Natalie Dormer’s distinct pale-blue eyes were narrowed and piercing as rebel leader Cressida in The Hunger Games. They were shy then intense as manipulative Queen Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones. On the red carpet, she lines them with thick, smudgy make-up, worn with vampish hair.
Zoom-calling today, though, from lockdown at her home in Richmond, south-west London, they are hidden behind big cat’s-eye reading glasses. Natalie’s wearing a printed bolero cardigan, and the bookcase behind her has been carefully arranged with flowers. The 38-year-old explains that she has made the most of the isolation period, and has been blissfully happy with her partner, Victoria actor David Oakes, 36, ‘taking a beat’ and tending to their courtyard garden.
‘I’d never grown things from scratch, like tomatoes and radishes,’ she says. ‘I’ve always kept a close eye on my roses but now I’m being more adventurous. David has a podcast called Trees a Crowd so he’s very informed. And I’ve been in so many studios and airports in the last handful of years, I can feel that pull back to nature.’
Before the pandemic, Natalie had just returned from eight months living in Los Angeles filming Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, in which she plays the lead role. Created by John Logan, the man behind the original Penny Dreadful series starring Eva Green, and writer of cinematic hits such as Skyfall and The Aviator, the show is set to be a summer hit when it launches on Sky Atlantic next month.
The story isn’t linked to the original and, via an entirely new cast (including Nathan Lane and Rory Kinnear), follows two detectives in 1938 Los Angeles as they investigate a gruesome murder that causes raised racial tensions and suspicion of the city’s Mexican-American community. There is also a supernatural element at play, as Natalie takes on four shape-shifting characters.
‘At surface level it’s like a film-noir whodunnit,’ she says. ‘But it’s really about [what’s happening] today. The main themes are demonisation of other communities, right versus left, and racism. The parallels between it and what we’ve experienced on both sides of the pond in the last five years are so obvious and disconcerting.’
The second point that attracted her was the chance to play four characters in one show, from Magda, a demon who can take the appearance of anyone she chooses, to the leader of the Mexican-American youth resistance, to a hunched political aide. She jokes that she needed to up her vinyasas (she practises yoga daily) at the end of each shoot to ‘shake off’ the guises.
‘It was a challenge to jump between accents and to assume different physicalities,’ she says. ‘I knew it would push me in a way that I hadn’t been pushed in a while.’
Arguably Natalie’s biggest role to date, she has made it in Hollywood to an extent reached by few British actors while maintaining a low-key level of fame in the UK. Her big break came in 2007 when she was cast as Anne Boleyn opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ notably ripped version of King Henry VIII in TV series The Tudors. From there, her résumé bounces between fantasy and period drama, ticking off stage, television and film.
She joined the cast of Game of Thrones as Margaery Tyrell in 2012 just as it was taking off, and got out (via a dramatic ‘kaboom’ of green wildfire) in series six before it reached its bitter end. The show’s famously dedicated fanatics include everyone from David Cameron to Stormzy, and there are innumerable fan-art websites and Wiki pages dedicated to her character.
‘It’s a certain generation’s Star Wars,’ she says. ‘I think they will write textbooks about it in generations to come. I watched the first series as a fan, then joined in the second and got to surf that wave when the show became a phenomenon. There was no country that you could go to where people didn’t know what Game of Thrones was. It was a joy.’
She spent years travelling, filming the show in Croatia and Spain, as well as promoting it around the world. In her 30s she toyed with the idea of moving to New York, to work on Broadway, but ‘never pulled the trigger’. And despite spending time in America for so many projects over the years, she says that Hollywood could never be home.
‘When you’re in California for eight months you miss the sound of a blackbird singing,’ she laughs. ‘I’d never consider moving there. I’m too much of a Brit. It’s too late [at this point in my life]. And I’m getting to that time in my life when I just want a garden.’
In London, she and David take her dog, Indiana, a Rhodesian ridgeback, for long daily walks in Richmond Park. Under normal circumstances, they’d skip into Soho to go to the theatre, which is a shared passion. ‘Theatre was my first love,’ she says. ‘What’s happening at the moment is really upsetting – there’s something about the chemistry of a live show that I hope post-Covid we don’t forget. I hope we’ll value it more now.’
Natalie and David met on stage – in 2017 when they starred in Venus in Fur in London’s West End. Adapted from the 1870 Sacher-Masoch novella, in it she played an actress reading for a dominatrix part in his audition room and the story is a satire about their sexual power play. Famously private, Natalie says little on the subject of their relationship other than to confirm that they are living together.
Previously, Natalie was engaged to the Peaky Blinders director Anthony Byrne for seven years. They met in 2007 when Natalie spent two years in his home town of Dublin filming The Tudors, however when they worked together to co-write the film In Darkness (in which Natalie also starred alongside Joely Richardson and Emily Ratajkowski) they both made comments in interviews to suggest that they had found the process difficult.
‘Couples say terrible things to each other that you would never say to your best friend,’ Natalie said at the time. ‘Doors got slammed at various points and I wouldn’t necessarily rush into writing with Anthony again.’ Her publicist confirmed that they had split after promoting the film in the summer of 2018.
Natalie grew up near Reading, raised by her mother and stepfather. She has two younger siblings – Mark, a first officer on a millionaire’s yacht, and Samantha, a midwife. ‘We were a hiking family; I used to do swimming and I was a dancer until I was 16,’ Natalie says. She didn’t get one of the grades she needed to get into Cambridge to study history, but, even if that was the catalyst, her instinct to act had been there since childhood.
‘I didn’t really have dolls as a kid,’ she says. ‘I had a wooden dressing-up box and members of my family would bequeath me different clothes. I would dress up as both male and female, talk to myself and create scenes.’
Having her own family, one day, is something she has clearly thought about. I ask if she would encourage her own children to pursue the same career she has.
‘If someone is passionate I don’t think you can talk them out of it,’ she says. ‘What I would say to my godchildren, my nieces and nephews, and any of my children potentially in the future, is that it’s also all right to change your mind. If something doesn’t make you happy any more then stop doing it. It’s not a failure, that’s growth.’
At various points during our interview Natalie is notably cautious, wary of being misquoted. In 2015, a blog twisted comments she had made about a scene in which her Game of Thrones character seduces a 12-year-old king, to suggest she condoned having sex with children – leading her to issue a strong rebuttal. And she’s repeatedly asked about her attitude towards sex scenes in The Tudors. When I ask whether she would change anything about her career route, her composure noticeably changes.
‘That’s a dangerous hole to go down, isn’t it? Acting is a process of exploration. You’re trying to make sense of the world for yourself. There’s an Edward Albee quote that is written in my diary, which is, “If you’re willing to fail interestingly you tend to succeed interestingly.” You’re going to not always get it right.’
Natalie is not on social media and has never been tempted to sign up. ‘It was a visceral decision. I knew within myself when it started up that it wasn’t right for me.’ An ambassador for the NSPCC (she experienced relentless bullying at school), she describes how her work with the charity has shown her how many young people feel that digital recordings of themselves ‘are never going to go away and it’s going to haunt them for the rest of their lives’.
‘[But] the thing I do find interesting is that, because of the digital age, you say things and they get quoted back at you 15 years later. YouTube and social media started to [take off] around 2005 when I was in my 20s. And sometimes I get scared that social media tries to regurgitate and freeze. I think people have the right to change – our values change.’
Gossip websites have persisted with publishing long-lens photographs of Natalie and David – even during lockdown when the couple take their hour of daily exercise, or go to get a takeaway coffee. I ask her how she feels about this paparazzi pursuit.
‘[When they photograph me] I’m no further than two roads away from where I live. If you have photos taken of you when you don’t know it’s happened, and then that happens four times in a month… I would be lying if I said it hasn’t caused me extreme distress because it has. I think that there are some laws that need tightening in this country when it comes to invasion of privacy. Especially during the lockdown. Paparazzi aren’t key workers, let me put it like that.’
In lockdown, Natalie has had time to put in the hours for her next venture. She founded her own production company, Dog Rose, in 2019 and has a development deal in place to start working on two upcoming television series – one about the British actor Vivien Leigh (Dormer will also play her), and the other about the lesser-known female aviators of World War II, the ‘Spitfire Sisters’. ‘I’m interested in telling good stories. Vivien has always interested me: she was an absurdly talented actress who was ahead of her entire generation in terms of understanding the camera. That’s a story I want to tell from a mental health point of view [Leigh suffered with bipolar disorder].’
I ask her if this new career branch has made her feel fulfilled. Is she happy? ‘I wanted to create my production company, and spend more time back at home with my loved ones and in greenery. Sometimes something huge has to happen for us to take stock. The universe has conspired for me at the moment.’
Of course filming is on hold for now, but Natalie remains optimistic. ‘My writers are still writing,’ she explains. ‘But how we will move forward with production and how shoots will occur remains to be seen. It’s changed all the rules.’
‘Penny Dreadful: City of Angels’ is available from 1 July 2020 on Sky Atlantic and Now TV