Natalie Dormer can see the forest for the trees.
The British-born actress has, of course, been turning heads for the past several years in an increasing succession of scene-stealing supporting roles — most notably as Anne Boleyn on “The Tudors,” Margaery Tyrell on “Game of Thrones” and Cressida in “The Hunger Games.” With the momentum of those fan-favorite portrayals behind her, she’s shrewdly making her move toward leading lady status, anchoring the David S. Goyer-produced, J-Horror-inspired film “The Forest.”
Playing dual roles as an American woman who ventures into Japan’s infamous “Suicide Forest” and the missing twin sister she’s searching for, Dormer carries the bulk of the demanding physical and psychologically challenging film on her shoulders. And the rising star was happy to have the chance to do it, as she explained to Spinoff Online.
Spinoff Online: Was it refreshing for you to play someone contemporary, rather than someone in a historical or fantastical context?
Natalie Dormer: For me, it was also very liberating to play a character who was completely out of control, or ultimately turns out to be out of control because I often play characters, I suppose in reflection, that have really got their shit together. So for me, it was really interesting to — as an actor, it’s kind of catnip to play a role where you have this sort of unraveling of everything that you control and you believe into a sort of descent into madness.
I was especially happy to see that you actually got to wear jeans for this role.
[Laughs] It does happen occasionally!
Tell me about working in the great tradition of twin themes in horror films, which I felt you pulled off very well with very little external things to lean on.
Thank you. I mean, it’s so much in the writing. They are written as two very different women, and [co-writer] Sara [Cornwell]’s descriptions of Jess [helped], as you go through the movie. So I had a very clear idea in my head, and then hair and makeup, obviously, do a lot of heavy lifting. And then, it’s just a case of finding a slightly different voice and a slightly different body set where they’ll actually feel like individuals.
I was so interested in the premise that these two young girls going through a trauma, and they’ve gone in polar opposite directions of handling it. One going off the rails, being a bit of a wild child, and then the other one being an overachiever, very repressed. To me, it was so much on the page that I sort of leaned into the writing.
I know you didn’t shoot at the real “Suicide Forest” in Japan, but did you get a chance to visit there as part of your preparation?
I did get to go to the real Aokigahara Forest. I traveled there one day from Tokyo and went for a little bit of a walk there. It was actually incredibly beautiful. The sky was blue. The birds were singing. It’s a very spiritual place. It has an energy — It definitely has an energy, but I wouldn’t say that it was negative.
I think what I was more aware of was that you feel a sense of compassion and sadness that people genuinely go there with the intention of walking in and not walking out. And you have to be a very cold person not to have that affect you, to be honest.
In terms of shooting the film, you’re in nearly every scene and you have so much that you have to do. Was there a day where you were struggling — maybe with the physical activity, the necessary steps that you needed to land?
Yeah, I mean, the physical demands of a horror movie, make sure you get the choreography right, that you hit your mark right, that you fall in the right way — it is very physically demanding. But to be perfectly honest, I’m the kind of actor that gets a kick out of that stuff. I find it very liberating. And I got my fair share of scratches and bruises and bumps over the course of the shoot.
The only thing I had a real issue with was the creepy crawlies. [Laughs] You’re rolling around in the dirt in a forest, there’s a lot of spiders, beetles, worms and various living animals mixed in there with the mud. And a lot of mosquitoes. Standing in a forest at 3 a.m., I was always shocked at how many bugs there were still trying to bite me at that time of night. I had a mosquito problem more than anything.
How do you handle movies in the horror genre as a viewer? Do you watch through the cracked fingers over the eyes, or are you more like, “Bring it on!”
I normally watch it through cracked fingers. I’m a wimp. I’m a real chicken. I don’t get a thrill out of being scared the way that some people do. But I am a massive fan of quirky movie-making. So for me, the horrors that I respond to the most are the really psychological ones. I loved “The Others.” I loved “The Orphanage.” These are where a lot of the heavy lifting is done in the psychology of the piece, and that’s why I really responded to the script of “The Forest.”
What haven’t you done as an actor that you’re eager to do next?
I would love to do some straight drama, just really straight, modern drama. I have done it, but not anywhere near as much as I would like to do. So contemporary, straight drama would be right up there. I’m very excited about making my psychological thriller that I co-wrote with my other half. We start shooting that in March in London. “In Darkness” it’s called, which was announced in the trades a few weeks ago, I believe. So I’m just looking forward to staying in the contemporary clothing for a while, and making some smaller independent movies I’m really passionate about.
I’ve been so lucky and gifted with big franchises — “Hunger Games” and obviously being a part of the “Game of Thrones” family. To now be able to pick out, in between my Margaery Tyrell responsibilities, some nice, quality independent pieces is something that I’m really looking forward to doing.
What else can you say about “In Darkness?” What sparked that idea?
It was mainly frustration because I started writing “In Darkness” with Anthony [Byrne] about six years ago. So it was pre-“The Hunger Games,” and pre-“Game of Thrones” even. And I was frustrated with finding a role where I really sort of stretch and flex my acting muscles, so we started writing.
And the nature of independent filmmaking, that it takes that long to find a producer that you want to make it with, to secure financing, to secure a cast, to make sure that everybody’s schedules line up. I mean, how independent films ever get made is actually beyond me, to be honest. I think it’s incredible that anything gets made. It’s a real chore. But it has to be a passion project. And now that I’ve had that experience of the mechanics of what putting a film together looks like in the last six years, and obviously, in that duration, I found a profile and an audience base that now, hopefully, I can bring to the film.
And we’ve created a psychological thriller that is centered around a blind woman who hears a murder in the apartment above her. And it’s sort of all rippled out from that event. And I suppose it’s got a tip of the cap to Hitchcock in that kind of “Rear Window” way, but I really love a good thriller. I’m a fan — I think the French do it very well with movies like, “Tell No One” and “Anything for Her” the [Fred] Cavayé and Guillaume [Lemans] movies. And the Canadians do it very well. We’ve seen that in television very recently. And I love films like “Prisoners” and “Black Swan” and “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
So psychological thriller is something that I’ve always been interested in, and so I’m really excited to go on that journey. It’s next year, and we’re actually making it in my home city. I’m a Londoner at my heart, and it’s going to be wonderful to be able to shoot something in my own hood, so to speak.
“Game of Thrones” Season 6 has been on a lot of people’s minds recently. Was there anything fun, unique or special about your experience for this upcoming season?
The thing about “Game of Thrones” is that every season is always an ingenious partnership between sort of unlikely friendships or relationships between characters — often members of the cast get paired up with different people every year. For one year, I had the wonderful experience with my main sort of sparring partner being Sophie Turner as Sansa, and then another year, Lena Headey. And you have these wonderful, unlikely pairings, be it Little Finger or Sansa or be it Bronn and Jaime Lannister. And all I can really, this season, I have like the new main partner in most of my scenes, and I end up working with that person immensely.
We’re in an age where performers like you can have a greater direct connection with the audience. Tell me, what’s been intriguing or fun about that ability, especially with a fanbase — from “The Hunger Games” and “Game of Thrones” in particular — that’s as engaged as yours is?
I just love going to the comic cons and really doing panels and being asked these interesting questions. It’s really great. They’re sort of like genre fan base, geek fan base, you get in those two franchises as well. They’re so well informed. They’ve often very much read the source material. And so even being in something like Moriarty and “Elementary,” it brings our heritage of the Arthur Conan Doyle novels.
And these fans, they know their stuff. I just find it so inspiring that they’re so well informed and so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about our work and really genuinely appreciative of the hard work that we put in. So for me, it’s been a great privilege to be a member of the families of two of the sort of biggest zeitgeist phenomena that’s happened for an entire generation, “Hunger Games,” “Game of Thrones.” I think that’s a very privileged position that I have been in. And I will probably wear these badges of honor throughout my career, for the rest of my life.
“The Forest” opens Friday nationwide.