Bad Vibrations

Richard Dormer on acting alongside Michael Gambon in new Sky Atlantic series 'Fortitude' and how his career was built on arts funding

For any native of Northern Ireland, the degree to which he or she may brave even the most frigid of conditions constitutes a strange source of local pride. There isn’t anything more miserable, or character building, than slogging one’s way through a grey Ulster morning. Yet we do it, with a warped sense of glee, in the full knowledge that it can rarely get much worse. 
In the estimation of Lisburn-born actor Richard Dormer, a bleak Irish day outdoes even an Icelandic glacier when it comes to arduous conditions. He makes this startling comparison while recalling the lengthy external location shoot for his newest gig, Sky Atlantic’s sleek, forbidding new drama, Fortitude
‘It’s a dry cold,’ says Dormer of Iceland’s prevailing weather. ‘What everybody feels here is that rheumatism that gets into your bones, that wet cold.’ The far northern borders of Europe are, in fact, ‘intensely hot’ owing to the low angle of the sun on the gleaming landscape. Tans, not frostbite, were the order of the day on the set.
Observations on the surprisingly mild conditions aside, Dormer believes that the savage majesty of the setting — ‘blasted’, ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘breathtakingly beautiful’ are just some of the adjectives he uses to colour the environment — was as undeniable as it was conducive to conjuring an intense (and necessary) atmosphere. ‘It was the most amazing place I’ve ever been in my life,’ he says. ‘It’s extreme. The idea of people living in a landscape that vast, I just can’t describe it. A human being just becomes this little speck of dust in the middle of this whiteness.’ 
Centred around the titular, fictional settlement on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, a remote and unforgiving place, Fortitude sees Dormer take on the role of loner sheriff Dan Anderssen in a glittering cast including renowned heavyweights like Stanley Tucci, Christopher Ecclestone and Michael Gambon, alongside Danish actress Sofie Gråbøl, star of The Killing.
When a brutal murder takes place in a town where no such crime has ever happened, the snow begins to thaw, revealing the rot beneath the frozen crust. Allowing itself space to breath, the show’s 12-episode run suggests that the mystery will not be solved swiftly.
Dormer offers praise for the casting director on Fortitude but also admits to feeling incredibly fortunate at being involved in something of this scale. ‘It feels like it was the right place at the right time.’ 
He is no callow ingenue, of course, no naive newcomer. A graduate of RADA, Dormer plugged away as a jobbing performer for a long time and though his seminal stage portrayal of Alex Higgins in 2003’s Hurricane earned him plaudits as a thespian, wider success was some way off. 
In 2012, however, Dormer displayed his talents to a much larger audience, playing famed Belfast music pioneer Terri Hooley in the hugely enjoyable Good Vibrations. In doing so, he bore the weight of an acclaimed feature on his shoulders. It served as proof at last – for others and for himself – that he was equipped for a project like Fortitude, primed to mix it in a major role with a truly accomplished ensemble.
‘I thought, bring it on. I’m ready for this. It’s taken me a while but I’m ready for it. I think doing Good Vibrations made me aware of what I was capable of, to carry a big character like that, you know.’
Ironically, Dormer sees the glowering Anderssen as a straight ‘photo negative’ of Hooley, whose cheery personality was one of the latter film’s singular joys. ‘There’s a darkness and a coldness in Dan… This is a very troubled individual who is struggling through the winter of his own soul.’
Sky’s undertaking is substantial. At £25 million, Fortitude is the most expensive British television series ever made. In the past month, Dormer has been caught up in a promotional tour taking him from London to Los Angeles and back again, with a stop in Dublin along the way.
The producers are clearly keen to sell their flagship title in multiple markets — it will simulcast across five European territories and on the same day in the United States — and, understandably, Dormer sounds equally enthusiastic about what is to come. That said, in spite of the presence of Gråbøl and the prevalence of warm clothing, he discourages any impression that this is simply an Anglo spin on the now wildly popular Nordic noir genre.
‘It isn’t what it seems,’ he warns. 'You must assume nothing when you’re watching. It’s twisty and entertaining, it just keeps shifting the ground… What the writer has done is exceptional.’
That writer is Low Winter Sun creator Simon Donald, a man who brings more to the screen, in Dormer’s thinking, than a simple rehash of somebody else’s idea. ‘People might look at this and think, here’s The Killing, again. Nothing could be further from the truth. It really isn’t. The character that she [Gråbøl] plays is so different from Sarah Lund. This is the opposite side of The Killing.’ 
His involvement in a highly anticipated production appears to have left a significant impression on Dormer: ‘Fortitude was, for six or seven months of my life, the best creative experience I’ve ever had, working with those guys, acting opposite some of the finest in the business.’ 
The breakthrough has been a steady one over the past few years. A former cast member on Game of Thrones — he played immortal outlaw, and fan favourite, Ser Beric Dondarrion — Dormer is also a playwright of no small talent. His most recent work, Drum Belly, a taut chronicle of Irish America, swaggered around the stage of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 2013. More recently, he co-starred in Yann Demange’s extraordinary Troubles-era thriller, ’71, a picture he labels as ‘perfect’. 
The film left him feeling ‘incredibly depressed', such was its power, he adds. ‘I didn’t find it an easy watch because it’s so good, because it captures the stuff that we went through. I actually found it one of the most difficult films I’ve seen or done. Horrendous. This happened. It was brilliantly crafted, acted, directed, scripted. Beautiful to watch, an incredible thriller, but it just reminded me of all we’ve been through.’
Indeed, in the midst of the chaos to which Dormer refers, the arts scene in Northern Ireland produced a great deal of material challenging the notion that everything in the region reeked of hatred and violence. That same arts scene presently faces crippling budget reductions, imposed by a government establishment which seems neither to value nor understand the creative industries. 
‘It’s crazy,’ says Dormer, as puzzled by the cuts as anyone working in the sector. ‘I’m not a politician, I don’t have political views, but I think what they’re doing is disfiguring Northern Ireland. The one thing that goes across the world is our actors, our writers, our musicians. We’re world famous. And what are they doing? They could strangle it.’ 
To foster local creativity is an investment in the next generation, he contends, as it always has been. His own journey represents a fitting testament: ‘The Arts Council of Northern Ireland did Romeo and Juliet when I was 16 or 17. I was in that. If I hadn’t have done that, I wouldn’t have been an actor. It was arts funded. They threw money at it and it created a lot of talented people in the business. Things like that feed the future.’
In his view, there exists the evidence to justify respectable funding. It is plain, he says, for anyone willing to look. ‘They’ve got to give more attention to the arts. They’ve got to encourage it. I’ve travelled around and seen a lot of cities, stayed in a lot of places. I think, for such a small population of people, we’re very, very talented.’
Fortitude premieres tonight, on Sky Atlantic HD, at 9pm.