By David Hochman | September 24, 2015 | People
Smart. Beautiful. Fierce. The general consensus on both sides of the pond is that English charmer Natalie Dormer rules.
Natalie Dormer is on a pool terrace overlooking Los Angeles, doing what can only be described as the happy dance. In an entertainment world where things so often go wrong, everything appears to be going exactly right for Dormer, and you sense her good fortune as she casually pirouettes and pliés—she was a ballerina before becoming an actor—for a photographer’s camera on this sparkling-blue day in Beverly Hills.
But then she stops, cocks her hip, and scrunches her lips into a mischievous little pucker that edges up on one side. Dormer has very large, bright blue eyes that somehow loom larger in that instant. The English actress is so well known for this facial flourish that there is a highly trafficked Tumblr page called “Natalie Dormer’s Smirk.” For the record, she is okay with that. “I have a lopsided smile; what can I say?” she says when I ask about it later. “And if that message filters down to some girl looking in the mirror who feels she’s not completely symmetrical, then I am glad to have helped in some small, albeit ridiculous, way.”
At the moment, Dormer is not smirking so much as suppressing laughter or perhaps a primal scream. It has been an intense week, and it’s about to get crazier. She just arrived via London, where she lives, from Serbia, where she filmed her first honest-to-goodness lead role, in a supernatural horror film called The Forest. Tomorrow she heads to San Diego for the restorative Zen retreat that is Comic-Con. Over three frantic days there, she will promote her films The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, which opens November 20, and Patient Zero, an upcoming thriller about a global pandemic, as well as the sixth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, in which Dormer stars as Margaery Tyrell, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Press panels, parties, hoards of furry, green-haired cosplayers—“The trick will be remembering which Natalie Dormer I need to be and when,” she says as her grin starts to curl again. “I’m trying to remain sane and not go totally schizophrenic.”
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Madness might be justifiable. At 33, Dormer somehow finds herself in two of the biggest pop-culture sensations of our time. Hunger Games and Game of Thrones attract so much frenzied analysis and commentary that they are bona fide international events. Game of Thrones, which this year received a whopping 24 Emmy nominations—more than any other show—will again air in more than 170 countries when it returns next year (last year in Boston, special screenings at Imax theaters were sold out within minutes of being announced). Her three Hunger Games films alone have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Dormer, who first appeared in Mockingjay Part 1, was the number-one choice to play Cressida, the propaganda-film director whose scalp ripples with vine tattoos. “Natalie had to shave part of her head for the role, and she wore the look with absolute fierceness,” says Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson. “She gives you everything as an actor, and yet on screen you still can’t quite pinpoint what she’s thinking. The more you watch her, the more you want to know. I suspect it’s why audiences are so drawn to her.”
One casualty has been Dormer’s anonymity. “Recognition can be a many-times-a-day occurrence,” she says, kicking back on a pool chaise. She’s wearing black stretch pants and a gray T-shirt under a black jacket glittering with zippers. “I get oil paintings from fans, computer-generated art from fans, fans approaching me in the toilet, fans approaching me in the sauna. It’s a Champagne problem, but I can’t really go anywhere without a ‘Wait. Aren’t you…?’”
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Dormer grew up in Reading, England, where a thriving Hollywood career seemed about as probable as an invite for a play date with Prince William. “I didn’t know any actors and had no idea how to get into the profession, so I kept really quiet about it,” she says. Her father worked as a computer programmer and her mother was a housewife, but it was her grandmother who inspired Dormer, the eldest of three, to perform. “She would take me to see Shakespeare’s tragedies in the ruins of the Reading Abbey, knocked down by Henry VIII and Cromwell, and my eyes totally opened up to the possibilities.”
A straight-A student who speaks multiple languages, Dormer was accepted to Cambridge University but chose instead to enroll in drama school in London. Just months after she graduated, director Lasse Hallström cast her as a bumbling virgin opposite Heath Ledger in Casanova. Dormer’s role was written as a bit part, but Hallström gave her more screen time when he saw she had real potential.
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David Goyer, the screenwriter behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the writer and a producer of The Forest, says, “When you meet Natalie, what distinguishes her is this sense that ‘Here’s someone who’s going to be a star.’ It’s partly her ambition—she has clearly decided she’s going to be a big success—but it’s also her rare combination of razor-sharp wit, unusual intelligence, and unique, timeless looks.”
That mix made her a natural to play Anne Boleyn in the 2007 Showtime series The Tudors. By the time another costume project, Game of Thrones, came along, Dormer might as well have stitched herself permanently into a corset.
“You say that,” she says a touch defensively when asked about the period roles, “but I’ve actually only done three corset dramas in 10 years. Kate Winslet’s spent more time in a corset than I have. Helena Bonham-Carter has spent more time in a corset than I have. What Americans tend to forget is that I can carry a semiautomatic weapon and run around in jeans and T-shirts, too.”
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That’s true. Her performance as Sherlock Holmes’s only love, Irene Adler, on the CBS series Elementary showed that Dormer could be powerful and sexy without ruff les. But it’s the character of Margaery Tyrell on Thrones that is her greatest creation. Here, too, the role was not conceived as a major one—Margaery is a marginal figure in the original fantasy novels—but Dormer turns her into a politically savvy woman in charge and dominates whatever scene she’s in.
Last season found Margaery in what might have been the most uncomfortable sex scene ever broadcast on television that did not actually show any sex. The boy king, Tommen Baratheon, played by Dean Charles Chapman, made Margaery his queen—with all the carnal clutching and gasping such a royal union involves on a show like Thrones. Fans were agog. Chapman is 17 but playing 12, an age gap that set off a Twitter storm even though the hook-up was mostly implied (viewers saw the couple waking up in bed without their clothes, and there was a brief kiss). Dormer finds the fuss a little irritating. “After what we’ve done on this show—the rape, the incest, the child murdering—it baffles me that two people in a reasonably good, reasonably affectionate relationship is what gets the wide eyes and the questions.”
As for questions about Dormer’s own relationship, let’s just say it might be easier to extract answers from Ser Pounce, the Game of Thrones cat. Her partner of four years is filmmaker Anthony Byrne. He directed Hozier’s latest music video, which features Dormer. Byrne is across the pool today, tapping on his phone as she talks, but Dormer doesn’t say much about him. “I couldn’t possibly comment” is all she says when asked about recent reports that the couple was spotted shopping for a ring or about the double date that the paparazzi caught them on in Serbia last June with Lady Gaga and her fiancé (and Dormer’s costar in The Forest), Taylor Kinney.
Dormer treasures her privacy, which is partly why she stays off social media. “I’ve been busy enough playing four different roles in the last four years,” she says, “and I don’t have energy to put out some perfect image of Natalie Dormer that’s not the real me anyway.” To stay grounded, she spends as much time as possible with friends she’s had since childhood. “Most of my closest pals have nothing to do with the industry. They watched me struggle financially. They know my sob stories and the roles I missed out on and the nights when I never thought I’d work again.”
She is also devoted to philanthropy. Last year Dormer ran the London Marathon to raise money for Barnardo’s, the largest children’s charity in the United Kingdom. “She put us all to shame by somehow managing to train in the middle of Hunger Games,” Nina Jacobson says with a laugh. If Dormer’s schedule allows, she’ll run the New York Marathon this November in support of Team for Kids, the New York Road Runners’ charity. She also appeared in a campaign on behalf of Plan UK, which works to eliminate forced underage marriage and female genital mutilation around the world.
Whether future roles will involve bodices and bust les remains unclear. Margaery did not appear in the Game of Thrones finale last season, leaving fans to wonder if she might become yet another victim of brutality in Westeros and Essos. But Dormer will be okay no matter what happens. She says she’d love to do a comedy (“I’m a huge fan of Veep”) or a naturalistic drama, and being a Bond girl might be cool, too.
Dormer looks out at LA, her eyes glimmering, as that confident, cryptic facial expression returns. “My five-year—no, 10-year—hell, my 55-year take is that I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can keep doing this,” she says. “You look at my countrywomen, like Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave and Diana Rigg—they’re gonna drop [dead] doing what they love to do. That’s where I’m heading.” Corset or not, she says, “Someone’s going to have to carry me out.”
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