Jamie Dornan

Jamie Dornan has become adept at seamlessly moving back and forth between film and television; indeed, the prolific Irish actor had two high-profile releases this winter, with Kenneth Branagh’s buzzy feature Belfast and Jack and Harry Williams’ critically acclaimed BBC One series The Tourist. Sold by All3Media International, the six-parter casts Dornan as The Man, who we meet driving through the Australian outback, belting out the Kim Carnes classic “Bette Davis Eyes” before being run off the road by a semi-truck. He wakes up in a hospital with amnesia, setting him off on a journey to figure out who he is and why someone is trying to kill him. Dornan tells World Screen about the grueling shoot, what attracted him to working with the Williams brothers and the opportunities he’s seeing across the film and television landscapes today.

WS: What appealed to you about the script and the concept of The Tourist?
DORNAN: It was kind of peculiar in the best way. It had me questioning lots of different aspects of what was going on. Whenever I felt comfortable with it, it changed in the best way. I loved the way it was playing with tone and structure. And I thought it was really funny. It was an interesting blend of darkness and humor. I had kept an eye on what Two Brothers Pictures had been doing in recent years. They’ve had their fingers in a lot of very tasty pies, and I do think they have a unique voice within television in the U.K. It was a departure from the things I’d done recently. And I had an eye on doing something in television because it had been a while for me. So I was intrigued by it all, particularly when I met [the director] Chris Sweeney. I had loved Back to Life. I think it’s one of the best things BBC has put out in years. So the combination of all those things was pretty alluring to me.

WS: How do you even go about preparing to play a character like The Man?
DORNAN: It’s a difficult one! [Laughs] I’ve played characters before who have lost their memory. I’ve dealt with what that is, the trauma of that, and the panic. Not that I don’t have to plug back into what that is, but I have dug around in that area before, which is good. I had a chance to really play. The backstory was being written for me, and then I was able to add to that from everything we don’t hear about pre what [Jack and Harry Williams] put in the script, as we reveal and discover as the series goes on. There’s so much of that confusion and dismay and horror of what he was finding out. I wanted it to feel as much as possible like he was finding it out for the first time. A lot of it is trying to have an understanding of where you think his origins are, what his backstory is, but also trying to forget it! [Laughs] I’m trying not to know too much because the sincerity of that news is impactful for him. That was a fun challenge. Luckily, it was so cleverly written on the page. Trying to play each beat with total conviction and sincerity—you don’t want the audience to think that maybe he’s trying to hide something. We’re trying to keep it at: This is news to him; he is on this journey with you. If we lost that, it wouldn’t work. I’ve been mindful of that the whole way through. This is difficult when it’s jumping around so much—particularly in episode five, where there are all these trippy flashbacks. The whole thing was a trip! [Laughs]

WS: I imagine it was also a grueling shoot, given The Man is having a terrible few days, and you’re out in the middle of the Australian outback.
DORNAN: It was the toughest shoot of my life. It’s the longest shoot of my career so far. We had 92 shooting days. I worked 85 of them. That’s a lot! To put it into context, [my co-star] Danielle Macdonald worked like 42. It was just a very physically and emotionally demanding job. My father died ten days before we started shooting. So it was a rough ride for me, to be honest. But what I’m thankful for is that I’m surrounded by an unbelievable cast and crew who were just the floating aides that I needed for that time to get me through that whole five months. And even just the landscape, which looks so beautiful on-screen and is so beautiful, it’s a tough environment to shoot in. There are flies and heat, and then it’s cold. It was mainly hot when we began, freezing cold when we ended, and everything in between. Sandstorms. It’s not easy. But it’s still easier than most people have it in the world, so I’m trying not to complain too much! But in terms of getting a production over the line and finishing your days, it was a task for everyone. There wasn’t one department that didn’t have a very tough shoot! When you go through something like that, and you put it all out there, it’s all the more rewarding to have it be received the way it’s been received and to have been loved by so many and watched by so many.

WS: The Man has such fantastic chemistry with Danielle Macdonald’s character, Helen Chambers, and you feel it right from that first scene with both of you. Did it click that quickly on set too?
DORNAN: It did just click! It was cool. Danielle is an absolute pro. For a start, she’s an unbelievable actor. And it was just symmetry. These two characters shouldn’t work in so many ways, and they’re both so confused, yet they find themselves needing each other. We didn’t have a huge amount of time for rehearsal. I did one Zoom rehearsal with Danielle and one with Shalom [Brune-Franklin, who plays Luci Miller]. It’s complicated—there’s a delay, and we don’t know each other yet. We haven’t worked with Chris Sweeney yet. You are thinking, Will this work? But I remember our first day together going, This is going to be fine. You get a vibe from someone, you pick up on an energy, you fall in line with someone, and it was very easy to do that with Danielle. She’s brilliant. I love what she did with that character. And I love that The Man was able to fit into that in a fairly galvanized way.

WS: Was it strange to be back on set after being isolated for so long during Covid?
DORNAN: I did Belfast in Covid, and that was all the weirder because it was the first job in the whole industry to shoot in the U.K. There were no vaccines. This was a different Covid landscape entirely. That was crazy; I couldn’t believe we were getting to shoot something. By the time [filming] The Tourist came along, the U.K. was not in good shape, but Australia, particularly South Australia, was totally free. So it was like a holiday going over there—we didn’t have to think about it. In the penultimate week, there was an outbreak, and it spread quite badly for a while. But I feel like any actor who has been able to work on anything in the last couple of years should consider themselves lucky given the heartache of so many people. Particularly people in the theater who basically lost their careers. It’s heartbreaking. So we just felt fortunate that we could be somewhere, in a safe environment, do all the precautions a­­nd get something over the line. I cannot wait to be on a set where Covid isn’t mentioned!

WS: You continue to move seamlessly back and forth between movies and television. How do you manage a schedule, given that I know the timelines can be quite different for the two mediums?
DORNAN: I think you just feel lucky that either of those two mediums wants you to be involved, let alone both! I’d love to try to continue both throughout my career. It’s tough, isn’t it? You just have to lay it all out and see how to make it work. I feel fortunate that I’ve had success in both. And my future looks very much both! [Laughs] I’m doing a movie next and probably a movie after that, but then there’s a couple of TV things I want to do. It all becomes a juggling act. I’ll have my say, but then it’s not up to me to be up on all the logistics of it! It all becomes other people, who take a cut of my money; that’s where they come into force. It’s a balancing act. But I will continue to follow the scripts and the work that challenge me; I don’t care if it comes as television or film or theater even, which I haven’t done. Whatever form it comes in, if I’m drawn to it, I’ll find a way to do it.