Best-selling author E L James doesn’t give many interviews these days, but she agreed to sit down in Beverly Hills with EW last week, as part of our cover story on the film version of the first book in her trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, to discuss all that casting controversy, the intensity of her fans, the criticism of Christian Grey’s backstory, and her hopes for the film. She proved to be as direct and unfiltered as her books are, beginning with how she’s feeling about the new movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey is about to start shooting in Vancouver. How are you feeling about it?
E L JAMES: I’m terrified. Completely. I’ve been terrified from the moment I published the book. My mother was terrified of everything, and so am I. It’s a terrible way to grow up. You don’t expect this kind of success. Even now it floors me. My only ambition for the books was to see them in bookstores. This is huge. And there is this passionate fandom; we need to get this right for them.
Do you think fans will hold you responsible if they don’t like the movie?
Oh God, of course they will. They hold me responsible for everything.
Do you read all the online commentary?
I don’t. It kind of freaks me out. I’ve avoided reading most of the stuff for a long time for my own self-preservation.
Yet, you still feel responsible to them?
I do. Especially coming from a [place of] fandom myself. It’s such a weird place to be. What I’d really like to be doing is sitting down in a little room writing my next book. I miss it so much.
You’re writing another book?
I’ve written another book.
Will you publish it anytime soon?
I don’t know.
What’s it about?
I’m not going to tell you.
Is there any sex in it?
No. [Pause] Actually, that’s not true, but it’s very different than Fifty.
When the studios first approached you about selling the film rights to Fifty, you weren’t sure you wanted to sell them at all, correct?
That’s true. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. And then I thought, “I’m middle-aged; when in the hell am I going to get another chance to make a movie in Hollywood?” That was the final thing: Let’s go for it. Let’s see if we can have some fun with it.
You had multiple studios to choose from. Why Universal?
I felt that the material was under very safe hands with [Universal Pictures Chairman] Donna Langley. She loved the books, she understood the material, and she knows how to make a brilliant cup of tea. Most of you guys [Americans] do not know how to make a cup of tea.
I assume you wanted to have some degree of control over the film?
Not so much control. For me it was about not being frozen out of the process. I do have script approval. I think I’m a very good collaborator. If you look at [authors] Suzanne Collins [The Hunger Games], Stephenie Meyer [Twilight], and J.K. Rowling [Harry Potter], they were involved in their projects. It’s the same kind of thing.
Are you finding that you and the filmmakers agree on things, generally?
We have some very healthy debates between us all, and that’s been interesting. The irony of the whole thing is my husband is a screenwriter and he used to come in after a meeting [in which] his producers were asking for changes, and I would say, “Oh, you need to write a book and then you won’t have anybody telling you what to do.”
Novels always have to be cut for films. Is it hard to let go of certain things?
It’s a very dense book, and people don’t realize that because they read it so quickly. So things got cut, but I completely understood why. Something may service the story in literary terms, but not on the screen.
Were there specific sex scenes that you felt definitely had to be in the film?
Everybody has their favorite sex scenes.
I’m not going to say
What about the scene in her bedroom with his necktie, the blindfold, and the white wine?
[Whispers] That’s mine too.
Is that staying in?
You have to wait and see.
Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele, was cast first. What do you like about her?
She’s an old soul, but she’s so sweet, and she has a wicked sense of humor.
There was a huge online reaction when Charlie Hunnam was initially cast as Christian.
It was very mixed and I had to get off Twitter for a couple of days. I wasn’t surprised. People hate change. I thought there would be a few people upset, regardless of whom we had chosen. It was intense, but people came around to it.
And then he dropped out.
It was disappointing, but it is what it is. I wish him well. And now we have Jamie [Dornan], and that’s great. It’s been interesting with Jamie, [the fan reaction] has been so positive.
Did you know he was called “The Golden Torso”?
No, not until it was announced. We should do some teasing about that. It was so lovely that people didn’t know who he was. I loved that.
You’ve taken some heat from the BDSM community for Christian’s backstory: that he engages in this sexual behavior only because he is damaged. What do you make of that?
It’s fascinating. Christian kind of evolved in front of me. Of the three or four people I know who do this kind of thing [BDSM], one of them has a very, very dark past. Really dark. But I totally get that there are people out there who don’t have to have a broken childhood to like a good f—ing spanking.
Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), who is female, is directing this film. Did it matter to you that a woman directed it?
That’s an interesting question. It just so happened that she’s a woman. This is a book for women. I wrote it for me. I think it’s great that a woman did the original [screenplay] adaptation, that we have a female studio head and a woman director. It’s kind of rare in this town, from what I’ve discovered.
Was Sam’s approach different than the male directors you talked to?
I don’t think so. She also said she’s got these [four] kids and she’s got to get away [from stay-at-home motherhood]. And I completely understand that. I thought, “Yup, I know completely where you’re coming from.”
There’s a whole Fifty Shades of Grey empire now: wine, jewelry, lingerie, sex toys.
I wanted to do a few mugs and T-shirts, that’s it. I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into merchandising. But everything we do, I really like and really believe in.
It’s a lot to keep track of. How are you feeling about it all?
I’m on the edge, quite frankly. Jumping off. I’ve had two years of this now. When you first start doing this [promoting your work], you don’t know how you are going to handle it. I could have been a complete fame whore — everyone wanted to interview me. But it holds no interest to me, being on TV, all that stuff. So I’ve tried to pull back. Because frankly, I’m shy, even though people don’t believe that. And I really miss my family…and my dog. In the last three months, I’ve been home for about two weeks.”
Are you having fun with the movie, at least?
I’m still taking it all onboard: “OMG, this is actually going to happen!” I’m still pinching myself.
For more on Fifty Shades of Grey, including exclusive interviews with author E L James, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, and the full story behind the casting of Christian and Anastasia — plus which scenes from the book have made it into the script, and which have already hit the cutting-room floor — pick up this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday.