From The Tudors to Game of Thrones, Natalie Dormer has queened her way across the small screen. And now she is ready for a cinematic second act…
You might expect an actress with the mantra ‘fear is a mind-killer’ tattooed on her wrist to lean towards the daring or reckless in her work and behaviour. Yet Natalie Dormer, the wearer of that tattoo, is exercising caution. ‘When it does come to an end,’ she says, avoiding any intimations about the fate of Margaery Tyrell, her thrice-crowned queen in Game of Thrones, ‘I will always be sad not to have those people in my life on a day-to-day basis. They become your family after six, seven, however many years.’
Dormer, 34, with her butterscotch hair, angular cheekbones and flawless silk jumpsuit, seems of a piece with the Beverly Hills hotel suite in which she’s installed (decorative scheme: money). The setting couldn’t be further from the dungeons and battlefields of the fantasy epic that is Thrones. But Hollywood is a mythical land with dragons of its own, and Dormer is winning here.
She has flown in from London to be named the Women In Film MaxMara Face of the Future at the 2016 Crystal + Lucy Awards (past honourees include Rose Byrne and Emily Blunt). At tonight’s ceremony, she will accept her statuette in front of an audience of the most powerful people in the entertainment business.
For now, she is here, deliberating over every word to avoid giving away the fact that (major spoiler alert if you haven’t caught up yet) in the season-six finale, with 8.9 million people watching in the US alone, Tyrell and everyone with her in the Sept of Baelor – the Thrones equivalent of Westminster Abbey – will explode in an inferno of green wildfire. ‘For me, that’s the whole point of storytelling: that it reaches the third act,’ she continues. ‘That’s what I’m in it for. I’m really looking forward to the end, because I want to know who sits on that throne.’
A modern queen
When Margaery Tyrell entered Thrones in season two, it was as an ambitious, canny woman who wanted to rule. ‘I don’t want to be a queen,’ she said. ‘I want to be the queen.’ Upon arriving in the capital, she set herself up as a new kind of monarch, walking among the poverty-stricken and deploying kindness, not fear, to win allies. Dormer has mentioned Hillary Clinton and the Duchess of Cambridge as women who influenced her portrayal. ‘Margaery’s exploration of power has a real PR slant,’ she says. ‘Even though she’s wearing a long silk skirt and a corset, in that way – winning hearts and minds through propaganda – she’s quite modern.’ (Later, after the finale has been broadcast, she adds, ‘I loved playing Margaery. She was inexhaustible and always played her cards the best she could.’)
While Thrones has drawn fire for its depiction of women as pawns and sexual objects, its sixth season was different. Characters who were once enslaved or forced into marriage reclaimed their power, with a side order of vengeance. ‘These are young women who have learnt something about themselves and found their confidence,’ Dormer says. ‘It’s about natural evolution – that you find your confidence in your own identity.’
Dormer’s personal evolution began in Reading, Berkshire, where she was raised by her mother and stepfather, an only child until the age of seven. ‘I used to play with a dressing-up box and talk to myself a lot, which means I was either going to be schizophrenic or an actor,’ she says. She narrowly missed a spot to read history at Cambridge and moved to London to study drama at Webber Douglas Academy instead. Her training included the Alexander technique and yoga practice. (She’s still most at home in her yoga gear, but is developing a taste for Italian fashion, thanks to a new MaxMara camel coat.)
Her love of history fed into early roles. A bit part in the Heath Ledger vehicle Casanova was expanded to make more of Dormer’s comedic gifts. She parlayed that role into a promised three-film deal with Touchstone Pictures that never materialised, bringing Dormer crashing back to the realities of life as an out-of-work actor. ‘I was properly unemployed for 10 months – temping in an office again to pay for Christmas presents,’ she says. ‘That was the best lesson I’ve ever learnt: you’re never home and dry.’
Soon she was lacing up another corset, as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors. She played Boleyn as a complex character with real religious conviction – occasionally difficult to notice amid all the nudity, but there. Her Boleyn was fierce and principled, as was Cressida, Dormer’s propaganda-film director in the teen-pleasing Hunger Games: Mockingjay blockbusters. ‘I’m interested in playing women who feel real, who are fighting for something or desire something or are scared, as all real women are – or let’s not make it a gender thing, as all human beings are.’
If The Hunger Games marked a move away from Dormer’s period-drama ‘Helena Bonham Carter-itis’, as she’s called it, recently she has made another shift: from ensemble member to leading lady, in supernatural horror film The Forest. ‘It’s a pivotal moment,’ she says. ‘I try to look for the thing that is going to challenge me next, for the thing that takes me out of my comfort zone – the thing I’m not quite sure whether I’m going to be able to do or not.’
Whether that’s shaving half her head for the Hunger Games films, playing traumatised twins in The Forest or running 26.2 miles (in the London Marathon – twice), she asks, ‘“Have I got the mental capacity and strength to do it?” I’m always moving the goalposts a little bit. That’s how I feel alive.’
Her latest challenge is one of her own making: In Darkness, a film Dormer co-wrote with her fiancé, director Anthony Byrne. She plays a blind musician who overhears a murder. Filming starts in September. ‘I’ve learnt so much about the mechanics of how a film is made. To see and appreciate that you’re a cog in a wheel of a much bigger thing happening in front of and behind the camera is a healthy thing for an actor. Now I’m just dying to get on set and tell the story,’ she says, warming to the idea of life after Thrones. ‘It’s scary because we don’t have a lot of time. But nothing worth doing isn’t scary, right?’