From showrunner Larysa Kondracki and adapted from the iconic 1967 Australian novel by Joan Lindsay the mini-series Picnic at Hanging Rock streaming at Amazon Prime on May 25th tells the story of what happens when a group of schoolgirls from a local college take a day trip to Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day 1900 and three of the girls and their governess go missing. The disappearance deeply affects the students family and staff of Appleyard College none more so than enigmatic headmistress Hester Appleyard Natalie Dormer who becomes increasingly fearful that her own dark and secret past will be revealed. At the press day held at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actress Natalie Dormer who gives a terrific performance as the endlessly complicated Hester Appleyard about why she was reluctant to put on another corset the appeal of playing this character the challenge in finding the humanity of someone like this why she approached Hester Appleyard as two separate roles working with this diverse cast and what she looks for in a project.
So is it true that you almost didn’t do this because you just didn’t want to put on another corset?
I wouldn’t say that I almost didn’t do it. It’s just that when it was pitched to me and when I read the original email I was like I can’t I mustn’t And then I read Bea Christian’s first three scripts and I spoke to showrunner Larysa [Kondracki] for 90 minutes on FaceTime and I was like Aw shucks these women are incredibly talented. I’m gonna have to put a corset back on again That’s what happened. Had you just gotten to the point where you just didn’t want to wear a corset again because no one deserves to be tortured like that? It’s not so much about the physical duress although you’re quite right. When you’re six weeks into a shoot and your ribs are aching you’re like Remind me why I did this again? No it was more not pigeon-holing myself in my casting so that people think Natalie only does period drama. I was anti sending that message to the world.
How did that 90-minute conversation with Larysa Kondracki go? What exactly did she say that really interested you?
She started pitching how she saw Appleyard and how she needed to be humanized. In other hands she might have become a two-dimensional villain so she was unpacking the psychological baggage of Hester. I’d only read three episodes so she explained four five and six which was important. That moment of self-reckoning for Hester at the end and of looking at herself squarely for what she’s done is incredibly compelling. And then on another level just listening to Larysa talk her references were not what I was expecting.
When she started talking about David Lynch visually I started to understand that it wasn’t just these scripts that were bold. The way Larysa wanted to realize it was going to be unorthodox and I started to hear a true artist from the director’s voice. She really did have a vision in the true sense and I was curious. Add the fact that I’d never been to Australia and I was curious. I was very respectful of the idea of Australia saying Hang on a second we can make prestige high-production value TV too. We can do what the Americans and the Brits are doing. This was their offering which is a national treasure of a story. So for all these reasons – these scripts Larysa’s vision the way she described it a curiosity to go to the other side of the world and a curiosity of that country to claim a place at the table in the industry – was the reason that I said yes.
This was a movie in 1975 but I like the fact that this was very different and you have so much more time to explore things that we haven’t gotten to see in this before. Yeah I agree with you. As far as I’m concerned they’re disparate things. Ours is a re-imagining of the novel. If you go back to the novel all the hints nods and winks that Joan Lindsay gives to different characters and their backstories Bea was able to flesh out. Bea really went back to the book and fleshed out all the hints that Lindsay left.
What was the challenge in finding the humanity of this character?
The challenge was in qualifying her actions. I think she’s the least self-aware character that I’ve ever played. She does not want to unlock the box of what haunts her. What I love about Picnic for Hester as for all the characters is what isn’t said as much as what is said. The imagination fills in the gaps of what Hester’s life has been when you start seeing the flashbacks to London. You don’t need to fill it in because the audience gets it immediately. You start to comprehend what she’s running from and that she had the balls to say I’m gonna go to the other side of the world and completely reinvent myself by herself at that time.
The most a woman could hope to do at that time was really become a super duper version of a governess and therefore become a headmistress with her own equity financially independent of a man. There were very few professions at that time that you could do that within which was either hospitality or education. She has everything going for her except her inability to process her ghosts. With the domino effect of the girls going missing and a spotlight being shown on her authenticity she loses control quite quickly. It was a tough characterization because she’s broken and she’s running literally and metaphorically from herself. She’s also self-medicating with alcohol which I do not identify with at all
What did you go into this being most excited about getting to explore and what did you grow to love about her as you got to know her?
There’s a deliciousness to her. There’s some comedy to be played with Hester and I loved peeling back layers and slowly revealing her to the audience. It’s quite a schizophrenic performance insofar as Mrs. Appleyard is a construct and Hester is the real woman. It was effectively two roles for the price of one. It’s Appleyard and Hester. I love Hester and Appleyard is a construct. I think Hester hates Appleyard. She’s a persona. I get to play her jumping back and forth between the two and increasingly losing control of being able to do that.
The thing I like about Hester and it seeps through the pores so it looks like it’s Appleyard but it’s Hester is that there is no judgment on sexuality or race or being a fallen woman or being isolated. When you get the flashback to her interview with Mademoiselle you see that her original manifesto was to be a place for waifs and strays and the teachers. She doesn’t see Maddie’s skin color. She says that the parents will see it and she’s right but she doesn’t judge her on her skin color. She doesn’t judge McCraw on her sexuality. She doesn’t begrudge the art teacher for her husband having left her and being shunned or ridiculed by society. She’s liberal and tolerant in those ways. It’s like Hester can’t quite put the lid on that unorthodox side of her past from London as long as it doesn’t threaten her position within society and it doesn’t threaten the construct of Appleyard and Appleyard College. That’s what I like about her.
Oh it was horrific It was not easy doing that scene with little Inez [Currõ] who plays 11-yr old Sara. That was not a fun day at work. It was a rewarding day at work but it was not a fun day at work. It was hard to dig in and be that thing. But I loved watching Samara [Weaving] Lily [Sullivan] Maddie [Madden] and Ruby Rees increasingly gain their confidence as young actresses and explore and play. It was a joy to watch those young women increasingly get more confident. You play such interesting complex complicated characters. What do you look for in a script? Does the character really have to be there on the pages of the script or do you feel like you just need to see the potential and know that you can bring something to it?
It’s probably a little bit of both. Obviously it’s different from when I first started out to now. I can afford to be more discerning now than I could in the earlier days. I fought very hard to make Anne Boleyn on The Tudors as three-dimensional as I could and not just make her an avarice-ridden femme fatale who wanted sex and power. I’d done all of my history reading. I knew she was an Evangelical. I knew she believed in religious reformation and that she was an incredibly loving mother to Elizabeth. I tried to bring those three-dimensional fleshed out qualities to her so that she wasn’t just a villain. And I’d like to think that by the time I got to the scaffold I’d won the audience over. Equally by the time Hester climbs that rock I hope I’ve shown enough of her humanity not for people to necessarily approve of her but to understand what went wrong and maybe forgive her a few things. Human beings are contradictory. We’re complex and we’re morally grey when you box us into a corner. I find catharsis in exploring that.
I don’t know if anyone would let me play just a girl next door. That’s a really good question. I don’t know if anyone would let me play someone with no agenda who’s just a really nice girl next door. I had a lot of fun before Christmas on stage. I got to do Venus in Fur which is a dark comedy but still a comedy. Vanda Jordan is a strong confident irreverent Bronx girl who turns out to be a goddess and therefore a deity so the usual rules of humanity do not apply. That was a lot of fun but I suppose she had an agenda too. We all have an agenda ultimately. That’s the point of life. Everyone comes at everything from an angle. So that’s not really for me to say. That’s for me to be cast. That’s a question for producers and directors. My family and friends always think it’s hilarious because I’m so far removed from these roles that I play in that way. I’m quite a silly person really. I’m quite idiosyncratic and quirky in places. I need to put that in my casting.