Chances are you’re familiar with Jamie Dornan. No? Take a closer look at his impeccable pectorals. Once nicknamed “The Golden Torso”, he was one of the world’s few male supermodels, earning £10,000 a day posing for Dior, Armani and Calvin Klein. He smouldered with Keira Knightley (whom he then dated for two years), spooned Kate Moss and took a bath in baby oil with Eva Mendes.
Two years ago, aged 29 – which is verging on geriatric in the fashion world – Jamie ditched modelling for acting. (There was a brief stint as a folk singer that’s best forgotten.) Unsurprisingly, his first role was as a love interest: he and his chest had a cameo in Marie Antoinette, snuggling up to Kirsten Dunst. Since then he’s played run-of-the-mill heartthrobs, most recently in Channel 5’s fantasy drama Once upon a Time.
He’s now 31 and his latest role is his biggest – and most challenging. The Fall is a slow-burning thriller starring Gillian Anderson as a London-based chief superindendent who’s sent to Belfast to solve a high-profile murder case – the first time the American-born actress has taken on a role as an investigator since The X-Files. Dornan plays the man she’s after: a killer who strangles women then returns home to his wife and children, stashing his butchering tools above his small daughter’s bed. Where The Fall differs from most cat-and-mouse dramas is that we spend as much time in the company of the perpetrator as the detective.
“Within the first five minutes you know it’s me…” Dornan catches and corrects himself: “I’ve got to stop saying that! You know it’s Paul Spector. So you get to live with him and follow him, and see the ‘whydunnit’ rather than the ‘who’.” It’s not the only time that Dornan inadvertently says “me” or “I” when he means his character; perhaps proof of how new he is to the acting game. Whenever Dornan talks about Spector, he wrings his hands: an unconscious Lady Macbeth scrubbing at invisible blood spots. “Every day that we did something horrible, I’d say, ‘I’m so sorry, this doesn’t come easily to me.’ I did my best to slip out of it as soon as ‘cut’ was called. Because you don’t want to be in that headspace all the time. Certain actors would but…” He trails off, as if embarrassed by his shortcomings.
Beyond the clear blue eyes and carefully cultivated beard, real-life Dornan bears scant resemblance to the bloke who’s preened in TV adverts and on billboards across the land. (Today the torso is bundled up in a smart woollen jacket and designer scarf.) He explains himself, haltingly, in a Northern Irish burr and seems almost shy.
The Fall is set in Belfast, a stone’s throw from where Dornan grew up in Holywood, County Down (a far cry from Hollywood, California). His father – Professor Jim Dornan – is an eminent obstetrician and actor manqué who turned down a place at Rada in the 60s. According to Dornan, “he’s living vicariously through me now.”
Dornan’s mother died of cancer when he was 16 and he started boarding at Methodist College Belfast, a grammar school. “He was very modest,” recalls Vice Principle Norma Gallagher. “One of his best subjects was drama. I remember him making a very good milkman in Blood Brothers and Baby Face in Bugsy Malone.”
But his real passion – and the secret to his enviable physique – was rugby. As a winger for the Belfast Harlequins he spent his teenage years trying to bulk up. His training regime: plenty of Big Macs and press-ups.
Jamie dropped out of the University of Teesside to focus on rugby. When that didn’t work out, he moved to London, intending to enrol in drama school. “I drank too much and didn’t get my act together,” he explains. “I worked in a pub in Knightsbridge for six months, crying every night.” Remembering how he’d once been approached by a modelling agency in Belfast, he decided to try his luck on the catwalk. Within a year he was stepping out with Keira Knightley.
Until now Dornan has never worked on home turf and he was wary. “I’ve never read anything set in Belfast that doesn’t involve the Troubles or something senseless over a flag.” Like many of his generation, he’s frustrated by the inevitable next question – he smells it before it comes: “Ah, here we go! I’m Protestant, but the word couldn’t mean less to me; I just don’t give a…”
He does, though, care about his new career. “I thought I was in over my head when they cast me. It was tough – really tough – and not an easy place to have your head in for four months. I didn’t read about anything other than innocent death and it does affect you. Big time.”
On YouTube Jamie watched videos of Ted Bundy, the American serial killer who was executed in 1989 after confessing to murdering more than two dozen women. “It’s fascinating watching him because he’s super-charming and good-looking. He ran two Congress campaigns in the US, was a super-bright law graduate, had a long-term girlfriend, a normal group of friends but he’s a psychopath! So these people do exist.” Even after playing a psychopath for four months, Dornan clearly finds it hard to believe.
During filming, he found that donning Spector’s “killing gear” helped with the more gruesome scenes. What he hadn’t anticipated was that he’d find the family scenes just as excruciating to watch back. “I really struggled. Within five minutes I’d go from washing my daughter’s hair to stalking and planning my next attack. I found it quite jarring to watch.”
And it’s supposed to jar: “That’s what makes the heinous moments all the more shocking because he’s a husband, he’s a father. Not only that, he’s a good father.”
This summer he is to marry actress-turned-singer Amelia Warner who happens to fit Spector’s victim-type: sleek brunettes. What does she think of The Fall? “Maybe looks at me in a different light!” he jokes, suddenly awkward. We’ve strayed into uncomfortable territory again: he’s guarded his private life fiercely since his much-photographed courtship with Keira Knightley.
“I think it helps that I’m quite open and I’m a crier. Spector is devoid of emotion – most of these guys are.” Cue more hand-wringing as Jamie considers what his friends and family will make of it. “It will be interesting to see what the reaction is because it is dark. I surprised myself with how dark I looked at times; I thought I looked…not pleasant.”
One thing is for sure: he’s unlikely to be pigeonholed as a Prince Charming. “I don’t want to play a serial killer for the rest of my life but it certainly will change people’s perceptions of who I am.”
The Fall begins on Monday at 9:00pm on BBC2