We all can’t get enough of Game of Thrones, so it naturally follows we all can’t get enough of Natalie Dormer (and vice versa). She’s known for playing the devious seductress, Margaery Tyrell, on the HBO series, creating quite a following—and her fans won’t be disappointed with her latest role in the thriller The Forest which opens this Friday.
Dormer plays Sara and Jess Price. Yes, two roles and two sisters who are wildly different. When Jess, who’s been teaching in Japan, goes missing in a forest close by, one that’s known for luring unsettled people to commit suicide, Sara goes after her. After meeting a travel journalist, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), at her hotel, she decides to venture into the forbidden woods. When Aiden and Sara go off the beaten path and decide to stay the night, they uncover the true nature of their surroundings. Is the forest actually malevolent or is it all in their heads?
Dormer is no stranger to playing elusive characters, vacillating between angel and demon with her other roles like Margaery, Anne Boleyn in The Tudors and recently with Cressida in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Sara and Jess possess no shortage of complexities, and the film manifests them in terrifying and shocking ways. As Dormer puts it, “It’s a smart-thinking person’s horror movie.”
Paste got a chance to chat with the blonde beauty at the New York Essex House Hotel right off Central Park. Dormer opened up about why she’s drawn to characters with demons, embodying women who are warriors and the physical and psychological impact of taking on a horror film. (She recommends spending a lot of time in the sauna.)
Paste: The movie is so great! Congratulations! This is a really smart film.
Dormer:It’s a smart-thinking person’s horror movie. It’s almost like the genre should be irrelevant.
Paste: It does feel that way. I also love your character. We see you play characters will a dual nature already.
Dormer: Oh, that’s interesting!
Paste: And you’re literally two characters here.
Dormer: It’s embodied!
Paste: Yes! Was that something that drew you to the script?
Dormer: No! That’s an interesting observation. If I did that it was a subconscious decision. Wow! You just made me think about analyzing the reason I choose roles!
Paste: Why do you think that that is?
Dormer: That’s something I’ve never thought about before. I love the idea that the central relationship in the movie was the love of two sisters—especially in a genre movie. They’re just textbook examples of how a human being, when they’ve suffered trauma as a child, can go in polar opposite directions. There’s [Jess], the wild child, who goes crazy and then [Sara], the girl who becomes the over-achiever, the suppressor, the control freak. I found that so fascinating—exploring that idea. And the great concept that drew me in the script—that a forest would hold your own demons up to yourself—that you actually, as a character in the piece says, do it to yourself. [Sara] hasn’t processed everything that she’s carrying and repressing. We could all see ourselves traveling half way across the world for someone we love. We all have baggage and history that we’re not proud of. Imagine going into a place where that gets thrown back into your face. Then, hopefully, you’ve got a horror movie that people who don’t normally like horror movies will want to go and watch. Then you’ve got the bang and the scares for the die-hards who love the genre as well.
Paste: You went to this forest! When you were there, as Natalie, were you imagining things? Was it creepy?
Dormer: For me, I felt more sad—philosophical more than anything. You see the tape, the ropes around the trees as you start driving ever closer. You realize—this is a real thing. It’s horrific to think that people are in such pain that they make that decision. I found it a really pensive, philosophical experience as opposed to anything else. It’s a sacred place to the Japanese. It has the light and the dark. It’s a very spiritual place. I found it fascinating that such a location exists.
Paste: This is such a physical movie! Did you do any preparation? You’re running between trees and falling in holes!
Dormer: I’m quite an active person. I run! Thank God I run! Running in a horror movie is like doing interval training, you know? It is a bit like cross fit! Run up and down the room 10 times as you re-set for the take. My body didn’t go into shock when the cardiovascular element of it started. And yeah, because you’re playing heightened-tension, someone who’s got an awful lot of adrenaline running through them, you just make sure you do your yoga every now and then because your muscles hold that tension and you need to let it go at the end of the day. I sat in the sauna a lot! It was Serbia, the Eastern European continent, so they love their saunas and their steam rooms in that part of the world!
Paste: And sweat out that energy!
Dormer: Sweat it out!
Paste: Like some of your other films, especially in The Hunger Games, you’re also really a warrior in this film! Did you find parallels between those characters?
Dormer: There’s a single-mindedness to it. As you say, with Cressida, the backstory I created in The Hunger Games is she wants to overthrow Snow. She wants to overthrow the tyrannical government that has oppressed her and her family. I’m going to join the revolution and liberate my home.
Paste: It’s the same thing in The Forest!
Dormer: It’s the same thing with Sara! The single-mindedness: I’m going to find to my sister; I’m going to save my sister; I’m going to make sure that my sister is okay. When you’re single-minded about something like that in life, it’s of profound emotional importance. [With] those characters, [it’s] often to their detriment, look at Sara—so focused on something.
Paste: Are you that way with some things in your life?
Dormer: I’m a little … well… [She laughs].
Paste: You’re thinking of something specific!
Dormer: I’m just kind of laughing at myself because what I’m about to say is really obvious. I’m a hybrid of Jess and Sara. I had a tendency, in my youth, to be the overachiever of Sara. As I get into my 30s, I’m more relaxed. I’ve experienced more in my life. I’ve grown up, as people do. There is more of me that is more like Jess—that is more in contact with my emotions and looks at the darkness of the world. You’ve got to let it wash over and through you when it does and be a little bit more Zen in the way that Jess is. I have elements of my personalities that would be both twins I think.
Paste: The film deals with this idea of demons. I look at the other roles you’ve played, Anne Boleyn, Margaery on GOT. Do you feel like they have demons, too? Why are you drawn to these people?
Dormer: Because we all do! There’s three-dimensional characterization, which is what we need in drama. The whole point of drama is that it cathartically helps us vent our own lives. Maybe people don’t realize that’s what they’re doing, when they turn on the telly or they pick up a book or they go to the movie theater. Yes, it’s escapism, but you have to identify with it on some emotional, human level—otherwise you wouldn’t be engaged with it. So, for me, it’s all of those characters, great three-dimensional fleshed-out characters who are struggling with love, loss, sacrifice, pain and often very contradictory characters. I like to play characters who are contradictory because, in real life, we’re contradictory.
Paste: I always wonder when I watch horror films—I’m terrified by images—how an actor finds that terror within. When you’re imagining those things as an actress, do you have to dig into what you are actually afraid of and project that and see it in the scene? How do you access those emotions? It could be dangerous.
Dormer: For me, to be perfectly honest, the terror for me in this movie, Sara’s terror, is letting her sister down—hurting someone that she loves, inflicting more pain. That is more terrifying to Natalie Dormer—hurting people that you love and letting them down—than the bogeyman in the cupboard. But that’s what the bogeyman in the cupboard represents. That’s what good horror is—monsters are the physical embodiment of our deepest fears. Whenever I felt like I was going off track, literally, I would bring it back to thinking about how I would feel if I let those people in my life that I love profoundly down.
Paste: And let the monster take over.
Dormer: Yeah. That’s my terror.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. She rarely lets the monster take over. You can follow her on Twitter.