FIFTY Shades of Grey may have made him a Hollywood star, but Jamie Dornan’s latest role could not be more unlike the movie adaption of that publishing sensation.
He dons military fatigues and a soft Kerry accent for the Netflix-acquired The Siege of Jadotville, a gritty and detailed account of a shamefully forgotten event in Irish history.
It’s set in 1961, in the jittery days of the Cold War which saw various nations battle for control of Congolese mineral resources. An Irish company serving with the UN came under attack from a far superior force of local separatists backed up by French and Belgian mercenaries.
Dornan plays Commandant Pat Quinlan, who leads his men into a heroic fightback, and he says he felt a great responsibility in bringing this story to life.
“You do feel a certain amount of pressure to honour and respect the man you’re playing. And to give a portrayal that’s worthy of the man, because he’s quite a man,” Dornan tells me.
“You’re playing people who have really existed and they still have family who are around — it’s recent history, it’s ’61, it wasn’t that long ago. Conor Quinlan who’s Pat Quinlan’s grandson [and an actor who’s part of the film’s ensemble cast] is in the movie with us. He was there every day, which had its own pressure at the start. But then I loved having him there, we didn’t fall out so I think he must be happy enough!
“Also, you can’t let that burden you. You’ve got to leave that behind once you get on set because you’ve so many things to worry about as that is, and you can’t let that overburden you in terms of what you’re trying to do with the role.”
Dornan builds on the promise he has showed playing the chilling Belfast strangler in three series of TV’s The Fall — he is terrific as the stubborn tactician whose 150-strong battalion fought off at least 3,000 over a six-day siege.
It also involved him changing his Co Down brogue to develop a convincing hybrid of Kerry and midlands accents (Quinlan was a Kerryman but, like most of his colleagues, was stationed in Athlone, Co Westmeath).
“Accents are funny — you’re shitting yourself as soon as you start prepping the job and thinking: ‘This is not going to happen, I don’t know how I’m going to get my head around this’. And then, it’s like anything in life, you practise a bit, you work hard at it, and everything falls into place.
“I love doing it — it’s a very lyrical and enjoyable action to do. And I’m glad we made a choice not to have it too hardcore Kerry. We didn’t want to do subtitles — the Americans like to do subtitles for Irish people when they’re speaking English, which I find pretty shameful, and we were trying to avoid that.”
The movie was mostly shot in South Africa, where changeable extremes of weather, dust and 4.30am starts made for a challenging environment.
“We had quite long days and you’d lose the light quite quickly there, so you were always very aware that you had to get stuff done.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever do a film so action-heavy again. It was intense, but brilliant. I’m not going to complain, there are far harder ways to make a living. But we were definitely made to sweat.”
Director Richie Smyth’s background as a video director (he worked with groups like U2 before turning his hand to this, his first feature) means the action sequences are strongly rendered and put the viewer in the heart of the conflict.
For the filmmaker, it was crucial his largely male cast looked and behaved like soldiers, and they spent weeks doing bootcamp and military drills.
“It was pretty gruelling on the actors, but we bootcamped them beforehand so they were kind of in training, kind of used to it. I think also there was a great energy because it was a lot of boys together with guns, being drilled, getting to play soldier,” says Smyth.
“They all bonded — they did the band of brothers thing, and they trained together. Then I got Jamie and Jason (O’Mara) in for the last week, to take over and run it, so that they had to exercise their ability to command and gain the trust of these guys, not only in terms of respect, but also as friends. So by the time they did all that, I really didn’t have an awful lot to do, because they had become soldiers.”
It was very important, says Smyth, that they cast the right ensemble for the film to create that sense of authenticity. “To be honest I’m very hard on casting. There’s a famous quote (in filmmaking) that once you’re cast you’re f**ked. Because that’s it — if you don’t have the right actor, it doesn’t matter what you do. I was really hard on who I selected — because it’s a big ensemble. I always trusted my instincts in the end, with every one of them.”
Following his recent performance in WWII drama Anthropoid opposite Cillian Murphy, and his forthcoming with Ben Mendelson in small Los Angles indie, Untogether — he starts filming in November — you get the sense that Dornan is happy to shake off his heart-throb status and focus on building his career.
Indeed, him and his wife, singer and actress Amelia Warner, spend much of their downtime with their two small children in the decidedly un-starry environment of the Cotswolds in southern England.
He was certainly inspired, he says, by Murphy, whose performances the younger Dornan watched closely as he pondered moving from modelling into acting.
“Cillian will kill me for saying this,” he smiles, “but for me, growing up, he’s a little bit older than me — six years, but that’s a perfect age difference to look up to somebody. They’re within reach, but a proper peer to look up to, and the way that he’s handled his career, the choices he’s made, have been incredible.”
He’s also keen that the bravery of Quinlan and his men becomes known worldwide — and with the film bowing on Netflix to potentially scores of millions of viewers, that seems likely.
“I feel it’s only the beginning and it’s very sad that Quinlan and others aren’t around to see that,” says Dornan.
“It shouldn’t take this movie to shed light on it. It’s great that it did in some respects but they deserved recognition purely based on the facts, rather than us having to make a movie about it.”