Jamie Dornan In Conversation With Sir Kenneth Branagh
HUNGER listens in while two of Northern Ireland’s finest acting talents discuss their process, filming together in their hometown of Belfast and what it’s really like working with the acting legend Dame Judi Dench.
“I’m hiding in the laundry room of our house,” states Jamie Dornan when I inquire about his whereabouts. I was expecting a more macro answer – Dornan is in Adelaide, Australia, filming The Tourist – but this admission of having that everyparent experience of trying to find a quiet spot in a house full of children (he has three daughters with wife, musician Amelia Warner) is disarmingly honest.
He and I are talking over Zoom while we await Sir Kenneth Branagh to join the call (for the record, Branagh is not late, Dornan is early). Dornan has been in south Australia for more than four months, working on a new six-part series for the BBC. It sounds relentless: this is just his third day off in 75 days. “It’s been very full on for me,” he says. “I’m much greyer than I was when I came out here, the beard [which is impressively voluminous] is really getting grey, and I feel like I’ve aged.”
It’s been a full-on year for the Northern Irish actor, period. After the first lockdown, which from his Instagram looked a lot like the experience of countless other parents of small children (if you know, you know), he became very busy workwise. Prior to starting work on his current job, his brilliantly comedic turn in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar hit screens at the beginning of this year to rave reviews, and prior to that, as soon as lockdown lifted, he joined Branagh’s merry band of players to shoot the director’s semi-autobiographical film Belfast.
“We initially met over Zoom,” Dornan explains. “Obviously we would have met in person had it not been for these Covid times, but I was sent the script, we chatted over Zoom, and the next time I saw him was at rehearsals. I had actually auditioned for a part in Thor back in the day, the one that Ken directed. It didn’t go well because it was a shit audition, and I didn’t get to meet him in that process, but I made a tape that he may or may not have seen.”
And how was it to finally get to work with him? “It’s so cool that I got to work with him on this,” enthuses Dornan. “Not a lot of people know that Ken is from Belfast, they don’t know that he lived there until he was nine and his parents were working-class people from north Belfast. Everyone is very proud of him at home – to have done what he’s done means such a lot.”
As if on cue, Branagh appears on our screens, bang on time and looking enviably fresh for 9am on a Sunday morning. The two haven’t seen each other since Belfast wrapped, so there is a bit of catching up to do about Dornan’s current gig before multi-hyphenate Branagh adds interviewer to his list of talents.
“I remember saying [of The Fall], ‘Wow, this is going to be really something. I hope my audition goes well for the police officer who dies at the end of episode two.’”
Kenneth Branagh: So how would you describe your process, Jamie, when preparing for a role, or does the actual doing create the process?
Jamie Dornan: I like to feel like I’m as malleable as I possibly can be, while also convincing myself that I’m really prepared and ready. I feel like you can only feel free if you’ve put the work in, but often that work you’ve put in does go out the window on day one because the whole vibe of the job feels different to how you imagined it. That’s when you hope that you instinctively know how to be and how to get through those situations. I think that’s a true test and that’s what I love about doing this for a living, the constant fear you have that you’re not really equipped to do your job [Laughs.].
KB: Do you have that same instinct when you first read the script? Are you somebody who either knows on the first reading that it feels very close to you, or you’re attracted to it because it’s very far away? What is it that grabs you on that first reading?
JD: I think you don’t end up on set if you aren’t grabbed in some way. It’s rare that I’ve had to be really coerced or convinced that I should do a job – being attracted to a role is a prerequisite. I’m from a very strong position of privilege, in that I have a bit of a choice about the work I do, and I get to say no to things, so for the most part I only end up on sets because I really want to be there and I really believe in what it is we’re trying to create. There’s no better high than reading a script and feeling that you’re the only person who can bring it to life. That sometimes happens and it’s hugely exciting but then again, it goes with that constant babble with your inner self, where after you’ve convinced yourself that it has to be you, on day one you’re shitting yourself and questioning why they haven’t considered another guy.
KB: So when you then step into the experience and it is maybe a little different from what you were expecting and you start to question yourself, do you have any routines to calm yourself down?
JD: No, I don’t, although I’m someone who would probably benefit from meditation or some zen moment of calm. You’ve spent enough time with me to know I have a lot of energy, all the time. I’m always wanting to move, to chat to people. Sometimes I’ve chosen to play characters that are very still, very reserved, and I find them very hard to do, often because of what I physically want to give.
KB: Well one of the things I’ve noticed about you was that although you obviously have tons of positive energy and you come with a sort of openness, any time I saw you do anything physical, you became very focused. One of our actors [in Belfast] was a young golfer and when you played golf together, I noticed a different mood came over you, a certain kind of focus that was quite zen. It was quite revealing, and I feel that even if you don’t meditate, you achieve that calm in other ways.
JD: Yes, like all my favourite actors I’ve worked with, I’ve never had trouble with being able to go, “OK, fine, I know what I’m in for here, just get your head in the game.” It’s not something I have tried to emulate from others, it’s just something that I’ve observed. Some unbelievable actors can be telling you about the dinner they’ve had the night before with real zeal, enthusing about a pasta sauce and then it’s like, “And action,” and they’re in.
It’s relaxing, it’s freeing to be talking nonsense between takes, and I feel very lucky that I am seemingly able to talk and be distracted and then lock in when the work needs to be done. As I say, so many brilliant actors I’ve worked with do that, but I remember early on in my career, working with a couple of actors who actually punched themselves before their scenes, making funny sounds and pacing around. It really stressed me out but also, you’re watching it, going, “Am I meant to do that? I don’t want to hit myself, that doesn’t look fun.”
KB: I think keeping that sense of playfulness is quite a profoundly serious way of staying open and being spontaneous. And all of that punching, while it can work for some people, sometimes produces this very premeditated kind of performance that you feel isn’t quite being open to either what the other actor is doing or the spontaneity of the scene.
JD: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t feel like I needed to thump the performance out of my chest.
KB: Was there a moment when you had a feeling of exhilaration about acting, when you knew, “This is what I want to do?”
JD: It would have been early for me. I wasn’t that kid who grew up wanting to be an actor, but it probably would have been when I won the drama prize at school. I was ten and played Widow Twankey in panto.
KB: You must do it again!
JD: [Laughing.] It was 100 per cent my finest performance. We had a cleaning lady called Nellie Morgan who lived in the Short Strand, which is a republican national stronghold on the edge of east Belfast, a very crazy place in the city, and she was as tough as nails, amazing, and used to walk [an hour and a half] from Short Strand to Holywood, where we lived, up and down, no matter the weather. I just basically played Widow Twankey as Nellie.
I think we only did two shows, but I still remember that buzz of being on stage, essentially just mucking about with a dress on and getting this incredibly powerful, very visceral feedback for it. That remains the only prize I won at school. So I guess it was probably then. But I tell you what I don’t remember about that two-night run – any fear. I don’t remember being scared then. I’m always scared now, but I like it.
KB: So you got that feeling of the joy of performance, but at some point, after the great Widow Twankey success, did you know you wanted to be an actor?
JD: I enjoyed acting at school, I did drama at GCSE. It was the easiest A you could get – that was part of the reason I did it, it was a guaranteed A. But I had to make a choice after that, because you couldn’t play rugby in the first 15 and do drama too – rehearsals and training didn’t align. I chose rugby, which I took very seriously. So by the time I moved to London, even though I’d done a bit of youth theatre outside school, I felt like I’d been away from drama for a very long time. I didn’t have much of a plan when I moved to London. I’ve never been a great planner, to be honest, but I knew that I just needed to get to London.
And then I started to model. I did it reluctantly, but quite quickly it started taking off in a fairly big way for me and you’re not going to jump off that train while it’s heading in the right direction. I did always wonder if I could still act, but it’s one thing to think you can do it and another thing to feel you can make a career out of it.
KB: Did you know you wanted to do it in a particular way, find your own way into it, since you didn’t go through that formal drama school route?
JD: I did have a bit of a plan to try to go to drama school and then just didn’t do it. Well, I think that I talked about it once over pints. I was like, “Maybe I’ll go to Lamda,’ and then I never even filled out a form. But the seed was there and then it was just fortuitous. I had a girlfriend who was with United Agents, and through them my first audition was for Sofia Coppola for Marie Antoinette, and I got it! I’d had an agent for four days and that was my first audition, so I was like, “Well this is going to be easy,” but then I barely worked for about eight years. But I was modelling too, so that subsidised everything. But to be honest with you, I only started taking it seriously and doing proper work and preparation once I got The Fall because that was just a game-changer for me in every sense, and that’s when I was suddenly like, “Oh this is getting serious now, I need to work harder, be prepared and take it more seriously.”
KB: Well, let’s talk a little bit about The Fall, a show that got under the skin of many people. You play this very problematic character, Paul Spector, a serial killer who, however complicated, is also clearly a loving father – a character that is capable of provoking very conflicting emotions in the audience. Did you know straightaway that this was a character that was so challenging you had to play him? What was it about the material that drew you to it?
JD: I remember reading the script thinking this is going to be impactful. Back then maybe there wasn’t so much of the serial killer stuff about, so it stood out to read something like that, particularly set in Belfast. It was just very refreshing to read something that wasn’t tied into the conflict. I was actually sent the script for a different part. Gillian [Anderson] was already doing it and I remember saying, “Wow, this is going to be really something. I hope my audition goes well for the police officer who dies at the end of episode two.”
So I auditioned with Nina Gold and Allan Cubitt, our creator, for this police officer. It went well, which never happens. Auditions do not go well for me, I’m not good at them and I’m very thankful that they’re not a big factor in my life any more. But then I didn’t hear anything. So I went off to LA for pilot season – which is famously tough on the old mental health, as the daily rejection quota is monumental – and then while I was out there, they called me back to read for Paul Spector. I had to remind myself who that was. So I flew back and did a six-hour audition with Nina, Allan and Jakob Verbruggen, the director, and in that moment I felt that my life was changing.
And the reaction was big, it was very positive, and it felt good for me to show that I have a darkness like that in my armoury – most of the time the scripts I was being sent were just fluffy crap, boyfriendy nonsense roles. Then suddenly, here was this role that had so much weight to it, and I managed to pull it off – and that changed everything.
“Has being in a movie franchise that has made so much money been beneficial for my career? 100 per cent.”
KB: It certainly did. It was a great piece of work from everybody, brilliantly written, directed and acted, and I think you helped realise that character in a way that was so complicated and so engaging. The whole series, and what you did in it, unsettled people and yet it was somehow also respectful of the individuals and families who are lost in such a terrible way. It didn’t glamorise or sensationalise, but it did engage with what makes the potential for a character like that, who can be so attractive and yet so repellent and switch from one to the other so effortlessly. It was a marvellously confronting piece of art. So, having done The Fall, which was such a big critical success, you then take the role of Christian Grey [in Fifty Shades of Grey]. So what were you thinking? Can you give us a little snapshot of your understanding of what might happen and how it might affect you?
JD: It’s funny, I will never, ever forget that when I accepted to play Christian Grey, The Guardian wrote a story purely based on what a bad decision it was to take that role [Laughs.].
JD: My Safari homepage was The Guardian website. I remember opening it up and seeing it there, and it was basically like, “What is Jamie Dornan doing, having built up this credibility with The Fall? He’s losing it all with one decision.” I understood it – we’re talking about books that were loved by so many but critically destroyed. So it’s a very strange feeling going into a job knowing that you’re going to work hard and do your best, but also knowing that the critics are going to have a field day because you’re staying true to the books.
But I like a risk. And has being in a movie franchise that has made so much money been beneficial for my career? 100 per cent. And it’s given me the freedom to do all the amazing independent films I’ve got to do over the past six or seven years that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
KB: For what it’s worth, I’ve opened many homepages in yesteryear and looked at newspapers that have told me how unfortunate a decision I had made had been or given their latest opinion on what they thought about my work, and believe me, there is a wide range of differing opinions, but it is only opinion.
JD: Yes, and I felt really equipped to take on any criticism or any negative aspects of fame that were thrown at me because I had foundations in place. By that time, I had met my wife and we were starting a family, and I had turned 30. I felt like I’m good, I’m sweet, all those good things are solid in my life. So fire away, I’ll take whatever is coming.
KB: About family, you were kind enough to come and be in a story about families in your hometown. So, without blushing, I’d like to ask you about my film Belfast and how you felt when you came to that.
JD: Hopefully I will make you blush because the opportunity to work on Belfast with you… It was almost like someone had packaged up this perfect job. You at the helm, and [being able to work with] other actors I have the utmost admiration and respect for – Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. And it’s literally called Belfast, the city in which I was born, bred and buttered.
The script was just so beautifully crafted – and what I love about what you wrote and what we created is that it’s about the people themselves, the resilient, funny and loving people of that city. That’s what you captured so wonderfully, I think, and that isn’t often seen. I thought you brought out the human side of the people of Belfast. And it was just so exciting to be able to go on that journey with you.
KB: Well, I appreciate that – and one of the things that has been very touching has been the reaction to the level of authenticity in the script and the film from the few who have seen it. So, was the experience as you expected?
JD: I look back on the experience of shooting that movie and it was just joyous. And that was all – again, I’ll make you blush – created by you. I had such a sense of ease during that job and it was one of the only times that I wasn’t as terrified as I usually am. There was something about it, it just felt so close to home. I felt like I was trying to represent someone who I knew well, surrounded by people I had met in my life.
KB: And were people like Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as you imagined them to be?
JD: Those guys were just so much fun. Judi has such a cheeky, hilarious side to her, so mischievous. It doesn’t get bigger than Judi, does it? There was one scene where I was sitting with her in the cinema and I was thinking, “This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff,” while also revelling in the fact that she’s hardly seen any movies. We were watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the scene, which she told me she had never seen. She said she’d never been much of a cinemagoer, because she went to see Bambi when she was a kid and it had scarred her for life.
KB: [Laughing.] Once mum died, she checked out?
JD: Yes! [Laughing.]
KB: So, I know that you have also written a great script set in Belfast. Tell us about your scriptwriting.
JD: Oh my God, yes, I have, and you were very kind to have read it. It’s incredibly revelatory, writing a script, isn’t it? You find out a lot about yourself, and for me and Conor MacNeill [Dornan’s co-writer], we found it quite easy, certainly the first draft anyway – there was a strangely cohesive ease to it.
But yes, it’s something I’d love to do more of. We’ve just bought the rights to another book that we’re going to adapt, and I’ve got this other thing that I wrote a treatment for about seven years ago that I’m now trying to put together. It’s a different itch that I’ve always had and I’m now scratching it because I feel like, why not grow, why not keep going? I love acting, I really do, but there’s other stuff I want to do.
KB: Yes, of course there is. Well, it’s been great to see you, Jamie, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again [for the Belfast promotional tour]. God knows how it will go but we’ll ride the wave, and we should get to see everybody, including, I hope, Judi Dench, who I believe likes the film sufficiently to travel for it and have us rib her about the number of films she hasn’t seen. Actually, by the end of the promotional trip for this movie, if we could find one film that Judi Dench has seen, that would be great. I’m going to try to fix it so that it’s one that I was actually in.
JD: [Laughing.] I’ll tell you what she hasn’t seen – I asked her if she’s seen The Godfather and she said, “Good heavens, no.”
KB: Well, why don’t we replace the chocolate they’ll leave on her pillow with some DVDs? Perhaps The Fall. And you were brilliant in that comedy [Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar] with Kristen Wiig, so we can put that one in as well. We’ll bamboozle her, so by the end of this tour she’ll know who the fuck we are!
Belfast is released in UK cinemas on 12 November.
This interview is taken from our Taking Back Control issue. Order your copy here.