Jamie Dornan Goes Back to ‘Belfast,’ but Not Without Worry

Jamie Dornan stuck his fingers in the fireplace, fussing with a few stray flakes of ash, searching for something small to concentrate on so he wouldn’t have to think about the very big thing that was happening the next day.

“I’m just hoping to not have vegetables thrown at us, and calls for the guillotine,” the 39-year-old actor told me.

It was the day before Dornan’s new film, “Belfast,” an Irish coming-of-age story, would screen for the first time in the Northern Irish city that bears its name, a city where Dornan spent the first 19 years of his life. Around 1,500 people were expected to attend the premiere, and Dornan anticipated how that hometown crowd might feel about a movie set there: curious, proprietary and quick to pounce if “Belfast” made even a single misstep.

“We could get all the good reviews in the world, but what we really want is for people from Belfast to like this film,” Dornan said, fidgeting in his armchair. “So it’s going to be interesting tomorrow night. God, it’s going to be emotional!”

Those good reviews from the rest of the world weren’t just a hypothetical: Since its first screening at the Telluride Film Festival in late August, “Belfast” has received such fond reactions that many pundits consider it a front-runner for the best-picture Oscar. Drawn from the childhood experiences of the writer-director Kenneth Branagh, the film follows 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), his beloved Pa (Dornan) and protective Ma (Caitriona Balfe) as they mull whether to stay in Belfast after their neighborhood erupts in sectarian violence.

“Belfast” is filmed in black and white, was directed by a five-time Oscar nominee and stars Judi Dench as Dornan’s mother; in other words, it’s a long way from the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise, a critically derided sex trilogy that made Dornan famous even as it hung a millstone around his neck. The last time Dornan went to the Oscars, as a presenter in 2017, his very presence was a sop to the viewing audience: Here was the handsome, frequently naked guy from an S&M blockbuster that most Oscar voters wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot whip.

And now, just a few years later, he may return to the ceremony as the star of their favorite movie.

Dornan with Caitriona Balfe in the pivotal “Everlasting Love” scene in “Belfast.”Credit…Rob Youngson/Focus Features

I met Dornan in early November at Soho Farmhouse, a members club in the British countryside; he had driven in from the nearby Cotswolds, where he lives with his musician wife, Amelia Warner, and their three daughters. Onscreen, Dornan often plays solemn and steady, even though offscreen, he has a quick Irish wit and can barely sit still. He is also cheeky in a way that movie roles have yet to fully showcase: When we sat down by the fireplace and requested glasses of water that failed to materialize, Dornan joked that he considered making out with me “just for the fluids.”

Dornan’s eyes are so dark blue that they appear to be all pupil, lending his screen look an otherworldliness that his most notable roles take great advantage of. In the Netflix thriller series “The Fall” and in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” even when his lips curled into a knowing smirk, those eyes still kept some secrets, while in the recent comedy “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” Dornan’s eyeballs looked more like inky black dots, fitting for a movie that plays as a live-action cartoon. “Belfast” milks his ethereal gaze for all it’s worth: When Pa’s family is threatened, Dornan’s eyes widen, wounded, then harden into a stare.

“I think his screen presence is truly able to convey danger, both the concern about its potential nearness, but also his personal capacity to produce it,” Branagh wrote in an email.

Every time young Buddy looks at his Pa, it’s as though he is beholding the sun itself, and Branagh leans into that hero worship, shooting Dornan in black and white as a literal silver-screen idol who croons “Everlasting Love” in the movie’s centerpiece scene. Though Pa is based on Branagh’s father, Dornan has imbued it with characteristics of his own dad, a man he similarly adored while growing up.

Dornan warns me that he might cry if we discuss his father; he doesn’t, but it’s the only time he goes completely still. Dr. Jim Dornan was a renowned obstetrician and gynecologist and the president of the Northern Ireland Pancreatic Cancer charity, in addition to being Jamie’s biggest fan. He was so eager to see “Belfast” — his son was starring opposite Dench, after all — and then, in March of this year, he died of Covid-19. He was 73.

“He was the greatest of men, so kind and wonderful, and he gave so much time and honesty and respect to everyone he met,” Dornan said. “There’s elements that I hope have rubbed off on me, that I’m really trying to take on through for the rest of my life. And a lot of those elements I definitely tried to put into Pa, because I could recognize the goodness.”

Dornan was also eager to use what he had learned from being a father, things you just can’t embody until you experience them yourself. He recalled that in one of his first major roles, as a serial killer on “The Fall,” his character needed to dry his daughter’s hair after a bath; Dornan had not yet had children then, and he toweled the girl’s head so vigorously that the show’s creator had to stop him.

Dornan loves telling stories where he is the butt of the joke, a trait he considers uniquely Belfastian. “That’s sort of in our genes, to find levity in moments of hardship,” he said. And though he has now lived away from Belfast longer than he ever lived in it, so many things about the place remains innate.

“When you say ‘home,’ you still mean Belfast,” Dornan said.

The director Kenneth Branagh said Dornan’s “screen presence is truly able to convey danger, both the concern about its potential nearness, but also his personal capacity to produce it.” Credit…Charlotte Hadden for The New York Times

DORNAN LEFT BELFAST just as he was about to turn 20, three years after his mother died from pancreatic cancer. He had spent that in-between time feeling aimless and drinking too much until his concerned older sister signed him up for a modeling reality show, as one does.

Dornan didn’t win the show, but after moving to London, he still rose rapidly through the ranks of male modeling, which is to say he posed with Kate Moss, dated Keira Knightley and was dubbed “The Golden Torso” by this very newspaper. Before that 2006 photo shoot for The New York Times, he remembers staying out all night. “I’d like to say I’ve grown up since then,” he said, “but I’m not sure I have.”

That isn’t quite true. Half the reason Dornan thrived as a model was because he didn’t care that much about it; his insouciance was the X factor that helped sell even the most ridiculous outfits and tableaus. But to succeed as an actor, you really do have to care, and you have to find it in you to keep caring even when you blow an audition, when you lose the role you would have killed for, or when you find yourself the object of public ridicule.

Dornan had always wanted to act but was afraid to start caring, so he stuck with modeling until it began to curdle. “I don’t find standing there getting your photograph taken interesting enough to do it for multiple decades,” he said. “If it satisfies you, and you can sincerely lie in bed going, ‘I feel great about what I’m doing,’ then great. But I just wasn’t. I was like, ‘This sucks.’”

Once he switched over to acting and began to let himself care, things got hard. His first audition was to play a count who catches Kirsten Dunst’s eye in “Marie Antoinette” (2006), and he booked the role immediately. But you don’t want to read a profile about a handsome guy who stumbles into success wherever he goes, and this isn’t that.

“I was so fortunate to start at that level, then I barely worked for eight years,” Dornan said. “It was this weird thing of being shown the carrot, and then the carrot’s taken away, and the crumbs are even taken away, and you’re going, ‘Jesus, wasn’t there a carrot here a minute ago?’”

He cast about for ages, trying to find a project that would stick, and even when he landed a series-regular role as the handsome sheriff on the ABC fantasy series “Once Upon a Time,” he was abruptly killed off after nine episodes. Dornan recalls his castmates celebrating the job security of a show that would run for seven years while he was ejected after three months, desperate to prove to himself and to the world that he actually had some worth.

But that’s when he met Warner, whom he credits with being a stabilizing influence on his life and career. And not long after they married, Dornan booked his murderous role on “The Fall,” a game-changing gig that put him on the radar of Hollywood casting executives who were searching for the right man to play a handsome sadist.

Dornan with Dakota Johnson in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a hit that became a millstone for him.Credit…Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Pictures and Focus Features

Dornan remembers how he regarded “Fifty Shades of Grey” as an outsider: Of course Hollywood would be eager to turn E.L. James’s kinky book series into a big-screen franchise, but he figured people would be lining up to trash those movies once they were actually made.

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“Then, suddenly, you find you’re the guy in those movies,” Dornan said.

Did playing Christian Grey at least afford him a degree of finally-made-it career security? “No,” Dornan said, “because of the unique package that ‘Fifty Shades’ presented of being a much-maligned project, and the books being what they were — how loved they were by fandom, and how harshly criticized they were by critics. That’s unique in itself.”

Dornan knows that because of “Fifty Shades,” his most ardent fans are women and gay men; when straight guys ask for his picture, he can still sense their skepticism. “They’re always like, ‘It’s obviously not for me, I’m a straight guy, and I have a wife’ or ‘I have a girlfriend, and she likes you, that’s why the photograph’s happening,’” he said. “What have I done, three war movies? You’d think that might help my cause out a little bit with straight men, but probably not. I think you need to be in that comic-book world to really grab their attention.”

On that front, Dornan is trying and has been for a while (even before “The Fall,” he auditioned for Superman, a role he lost to Henry Cavill). To nab a superhero role now would offer him the chance to return to franchise films not as a newcomer desperate for a foothold but as an established actor who’s proved what he can do. And he knows that narrow path exists because Robert Pattinson has managed to walk it, seguing from “Twilight” heartthrob to indie-film star with such panache that he looped back around and used his newfound credibility to win the title role in next year’s “The Batman.”

“I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel like him and his people have played it really cleverly,” Dornan said of Pattinson, who is a friend. “Everything he’s done since ‘Twilight’ has been really smart and beautifully crafted, and those films aren’t financed on his name had he not been in these movies that made billions of dollars.”

Dornan is open about the movies he covets, and he has met with the Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige about donning a cape and tights. “I’m more ambitious than I’ve ever let on before,” Dornan said. Part of it is becoming a parent. “It’s like a necessity to deliver and provide, very caveman-esque: I must succeed for these precious little people. Also, since my dad died, it’s lit this extra fire within me, this extra burner of wanting to succeed.”

That desire isn’t to win the love he never got. “Dad would tell me that endless times every day of my life, so I’m not seeking that,” Dornan said. “But for some reason, since he’s gone, I have a weird thing of wanting to prove something to myself, to prove some sort of succession that is impressive.” And now that he’s channeled his own father, shouldn’t some other heroes be on the table?

Dornan dedicated the Belfast premiere of his new film to his late father, whose honesty and respectfulness was treasured by his son: “A lot of those elements I definitely tried to put into Pa.”Credit…Charlotte Hadden for The New York Times

A FEW DAYS after our time in the countryside, I hopped on a video call with Dornan to ask how his hometown premiere went. He told me that before his anxiety got better, it got so much worse.

“It was crazy; I really felt physically sick leading up to it,” Dornan said. For the half-hour until the screening began, as he sat in his hotel room surrounded by family and friends, he felt so nervous that he was unable to speak.

But once he walked the red carpet, took his place inside Waterfront Hall and began watching the movie, things changed. The audience hung on every word, and the energy was electric. And sitting among the people of Belfast, his own performance finally clicked into place: “It was the first time I watched it where I wasn’t going, ‘God, I hate my face. Why’d I do it that way? Is my nose really that bent? Should I not act anymore?’

After the film ended and audience members came up to him for long conversations about Belfast and “Belfast,” Dornan realized he was actually living through one of the best nights of his life. It helped, too, that Branagh had used his introduction to dedicate the premiere to the late Dr. Jim Dornan.

“It kills me that he’s not able to go on this part of the journey with me, but life happens,” Dornan said. “As Dad would’ve instilled in us more than anything, you do just have to put one foot in front of the other and march on.”

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