Natalie Dormer plays Magda, a supernatural being who can shapeshift in the new Showtime fantasy drama “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.” She previously starred for five seasons on “Game of Thrones” as Margaery Tyrell.
Dormer spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann recently about what attracted her to “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” her process of playing four different characters and the sociopolitical themes of the series. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: This role in your new series, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” it just seems like an absolute blast to play. Your character is Magda, the shapeshifting demon who gets to jump into all these different personas and they’re wildly different people so I’m just wondering for you, as an actor, do you have to separate those out and compartmentalize those as different characters or is there a Magda essence that you want threaded throughout?
Natalie Dormer: That’s a really good question. When I began the job, the jury was out, so to speak, as to which of that it would be and John Logan, the writer-creator of the show and I realized quite quickly that you had to have a purity of commitment when you are playing each of these iterations, as we called them, for a couple of reasons. It was a bit of a wink and a nod to the camera as Magda embodying Alex or Elsa or Rio that it just undermined the scene and it would pull us out of it, the audience out and it wouldn’t be fair on my co-star. It also just didn’t work, to be honest with you. So we realized the way to make these women the most fascinating and engaging and the drama for each storyline to be the best it could to have the most impact was truly to commit wholeheartedly to them each as individual characters. As you say, there is the ostensible, obviously, they talk different, they walk different, all the bells and whistles of that, but also in the psychology of them. That’s what I realized quite quickly is they did need clean completely different characterizations. Yes, they’re all Magda but they’re really not, not in the technique that is required to play them.
GD: And the technique and bells and whistles as you call it, is very impressive. Every single one of them has a different physicality, different accents to each character. Were there any of those accents that were new for you? I don’t know if I’ve seen you perform in a German accent before.
ND: (Laughs.) I had dabbled in a German accent a little bit in David Ives’s play “Venus in Fur,” which I did last year and I did the year previous in 2017 with David Oakes on the West End stage. People who know the play — I think Nina Arianda played it very well for you guys in New York — anyone who knows the play knows there is a bit of a caricature German in that play. I had a little bit of a warmup there but obviously caricature was not what was required there. It’s really interesting you say that because the voices is where I started with all of them. I got the job a considerable number of months before shooting so I would send John voice messages as we all have on our iPhone and say, “What do you think of this for Alex? What do you think of this voice for Elsa?” Accent and voice, playing around, sending sound files. John was very adamant that he wanted supernatural Magda to be British. I don’t know what it is about you Americans where you find the British accent evil (laughs). I’m not gonna comment on that, but he was very clear that he wanted to Magda, the umbrella character, to be British and then obviously Elsa was going to be German. I pitched some different sounds for Alex and Rio happened, voices, and then you get into movement and that actually helps your placement. I have to say, the camera job that I have used my stage training for the most I trained originally for stage more years ago than I can mention, 15 years ago or whatever it was, and my stage training going back to discipline of voice and finding placement of respiratory voice and physicality and pushing the boundaries of what you think you’re capable of, without trying to make it caricature, trying to make it feel real. So, that’s a longwinded answer for you.
GD: It’s interesting you say that ‘cause I recently talked to your costar, Daniel Zovatto, and he was talking about how John Logan made it feel like a rehearsal process like you were training for the theater. What conversations did you have with John? What was that process like working with him?
ND: I flew to New York and we workshopped it. I think I was one of the first people cast if not the first. I know he had Nathan Lane in mind. Who wouldn’t have? But I didn’t know if that was solid at that point. I went to New York and I’d been really struck by John’s writing, the first few scripts that I had read, and so, he and I spent a few hours in a rehearsal room playing with the women. “Let’s spend half an hour with Alex now.” He noted me, “I like that, I don’t like that, if we can’t find it yet don’t worry about it.” His theater roots and mine recognized each other in that. That’s a real gift. It’s also absolutely imperative if you’re doing a job like this. There’d be no other way to do it. The man-hours of getting yourself hooks is what it’s about, really. You find your hook, like all actors do. It’s just in this case I was doing four at once. Give yourself your hook in. When I got to preproduction in Los Angeles, obviously the makeup and hair department and the costume department helped me immeasurably as well because as we all know, clothes change the way you move. There were some things John was very adamant about. He just saw that black dress for supernatural Magda. He wanted that look. She was very prevalent in his head in that regard. But the others there was more movement on, Rio for instance. Really, there was a lot of collaboration in some places, so it was a mixture, really.
GD: And a great dance scene with Rio I would point out.
ND: It was so much fun. Are you a dancer?
GD: No, I’ve been a performer and I pretended to dance, so not really a dancer.
ND: No, I love that, and Johnathan [Nieves] who plays Mateo, he’s a dancer as well. I was a dancer way back. I gave it up when I was a teenager but my first professional job was as a dance chorus. It was kind of nice to blow the cobwebs and blow the dust off. I hope the audience just enjoyed that scene. We were surrounded by incredible dancers. I can’t speak highly enough of the dancers and the music and dance moves of that time, that counterrevolution that was happening there in the ‘30s was a very exciting, vivacious moment and the set-piece in the episode was beautiful. Wasn’t so happy about the singing but we all have to do things we don’t like (laughs).
GD: Part of the fun I think, too, especially for fans watching you dive into all these different characters and pulling training and skills from your background is you were part of “Game of Thrones,” Margaery Tyrell, Tyrells are my favorite house on “Game of Thrones.” That was a huge television phenomenon. So you’ve kind of become associated with a certain look. Margaery had a certain poise and a certain characterization that I think people can’t help but associate you with, so it’s really fun to see you dive into these other things. Was that a conscious thing that you were looking for?
ND: 100%, of course it was. It’s just so liberating to play a character like that because there is no vanity. In fact, you want the camera to be in the worst angle when you’re playing a character like Alex. For once you’re not worried about it in that regard. You’re just completely liberated to play this energy fully, to push the boundaries physically. What you can honestly get away with… that’s not accurate ‘cause it’s not like I’m trying to pull a fast one over the audience. I never wanna do anything that doesn’t feel believable to them or believable to Michael Gladis who I’m playing opposite or to myself, but we all know this, we all have physical tics and habits and actors definitely have a bag of tricks if they’re having a bad day or a tired day that they rely on. If you’ve been playing Margaery Tyrell for five years, if you’re having a bad, slow, tired day, you go into your bag of tricks. You pull out an old faithful ‘cause you know it will get you by. That’s when it does herald a concerted performance that has really required hard work with nowhere to hide, with no bags of tricks, that is diligent technique and craft, day in, day out. I knew it was gonna be a difficult challenge. For instance, when I do an accent I would normally always stay in that accent. If I was doing an American movie I would stay in an American accent for the duration of the shoot but I couldn’t do that on this. I was jumping. I think it’s really healthy to scare yourself a bit and I did in these roles.
GD: And I wanted to talk about the role as well that you did without the accent, this main Magda role because it kind of struck me. It seems like it would be very easy for that part as the umbrella part to come off as broad-stroke generally evil and cartoonish but you don’t present it that way. What did you do to give her layers and more depth?
ND: Thank you, Sam, because I really did. The last thing I wanted to do was play two-dimensional. John Logan sold the role to me as, the word goddess was used. I think he was trying to communicate exactly what you’re saying, that she was a supernatural being in the sort of kind of the pantheon of Greek or Roman or Aztec gods with those stories. They have real personalities if not the Judeo-Christian idea of this is God and this is the devil. Magda and Santa Muerte seem to come from another kind of place. Maybe there’s a catalog of supernatural family back there, which would accurately lean into some of the Aztec, Norse. I pushed John on that. I was like, she’s sowing the seeds of disorder, chaos in a low-key way I suppose people would know from Norse mythology. Her argument is mankind does it to herself. There seems to be an argument there that she’s like, “I’ve tried with mankind and they’re a bunch of assholes.” She’s willing them and pushing them to think different. The audience will realize in my dialogue with Lorenzo, with my dialogue with Santa Muerte, some bad stuff’s gone down between the sisters and that’s obviously causing a lot of anger and pain and resentment towards that. The way she’s manifesting that pain and that anger is to mess around with mankind. Now, why is she doing that exactly? Maybe we will see. That was very important to me because she seems to be a metaphor for mankind. I think what John seems to be peddling in this, and it’s up to the audience to decide, but he seems to be experimenting with this idea that good people do bad things. They do it to protect their family, they do it out of a sense of pain or loss or disaster. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It’s this argument of how horrible can mankind be to each other under the banner of something that they think is good and noble? A lot of the characters have that theme in common throughout the show. So it would make no sense if Magda was just the two-dimensional baddie on top of that. We have to give the color to her as well, else it undermines the story that you’re telling about everybody else, because she is fundamentally a metaphor and that’s the beauty of mixing genre like this. That supernatural element is so you can cut to the argument quicker. I was aware of that. I was aware that supernatural Magda is the most metaphorical out of all the characters. That’s not an easy thing to play, you’re quite right. It’s really not.
GD: What’s interesting, too, is as you’re talking about this there’s so much going on in this story because it’s a period piece, there’s the noir crime drama aspect, there’s love stories, there’s a supernatural aspect and you as Magda the shapeshifter get to touch all of them in some way. What was it that first really resonated to you in the script that really grabbed you and made you excited to join on?
ND: As you say, I got the golden ticket with being able to play with all the cast members. Such an amazing ensemble cast and I get to completely dance literally and metaphorically with most of them. It makes me the lucky one. To answer your question, undoubtedly the second reason or maybe it was the first reason, whichever order it was, it was like here’s the technical gambit, here’s the technical challenge of playing four people at once but the other one was definitely the themes. I was very empathetic to the themes and the questions that John seemed to want to explore. I think with the horror of what’s going on in the world right now with COVID-19, thankfully every cloud there seems to be a slight shift in sociopolitical feel insofar as we’re realizing what unites us again, common humanity, we’re seeing acts of great compassion and solidarity, locally, nationally and internationally. When I took this job just over a year ago, we were prime Brexit time here in London, in Europe, and America is going through its own pains. This political polarization that seemed to have been happening in the last handful of years I personally found absolutely terrifying. The demonization of other, pointing the finger, this resurgence in nationalization, this national identity politics. John makes the case that there’s so much that 1938 has in common with certainly 2019 when we started shooting it. For me, I was intrigued by the statement that he was hoping to make, exploring, and if that meant me being the antagonist to that story, well then I was in. I think for my own process, I was like, “What has happened to the world in the past 10 years?” Like I think a lot of people, regardless of where your value systems or your political allegiances lie. I think a lot of people have gone, “Holy crap.” It was a very telling time coming out in America, coming out of the Great Depression and those interwar years. It’s just fertile for this stuff.