Natalie Dormer knew “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was the perfect next project for her when she received a personal letter from director Larysa Kondracki.
“It said, ‘I need this woman not to be an archetype. I need her to be three-dimensional, psychological, littered with flaws and fears. And I need the humanity of her so that she’s not just a bitch,’” Dormer tells Variety of the note.
Kondracki also wrote, “nobody would be able to do that like Natalie Dormer.”
It was a “seductive” pitch for Dormer, who then hopped on a video chat to further talk through the vision for the six-episode limited series based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel. (The story was previously adapted for the big screen in 1975.)
The plot centers on the mysterious disappearance of four young women from an Australian boarding college and the damage it does to the school, its staff and students, and ultimately the society around them. It is set in 1900, but Dormer, who was given the first three of Beatrix Christian’s scripts when they were still in early draft form, knew the project was going to be far from a simple period drama.
“Beatrix was a playwright before she was a screenwriter, and in the way she writes her text there is so much subtext that I was just immediately like, ‘Who the f— are these women? This is amazing’,” Dormer says. “There was something in those first few scripts, but the way Larysa spoke of her vision, tonally, it just felt so fresh, so brave [and] courageous in the mashing of genres and strong visual tone that was going to be atmospheric and sophisticated in its nonlinear storytelling. It was going to have a real psychological element.”
The collaboration continued when the cameras rolled as well.
“Larysa had this great policy that whoever comes up with the best idea and it gets used on-screen gets a bottle of wine,” Dormer says. “It encourages you to speak up.”
Dormer plays Mrs. Appleyard, a buttoned-up, strict, and unflinching headmistress of a women’s college. “Appleyard thinks the way she is raising the girls she is doing them a favor. She genuinely thinks she’s passing on the torch of knowledge. What she’s actually doing is passing on archaic structures that stifle those girls’ spirits and that they’re rebelling against,” Dormer says. “She’s trying to help and tragically damaging and I just found that interesting — to try and break down that psychology.”
But that is all just a persona she is putting on, says Dormer.
“She’s running from a past — she’s literally running. She’s victimized and haunted by her past and her secrets, and her way of trying to deal with that is holding it tightly and putting a lid on it and being this tyrant,” she says.
As the episodes unfold, the audience learns how who she was as a girl informs the woman she has become. After the four young women go missing, she begins to unravel. That was the part of the draw of the role for Dormer.
“As an actor that’s just delicious to play — as the layers fall off, to keep scrambling to try to maintain control,” she says.
Though the series is set at the turn of the 20th century, its themes are still relevant today, says Dormer.
“It’s scary how 1900 and 2018, those themes of female independence — emotionally, spiritually, financially — finding a sense of identity, not needing a man, not being defined by being what your peer group suggests you should be, peer culture, authority rebellion, spirit and voice within those constructs [are similar],” she says. “I think in a highly anxious time for young men and women those anxieties of ‘Who the f— am I?’ are as relevant to our characters in 1900 as they are in 2018.”
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” premieres May 25 on Amazon.