After playing dark, brooding men for the better part of the last decade, Jamie Dornan was in search of a role that would admittedly distinguish himself from his notorious portrayals of billionaire Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades trilogy and serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall. To his surprise, he found exactly what he was looking for in John Patrick Shanley’s Wild Mountain Thyme, the charming film adaptation of the Irish-American playwright’s hit Broadway play Outside Mullingar.
Set in the lush greenery of the Irish countryside, Dornan plays Anthony Reilly, an endearingly awkward farmer in his mid-30s who has remained oblivious to the advances of his beautiful, headstrong neighbor, Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt), for nearly three decades. When his aging father, Tony (Christopher Walken), reveals his plan to sell the family farm to his wealthy American cousin, Adam (Jon Hamm), Anthony is forced to confront a deep dark secret from his childhood that will ultimately change the course of his life—and his relationship with Rosemary.
Having missed the opportunity to see the play during its original run in the Big Apple, Dornan received the screenplay for Wild Mountain Thyme in 2018 and jumped at the chance to work with Shanley, whom he considers “a titan of our industry” with “this beautifully calm presence.”
“It was this strange thing where I was sent the script and I sort of read it going like, ‘This is one of the craziest things I’ve ever read. I think I love it, and I definitely want to do it,’” Dornan tells Observer over the phone from his home in the English countryside, where he has spent most of the pandemic with his wife, composer Amelia Warner, and their three young daughters.
“Shanley and I had a seven-minute phone call [two days later]—it was crazy short—and basically, he was like, ‘Do you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘Yes!’ But then it took about a year before we actually got to make it, and I spoke to him obviously more than those initial seven minutes. It feels like a lifetime ago now since I first spoke to him.”
In our interview, Dornan opens up about the unique opportunity to work with a star-studded cast in rural Ireland, his wife’s involvement in the project, and the criticism that the film has received for its depiction of a localized Irish accent.
Observer: Wild Mountain Thyme is one of the most eccentric productions that we have seen on the big screen in recent years. What was it about John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay that made you so eager to jump on board when he first offered you the role?
Jamie Dornan: Well, it was kind of one of those things where I’m a fan of his and I love the way he writes, and I think his writing is quite peculiar. There are different characters that you don’t often see in mainstream movies, particularly in any sort of romantic way, and that really intrigued me. The words are so beautiful, and they almost speak in verse to each other, particularly in that 25-page scene that [Blunt and I] have in the kitchen. I’ve never talked like that in a movie; I’ve never seen that written in a script. That was just such a treat. As an actor, you’re looking for beautiful words to get to speak and that doesn’t always happen, and sometimes you’re speaking words you really don’t want to speak. When an opportunity comes to speak words like that, that are so poetic, I jumped at the chance.
You have mentioned in past interviews that Anthony is probably the most unworldly character that you have ever played, with all of his quirks. What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced when approaching this role and how did you prepare to portray someone that requires such vulnerability?
It’s a lot of digging into your own vulnerability. It’s a lot of peeling back your own insecurities and trying to let them be seen and let them be embodied in somebody else. Anthony just presented this opportunity to expose a bit of my own lack of self-belief or any sort of strange tendencies or awkwardness that I have myself, and I was able to insert them into him and then embellish them once they were in him, if you know what I mean.
I loved that opportunity because I simply haven’t played anyone like that. I’ve played a lot of characters who are in control, whether that’s Christian Grey [in the Fifty Shades franchise] or Paul Spector in The Fall or even Paul Conroy in A Private War, who very much know what they want. That’s what I’m used to, and actually, Anthony is a lot closer to me who doesn’t always seem in control a lot of the time. (Laughs.) I’m always pretending like I am. I’ve got three young kids and I’m always acting like I’m a grown-up and like I know what’s happening, but a lot of the time, I don’t and I’m flapping. So, it was nice that I could unleash all of my own quirks into someone.
In the last week, I’ve begun to hear about this “acting juice” that you started drinking religiously on set with Emily Blunt. Did you have any prior on-set rituals before this movie and will this “acting juice” follow you to future productions?
(Laughs.) You know, I’m not very superstitious like that. I turn up ready to play and then we get to play—that’s the way it is—and usually I don’t have any influences outside of that. But suddenly, I had this highly caffeinated influence. I don’t know what was going on.
Acting juice, explained: “I’m going to have to ask Emily what it was called, and she probably still has loads of it. Her apartment in New York had a wall or a stack of it, and she was introduced to it by Dwayne Johnson…. I don’t know what it feels like to have a heart attack, but I feel like this makes you feel like you’re nearly going to have one.”
Can we get a name for this mysterious beverage?
Actually, it’s terrible because I should be giving them a shoutout. I don’t even know what the stuff is called.
No, I don’t even know. (Laughs.) I’m going to have to ask Emily what it was called, and she probably still has loads of it. Her apartment in New York had a wall or a stack of it, and she was introduced to it by Dwayne Johnson. They had just worked together [on Jungle Cruise] and he had sent her some or something—I don’t know, but she had a load of it.
I don’t know what it feels like to have a heart attack, but I feel like this makes you feel like you’re nearly going to have one. In a weird way, sometimes that’s appropriate for some of the scenes that we’re doing and sometimes not at all. But sometimes, it felt good to get to that place. (Laughs.) We were calling it “acting juice” and I sort of convinced myself that I could never act again without this stuff, but I managed to do a film during lockdown with Kenneth Branagh [an autobiographical movie that Branagh wrote and directed called Belfast], and I didn’t have any “acting juice” and it went pretty well. So, hopefully, I’m not reliant on it.
Speaking of Emily, I know that certain members of your families are very close, but I’m sure that you have both gotten quite close as well. What was your biggest takeaway from working with someone as talented as her?
Emily’s just got it all. She’s obviously a beautiful-looking girl, but she’s had this amazing career of doing very varied work. She’s knocked out a couple of big Disney musicals, she’s fucking Mary Poppins, it doesn’t get bigger than that. But then she’s done a lot of gritty stuff and, earlier in her career, a lot of independent British movies, and some of her best work is in that.
She’s sort of done it all and is actually the easiest, the most fun person to be around. She’s one of those people that you want to have a laugh with and is very quick to laugh. We just had an absolute ball making this movie, and we really, really had a lot of fun—not just Emily and I, but the whole cast and crew. It was just a brilliant experience.
On Emily Blunt: “She’s knocked out a couple of big Disney musicals, she’s fucking Mary Poppins. But then she’s done a lot of gritty stuff and, earlier in her career, a lot of independent British movies, and some of her best work is in that.”
Would you like to work together again on maybe a more dramatic film in the future?
Yeah, definitely. We’ve spoken about that and how it would be very cool to do something again together, so I think if that opportunity presented itself, we’d both be very keen. So, we’ll see…
This film has truly turned into a family affair, as your wife, Amelia, also composed the stunning soundtrack. When did you discover that she would also be involved in this project and how great has it been to see her blossom as a composer?
It’s amazing. I mean, before I met her, she was an actress, but she’s been composing for films for the last four years or so. She’s relatively new to it; this is only her third film that she’s done. But the last movie she did, Mary Shelley, she got a ton of attention for and her score is beautiful. It was cool because she sort of pitched on it like she would [with] anything else. Her agents put her forward for it, and they actually went in a different direction [at first] if I’m honest. We were down the line with someone else, and then, that ended up not working out. It came back around to her, so it’s this weird way that it sort of happened. Composers are always the last piece of the puzzle, or they usually are 95 percent of the time.
So, when she came on, we’d obviously shot it already. They didn’t give her a lot of time, and I think she knocked it out of the park. I’m so proud of her, and it’s so cool that we were able to inadvertently work together even though it’s not day-to-day, on a set. But still her looking at my face all day and having to write music to it and then having to deal with me in real life after that, it was very cool. (Laughs.)
In addition to Emily, you also have some really stunning scenes with Christopher Walken, especially that bittersweet reconciliation scene midway through the film. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of working with him and your best memories from that emotional day on set?
Chris is just an absolute legend in the game. He’s one of the most impersonated actors in the world, but the reality is he’s just this sweet, gentle soul. I think Emily and I and everyone else just fell in love with him. He’s just brilliant. He doesn’t speak a lot, but then when he does, he’ll have some absolute nugget for you. He’s very sparing when he makes the time to tell you something.
I have to say that scene where he’s sort of on his deathbed, that was Chris’s last scene anyway, and that was his last day shooting the movie. I, honestly, couldn’t keep it together that day. I was crying all day. He was breaking my heart the way he was playing that scene. I was talking to someone who’d seen the movie—a friend of mine who was interviewing me—and I was like, “I’d been crying all day.” And she said, “I know, your face was just so swollen and tired-looking and red.” (Laughs.) And I was like, “I know because they came to my coverage last!” We wanted to start with Chris’s coverage and by the time they came to me, I was actually just wrecked. I was so beaten up, but again, I just couldn’t stop crying. We could have shot that scene every day for a week and I would have cried all day. It was just heartbreaking, and it was such a cool experience.
On criticism of those ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ accents: “It’s a film that we want to be seen all over the world, so we have to find something that works. It’s just a sort of Irish accent that sounds nothing like people from Dublin, nothing like people from Belfast where I’m from, nothing like people from Cork—it’s very much its own thing.”
This film has also received, what I feel is, some very harsh criticism for its interpretation of accents. How do you deal with that kind of criticism before a big release? Is there anything that you would like to say in response to all of those naysayers?
I’m from Ireland, and we are [stereotyped as] a nation of pissed figures—it’s kind of our currency—and that just comes with the territory. That’s to be expected, and I’m understanding of it too, but we had John Patrick Shanley whose characters are loosely based on his actual family. They’ve said that if we would have really sounded like they sounded, nobody would have understood us.
We’re not making this movie for Irish people. It’s a film that we want to be seen all over the world, so we have to find something that works and we sounded exactly like they were trying to sound. It’s just a sort of Irish accent that sounds nothing like people from Dublin, nothing like people from Belfast where I’m from, nothing like people from Cork—it’s very much its own thing. I stand by [the fact] that we sounded like we wanted to, and of course, if people are going to have something to say, then that’s fine. I’m sure that I would too, but that just comes with the territory.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Wild Mountain Thyme is now available in theaters and on demand.