Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer took quite a risk for her first leading role, in The Forest (out now) — she’s the lead twice (playing identical twins), but she might have shouldered the blame if the film bombed. (Given that The Forest is a horror film released early in January, that’s always a strong chance — and, well.) Still, she thought this would give her an opportunity to show she’s more than corsets and coquetry, that she could inhabit characters in modern times, who are damaged in ways that aren’t always immediately visible. (Of the twins, Sara looks more stable, while Jess is dirty and grungy. But guess which one is more likely to be lost?) Dormer chatted with Vulture about how she’s trying to confront her fears both as an actress and as a creator.
You have a tattoo on your arm, “Fear is the mind-killer,” from Dune, which applies to a couple of your choices and projects lately.
I’ve had it for a couple of years now. I read Dune for the first time when I was about 16, and it made a big impression on me. I’ve always loved my fantasy and sci-fi. The Litany Against Fear, the whole of it, was something I always scribbled in journals, my whole life. Frank Herbert talked about it a lot, in articles, how there’s elements of Buddhism in it — even now, as we’re all going a bit crazy with Star Wars at the moment, Dune and Star Wars have that same reference point of the Force, basically an all-encompassing, positive energy throughout the universe. All the major religions, at their most positive, have a connecting power with all human beings — and the power of the mind, especially positivity, to override the pain of the body, is a big help.
I wanted to get a tattoo for my 30th birthday, just something for myself, but because of my schedule, it ended up being a bit later than that, because I couldn’t get to a tattoo parlor in time! Makeup artists don’t want you to get a tat in the middle of a shoot, apparently. [Laughs.] But it’s a nice simple one. I’m not Lena Headey, who has it all over her body! Hers are stunning, just stunning. But as an actor, it’s a conversation you have to have with yourself, because you’re going to make your pickup time in the morning so much earlier, to go and cover tattoos! [Laughs.] When you have the really big, beautiful tattoos, you’re kind of making a deal with yourself about sleep deprivation. It’s definitely the difference between a 5 a.m. call time, and a 6:30 a.m. call time.
What was it that made you want to do a horror film?
Guillermo del Toro speaks really eloquently about this genre, about how monsters are living, breathing metaphors for us to function and cope with our social and personal issues. When horror does it right, it manifests our fears, our pain, our issues, in physical form. In The Forest, what you’re looking at are two women, twins, who had a childhood trauma. Sara, the main one you see, hasn’t dealt with it. She’s spent her adult life repressing it, running away from it. All of us have demons, have baggage, have shit that makes up part of our personality that we don’t like to air. So that’s plausible, these ideas, that concept, which was David S. Goyer’s idea behind the script — imagine you go to a place where you are forced to have your issues reflected back at you. Then, as one of the characters forewarns, whatever happens, you do it to yourself. It’s a massive metaphor for your life, for the choices that we make. I love the symmetry between the two sisters, that although Jess is the wild child, the one that looks like a fuck-up, that she’s the one that’s more in touch with her emotions, and who she really is. It’s like the inverse, a different kind of strength, because she faces the darkness head-on.
Was it a little schizophrenic playing two twin sisters in the same scene? Playing against yourself?
Uh, yeah. That one dialogue scene at the beginning of the movie, when we’re talking to each other? It was technically pretty difficult. I have a lot of respect now for Tom Hardy, what he did in Legend, because he did a whole movie like that. I feel like if I’d done it more often, if I’d had more scenes, I would have gotten better at it. But it is a fun thing to do. There’s the old adage that acting is reacting, and when you literally do not have someone standing opposite you to react to, and you have to go into your head and think about how you’re playing the other side, it’s a little bit of a mind-fuck. [Laughs.] Thank God for the editors. We got it to look halfway plausible.
Taylor Kinney’s character is supposed to be someone you never quite know how to read. In some ways, that’s how you could look at Margaery. Did you guys bond over the inscrutability of your characters?
Totally! You took the words out of my mouth. We had a really good chat about that, and a joke about it, because he was walking that line that I walk with Margaery, Do you trust this person? Are they sincere? And Taylor, he’s so laid-back, and he’s very modest about his acting. It seems effortless. He would do these takes, one after another, where he would play the scene completely differently — he would try it completely smooth, smiling, charismatic, and then he would do it again, and he would be colder, aloof, a little bit more menacing. He really played with it. Then in the edit they sometimes mishmashed the takes together, so there was a direct contradiction. It makes for a rich, textured characterization. There are these really great ambiguous layers that heighten the suspense and put you on edge. We had so much fun with that, especially in the scene in the cabin at the end.
Your character has an uneasy alliance with him, complicated by the fact that she falls into situations she can’t get out of alone, such as the ice cave. Margaery, too, is going to have to make tough decisions about whom to trust, or align herself with — or at least to seem to — in order to get the High Sparrow to let her out of prison.
Sure. And without giving too much away, in season six, you’re really going to see Margaery in a predicament where she genuinely is fearful, and she absolutely has no idea how to get herself out of it. If we’re talking about Sara in The Forest being out of control, I’ve been playing characters who are in control, whether it’s Moriarty [in Elementary] or Cressida [in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay] or Margaery Tyrell. So to play Sara was brilliant, because you’re watching someone lose control, and descend to the point where they can’t trust themselves. In season six of Thrones, you get a hint of that in Margaery. You’re like, Has this woman really been changed by everything that’s happened to her? Finally, after all these years in King’s Landing, has it broken her? Has something genuinely shifted here? Because she’s out of her depth, finally, and losing her grip a bit. And they’re both rolling around in mud! [Laughs.] It’s so liberating to look rough, disheveled, and broken, to be free from looking good!
You’re about to start pre-production on a film that you co-wrote, In Darkness. What’s it like stepping into a new role, as a writer?
The quotation on my arm is really relevant here, because this is my first experience writing, trying a whole new skill set, and you have to do it in public. You have to give your words to other actors, your plot to other actors, and see if it holds water. But if you don’t frighten yourself, you don’t grow. I’m just taking a deep breath, thinking the Litany Against Fear, and throwing myself into it! It’s either that, or running into the forest, never to write again.