Natalie Dormer
Credit: Damien Elliott/HBO

Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.

How does a bright-eyed, sweet-natured, deceptively ambitious teenage girl navigate the treacherous waters of King’s Landing society — not to mention the cruel nature of her sadistic husband-to-be and his scheming mother — without losing her head? Simple: By hiding her true motives behind a megawatt smile, wielding innocence and enthusiasm as skillfully as a swordsman brandishes his blade.

It also helps if that teenager is played by 31-year-old Natalie Dormer, a seasoned performer who specializes in masters of manipulation like The Tudors‘ Anne Boleyn (another noble with royal ambitions) and Elementary‘s Irene Adler/Moriarty.

In Dormer’s hands, these characters are never just seductive scam artists. Margaery Tyrell of Game of Thrones, for example, is certainly cunning — but in the actress’ mind, she’s also genuinely caring, thoughtful, and liberal-minded. “She has quite a modern take on power and how it operates, which is fascinating to play,” Dorner told EW in between screenings at the Edinburgh Film Festival. We’re guessing she was being sincere — though with an actress like this, it’s always just a little tough to tell for sure.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You first appeared on Game of Thrones in season 2, but your character didn’t really break out until season 3. Was there a particular moment this year when you started to feel like you had become a more integral part of the ensemble?

NATALIE DORMER: Yeah, absolutely. I thought I’d talk to you about the crossbow scene in episode 2, with me and Jack [Gleeson] talking in Joffrey’s bedchamber.

That scene parallels a moment in season 2 when Joffrey aims a crossbow at Sansa, and she’s completely terrified. When he does the same thing to Margaery, though, she puts on this act that makes it seem like she’s sort of into it.

Absolutely — [that’s] how she portrays herself to him. She’s completely acting. It’s great; you see her thinking on her feet about tactics and how to handle him. And he keeps moving constantly. That’s the nature of his monster-like behavior, isn’t it, the unpredictability of it. So watching him shape-shift and watching her keep up, if not get ahead of him — that was the first scene that Jack and I had ever played together. So that was a little bit of a crossing over [between] life and art.

When I started to shoot the scene, Dan Minahan, the director, said to me, “You see all these dead animals up on the wall, and I want you to look at that crossbow as if it’s an AK-47.” So [Margaery’s] immediate reaction is shock and fear. And then [the scene shows] how she swallows and suppresses her fear, and gives the audience an insight into what the dynamic in that relationship is going to be.

As an actor, what’s it like to play a character who’s also a great actor?

The saving grace with Margaery is not to overplay anything. It’s better to try and play it as sincerely and straight as possible, even if it contradicts something that you did in the previous day’s shooting or even earlier in the scene. If you play her so that she really means what she’s saying at any given time, it seems that that’s when the text comes most alive with ambiguity, and the characterization kind of weaves itself. So I try and keep her as straight — which, you know, sounds like a very easy thing to do! But for an actor, that kind of discipline is actually a very hard thing.

And I’m sure much of the time, her sincerity gets interpreted as fake or calculated — like when Margaery is visiting the orphans in King’s Landing.

People will interpret it depending on whether they like her, whether they think they like her, what they think her endgame is. So all I can say is, it’s good to play her with conviction. She sits there in that crossbow scene, and she listens to Joffrey slag off homosexuality, accuse it of being degenerate perversity — you know, that’s her brother [Loras] he’s talking about. And Margaery loves him, she’s very accepting of his sexuality. I actually do think Margaery is a genuinely open-minded, very liberal human being in the way she thinks.

I think we all realized that in season 2, when she offers to bring Loras into her and her husband’s bedroom.

Exactly. That was my first scene I ever shot, so I really did take it as my platform. I see her as a very pragmatic, realistic human being. She’s a calm, cool player, very much so.

Going back to the comparison between how Margaery and Sansa respond to Joffrey — what does Margaery really think about Sansa?

I think Sophie [Turner] and I kind of surprised ourselves — we found more [of] a natural leaning towards genuine friendship than either of us had expected. I think Margaery is genuinely protective of Sansa. She empathizes with her situation. The Starks are a very close, loving family, and everything we’ve seen of the Tyrells implies that they are also a close, loving family, regardless of their political game playing. So I think that Margaery identifies very much with a girl who loves her brothers and sisters, loves her parents, loves her home — Margaery loves Highgarden, and no doubt misses Highgarden the way Sansa misses Winterfell. Margaery’s just that little bit wiser, older, more experienced, still has her support system around her — and I think there was a genuine desire to adopt Sansa into their fold, and be her support system. And yes, of course, there would have been strategic advantages to that, but I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive — she cares for Sansa and it [would have been] politically beneficial for her to have become part of the family. It’s just good common sense. It’s very cynical to say that the PR with the orphans is just for show. I don’t think it is.

It’s insane that Margaery is the only noble who seems to care about the common people — or ever bothers mentioning them.

What I find so refreshing about her is she’s quite a modern character — in her attitudes toward winning public hearts and minds, good PR, her attitude to women.

And that must be part of the reason Cersei sees her as such a threat. It’s utterly chilling when she explains “The Rains of Castamere” to Margaery.

You see genuine fear — because you know that Margaery is still young, and she doesn’t quite realize the peril that she and her family have been put in. [There’s] this slow dawning on the Tyrell family that this is not going to be as easy a scheme as they had hoped it might be — that Cersei could be controlled and manipulated, and that Joffrey could be. The crossbow scene, you could argue it might even be a bit misleading for the audience and for Margaery. She passes that first test, but God knows how many she’s going to pass in the future.

Well, you may or may not know the answer — have you read the books? Are you aware of the story line going forward?

I haven’t read the books on purpose. I’ve chosen not to. I know the broad strokes, the trajectory of what happens. Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] are very good at surprising us all. Even when you know what is going to happen to your character, you have no idea of how or when it’s going to happen. So there is still a great level of unpredictability.

In season 2, Littlefinger asks Margaery if she wants to be a queen, and she responds by saying, “I want to be the queen.” How do you think she’s grown and changed since that moment, and how close is she to achieving her goal?

She’s learning a lot about the principal characters of King’s Landing, and working out who’s who. I dream of having a scene with Varys, to be honest — it’s all [about] those relationships and conversations about the power play of King’s Landing, and making allies. She’s on a very steep learning curve. I think it’s something she’s been brought up — trained, almost — to be ready for. But as anyone will tell you — actor, sportsman/woman, anyone — you can practice all you want, but until you’re in the field, the rest is just theory. So she’s going to have to act out everything she’s been trained for.

You didn’t get to appear in the Red Wedding episode or this season’s finale. How do you think Margaery responded to that game-changing event?

I hope that you’ll see it in the future, in season 4. Something like the Red Wedding just goes to illustrate the darkness of Tywin Lannister. It’s one thing being a politically savvy family like the Tyrells, but it’s quite another to be so amoral, immoral, in your pursuit of power and control. I think the Lannisters are the only family that would have orchestrated [something like] that. So yeah, I would imagine the reaction from the Tyrells — what happened to the Starks is going to terrorize them somewhat. I mean, these are the in-laws?

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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