Jamie Dornan was in his pajamas, and anxious. It was 1:30 a.m. London time, and the 31-year-old actor was watching reruns of Storage Wars and praying for the phone to ring. “I was sort of pretending I wasn’t waiting, but the phone was in my hand, halfway to my ear,” Dornan says in a throaty Irish brogue. He had just flown back from Los Angeles, where he had auditioned for the role of the world’s hottest control freak, Christian Grey, in Fifty Shades of Grey. Landing this part would propel him to instant stardom, and so, with his pregnant wife, actress Amelia Warner, snoozing upstairs, Dornan tried to focus on the show. Minutes later, the film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), phoned to tell the former Calvin Klein model that he was about to become the object of millions of women’s fantasies. “There was a slight fear,” Dornan says now, his wiry frame huddled on a couch in a Los Angeles photo studio. “But beyond anything else, I was really f—ing excited.”
He’s not the only one, to say the least. The Fifty Shades trilogy hit the publishing world like a nuclear sex bomb, telling the story of a virginal college student named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who gets seduced by a beautiful billionaire with a penchant for sadomasochism (Dornan). Released as an e-book series beginning in May 2011 and as Random House paperbacks a year later, the trilogy has sold more than 90 million copies worldwide, igniting the libidos of a generation of overworked women and launching obscure British TV exec E L James into the rarefied air of authors J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins. “I’ve been terrified by this thing from the moment I published the book,” says James, who began the series as Twilight fan fiction. “You don’t expect this kind of success. Even now, it floors me.”
Sometimes dismissed as “mommy porn,” the books have been translated into 52 languages, prompted a Newsweek cover on spanking and the American woman, and spawned a cottage industry of wine, sex toys, and lingerie, not to mention an alleged international baby boom. It’s the kind of frenzy usually associated with YA fiction, and it created a Hollywood frenzy all its own.
In March 2012, Universal Pictures and its indie subsidiary, Focus Features, paid $5 million for the rights to the series. James says Universal chairman Donna Langley was the key reason she went with the studio. “She loved the books, she understood the material,” says the author, “and she knows how to make a brilliant cup of tea.” James secured script, casting, and director approval in the deal, and Langley was confident that together they could bottle all that bondage into an R-rated film franchise that speaks to the 21st-century female. “Women now are forced to make so many decisions, all day, every day,” Langley says. “The fantasy of not having to decide when, how, and where [to have sex] is just so delectable.”
By fall of last year, Langley and the film’s producers had hired British screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) to write the first script. British director Taylor-Johnson, 46, a photographer and visual artist best known on this side of the pond for marrying actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), 23, landed the gig this past June, thanks in part to her 2008 short film, Love You More. That film, about two teenagers losing their virginity, manages to be erotic without feeling exploitative, a tone that could come in handy when shooting the $40 million-or-so feature she’s now embarked on. “Fifty Shades takes you on a journey I had not seen before cinematically,” Taylor-Johnson says. “It’s challenging in new ways, but not in ways that make me feel uncomfortable.” With the creative team in place, casting began — and things got more complicated.
A three-month search for the leads followed, punctuated by endless media gossip about the actors who’d allegedly passed (Ryan Gosling and Garrett Hedlund among them), as well as a rabid online fan campaign for White Collar star Matt Bomer. Then, on Sept. 2, James announced via Twitter that Christian and Anastasia would be played by Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam and relative newcomer Dakota Johnson (The Social Network). Fan reaction to Hunnam was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Petitions were launched. Boycotts were threatened, in part because the actor didn’t have the requisite dark copper hair and gray eyes. “I had to get off Twitter for a couple of days,” James says. “I wasn’t surprised. People hate change. It was intense, but people came around to it.”
And just when they did, Hunnam dropped out. Three weeks before production was set to begin, the actor left the movie, citing scheduling conflicts with his television show. The bigger issue, sources say, was that Hunnam wanted to make major changes to his character. The studio doesn’t exactly deny that. It brought in a new writer around that time — Patrick Marber (Closer), followed by Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) — to polish the final draft. But, Langley says, Hunnam’s primary concern was the scale of the part. “When he took a cold, hard look at the reality of it — with his TV schedule and with what taking on this iconic role would mean to his life, he realized that it was just a little out of his grasp,” she says. “We give Charlie a lot of credit for owning up to it with enough time to course-correct.”
Course-correcting meant pushing the start of production back a month so Taylor-Johnson and her team could scramble for a new leading man. And that meant pushing back the release of the movie: Fifty Shades will now be hitting theaters on Valentine’s Day weekend 2015 instead of next summer. As for the script, Ana’s Inner Goddess monologue has been cut, but not to fear: The riding crop, Christian’s necktie, and the hardware-store scene are all a go.
All the drama and delay seems to have given the film a charmed second life. Fans were elated with the Dornan announcement: His smoldering gaze, lean physique, and much-lauded abs did not go unnoticed, nor did the acting chops he’d demonstrated as a serial killer on the BBC series The Fall. “I’m a monstrous fan,” tweeted Girls creator Lena Dunham. “Wasn’t allowed to be attracted to him on The Fall bc he played a sexmurderer. 50 Shades is my big chance.”
Dornan had mailed in an audition tape during the first round of Christian casting but was never called in to screen-test. He now has paparazzi hovering around his neighborhood, and he’s just beginning to grapple with what this new level of fame might mean. It has already changed his life on a personal level: His first child will now be born in Vancouver, where Fifty Shades will film, instead of in England. Still, he insists, things aren’t out of hand. “It doesn’t feel mental on the inside,” he says. “I’m sure from the outside it looks crazy, but…I’m lucky I’m on the inside.”
Dakota Johnson, meanwhile, remained loyal to the production throughout the aforementioned chaos. The 24-year-old campaigned hard for the role of Anastasia and trudged through multiple auditions with potential leading men. Despite her short résumé — she played the frazzled single mom on the short-lived comedy Ben and Kate — Johnson is no wide-eyed naïf. The daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, she grew up in Colorado and, though she wasn’t allowed to act until she graduated from high school, has been around movie sets most of her life. She seems unfazed that she’s about to become the sexual stand-in for millions of women who’d happily hock their wedding rings to trade places with her. “I’m not afraid of this story,” Johnson says. “I understand this girl and I get it.” She will not, however, be encouraging Mom and Dad to visit the set. “I’m obviously not going to invite them to take part in this experience,” she says, adding that she might suggest they not see the finished film, either. “I don’t need to watch movies of theirs where they do things like this,” she says. “Why would you want to watch that?”
James describes Johnson as an “old soul” with a “wicked sense of humor,” and the actress, with a slight gap between her front teeth, looks strikingly like her mother, especially when she lets out her big, hearty laugh. She and Dornan are just now getting acquainted, but they already seem at ease, joking at the EW photo shoot about which of them is getting more compliments on the Christian-Anastasia hairstyles. That camaraderie could become critical, because these two people are about to get to know each other very well.
With production beginning in a few weeks, everyone involved with Fifty Shades of Grey seems to know how high the stakes are. For the studio, that initial $5 million investment should pay off with a huge global franchise. With tens of millions of fans watching, failure is not an option. Perhaps this is why an interview with the filmmakers feels a bit like a corporate board meeting. James, Langley, Taylor-Johnson, and producer Michael De Luca spoke to EW as a group for this story while two studio publicists stood guard, presumably to make sure everyone stayed on message. James, at least, copped to feeling the pressure. Asked whether she thinks fans will blame her if the movie fails, she replies, “Oh God, of course they will! They hold me responsible for everything.”
Yet while those at the top analyze the risks and potential rewards, Johnson and Dornan face the daunting task of translating fans’ expectations into a series that is both intimate and cinematic. “A lot of people care about this book, and I’m not under any illusion that they don’t,” Dornan says, eyes cast downward. “All I can say is I’m going to do everything in my power to portray Christian Grey as truthfully as possible. I can’t guarantee that’s going to please everyone — just me being cast doesn’t please everyone — but it’s happened and I’m going to give it everything.” A bad boy with a true heart? Now, that’s a fantasy man.
Hometown Aspen, Colo.
Lineage Daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson; granddaughter of Tippi Hedren
Credits TV’s Ben and Kate, film roles in 21 Jump Street, The Social Network, and The Five-Year Engagement
Relationship Status Lives with her boyfriend, actor Jordan Masterson (The 40 Year-Old Virgin), and their Jack Russell terrier-schnauzer mix, Zeppelin
On Fifty Shades Nudity “Obviously I want to look good naked,” says Johnson, who recently began working out consistently for the first time in her life. “I totally understand now why people exercise, because you kind of f—ing feel awesome.”
Hometown Belfast, Northern Ireland
Nickname The Golden Torso
Big Break Modeling for Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch
Credits Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, ABC’s Once Upon a Time, BBC’s The Fall (playing a serial killer)
Relationship Status Married to actress Amelia Warner (Quills); they’re expecting their first child in late November
On Fifty Shades Sex Scenes “I’m a fairly worldly guy. I grew up in a very liberal place. I’m not saying we had a playroom, but I’m not perturbed or shocked by [the sex in the book]. It’s essential to tell the story. I can’t believe films that don’t invoke the sexual side of it. So it works for me.”