ven though Christian Grey is fully naked for most of E.L. James’ mega-bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey,” moviegoers may be disappointed to learn that star Jamie Dornan won’t be. 

“They were privy to everything, just not my manhood,” Dornan says on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. To portray the sexually dominant Grey, Dornan donned a flesh-colored pouch while filming the love scenes. “It’s like one of those little satchels that Robin Hood or someone of that era would have tied on to his belt,” says the 32-year-old Irish actor. “There’s no back. It’s tiny. I mean, it’s not tiny! Because it’s got to hold a lot.”
On Feb. 13 — Valentine’s Day weekend — Universal Pictures’ Focus Features will finally unstrap the movie adaptation of the book, one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2015, the first of three planned films based on James’ erotic trilogy that became a must-read for romance-hungry women, and has sold 100 million copies worldwide. The story revolves around a college virgin named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who is seduced by the insatiable desires of a powerful, insecure businessman.
 The page-turning novel is so explicit that the film’s screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, at one point suggested that the movie would be rated NC-17, as did one of its producers, Dana Brunetti. But Universal executives, who outbid rivals in ponying up $5 million for the film rights, shot down the idea of the restrictive rating so as to attract the widest possible audience. The MPAA recently handed “Fifty Shades” an R for “strong sexual content” and “unusual behavior.”

If that classification drew snickers around town, it’s because the film is the most high-profile bedroom drama from one of Hollywood’s major studios to come along in years. Rarely these days are movies built on the premise of sex, like the X-rated “Last Tango in Paris,” and hard R’s “American Gigolo” and “9½ Weeks.” Even “Brokeback Mountain,” released a decade ago, is steamier than most modern love stories, with its erotic love scene in a tent between two cowboys.
 Studios now typically relegate sex in movies to raunchy, R-rated comedies such as “American Pie,” “Neighbors,” “Knocked Up” and “Sex Tape.”

The proliferation of explicit sexual content on such scripted cable TV series as “Girls,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Affair,” and the availability of porn on the Internet, means that viewers no longer expect sex on the bigscreen in the same way. The risk-averse, conglomerate-owned studios prefer leave such material to the indies, which target niche audiences. In fact, James picked U’s specialty division, Focus, after meeting with its onetime chief James Schamus, who impressed her with a lineup of such daring films as “Brokeback Mountain,” “Lust, Caution” and “The Constant Gardner.” Schamus wrote the author a passionate five-page letter explaining why he wanted the rights, which touched off a bidding war among studios including Sony and the Weinstein Co.
 “The television phenomenon is what it is,” says Universal chair Donna Langley, whose studio bankrolled the acquisition. “When I look at my slate, I don’t think, ‘I need my sexually explicit film for the year.’ This type of material doesn’t come along very often.” Adds Brunetti: “Fifty Shades of Grey” is “something we haven’t seen since the ’80s and ’90s. This was our opportunity to do that again.”

9½ Sex Scenes
Variety critics offer up their favorites

     the movie didn’t     
     need to do that.        
     You can’t make a     
     movie as explicit as    
    the book in the same  
     way you can’t make     
     a movie as explicit as  
     ‘peyton place’ or    
      Michael De Luca

Director Philip Kaufman, who earned the first NC-17 rating for his 1990 love story “Henry & June,” had hoped that the new designation would open the door for more adult-themed films.
 “Immediately, the NC-17 became the new X,” Kaufman says, noting that many theaters refused to show films that carried the designation.
 Because today’s studios are so heavily dependent on blockbusters to increase their bottom lines, they’d rather keep their superheroes celibate.
 “We’re in the syndrome of tentpoles,” Kaufman says. “I don’t know if, in general, films about sex have sequels. They want to make a lot of money on every movie rather than have modest returns.”


he success of “Fifty Shades,” with a budget of $40 million, will largely depend on Dornan, best known for playing a serial killer in BBC series “The Fall.” The actor thinks that Hollywood’s shyness about sex is strange. “In a funny way, the movies as a business are all about sex,” he says lounging on the outdoor patio of the Chateau Marmont on Golden Globes weekend, feeling hung over — and hoarse — from a late night of partying. “It’s an industry built on sex appeal,” he adds, demonstrating this assessment during his photo shoot, during which he kicks off his shoes and spreads his legs on a bed.
Dornan saw a rough cut of the movie just before the start of the Christmas holidays. “This kind of sex — S&M — hasn’t been depicted on the bigscreen ever,” he maintains. “That, in itself, is groundbreaking.”

      Do I want to be a      
      movie star? No,     
      I want to have           
      a career.”      
     Jamie dornan

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson with "Fifty Shades of Grey's" Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson on location in Vancouver. 

How far does “Fifty Shades” push the envelope? The film’s creative team spent a lot of time debating that question. Langley, who pitched James on Universal by showing her a reel of the studio’s movies with strong heroines such as Erin Brockovich and Bridget Jones, was always upfront about how the sex would be handled. “We weren’t interested in a theatrical version being NC-17,” Langley says. “We weren’t making a film to shock people by how explicit it is. We want the audience to be invited in, not repelled.”

For those unfamiliar with the story, “Fifty Shades,” which started as “Twilight”-like fan fiction written by James under a pseudonym and originally self-published, follows Christian as he seduces Anastasia (a doppelganger for Bella) through various bedroom activities — and with an assortment of toys in his “playroom.” One of the most infamous passages in James’ book, a much-talked-about tampon scene, was never shot for the movie version. “It was never even discussed,” says director Sam Taylor-Johnson.

The film’s creative team, which includes James as a producer — she negotiated a deal to retain cast approval — had to walk a fine line to satisfy the series’ 100 million fans. It’s one thing for the core demographic of housewives to read on their Kindles about Christian seducing Anastasia. It’s quite another to see the story play out on a 50-foot screen. “The book needed to put you in Ana’s shoes to be a successful experience,” says producer Michael De Luca. “The movie didn’t need to do that. You can’t make a movie as explicit as the book in the same way you can’t make a movie as explicit as ‘Peyton Place’ or ‘Lolita.’ ”

Marcel’s initial pass featured more sex, but it was toned down through two rewrites. “On the early draft, there was a sense there was way too much sex,” Taylor-Johnson says. “The story, of course, is of equal importance. We tried to balance the narrative correctly, so one doesn’t feel like it’s drowning the other.” She made sure that each of the love scenes felt distinct — like a new character. “It’s the buildup that’s interesting,” the director says. “I feel that in movies, the minute there’s penetration, it’s all over.”

James, who sometimes found herself at odds with Taylor-Johnson over keeping details from the book intact, believes the final product is a faithful adaptation. “ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is first and foremost a romantic love story, and sex is only part of that,” she tells Variety. “People who haven’t read the books might be surprised that there isn’t more sex on the screen, but that’s because they’ve gone by media reports of ‘Fifty Shades,’ which have tended to err on the side of the sensational. I’m pretty sure the millions of fans who have read the trilogy will think there is enough sex.”

Dornan crammed for “Fifty Shades” by reading all three books and watching films like “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “American Psycho.” He also met with an expert. “We had an adviser in the field that we’d talk to, a guy on the kink scene,” the actor explains. “He’s a guru, and a dominant. We had some good chats with him. And then there was the practical side of things. How do you use this? I’ve never held that! I learned all sorts of tricks that will support me through my life.”

He wasn’t able to master every prop easily. “There’s probably a technique to using a whip,” Dornan says. “I wasn’t talented at it. But I got there in the end. It’s really like fly fishing,” he says with a laugh. Taylor-Johnson tried to help. “Jamie, how can you make something so straightforward so hard?” she recalls asking him. “Why would you pick (the whip) up like that?” She reports there were minimal injuries on the Vancouver shoot — which took 9½ weeks, of course. “I think there was a bit of rope burn,” the director says. “I’d have to remind Jamie to hold back with the crop.” 


ornan grew up in a middle-class family in Northern Ireland, the youngest of three children. When he was 16, his mom died. “That was awful, and it still sticks with me every day,” Dornan says. “My mom was a glamorous woman, and she would have loved the idea that I’m in the movies.” Dornan started his career as a fashion model a career in which, he says, “I absolutely never had a desire to be.” He transitioned into acting in his mid-20s, when he’d visit Los Angeles with British mates Andrew Garfield and Eddie Redmayne. “We ended up staying in the canyons, renting a place together and helping each other on auditions,” Redmayne says. “We’ve been at it a while. It’s wonderful when people who you’ve seen give it the rigor manage to get that moment.”

As you may have read on the Internet, Dornan wasn’t the first choice to play Christian Grey. “Sons of Anarchy” hunk Charlie Hunnam originally had the role, before he unceremoniously dropped out of the project in October 2013. “I was very heartbroken that he did,” Taylor-Johnson says. “I wasn’t surprised. I think he started to get nervous about films two and three.”

Dornan had already impressed Universal executives with an early audition tape he had sent the studio, in which he reinterpreted an iconic scene from “True Romance” where Christian Slater meets Patricia Arquette in a theater.

“You have a strong idea in your head of how famous those performances were,” Dornan says. “You’re just trying to get away from that.”

As Universal scrambled to replace Hunnam, Dornan was one of three relative unknowns — along with Billy Magnussen and Luke Bracey — asked to read on tape with Johnson. (The actress was unavailable for comment.)

      There’s probably          
      a technique to        
     using a whip, I wasn’t  
     talented at it.       
     But I got there in        
     the end. It’s really      
     like fly fishing,”        
     Jamie dornan

Dornan recalls he was the last to audition that afternoon, and he envisioned Christian as a fantasy. “I almost saw him as a superhero,” the actor says. “People like him don’t exist.” He and Johnson performed two scenes together, the one where Christian meets Anastasia for the first time in his office, and an emotional scene that closes the first book. Dornan flew home to London, where he was instructed to wait for a call, and he passed the time by binge-watching reality series “Storage Wars.” “It was late,” Dornan says. “It was 2:30 a.m. and I was tired. I was like, I just might wake up to the news. But eventually, Sam called me herself.”

A month after he landed the role, Dornan and his wife, Amelia Warner (eight months pregnant), moved to Vancouver for pre-production. He started a strict three-hour-a-day workout routine with a trainer, but struggled to pile on weight. He’d previously injured his shoulder in a skiing accident: “I end up in a helicopter, morphined up, flying out of the Alps,” he says. “We had realistic expectations that I’m not going to look like Chris Hemsworth in four weeks, nor did we feel I needed to. Christian is not some monster. He’s not a beast.” Dornan devoured ham and eggs for breakfast, and he chugged protein shakes five times a day. “I’d set my alarm at 4 a.m., and have one pre-made by my bed,” Dornan says. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and drink a chocolate milkshake. My wife wasn’t too pleased about that.” He maintained six-pack abs via core excercises, despite his disinterest in sit-ups. “It’s not really my thing,” he says.

Dornan was also relieved he didn’t need to wax his body. “I don’t have a great deal of chest hair,” he says, pulling down his shirt to reveal a few stray tufts. He had to shave his face daily to keep up Christian’s clean-cut appearance. “I don’t like shaving,” he says, pointing to his scruffy beard. But the look also made him feel exposed on another level, particularly when he had to perform the dreaded orgasm face. “It’s the worst thing imaginable,” Dornan says. “For all the reasons anyone would think, most people would like to keep their sex face private. The idea of a million people seeing that! I hope it happens quite fast.”

Dornan is being accosted by people everywhere who warn him his life is about to change. “Everyone that I meet, people who run studios or other actors, everybody is saying, ‘Are you ready?’ I don’t have a good answer for that, because I don’t know what I’m meant to be ready for.” He’s had a few dinners with Robert Pattinson, who played what amounts to the PG-13 version of Christian in the “Twilight” franchise.

“I’ve been around Rob enough,” Dornan says. “I’ve seen what it’s been like for him.” Have they chatted about the price of fame? “I don’t remember what we talked about the last time I saw him,” he says. “I think we just got drunk.”

Dornan recently learned first-hand about the dangers of drunk tweeting. He was at home with his family in Ireland over Christmas, and got properly smashed on vodka shots. “I woke up the next day, and I’d seen I’d tweeted the word ‘Christmas’ at around 1 in the morning,” he recalls. “I don’t know if I planned on saying more — like, ‘Christmas is a time of reflection.’ It made me wish I didn’t know my Twitter password and I wasn’t able to get on and do stuff like that.” That simple tweet still earned 10,000 favorites, and Dornan’s likely to collect many more groupies in the days ahead.

This spring, the actor begins shooting his next movie, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax,” a supernatural indie drama about a psychologist who treats a mysterious boy who has had a near-death experience.

“Do I want to be a movie star?” Dornan ponders when asked. “No, I want to have a career.” In the meantime, he’s focused now on being a dad. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever show his daughter the film that was born around the same time as her. “If she does see it, it will be way, way down the line,” Dornan says. “I certainly won’t be the one pressing start on the DVD player.”

Author E.L. James was a producer on the film that was made from her bestseller. With Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh, she discussed Jamie Dornan’s performance, why she chose Universal’s Focus Features to make the film, and whether or not the movie’s mix of plot and sex left her, uh, satisfied.
Ramin Setoodeh: Were you familiar with Jamie Dornan’s work when his name came up as a possibility to star in “Fifty Shades”? And why did you think he would be a good fit to play Christian?

E.L. James: I first saw Jamie onscreen in May 2013 when he played the terrifying Paul Spector in the BBC crime series “The Fall.” It was long before pre-production or casting for “Fifty Shades,” but he struck me at the time as a real contender for Christian Grey. He’s certainly good-looking enough, but it was his intensity that captured my attention; when he’s onscreen, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. He also has the youthfulness that’s essential to the character of Christian.
RS: Now that you’ve seen the completed film, what do you think of Jamie’s performance?

ELJ: The way he slowly opens up in response to the challenge of Ana is touching and captivating. His performance captures both Christian’s confidence and his insecurity. 

RS: One of the biggest challenges of adapting the film is, of course, translating the love scenes. Are you happy with the outcome? 
ELJ: I was always concerned how the sex would be handled in the film. I wanted it to be tasteful and sexy, and I think we got there in the end. 
RS: Every studio in Hollywood wanted this project. Why did you decide to go with Universal?

ELJ: I met some wonderful executives from different studios, and choosing between them was really difficult. In the end, I went with Universal because I trusted Donna Langley and her team to stay as faithful to the book as its millions of fans worldwide would expect.
RS: And being at Focus made the offer more appealing?

ELJ: Focus has a long tradition of bringing challenging content to the screen, so it seemed a natural fit.
RS: What was it about Jamie that made him sexy enough to play Christian?

ELJ: You have to ask?

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