In the world of Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, if you happen to be a suave secret-agent type who’s gotten into a fight with the woman you love, there’s only one reasonable way to express your feelings, and it’s by running back and forth across the beach belting a power ballad at seagulls. That’s just what Jamie Dornan does with admirable and absurd levels of commitment in the Kristen Wiig–Annie Mumolo comedy as Edgar Paget, the love interest of both women. He sprints. He twirls. He kicks his toes in the sand with fervor. He even tears apart his teal polo shirt in a fury, which “was embarrassing, because half the time, I couldn’t even rip it,” Dornan told Vulture.
Dornan’s best known for his ultraserious, smolder-heavy roles in The Fall and Fifty Shades of Grey, but it turns out that he has quite a goofy side, which he embraces in this exceedingly goofy movie. In fact, if things turned out differently before those big breaks, he might’ve even ended up with a career doing comedy sketches instead, since one of his early attempts to make it in Los Angeles involved pitching comedy blogs. With Barb and Star out on VOD, Dornan caught up with Vulture to discuss polo-shirt rending techniques, the twist ending to Wild Mountain Thyme, and how he can sing “just as much as any douchey actor guy.”
I need to start with Edgar’s big song, because it is so over the top and delightful. How much of it was in the script?
In the script, it was just two lines of stage directions saying “Edgar then performs an emotional ballad, à la Footloose.” Then I had a conversation with the director Josh Greenbaum two weeks before we went to Mexico to shoot it, and he just kept talking about this big musical number, and I was going, “What the fuck? I don’t remember anything about a musical number.” So then I had to go back through it, and those two lines had become this big thing. Kristen and Annie wrote the lyrics of it, and the closer I got to it, the bigger I realized the whole thing was. I was just like, I’m going to have throw myself at this as violently as I can and have fun with it. I’ve got a very silly side to me I felt like I was totally able to express in that song.
You spend the song running back and forth across the beach and twirling and jumping, which is all very goofy but also just physically impressive. [For moves like the big high jumps, they used a body double.] Was it choreographed? Did you come up with it yourself?
A bit of both. At the end of the day, everything was about making it funny. Kristen and Annie were there, and Josh was there, and our producers were very funny people, and they were all just like, “What’s the funniest way of doing this?” The first take, where I run down the beach doing this funny thing in my hands, was just them saying, “Just do what feels right.” He’s going through this heartbreaking moment, so I could just ham it up to the max. I was just flinging myself around for two days. It was so hot that I had to change my shirt up every take because I was sweating so much.
Well, speaking of shirts, how many polo shirts did you destroy for the shot where Edgar rips his shirt in half?
The embarrassing thing was half the time I couldn’t even rip it! I asked the costumer to cut it at the top so it would be easier to rip it, but I guess they didn’t cut the bottom, so for the first take I was really confident at the beginning, and then I got like a second in and got stuck at the bottom, so I was sort trying to hop out of it in a pathetic way. But then we did two or three more takes where they cut the bottom so I could actually make it work.
I saw an interview in which Kristen said that she and Annie wrote the script with a “a Jamie Dornan”–type actor in mind for Edgar before they sent it to you. What was it like for you reading that script? You hadn’t done really any high-profile comedy before this.
I hadn’t even been in low-profile comedy! But when I first got an agent and came out to L.A. and stuff, I was making some comedy-type connections. I was speaking to Funny or Die and was going to do this blog thing for them that I was going to write. That’s where I felt like I was heading before I played a psychopath serial killer in The Fall. Then you’re not getting those calls about comedy.
I’d been eager to get in the ring a bit with comedy for my whole career, and I felt like there was no better place to start than with these guys. I hadn’t learned that they had this idea of me in mind before I did the movie. We knew some of the same people, had some friends in common, and I guess some people were nice and said to them that I was funny. They said they watched some of me in talks shows and got a sense of me from that. I said yes based on the title of the script. “There’s a movie called Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar? I’m in!” I thought it was a real place. My geography of the states is decent enough, but for all I know there’s a place off the coast of Florida called Vista Del Mar. I was like, “Have you guys been to Vista Del Mar?” And they were like, “It’s not a real place.”
As someone who has written blogs for a living, I have to ask what your comedy blog ideas for Funny or Die were.
The first thing I wrote was this funny take on drunk driving in L.A. This was before Uber existed, like 2003, if you had a cell phone there were no apps, and taxis in L.A. were ridiculous. It was a nightmare, so everyone had a drink and drove around, so I came up with this whole monorail idea. You’d put your car on it. It was so stupid! But they were kind of into it? I don’t think we ever published on there, but it was heading in that direction. And then, you know, other stuff happens.
To be fair, that’s basically just the Elon Musk Hyperloop.
I could’ve been onto something! Maybe I could have made a fortune.
You sang in Barb and Star, you sang in Wild Mountain Thyme, you even sang in Fifty Shades Freed. Are you campaigning to do a musical?
I was meant to do a musical this year, and some things happened and I had to pull out of it. I always say that I can sing as much as any other douchey actor guy. We can all sing a bit. If it pops up in a script and is necessary to tell the story, I’m all for it. I’m not a good enough singer to do an out-and-out musical. But I love musicals and I love musical theater. I just haven’t thought about it for me. But you never know!
Do you have a favorite musical?
I have three kids under the age of 8, and before we had kids, my wife and I went to see Matilda. We were the only people that didn’t have kids. Our eldest is 7 and for her sixth birthday, when there wasn’t a pandemic, we took her to see Matilda. I’d worked with Tim Minchin [in 2018’s Robin Hood] who wrote the music for that. It’s just magic! It’s the most fun I’ve ever had at the theater.
I loved that Groundhog Day musical Tim Minchin wrote, too.
It didn’t get enough love! I know! I agree.
For Barb and Star, you use your own accent as Edgar. Was that your choice? The director’s? Kristen and Annie’s?
When I first FaceTimed with Josh Greenbaum, I asked him, because it never mentioned anything in the script of how Edgar talks. He was the one who was like, “Would you be cool doing it in your accent?” I’m from Northern Ireland and my character’s called “Edgar Pagét,” so it’s so ridiculous. I’ve never met anyone with a name even close to that where I’m from. I think it just added to the absurdity of it all. I had forgotten what his surname was until Lionsgate sent me some little clip that they’re going to release. I was like, “Wait, his name is Pagét?”
[Warning to readers: Skip this next question if, for some reason, you have not experienced the wild twist at the end of Wild Mountain Thyme and wish to remain unspoiled.]
In terms of fully committing to absurd ideas, in Wild Mountain Thyme your character reveals at the end of the movie that he thinks he’s a bee. As an actor, how do you approach playing a moment like that?
You’ve just gotta make yourself believe it. That scene is over 20 pages in the kitchen with Emily, and it took us three days to shoot it. So by that point I was sort of totally convinced that I was Anthony Reilly and I did think I was a bee. I did plan to, but I really cried when I said it. I was in a very weird, magical place. It felt like releasing this information, like I could finally breathe.
That morning, I said to John Patrick Shanley the director, “By the way, does he actually think he’s a bee?” He was like [in a nasally American accent], “Well, everyone thinks they’re something they’re not.” I was like, “Do they, Shanley?” Shanley’s a fucking genius, but he’s also odd. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought I’m anything else, other than … a guy. But he said it with certainty and I was like, I’m gonna embrace that.
You also recently returned to Northern Ireland in making this movie Belfast with Kenneth Branagh. It’s based on his childhood, from what I understand, but it also must have felt familiar to you in many ways.
No matter where I live, Belfast is home, and it always will be. I haven’t lived there in 19 years, but I’m still there all the time. So when someone with the likes of Kenneth Branagh says they’re gonna make a film called Belfast, it was a dream job. We shot it in strange times. They got to shoot some exterior stuff and some aerial stuff in Belfast, but we actually shot it all in England, which was the craziest thing, logistically, with COVID. But any time I can work there, I will. My friend and I wrote a script in lockdown that is set at home that we’re hoping to make in 2022. There’s another thing I’m hoping to do back there that year as well.
Well, there was also a rumor that you might appear in Derry Girls, another important Northern Irish cultural product.
A very important Northern Irish cultural product! I know Lisa McGee, who created it, we emailed today about something actually. We’d talked about trying to get me to do something and it just kind of never worked out with locations and when they shoot, and I’m always away. I like the idea of popping up in that show, and I think it’s genius, and it makes me so proud. When I first heard about a show called Derry Girls, I thought, How is anyone outside of Ireland going to understand the colloquialism of it? But it goes to show it’s transcended everything. You never know, but it takes everything aligning with schedules. I’m definitely a big fan.