Jamie Dornan on playing a psychopathic killer in The Fall

Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson star in The Fall. Picture: PA
Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson star in The Fall. Picture: PA
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AFTER watching two episodes of The Fall, I found myself double-checking every window lock, and triple-checking the bolts on my front door.

Written by Allan Cubitt, and starring Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson, The Fall will haunt you. Dornan plays Paul Spector, a serial killer leading a double life: by day he’s a married father of two working as a bereavement counsellor; by night he’s a methodical serial killer who carefully stalks his female prey before murdering them – slowly – for the perverse pleasure of watching them die. Anderson plays the London detective seconded from the Met to Belfast, to catch him.

It’s a far cry from his role as Sheriff Graham on fairy tale-based US TV hit Once Upon a Time, or playing Count Axel von Fersen, the Swedish lover of Marie Antoinette, in Sofia Coppola’s film about the ill-fated queen. And it’s further still from Dornan’s decade as one of the highest-paid male models of all time – a career responsible for so many lustful yearnings that the New York Times dubbed him “The Golden Torso”, and which found him fronting campaigns for Calvin Klein and Dior Homme fragrance.

Despite all the pouty poses you can ogle online, there’s nothing remote or untouchable about Dornan when I ring him in London, where he’s lived for the past 11 years. Instead, in a musical Northern Irish lilt, he dishes up a steady stream of self-deprecation and laughter, making it even more impressive that he scared the bejesus out of me playing a cold-eyed killer.

Initially Dornan auditioned for another role in The Fall. “I never think auditions have gone well, but with this one I actually did think I did a good job. Then I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks. I went to Los Angeles for meetings, and my London agent rang and said they wanted me to come back to read a different part. That usually means it’s some really tiny, insignificant part, but it was completely the opposite, which never happens. I don’t know what that says about me – that they saw the serial killer in me? Who knows? I didn’t let myself believe that I would be playing Spector, and then suddenly when that is reality, it’s hugely exciting. I loved every bit of it.”

How do you prepare to play someone so evil? “I read a lot about serial killers. I think a lot of these guys have things in common, whether it’s abuse or abandonment. I had long chats with Allan about serial killers he drew upon, guys like Ted Bundy. Then I read a lot of books, about Bundy especially. I watched every interview I could find on the guy. I thought he was the most fascinating, because he was a professional, he was charming, he was a good-looking guy, and he had a girlfriend for seven years who never suspected a thing, even when he was killing a woman a month.That is terrifying, that there is someone who can slip into society as well as he did and go unnoticed, and lead a normal life, but still be getting up to these unspeakable acts. That’s close to Spector, who has a job, and, for argument’s sake, he’s a good family man. I truly believe that he does love his children – weirdly, I never doubted that he was a good father, which makes it all the more harrowing. I also think that he’s a relatively good husband. I don’t think he’s ever cheated on his wife. I’m not saying, ‘Cut the guy a break, he’s misunderstood,’ but I think there are core qualities that he adheres to in terms of family. But, obviously, there’s this other side to him.”

Working on such tough material, on very dark, atmospheric sets, Dornan was keen to lighten the mood whenever possible. “I don’t think it would have been too good for me to stay in that head space for three months. “When it was appropriate, I would make someone laugh. Every one of those scenes where I’m with one of my victims, and I’ve got a ligature around her neck and I’m pretending to squeeze with all my life, and they’re foaming at the mouth, and my sweat’s dripping in their eyes, and I’m watching them die and their eyes are bulging – after every one of those when they’d say, ‘Cut!’, I was, ‘Oh my god I’m so sorry! I’m going to untie your feet here, is that okay?’ Because I am not that guy.”

Who he is, is a lovely 31-year-old with two older sisters who had an enjoyable childhood growing up in a comfortable household in the Belfast suburbs. His dad’s a doctor and lecturer. His mother died when Dornan was 16. He’s told other interviewers that receiving her terminal prognosis meant the family didn’t waste time hoping for a miracle, but were able to focus on being together during the final 18 months of her life.

He was sporty – chiefly keen on rugby – but also did drama at school, and played the guitar. He insists he had no career plan, beyond knowing that it wouldn’t involve sitting at a desk all day.

“I loved the fact that acting didn’t involve getting up at seven in the morning, getting a train with a million other people, going to sit at a desk and clocking off at 5:30pm. When I was younger I thought maybe one day I’d be involved in sport in terms of career. I was also involved in youth theatre. Then as you get a bit older and have to make decisions about roughly where you want to be and what you want to be doing, it just kind of happened. My dad was a keen actor when he was young, my auntie is heavily involved in amateur dramatics back in Northern Ireland and my great aunt was a woman called Greer Garson.”

Er, yes, I’ve heard of her, Jamie. “She still holds the record for the longest ever Oscar acceptance speech, which is cool. So there’s an element of it in the family. My dad was offered a place at Rada when he left school, and didn’t take it. He became a doctor and had a very fulfilled life doing that, but I think there was always a part of him that wanted to explore acting, so I think he’s probably as excited as I am that I’m doing it, because he gets to vicariously live that side of him.”

Dornan planned on going to drama school, but then the modelling career took off in a way that no one expected. He went in at the top, so to speak, working with photographer Bruce Weber right from the start. “He is a total legend. I’m not sure I know much about fashion now, but I certainly didn’t years ago – but I knew who he was. We got on very well, so for the first couple of years I pretty much only worked with him, which, looking back, is kind of ridiculous and amazing. He is incredible. He is very softly spoken and so kind and a master of his craft as well.”

Having interviewed others fitting the description “model turned actor”, I know the transition can be problematic. How has it been for Dornan? Does he get a lot of people sneering, “Here comes that pretty boy, trying to act”?

Laughing, he says, “There’s a massive stigma attached to it. That’s why doing a project like The Fall hopefully helps towards my cause. But it is a funny one, that model-turned-actor thing. Why do people think it can’t be done? Why can’t you be a good actor – I’m not saying I am a good actor – but why can’t you do good work as an actor when you’ve had your photograph taken? Is it because you stood in a room and looked depressed while people took photographs of you?”

A lot of people presume brains and beauty cannot inhabit the same space. “Yeah, but there are just so many people to contradict that theory. All I can do is hope I do work that I am happy with and that maybe changes people’s perceptions. It’s not really the right attitude, to start watching something thinking, ‘This isn’t going to be very good because people used to take photographs of him.’”

Funnily enough, he tells me, it’s completely different in the United States. “It’s not an issue. In fact, that’s all they want. That’s why you have really good-looking people playing the so-called ugly parts in American shows. It’s a completely different game over there. Over here there’s a bit of if you haven’t done your three years at Rada and you haven’t done a year of Royal Shakespeare Company, maybe you’re not that employable. That’s why it’s pleasing to be able to do the lead in something like The Fall, which is British, and goes against all that.”

His character in Once Upon a Time died, but the beauty of magical kingdoms is that they don’t obey the rules, so he was able to return for a guest spot this season playing a slightly different version of himself. Judging by the excitement this generated in online forums, fans would welcome many such returns. Is he mobbed when he’s in the States? “I get a decent amount of mail, but not mobbed.

“But it is nice to be involved in a show that is on that scale and has 12 million people watching every week. That’s a fun thing to be a part of. And it won’t do me any harm, oh Jesus no. But in the same breath, it’s nice to do stuff that is very different. That’s the idea, as an actor. I am sort of amazed that we have these soaps that run for 30 years. Although just being employed as an actor is a big thing, I’m not sure I’d be satisfied playing the same character for 30 years, it’s not why I want to do this for a living.”

Okay, obligatory somewhat Scottish question now. Is it true that his band, Sons of Jim, supported KT Tunstall on tour? “Yeah that’s a fact. It was brilliant fun; she’s quite incredible. We did six dates with her, so not a huge tour together. I’m guessing this was around 2005. Watching her do what she does every night was a real treat, and she was completely lovely as well. That feels like a lifetime ago, but that did happen.”

In the past he’s been quite harsh about that short-lived music career. “I’ve pulled the reins in on that a bit, because there were other people involved, but I didn’t have a lot of belief in my personal capabilities. I essentially wasn’t fulfilled by it, but we had some good times. I would do a lot of different things differently if we did it again.”

I’m also intrigued that he worked with screen legend Jean Simmons. What was she like? “One of my favourite people in the world,” he gushes, “and it was a huge loss when she slipped away a few years ago. Shadows in the Sun was her last film and she was the most incredible person. I kept in touch with Jean and went for lunch at her place in Santa Monica a couple of times. She was hilarious, and had the spirit of a 21-year-old right up to her final days.

“Gosh, I’m getting choked up talking about her. What an incredible woman. She had the most fantastic stories. For her first-ever role she was a body double for Vivien Leigh, and they rolled her up in a rug and threw her over a cliff into the water. She thought she was going to die, and eventually the guys dived in and took her out and unrolled her, but that was her introduction to Hollywood.

“Two years later she got nominated for an Oscar for Spartacus. She had amazing stories and was a joy to be around.”

It sounds like he knew her better than he did his great aunt, Greer Garson. “She was my grandmother’s first cousin. To be honest, she died in 1995. When you’re a kid, you’re not really watching things like Mrs Miniver and the original Pride and Prejudice, so I wasn’t really aware of her. I wrote her a letter. She was living in Texas and we managed to get her address through the family. I wrote her this letter saying I was playing Widow Twanky in our primary school production – which, may I add, I won the drama prize for.

“But I promise you, that the week before we got the letter sent off it was on the news that she died. So I personally never had any contact with her. But it’s amazing to be connected to her. I love watching her films. And actually it was lovely because Jean Simmons was excited that I was distantly related to Greer Garson, because she was a massive fan and said she was the most beautiful woman in the world. That was great to hear.”

After he has terrified us in The Fall, we can look forward to seeing Dornan next year in a film called Flying Home. In it he plays “a finance guy from New York.” Would he care to try his New York accent out on this native? “Uh, not right now,” he demurs.

So he is canny.

• The Fall starts on Monday on BBC 2 at 9pm.