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Jamie Dornan on religious identity, James Bond rumours and moving on from Fifty Shades

The Co Down-born actor talks to Ivan Little about his new BBC Two historical drama set in 19th-century Fermanagh, the 'racist' subtitling of Northern Irish accents on television and living life in a goldfish bowl


Jamie Dornan with co-star Ann Skelly

Jamie Dornan with co-star Ann Skelly

BBC/Night Flight Pictures Ltd 20

Jamie Dornan with co-star Ann Skelly

Co Down-born actor Jamie Dornan, who's become world-famous portraying a man called Christian Grey, insists that he's neither Orange nor Green. The millionaire actor, who's been back in Northern Ireland shooting Death and Nightingales - a new historical drama TV series with religious undertones - says he isn't "overtly political", or religious, refusing to identify himself as either Protestant or Catholic.

Taking a break from filming at Myra Castle between Downpatrick and Strangford, 36-year-old Jamie says that, growing up in Northern Ireland, he and his friends all shied away from the Troubles. He adds that neither he nor any of his pals talked about religion, or politics, though the conflict was difficult to avoid.

"I'm not a religious person and I wouldn't be an overtly political person," he says. "But this part of the world obviously has a particular history, which has had a massive impact on every single person who has been born here, or has chosen to live here."

Jamie says he was lucky that he went to a school, Methodist College in Belfast, that "had a healthy divide" of Protestants and Catholics.

"Not many of my mates would even have considered themselves either (Protestant or Catholic)," he says.

"You didn't want to be associated with either because of the trouble it got you into growing up.

"I don't define myself. I can't say I'm either. But if you are from here and you want to do work that is based here, you can't avoid religion and politics in terms of content."

Earlier this year, Jamie said he felt Irish - mostly due to geography - and spoke of his fears for Northern Ireland in the wake of Brexit.

In his latest interview, on the Death and Nightingales set, he says that his knowledge of the historical divisions in Ireland, which are reflected in the drama, were limited.

He says that he wasn't a great listener at school, adding: "Hence, why I'm an actor. I think a lot of your learning comes from this job."


Jamie Dornan in Death and Nightingales

Jamie Dornan in Death and Nightingales

BBC/Night Flight Pictures Ltd 20

He says he found it fascinating, however, to discover more about the origins of division and rule and about what stirred up people's anger towards the English, adding that he was interested in a wide range of stories about Ireland, from 300 years ago to more recent times.

In Death and Nightingales, Jamie plays the part of a young Catholic man who falls in love with a beautiful young woman who tries to escape from her landowner stepfather, who's a Protestant.

He says he thought the storyline powerfully - and perfectly - summed up the tensions of the time in the 19th century.


Jamie with Gillian Anderson in the thriller The Fall

Jamie with Gillian Anderson in the thriller The Fall

He says he had no qualms about acting in a drama linked to divisions in Ireland, adding: "I think it would be wrong to run away from it.

"But I don't think that, by doing something that is leaning towards one aspect of the history of sectarianism and division, is saying anything about what your beliefs are. I think you are just going, 'That's a good role, that's a good drama'."

Jamie, who shot to fame and fortune in the controversial and erotic Fifty Shades movies after he had been spotted in Belfast-based drama series The Fall, acknowledges that he could be making a lot more money from movies, rather than from a television series.

But the pull of Death and Nightingales was the man who adapted it from the Eugene McCabe book, Allan Cubitt, who fought for Jamie to play the lead role of serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall, which he also wrote and directed.

Jamie says money isn't the motivating factor in his career.

"That's not the reason why I do this for a living. With the greatest respect to people who do action movie after action movie, I would find that so dissatisfying and so pointless in terms of what I feel I want to offer or achieve."


Jamie with wife Amelia Warner

Jamie with wife Amelia Warner

He says he was in the happy position of being able to choose his roles - "following the good stuff around", as he puts it - and he doesn't want to be playing dark characters like Paul Spector for the rest of his life.

"I would not be a satisfied person in my career if I was just going from studio film to studio film. That's the closest thing I can think of to a desk job. And, from an early age, I knew I didn't want to be doing that sort of work."

Jamie doesn't name him, but in an obvious reference to Belfast-born actor Derek Thompson, he says: "I could never be like that bloke who's been in Casualty on the telly for 30 years.


Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades Freed with Dakota Johnson

Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades Freed with Dakota Johnson

"Hats off to him, but I couldn't do that. I like diversity."

Jamie says he didn't regard Death and Nightingales as a raunchy drama and says that he wasn't looking for more roles like Christian Grey, which involved him taking his clothes off.

The news may disappoint Jamie's legions of female admirers, but he says he would probably purposely avoid anything like the Fifty Shades franchise again.

"But there's nothing like that franchise, so it's easy to avoid. This series is not Poldark. Even though I've never watched it, I've just seen his (Aidan Turner's) torso a lot," he adds.

Perhaps with tongue in cheek, Jamie questions the need for actors to do things like cooking in the buff. "Nobody cooks naked - it's such a risk," he says.

Jamie, who cut his teeth as an actor in school plays and amateur drama productions, says that he would relish the idea of performing in theatre again, but insists that he wouldn't want to exploit the celebrity and fan-base that his movies have brought in their wake.

"I have conversations about theatre all the time," he says. "But I don't want it to be a West End thing, like Fifty Shades, or anything like that."

Jamie says he has given "zero" thought to becoming the next James Bond - even though there's been speculation that his name is in the frame.

He adds: "My mates text me to say they've put a bet on me and tell me what the odds are. I think it's hilarious. But it's dangerous to ever say that you want to play this role, or that role, because the reality is that it probably won't happen and that leads to disappointment. I don't know why you would set yourself up like that."

As for Game of Thrones, which has been shot here, Jamie recently attended a wrap party for the hugely successful HBO series - even though he wasn't in it.

"I've never even seen it," he says.

"I don't know anything about it, apart from the fact that there's a lot of hair.

"I don't know many actors who weren't in it. But it was a fantastic thing for Northern Ireland. Maybe I'll get around to watching it."

Jamie says he never wanted to act with some of his actor friends because he feared it wouldn't be a good experience and he would see a different side of them coming out.

He adds that, in Death and Nightingales, none of the cast were trying to adopt what he calls "full" Fermanagh accents, because the production team didn't want to see subtitles being used - a practice which Jamie says was "extremely racist".

While living in England, he says he was "bowled over" when he saw subtitles appear on news programmes when Irish people came on the screen - and when they were actually speaking English. Jamie says, with his late mother coming from Portadown, there were a few Portadown-isms that were allowed to creep into Death and Nightingales.

Jamie says it was important for him to return to Northern Ireland, adding: "I will always want to work here. I've been back a bit since we finished the third series of The Fall, but not enough really. That's mainly because my dad comes over to England all the time and most of my mates from Methody live in London.

"That has left me with less reason to be here as often as I would like to be.

"So, it's great when I get the opportunity to work at home."

An added bonus for Jamie was that so many of the crew on Death and Nightingales worked with him on The Fall and he enjoyed not having to repeat himself, because everyone understood him and got his jokes.

Jamie says he liked to have fun on set. "I can count on one thumb the amount of people I have worked with in the last 13 years who don't like to have a bit of levity in between particular dramatic stuff.

"They are long days and I have total respect for people who want to stay in the right headspace. But it's fun to have fun on set, especially here, where people are fun."

If filming on Death and Nightingales finished early, Jamie often took himself on his own to play nine holes of golf at Belfast Royal Golf Club at Craigavad. "It's good for the soul," he says.

The only downside about being in Northern Ireland, he says, was the reaction to him from some people who recognise him on the street or in the bar.

He adds: "There's an ownership to it here that I struggle with sometimes. Where we live in Gloucestershire, we've probably met everyone in our village and they don't care really. But here there's more recognition and there's only one or two degrees of separation, because people will say I played rugby with their brother, or my dad (gynaecologist Jim Dornan) delivered their kid."

The familiarity, says Jamie, often meant that he found himself in a headlock on nights out in Northern Ireland.

"I'm quite a social person," he adds. "I love going out for dinner and a drink and there are some amazing places to eat in Belfast. It's a great place to be. But I can't go for a drink after. That bit's harder."

During the summer, Jamie went to a bar in Ballycastle and his presence there was all over social media within minutes.

"The blessing of not being on social media is that I wasn't subjected to that instantly, but I did hear that it did make a bit of a splash up there," he adds.

Death and Nightingales, BBC Two, Wednesday, November 28, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph