there will think of Dornan in five years’ time.
While out in Los Angeles shooting a new feature with Drake Doremus — about which he remained steadfastly, absolutely tight-lipped — Dornan got on the phone with Vulture to talk about being drawn to fear, finding humility in a taste of realness in the Middle East, and the exquisite humiliation of being Sarah McLachlan’s follow-up act.
I have to say, I’m a bit self-conscious as an interviewer, having just seen My Dinner With Hervé. Did that role change the way you think about doing press?
Eh, not really? Gave me a new respect for journalists of all forms, from that film and the art of getting celebrities and personalities to open up to you about their personal lives, to A Private War and doing photojournalism in war zones. So I’ve got a newfound respect for the people who can do that.
In A Private War, your character and Rosamund Pike’s character both share this pathology to do the most dangerous, most important work. Has that shifted your perspective on your own relationship to acting?
With work, I always want to be challenged. I can’t draw too many parallels between challenges I face in my life and those faced by Marie Colvin or Paul Conroy, but I do like the idea of continuously pushing yourself in your work. The more scared I am of a job, the more I want to do it. To spend a whole life in your comfort zone wouldn’t be very exciting. That’s the point of view I’ve come to see this from. There’s not a lot of payoff in playing it safe.
So, what frightened you about A Private War that ultimately ended up attracting you?
It’s a world that I didn’t have a great understanding of. I was aware of Marie Colvin before accepting the role. I appreciated how palatable she could make global news; she was an authority all throughout the U.K., in the Sunday Times every week. She made it possible to see outside your own bubble. What I liked about the film is that it doesn’t get too bogged down in the politics of the war zones that it depicts, as Marie didn’t, focusing instead on the human cost. We’re too desensitized to that. We’ll shy away from it a little, and that’s not right. Take Syria: Marie died there in 2012 and not much has improved since then, but the trouble’s that people have grown tired of hearing about the conditions there. It seemed to me to be a real opportunity to shed a small bit of light on what’s happening there and that it’s still ongoing. Over a half-million citizens have died in the years since Marie did. It’s topical and timely, especially with the treatment of journalists recently being so appalling.
This film paid homage to the real journalists. As much as Paul and I got along in real life, there’s so much he’s capable of that I know I’m just not, as a human being. That’s healing, in a way, to find out more about yourself by playing someone who has aspects you can’t experience for yourself. Paul’s interesting when you ask him about it; he doesn’t like it when people describe reporters like him and Marie as “adrenaline junkies” because they’re doing it out of duty to the people. The human element is at the heart of these stories, faces instead of numbers and statistics on a page. That’s what drove them, more than the adrenaline of running from bullets. If I was going to a war zone for the first time, all I’d think about was my mortality. To Paul, that simply didn’t factor into things.
A lot of Paul and Marie’s assignments took them through deserts and other remote locations. How did you find shooting in these extreme environments?
Matt Heineman, our director, came from a distinguished and brilliant documentary tradition. He wanted things to feel as real as they possibly could, like we’re really there with Marie and Paul, rather than something sweeping or overtly cinematic. He wanted it dirty, ground level. And of course, it’s a fucking movie, at any moment I can go, “Uh, I need a latte.” I want to run away when actors say things like, “God, it felt just like the real thing.” Of course it fuckin’ wasn’t! I can’t say what the situations were truly like, but we were given the best possible opportunity to re-create them in the moment … In terms of challenges, though, the emotional challenges were greater than I bargained for. Matt cast real displaced refugees from the war zones that we were depicting. When we’re at the burial site in Iraq, the women are real Iraqi women, refugees who ended up in Syria. Their tears, all the wailing, that wasn’t scripted. That was real. Bearing witness to that was very hard-hitting, I suspect like nothing else I’ll experience on a film set again.
I appreciated that the film has been structured around a professional, platonic relationship between a man and a woman. I kept waiting for the Hollywood move, them falling in love, and it never comes.
I’ve known Ros for nearly 15 years. I was close with someone who’d done Pride & Prejudice with her a long while ago. We haven’t seen one another loads over that time, but we’ve been in and out of each other’s lives, and I’ve always had a great admiration for her. That was a crucial element, that we knew each other and were comfortable, because what Paul and Marie has was real, really real. She said he was the only man she ever respected. The camaraderie between them, being able to find the levity in moments that were otherwise horrific, that was totally necessary for them. And, yes, it was very refreshing to play against a woman in these high-pressure situations that aren’t defined by sexual tension. It would be easy to stick them in these heated situations and have them lean in for a final kiss or something, but that’s been done everywhere else.
In terms of the big picture of your career, with the final Fifty Shades of Grey film having come out this past February, do you see yourself as entering a new phase?
I don’t see it like that, no. They’re perceived the way they’re perceived. Critically, that’s not very favorably. But they made a lot of money, and as studio pictures go, they’re pretty unique. To speak for myself, and I’ll speak for Dakota as well, it’s another job on another set. I probably won’t ever take a job with this much attention and scrutiny and public opinion directed at it again. And that’s fine! From a practical point of view, you just move on to the next and keep your head down. But listen, it’s given us so much. The work that I’ve been doing has been a million miles from that, and not even by choice. You just keep plugging away, doing good work, and trying to better yourself.
Aside from the doors that the movies opened for you and Dakota, are there other aspects of the experience that you look back on positively?
Yeah, absolutely! It was mad, a mad thing to be involved in. It was so big in its scale and the reception, and it remains beloved to many people. As a life experience, I’m glad I could go through it. Though now, it almost feels like it didn’t happen? It’s that thing where you film it, maybe do some reshoots, and then you’re on your way. For the fans, it’s all-encompassing, spending all your time waiting for the next book or the next movie. Dakota and I kept coming in and out of it, going to promote it and do press and reimmerse yourself in the hysteria. And then you’re away from it again! It was a strange time, but without that, I don’t get to do Anthropoid, I don’t get to do A Private War, you get the idea.
Fifty Shades being based on Twilight, I’m thinking about Robert Pattinson’s career. He’s done just about everything in the years since those movies.
Sure. I’ve known Rob just about my entire career, actually, long before Twilight … He and I were bumming around London, looking for work like any other actor on that side of the world. Any British actor currently between 28 and 40, we pretty much all ran in the same circles. God, I get nightmares thinking about the apartment he used to live in. He always wanted to make stuff like Good Time, that’s where his head is. But things happen and you go down a different path, and you realize that you don’t stay on it forever. You come out the other end, and the world’s much bigger.
I cannot deny that my favorite scene is the one in which your character sings Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” at the piano. Were you nervous for this, or did you have experience singing, what was the deal?
Pure terror, really. That day was crazy because I can sing a bit, but the prospect was still terrifying to me. We were shooting at Sarah McLachlan’s house in Whistler, she had stuck around while we were working, and she’d perform for the crew during breaks or between takes. The same piano that I sit at in the movie.
You had to follow that up?
Straight fucking after. She sang three or four beautiful songs, I think I caught a couple people tearing up, and then they were like, “All right, Jamie, you’re up!” People are still lost in reverie, and I’m like, “Fuck this! Don’t put me on after her!”