In “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” John Logan’s followup series to his previous three-season “Penny Dreadful” drama at Showtime, Natalie Dormer stars as Magda, a shape-shifting demon intent on sowing chaos wherever she goes. The backdrop is 1938 Los Angeles, an era rife with racial tension — the perfect opportunity for a hell goddess to start a race war.
“I think the mythology behind it was, to me, as she says in the first episode, ‘All mankind needs to be the monster he truly is, is being told that he can,” Dormer tells Variety. “She basically believes that mankind is inherently bad — that they will choose the baser, more selfish, more egocentric route whenever given a fork in the road.”
Magda manifests as three different human characters in the series, each with distinct looks and accents: There’s Elsa, a blonde blue-eyed immigrant from Germany with an abusive husband; Rio, a saucy player in the local Pachuco counter-culture scene; and Alex, a homely political aide to an aggressive L.A. councilman (Michael Gladis), whom Dormer had a particular soft spot for playing. That incarnation required her to wear a mouthpiece and glasses that dulled her eye color.
“A couple of the cast walked past me a few times before they realized it was me, when they hadn’t ‘met’ Alex yet. But as an actress, playing a character like that is so liberating because there’s absolutely no vanity attached,” she says. “It’s like I would almost say to the camera operator, ‘What’s the worst angle? Put it in the worst, first.’”
The series also stars Daniel Zovatto as Tiago Vega, the LAPD’s first Mexican American detective, and Nathan Lane as his Jewish partner Lewis Michener, who is wrestling with his own unease with the rise of anti-Semitism. The premiere starts with the two trying to solve the gruesome murders of several white Angelenos, which appear intended to incite tension between the white and Latino residents of the city.
The themes of “othering” and racism feel particularly relevant now, according to Dormer.
“Pre-pandemic crisis, certainly where I was standing in post-Brexit London in Europe — and you have your similar issues on the other side of the pond — what had been happening in recent years of this polarization, politically, seems uncomfortably close to things that were happening in the mid-to-late ‘30s and the lead-up to the Second World War,” she says
Audiences may know Dormer best as fan favorite Margaery Tyrell from HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” a role she played for five seasons before the character met a swift death via bombing — or what Dormer referred to as “ka-boom.” Fans of House Tyrell certainly had issues with Margaery’s ending, although Dormer says she made her peace with it, having learned of her fate a year in advance.
“I was ever so grateful that I was with Jonathan [Pryce who played the High Sparrow]. To have such a partner for my last scene was really a gift,” she says. “But I think Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] had an almost impossible task in wrapping up the show. And by the very nature of the sheer quantity of storylines and characters, they had to start wrapping up around Season 6, which they did with the Tyrells and other beloved characters. It was almost going to be the impossible task, I think, regardless of what they had done, to satisfy a third act for everyone in the time that they had.”
Personally, Dormer looks back at her time on the show fondly.
“I got the golden ticket, the perfect length of time. I watched Season 1 as a fan, came in the second season, did a good solid five years just as the show had this incredible explosion, and then I got out in time to watch the end and sit on the couch again,” she says.
Lately, Dormer has been doing some of that again at home in London where she, like much of the world, is on lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic. Dormer said she’s binge-watching old favorites including “The West Wing” and British sitcom “Green Wing,” and is a big fan of non-English content right now. She also recently screened Spanish horror film, “The Platform.”
“We should all be watching more subtitled content. I think this is a good time, because you’re not in a rush,” she says. “As ‘Parasite’ proved to us all, we need to expand our minds.”
“Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” premieres April 26 on Showtime. Watch Variety’s full interview with Dormer above.