Before he signed on to play Christian Grey, the gorgeous but tortured billionaire with a secret penchant for kink in the blockbuster Fifty Shades franchise, Jamie Dornan wasn't exactly a household name. His first film role, in Sofia Coppola's 2006 iconic Marie Antoinette, was as the French queen's secret lover. Once Upon a Time fans knew him as Sheriff Graham, who had a nine-episode arc in the show's first season, and he had a critically acclaimed turn as a serial killer in The Fall, alongside Gillian Anderson. He worked steadily, but still managed to fly under the mainstream radar.
And then, on 13th February 2015, Jamie Dornan became an international sex symbol.
It's a mantle he's worn with relative discomfort over the last three years, through the hype following the release of the first film and its two sequels, the final of which, Fifty Shades Freed, hits theatres 9th February. Recently, an interview about how it makes him "panic" when fans call out steamy references from the movies at him on the street, unable to distinguish between Dornan the 35-year-old actor with a wife and children, and the character he plays onscreen, made the rounds on social media.
“I’ll be in a line at Starbucks and someone will be like, ‘Oh. Mr. Grey,’” he told Ellen DeGeneres. “I just don’t know how to respond to it. I’m not him, obviously.”
The Fifty Shades film phenomenon, built on the runaway best-selling series by E.L. James, has been branded by many as "mummy porn," undeserving of critical attention. Why should serious people bother with the BDSM-tinged love story between a powerful man and his virginal ingenue? The answer comes to the rune of a $571 million gross for the first film alone. People care about this movie, and its characters, no matter how many reviews jeer about lack of chemistry between Dornan and co-star Dakota Johnson, or unrealistic plot lines, and stilted dialogue. It has been, for better or for worse, a cultural moment.
Now, with the end in sight, Dornan can look forward to new challenges, sans handcuffs. He's starring alongside Peter Dinklage in 2018's My Dinner With Hervé, and as Will Scarlett in a gritty, modern adaptation of Robin Hood with Taron Edgerton and Jamie Foxx.
Refinery29 asked Dornan what it feels like to have such a major franchise come to a close, how the movies fit into the #MeToo era, and what he hopes people will say about them in the future.
Refinery29: How does it feel to be saying goodbye to something you've worked on for so long?
Jamie Dornan: "It's a bit bittersweet to be honest because it's been four and a half years of your life and you are saying bye to a lot of people, [and] a lot of things that are attached to this franchise. You made friendships that you maintain, and that's cool. It's weird when you go through a big journey like this for it to come to an end, but [it's] also a nice thing because you want to sort of move on to other things and do other things."
What's been the most challenging part of playing Christian Grey?
"I just feel very unlike him in my real life. Even the way he carries himself, and his physicality: his posture and his control. I'm quite slouchy, and a bit goofy, and I'm looking forward to not having to have so much poise. It's very particular the way he holds himself up, and how serious he is. He's definitely a softer version of himself by the third movie, but yeah I won't miss that aspect."
What about the way he treats women in his relationships?
"Yeah, I mean he's much more controlling then I certainly am and maybe a lot of people are, but he's a very damaged person, and he has been sort of lead down a road based on what's happened to him in his youth. That sort of made him the way he is and abuse manifests itself in those kinds of ways. But it couldn't be further away from how I am and who I am and my marriage."
When you signed on for the first film, what did you think this franchise was setting out to do?
"Just to satisfy the fans. I don't think there is ever a stronger example of movies that are made for the fans than this. Without the however many million people reading the books, we're not making the movies; without their support for the first and second movie we're not making the third. The appetite and the very intense desire from the fans was what made these happen. When we signed on, the books were controversial, they weren't for everyone. There are lots of people who have very negative things to say about the books, about the content about the way they are written. [But] there are tons of people who are totally totally obsessed, it affects them in a very unique strong way, [so we knew what we were] getting into, and we knew that we would make the films and [they] would satisfy millions and millions of fans. And [we] also knew that they would attract criticism, but that's life."
Has anything surprised you when it comes to the reactions from the fans?
"I guess maybe at times I've underestimated how much people care about the characters, and how much these people mean to them, and how close to their heart they've carried the story and this relationship. Sometimes it takes being at premieres to realise how much it resonates with people, and it's good to be reminded of that because as I said, these films are made for them. And for them to be as affected by the movies in a positive way, that's pretty amazing for both Dakota and I to hear."
What do you think it is about Fifty Shades of Grey that resonates with people?
"I think it's [E.L James.]. She's not the first person to write based in this world, there are literally hundreds of [books about BDSM]. Some of them have a readership of about 11 people, and she has a readership over 100 million, so I think she happened on something really real and a relationship they could just believe and absorb and get on board with. That's a very powerful thing that Erica's created, and it's a world that just deeply resonates. That's why I think when it's just dismissed as just 'mummy porn,' that's really lazy journalism. Why then has this one had such an impact? I think it's disrespectful."
You’ve had the chance to work with a female director and a male director on this franchise — was their approach to the material different?
"A little bit different, but I'm not sure it's all down to just the sex of the director. They're just different people, and have a slightly different vision and approach to it. I think it was really hard for [James] Foley to come in, and kind of honour what Sam [Taylor-Johnson] had done on the franchise as it was already up and running. It's a tricky thing for a director to come in, and get up on a ship that's already started sailing. He just had a different energy. And the sex stuff — by this second film, which we shot back to back, Dakota and I had a good sort of idea of what approach worked for us, and so we were able to put our own sort of stamp on that and help those days go in a way that satisfied everyone. So it was totally different thing that we had with Sam, but I don't think it was based on the fact that one was a man and one was a woman."
How do you think Fifty Shades fits into the #MeToo era?
"I've always said that in Fifty Shades, the sex is consensual. I think the whole idea of #MeToo is [that] it's not consensual and so that divides it, I think, instantly. #MeToo is [about] women being forced into situations that they don't want to be in. I think that's something we should obviously eradicate, and it's wrong, and it's rife not just Hollywood. It's great that sort of impact has come from Hollywood because there's a lot of attention on Hollywood, but it happens in every workplace, so it's good to shed light on it. As a father of two girls, I feel they're going to enter a world where they should feel more protected in their work environment. But Fifty Shades is about a couple who has a lot of consensual sex, so you can't relate it too much."
But #MeToo is also about problematic power imbalances, and there's definitely a power imbalance in this relationship, no?
"That is true. I know what you mean, but also Christian's doing everything he can to help Anastasia and further her career. The first time they meet Ana is going for a job at his company, and in the third movie you know she is an editor at one of his companies. Her career is going from sort of strength to strength through the movies, so I think it's hard to see why it could be any less fair in terms of what she is doing in her career. He is one of the most powerful men in the world in the books, so he's always going to be a very sort of powerful person, but I think he's enabling her to find her own creative freedom in this movie as well."
What do you hope people say about this film 10 years from now? What do you hope the franchise's legacy will be?
"I don't really care what people say about the movies. These movies are made for the fans, and hopefully they will be satisfied with what we've given them. If they weren't, I wouldn't be talking to you right now, we wouldn't have made three of the things. I think there's other things in ten years [that] we should be looking back on, and putting opinions on instead of movies."
Fifty Shades Freed is in UK cinemas from 9th February
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