“Should I lie down on the couch?”
So asks Natalie Dormer, chasing the not-entirely-unreasonable question with a laugh as warm and immediate as her best-known characters – like palace schemers Margaery Tyrell and Anne Boleyn — are chilly and distant.
The Game of Thrones alum is sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room, discussing the fractured psyches of her two latest characters. Dormer ultimately stayed in her chair, but it’s been an unusually productive session — er, interview. The actress, 36, is at the center of suspense thriller In Darkness and 1900-set miniseries Picnic at Hanging Rock (each out now, with the latter streaming on Amazon).
In the former, Dormer plays Sofia, a blind pianist who overhears a murder in the apartment above hers, plunging her into a criminal underworld with ties to her own hidden past. In the latter, an adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s classic novel, she portrays Hester Appleyard, the cruel and composed headmistress of a girls’ boarding school that’s rocked when a group of students inexplicably vanish. Both of these characters are coiled springs, concealing battle scars beneath placid, sometimes icy exteriors: that is, until they’re faced with obstacles that bring what lies beneath bubbling to the surface.
“These women have such a schizophrenic existence,” explains Dormer, leaning forward in her chair, legs crossed, hands gesturing.
If it’s psychological tension that draws her to such roles, then maybe “it says something about my inner psyche that I am not aware of,” she cracks. “It makes me feel like I need to go and talk to an analyst.”
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In person, the actress is at ease but fiercely present, her blue eyes blazing whether she’s finding the humor in a small moment or digging deep into her projects. Even when pausing to lift a glass of water from a close-by end table, she seems deep in thought, but rarely lost.
What’s occupying Dormer’s attention most at this moment is that the characters, despite their similarities, reside at chronologically opposite ends of her filmography. Dormer co-wrote In Darkness with first-time feature director (and off-screen fiancé) Anthony Byrne — then an up-and-coming TV director — nine years ago, frustrated by what she saw as a lack of challenging, fleshed-out lead roles for young actresses. “I was searching for a protagonist I really wanted to play,” she recalls.
Rather than wait for such a role to come across her desk, Dormer and Byrne (then a couple) resolved to write their own, developing an idea that had been sitting in the back of Byrne’s mind for years. Citing Hitchcock classics like Rear Window and Marnie, as well as the works of French auteurs Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and Guillaume Canet (Tell No One), she says that they “wanted to make a movie that was the kind of movie we enjoyed watching.”
Drafting their script, they understood that how they wrote Sofia would make or break their suspenseful, twist-laden story. “There’s such a rawness and a profound pain to her,” says Dormer. “[It’s] so constrained that you only see these flashes a couple of times where the guard is completely dropped.” In a few key scenes (no spoilers), revelations about Sofia transform the audience’s understanding of her arc, which encompasses Bosnian war crimes, childhood trauma, and some very unsettling tattoos.
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So singular was Sofia as a creation that it hadn’t occurred to Dormer to compare her to the roles she’s taken since, including Hester in Picnic, nine years on. But what most connects those roles, she concludes, are an inner conflict and darkness, the kind that abides quietly, guiding their actions at first subtly then all at once.
“All of us have neuroses, pain, the yin and yang in us that pulls us in different directions,” she says. “Both women are attempting profoundly to liberate themselves from their pain but are doing it in a misconstrued way that is actually reinforcing it. And we all do that! That’s very human.”
Aside from satisfying Dormer’s appetite for layered antiheroines, Sofia and Hester feel to the actress like socially relevant figures today. As the #MeToo movement continues, she says it’s important that art explore how certain systems work to disempower women and minorities, and that it’s critical to show on screen the psychological trauma of oppression.
“We all grapple with that sometimes we find our identity in our pain and our hurt. It is familiar to us, and we know who we are so long as we hurt. Sometimes, we allow our pain to define us,” she says softly, but with confidence. It’s the only point in the interview at which she seems somewhere else, her eyes shining with a kind of empathic melancholy.
“If we truly want to grow and truly want to move on, we have to let the pain go,” she says, refocusing her gaze. “We have to forgive others and most importantly ourselves.”
If there is an idea that most captivates Dormer as an actress, it may be that one.
“Transcendence is the word, my darling,” she muses, flashing a bright smile that handily leavens the conversation. “I like that idea. That, ultimately, my characters… transcend.”