It’s the eve of Natalie Dormer’s 38th birthday, and the thesp is cozied up on a beige suede sectional inside a private home full of retro flair that’s tucked away in Granada Hills, an hour outside of Los Angeles. The star of the upcoming television series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels had spent the better part of the day there shooting our cover.
“I’m an Aquarian. What are you?” she asks in her charming British lilt.
“Scorpio,” I reply.
“Ah, Scorpio,” she says with a smile as she leans against a furry cream-colored pillow with a bottle of Trader Joe’s spring water in her hand. There is a disarming warmth about her—a calming quality—and an innate, introspective wiseness of someone who has learned through what she’s lived through. When Dormer speaks, she looks right at you, and when she’s discussing her passions, her blue eyes sparkle with intensity as she rakes her platinum-blond locks off her face.
Her motivational mantras, which she shares throughout our chat, make me want to snap my fingers as if I were in the midst of a poetry slam.
“This is very Buddhist of me,” she says with a laugh as she talks about the many lessons she’s learned in Hollywood and why she launched her own production company, Dog Rose Productions, in December. “It’s that old saying that if you wait to feel ready, you’ll be waiting forever,” adding that that was also one of the biggest messages instilled in her while working alongside costars like Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Banks, and Julianne Moore.
“I think women, we sometimes feel like we have to be 100 percent sure that we can achieve something before we dip our toes in the water,” she says. “It’s like it’s socially innate in us. It’s not that we’re not risk-takers, because I think women are courageous, and they’re brave, and they are risk-takers. But sometimes we’re naturally too modest. I think what I’m increasingly learning, especially about the industry, is you’re going to learn on the job. That’s how you get your Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours, is doing it, and it’s the trial and the error. And that is how you learn. And that is how you grow and jump in, sister. What’s the worst that can happen?”
That’s exactly what she’s doing with her company, she says. “Who knows if Dog Rose Productions is going to work out? I bloody well hope so,” Dormer continues. “I hope we’ll make some really great content. And if I only manage to make one or two things that make an impact—or I’m talking about, like, an impact on me—I know I’m going to learn from the process.”
Not even 24 hours before our conversation, Dormer was at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, turning heads in a black floral strapless Vivienne Westwood dress. “A British girl and a British girl,” Dormer says of the look with a smile. But as the sun set this evening, she was more in her element—dressed down in a denim jacket worn over a rust-red sweater that she’d paired with a black floral skirt and pointed flats.
“Like most women, [my style] can vary considerably depending on what my mood is,” Dormer says. “When I’m shooting, like I am right now, it’s all about practicality and comfort, because I spend a lot of hours in a day on set and in costumes that have to look immaculate and just right.”
Shoe-wise, “I’m a Londoner,” she quips, noting that she prefers flats or Chelsea boots to stilettos for day-to-day, though she does “love a heel in the right place,” especially for work. “A heel obviously changes the way you move,” she says, adding that heels help her determine a character’s gait.
I start to wonder if Dormer has been downing coffee nonstop since the year began—or throughout the past 15. In addition to launching her company, the actress-writer has spent the last six months shooting writer-creator John Logan’s Showtime series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels in L.A. Her first role was alongside Heath Ledger in the 2005 movie Casanova, and she continued to work tirelessly up the ranks in Hollywood after that, scoring roles in HBO’s Game of Thrones, both The Hunger Games: Mockingjay films, Showtime’s The Tudors, and more.
But it’s her upcoming Penny Dreadful role, in which she plays the lead, demon Magda, that has critics calling her a breakout star—and that she considers one of her fondest yet.
“Imagine that this is just the next anthology that John Logan, the creator of the show, was doing,” she says. “So, whole new cast, whole new concept, but what it has in common is sort of a gritty drama mix, fundamentally a historical drama, but mixed with a supernatural element. It’s sort of wonderful to have been living in L.A. for six months and to be doing a show that is about the origins and the beginnings of this city.
“What originally attracted me to it was this sort of technical craft challenge of playing multiple characters in the same project. I think it was an exercise for me in technique, in discipline, and in my craft.”
It was also the message behind the show. “He talks about how it’s set in 1938, but it’s really about today,” she says. “It’s about things we’re facing on the news or when we turn on our phones. It’s about political and social themes, about demonization of the ‘other,’ and national and international identity, and it’s about new media for them back in that era.”
Dog Rose Productions, Dormer says, was “born out of a certain frustration,” explaining that “it’s about telling stories that deserve to be told.” She elaborates: “You get to different chapters in your life where you want to do different things. And I’m obviously very interested in female-centric storytelling talent that’s behind as well as in front of the camera. And so I’m making a concerted effort; it’s my natural affinity.”
Prior to the launch, Dormer landed a multiyear first-look deal with Fremantle in November 2018 and announced her first drama series, Vivling, based on the life of actress Vivien Leigh, soon afterward. The production team recently revealed it’s developing Spitfire Sisters, a series about the forgotten female aviators of World War II.
“When it comes to script development of something like my Spitfire Sisters project…there’s a team play and a camaraderie to finding the best way—the most engaging and exciting way—to tell a story,” she says. “As I get older, I’ve realized that about myself. I like the camaraderie.”
What’s next for Dormer? Her “three-week delayed birthday gift” to herself: a trip back to her home base in London after she wraps in March.
“I love Los Angeles, but I’ve been here six months shooting Penny Dreadful, since the beginning of August,” she says. “I’m three and a half weeks away from home, and it would just be good to see my friends and family, everyone that I’ve missed for six months.”
As for what she’s learned throughout her career that she would tell her younger self and other young women in any industry, she doesn’t hold back:
“There’s going to be highs, and there’s going to be lows,” she says. “It took maybe the shit that shook me, but this too shall pass. So enjoy the highs while they last…and also know that the bad times when you feel like everything’s disjointed and you’re not doing the job you want to do, professional or private life, those lows don’t last either. So just take your foot off the judgment pedal a little bit, and ride the wave a bit.
“Seize the moment with as little self-analysis and judgment as possible, and also look at what makes you happy, and check in with yourself that you’re still actually doing the job that you want to do, and you’re not just on the treadmill and forgot to get off.
I think that’s something that I’ve sort of taken a moment and realized in the last few years.”