Jamie Dornan on “relishing” dark characters — and why sex scenes are “never easy”

The Fifty Shades of Grey star discusses his role in BBC2's three-part period drama Death and Nightingales — and why he's still affected by The Troubles

Jamie Dornan plays Liam Ward in Death and Nightingales

Jamie Dornan has revealed that he “relishes” playing darker characters, including his latest role in BBC2’s period drama Death and Nightingales.


Dornan, best known for his racy turn in Fifty Shades of Grey and as serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall, said that he gravitates towards characters with a menacing streak.

Discussing his Death and Nightingales character, Liam Ward, Dornan said: “There’s a lot about Liam that is hard to work out… the sort of manipulation and the darkness that he possesses is something that I relish, you know; I think a lot of actors relish the idea of that.”

Death and Nightingales, based on Eugene McCabe’s book of the same name, is set in nineteenth-century rural Ireland, and follows Beth Winters (played by Ann Skelly), who, alongside the charming Ward, hatches a plot to escape her controlling step-father (played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys).

It’s a period of suspicion and paranoia, with a clear divide between Catholics and Protestants that foreshadows The Troubles.

Dornan, who grew up in Holywood, Northern Ireland, said that his childhood informed the way he looked at the issues raised in the script. “You can’t have grown up in Northern Ireland in the time that I did and not be affected by The Troubles,” he said.

“I think I have a good understanding of it from both sides. I’m an atheist, and I always was [an atheist] growing up. I’ve never really felt that I’ve belonged to either side, and a lot of that was driven because of the situation there.”

The three-part drama is set during “a time of, essentially, the start of modern terrorism, terrorism as we know it,” added Allan Cubitt, the show’s creator with whom Dornan previously worked on The Fall. The original novel was published in 1992, “so [McCabe] was writing it before the peace process,” Cubitt explained. “A bombing in Enniskillen [in County Fermanagh, where the book and series are set] in 1987… must have been part of [McCabe’s] thinking.”

Death and Nightingales, BBC2

Filming took place on location, with several key scenes shot in lakes in Northern Ireland.

“Jamie [Dornan] and Ann [Skelly] spend a lot of time in the water,” Cubbitt revealed. “As the [series] unfolds you will see how brave and resilient they were — because although it was blisteringly hot, the water wasn’t that warm.”

The underwater scenes weren’t the only source of difficulty for Dornan.

Although you’d think that the actor would be well-used to taking his kit off following his stint as Fifty Shades lothario Christian Grey, Dornan says he struggled when it came to the more risqué scenes in Death and Nightingales.

At a press event for the new series, co-star Rhys joked that he acted as a “cheerleader” during Dornan and Skelly’s candlelit sex scenes — but Dornan admitted that he still found the filming experience tricky, despite his ample experience:

“They’re never easy.”


Death and Nightingales first airs on BBC2 on Wednesday 28th November at 9pm