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‘Belfast’ Star Jamie Dornan Won’t Play It Safe: ‘If You Get Too Comfortable in This Industry, You’re F**ked’

The Northern Irish actor is earning some of the best reviews of his career for his turn in Kenneth Branagh's black and white memoir. For Dornan, that's proof his strategy is working.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, USA - NOVEMBER 08: Actor Jamie Dornan arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere Of Focus Features' 'Belfast' held at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on November 8, 2021 in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Actor Jamie Dornan arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of Focus Features’ “Belfast”

Sipa USA via AP

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Fair warning: Jamie Dornan isn’t going to make a habit out of the singing thing. Maybe. Over the course of the last ten months, the Northern Irish actor has starred in two (very different) films that feature pivotal singing sequences in which Dornan, who used to have his own band and record label, gets to show off his crooning ability to a whole new audience.

“It’s fun. I probably don’t want to make it too much of a habit, but I enjoy it, I really do,” he said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “I get something out of it. I like the idea of exploring it more, and I think there is a bit of overcoming a fear with it sometimes.”

In February, Dornan delighted viewers of the uproarious “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” with his comedic acumen — he more than holds his own against co-stars and writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo — and that’s even before he busts into a searching love ballad directed at, well, seagulls. By the time awards season had rolled around, Dornan was back at the mic, closing out Kenneth Branagh’s lauded black-and-white memoir “Belfast” (in which Dornan essentially stars as the filmmaker’s father) with a swoon-y sequence that sees him jamming out to a classic. (Even before the singing kicks in, it’s one of Dornan’s best performances yet, and the widespread acclaim he’s received for the turn have already put him firmly in the Oscar race for best supporting actor.)

After the Los Angeles premiere of the film, Dornan took to the stage during the glitzy after-party to croon “Everlasting Love,” just like he does in Branagh’s film. That wasn’t totally planned, he said, “And then I thought, ‘Oh, I might back out of it,’ and ‘If I’m feeling up for it, I’ll do it.’ And then I had just the right level of alcohol in my system to make me be okay with it. But actually thinking about it now, I cannot believe I did that.”

But for an actor always looking for a challenge, for something maybe even scary, it tracks.

“It’s all about seeking a challenge,” Dornan said of his work philosophy. “And if you get too comfortable in this industry, you’re fucked. I believe that. I always want to prove something to myself. I’m a bit driven in that way of always wanting to challenge myself beyond what I’ve already achieved, or what I’ve already sort of dealt with. I want the next thing to be something I have to work really hard to prove to myself — and potentially to other people — that I’m capable of this, whatever it is. I think I’ve always been driven by that, but I’m more willing to admit that recently. Call it an ambition, or a desire, or whatever, but it’s something within me, to constantly test yourself. Otherwise, I just don’t think I get as much out of it, I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much.”

That means that Dornan’s choices — like starring in a wacky comedy and a big-time drama in the same year — are going to continue to surprise people. It also means that fans shouldn’t expect him to do something really predictable, like turn to the superhero movie churn.

“Belfast”

Focus Features

“I love the idea of surprising people or showing a different side of yourself,” he said. “I don’t want to be an actor where [my work] is predictable. I use this a lot, this idea of those actors who are just in action movies. Listen, each to their own, fair play to you. But I would be so chronically bored if I was just constantly like throwing bad guys against walls and shooting at… Just, Jesus. I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to do that one, or two, or three, or four times in my career, but every movie? There’s some particular men who do that in every single movie, and those guys are much richer than me, by the way, but I just don’t know how satisfied they are.”

For Dornan to be satisfied, he starts with a baseline desire to simply be moved by the script at hand. “Sometimes you’re moved by it because it’s dramatic and heartbreaking, and the story just punches you in the gut,” he said. “And sometimes you’re moved by it because of how personal it is, something like ‘Belfast,’ and how close it is to your heart. Sometimes you’re moved by something because it’s making you cry with laughter, like ‘Barb and Star.'”

The actor admits that wasn’t always possible for him, particularly as he attempted to make the transition from model to actor in the early aughts. “But luckily in the last few years, I’ve been afforded a bit of choice over what I do. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I want to make the most of that,” Dornan said. “I feel like I’ve got the luxury of going, ‘Why do I really want to do this?,’ and as a result, the things I’ve really wanted to do have been quite varied over the last five or six years. I love that.”

Interestingly, that time period includes one of the more out-there offerings on Dornan’s wide-ranging résumé: the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise. While some might expect the actor has regrets when it comes to his participation in the racy trilogy, he doesn’t. It did what it was supposed to do, and that means something to him.

“The fans, for the most part, loved it and it made a ton of money,” he said. “I think if everyone’s honest with themselves, that was the main two intentions going into it. We were aware that the critics probably weren’t going to love it, because the critics did not love the books. I don’t know how we would’ve changed that when we were sticking so close to the books. But there’s no regret or anything.”

Another bonus: The cash and cachet that comes from being the star of a billion-dollar film franchise. Now, both Dornan and his co-star Dakota Johnson (whom he affectionately calls “DJ”) are heading into awards season as the stars of acclaimed titles, with Johnson making waves in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter.”

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Jamie Dornan as "Pa", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jude Hill as "Buddy", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

“Belfast”

Rob Youngson / Focus Features

“What’s been lovely about it is that DJ and I have been able to kick on and do some really interesting work the last few years, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that had we not been in a franchise,” he said. “Even at the moment, we’re both in these films that people are talking about for the right reasons, and that’s exciting and we’re proud of each other. It’s cool to come out the other side and be in that position.”

Still, Dornan remains charmingly self-effacing. Take, for example, his reaction when Branagh reached out to Dornan for the role: The actor was shocked. Mostly, he said, he couldn’t believe Branagh even knew he existed. “He’s always stood by this and continues to now, even when he’s been pressed, to say that I was who he personally had in mind,” Dornan said. “When I first spoke to him, he hadn’t just seen the highlight reel, he hadn’t seen two or three things, like ‘The Fall’ and ‘A Private War,’ whatever I’ve done that’s been well-received in the last 10 years or whatever, he’d seen everything I’d done, which was sort of mad.”

Dornan added with a laugh, “It was really a bit of a thrill to know that he’d seen that, and some not great stuff in there, and still wanted to work with me. It was one of those once-in-a-career situations. It was just a gift.”

While the film is based is on Branagh’s own childhood in Northern Ireland during the start of The Troubles, Dornan says the filmmaker wasn’t precious about any of it, resulting in a very open feeling on set amongst the performers. “Anytime I would ask him specific stuff about his dad, he would definitely answer it with honesty,” Dornan said. “But he wouldn’t be telling me in a way of like, ‘Yes, and that should color what you do with it, given that information.’ I learned to understand that, and I probably asked fewer questions as we went on because of it. All that did was infuse me with more confidence, that he was cool with what I wanted to do with it naturally. It was really freeing, that process.”

While the film chronicles a specific time and place, it’s proven to be a crowdpleaser. Audiences are seeing themselves in this family — including co-stars Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Lewis McAskie, and Jude Hill — and that’s a pull that’s hard to overestimate. “At the very core of this, it’s about a family,” Dornan said. “We’re all from a family of some kind, some very disjointed and fractured, and some are very strong and together, but we’re all from some version of a family. We all understand that element of it. Doing the right thing to try to keep the family together and doing what’s best for the family, I think everyone can relate to that.”

He added, “And then it’s amazing how many places in the world are known for civil unrest and civil wars amongst their own people, and it’s a sad fact of life that there’s so many places like that. But I think that that really resonates with people from similar places where there’s tribalism and division based on nothing but the fucking side of the street you grew up on, or the church you go to, and all these sort of nonsense reasons to be fighting with each other. Ken has had people from all over the world come up saying, ‘It felt like you were telling my story.’ That’s amazing, that’s a powerful thing.”

That family feeling was baked in from the start. Branagh wrote the film’s script during the early days of lockdown, and it was already in production by September 2020, with strict COVID protocols in place (also helpful: most of it was shot at an abandoned school outside London, as studio space was unavailable and shooting on location in Belfast was nearly impossible at the time). With such constraints, the cast bonded intensely.

“I think we just wanted to hang out as a family a lot,” Dornan said. “We were so lucky and fortunate really early on that we had what felt like a very familial bond with each other. You felt like, the more you embedded that idea that we were a real family, obviously the better that’s going to be for the work. There was a lot of us being in the little tents by the set and then the assistant directors coming out going, ‘You know you’re not in the next three scenes. You can just go back to your trailer.’ And we were like, ‘Oh no, we’ll just sit and drink another cup of tea and natter to each other here.'”

“Belfast”

Focus Features

Even with the film completed, family remains its center. Before its theatrical release in November, “Belfast” enjoyed a robust festival tour — including stops at Telluride, TIFF (where it won the Oscar-predictive Audience Award), London, Rome, and Chicago — but it was probably its opening night berth at the Belfast Film Festival that will stick with Dornan and company the most.

The evening was “highly emotionally charged, but one of the best nights of my life, truly,” Dornan said. “I’ll never forget it. My sister’s there, my auntie’s there, some of my best friends were there, my wife. It was just this very surreal, very memorable, but highly emotional night. I just felt really proud to be bringing it back to the people that really matter, and who are at the core of us making this, and a lot of the reasons that we were making this. And Ken wanted to tell the story for those people.”

Dornan’s next big challenge: writing his first script, alongside his pal Conor MacNeill, which he’s staying tight-lipped about despite his excitement. “We’ve got amazingly exciting producers, which I probably can’t talk about,” he said. “These things don’t happen overnight, as I’m sure you know, but we’re in a great place with it. We’re also both fucking busy! Every time we have to do a rewrite based on producer notes and financier notes and stuff, it’s hard to find that time at the moment, particularly. But we’re in a great place with it and hopefully we’ll get a chance to make it next year, year after, it could be fucking 10 years, but hopefully we’ll get it over the line at some point.”

He’s willing to wait. He knows it will be worth it. “There’s lots of different facets of this industry that have always interested me beyond just standing on my mark and saying my lines,” Dornan said. “I’m interested in all of it.”

A Focus Features release, “Belfast” is now in select theaters and on various VOD and digital platforms.

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