Penny Dreadful star Natalie Dormer on how Magda feeds 'the darker side of men's souls'
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels
Just call Natalie Dormer a triple threat... or, rather, a quadruple threat.
In her first cable-TV role since Game of Thrones, the 38-year-old U.K. star takes on a devilish new challenge on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, creator John Logan's “spiritual descendant” to his first series with Eva Green. Instead of gothic horror, we're now in 1930s Los Angeles at a time when the construction of the Arroyo Seco Parkway pits the Mexican-American population against police and politicians (some of whom may or may not be Nazi sympathizers). Instead of Dracula, we have shape-shifting demon Magda (Dormer). Convinced that humankind is inherently evil, she assumes three human forms — the German housewife Elsa, bookish government assistant Alex, and androgynous freedom fighter Rio — to prove her point by nudging the city towards a race war.
City of Angels, Logan told EW, is a response to "the worldwide resurgence of political extremism, atavistic nationalism, dangerous demagoguery, and the vehement racism and antisemitism," all told within the context of a supernatural Penny Dreadful story.
Torn between two worlds is Det. Tiago Vega (Here & Now’s Daniel Zovatto), the first chicano LAPD detective and the mentee of Officer Michener (Nathan Lane). Can he stop whatever Magda is planning? Not if she can help it.
With the premiere already free to watch on YouTube ahead of its debut this Sunday on Showtime, Dormer spoke with EW about taking on four different roles and how the themes, especially during the time of the coronavirus pandemic, are as relevant now as they were in the '30s.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are doing with everything going on in the world right now?
NATALIE DORMER: My brother, thankfully, got back from France today. We were all really relieved because they’re closing borders. [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson has been on TV adding a lot of lockdown measures. So, it’s slowly escalating. It’s a weird and peculiar time to be talking about TV shows. In one sense, it feels like this is so irrelevant when you think about all the dangerous and important things that are happening in the world, but then you think this is so relevant because so many people are going to be sitting down watching TV, looking for escapism.
It’s interesting to hear Magda’s perspective — "all mankind needs to become the monster he truly is being told he can" — and then see how real-world leaders and politicians act on the coronavirus pandemic.
Closing the borders and pointing the finger at other countries. I know. There’s a phrase enjoyed being said on the radio back here at home at the moment: "Not since the second World War," when talking about emergencies or the state of community, just everything being thrown out the window and values having to be reassessed. In that regard, with the time setting of the show, it is kind of pertinent.
Why is Magda, as the kind of villain that she is, so well suited to tackle this story’s themes?
[Series creator] John Logan sought to write a great historical drama with the supernatural element raising the tension. Therefore, he created Magda. I, as an actress, was attracted to his themes and exploration of what it is to be in the 21st century and maybe we’re about to reascend in a way that many societies did in the late ‘30s. Thematically, I was curious in what he was trying to say. Magda is a metaphor for the darker side of men’s souls. Magda is not the devil incarnate. She’s taken a position on mankind: They will always choose the more selfish or baser option. For me, it’s certainly more interesting if you’re doing empirical experimentation to see how bad mankind can [be]. When they have forks in the road, which way do they choose? You’re the first journalist I’ve spoken to since this pandemic has truly revealed itself for what it’s going to be internationally. It’s interesting to see where communities and nations are cooperating. What does unite us in our common humanity where we can put humanity first beyond borders and ethnicities and economic lines? The show is gonna come at a good time now for all different reasons. And it was an opportunity for me on a technical level: How can I manage to play four roles at once? How can I manage their physicality in their voices and mentality? What can I do to test myself in what I’m capable of spinning at one given time?
As a shape-shifter, Magda is never really who she appears to be, and that feels true of many characters who surround her in the show. How does Magda choose which people to manipulate?
[John] is experimenting with different types of manipulation or appealing to mankind’s ego. Although interestingly you don’t see her manipulate a female, and I think John realized that was a gap. Here’s the thing with a first season: you get into it and go, "We haven’t taken that opportunity!” There are only so many hours in the day and so many pages you can write in 10 episodes. There’s just so much material and, hopefully, so much room to run and run for seasons. What I would say he is exploring the darker side of humanity’s ability to be in denial, how you can justify things. It’s the whole adage of "good people can do bad things." That was very true in the late 1930s, and it’s very true now. There’s a lot about this show that is really setting up and has a wealth of opportunity in the long term.
What makes Magda more complex for you as an actor?
We worked out quite quickly that the iterations of Magda — Elsa, Rio, and Alex — have to be lived and breathed as real people. Their backstories have to be real. Take someone like Rio. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. With Elsa, it’s very interesting to look at why so much of the German population voted for Hitler when he came into power. Why do people who fundamentally seem normal start saying really awful things out loud about other people or other ethnic groups? For John and I together, it was finding humanity to Elsa, Alex, and Rio. In some places, perhaps you might at least empathize with why they would make certain choices. I can’t play a role on two levels. You can only ever be pure in the moment. It’s an experience I had with Margaery Tyrell [in Game of Thrones]. If she contradicts herself in one scene, you can’t play that contradiction in that frame. You have to place some authority in the moment, and then the contradiction is something that happens in the audience’s brain going down the line. When I play Else, I'm not playing Magda walking along in the faux-leather dress. I have to play Elsa, who’s a true, full characterization. I have to believe in those individuals as if they were real humans and forgetting their was a puppet master [Magda] above.
On a technical level, what do you have to do to prepare to play any combination of those four roles at any given time?
Costumes help because the way they all move. If you’re standing in a gorgeous Zoot suit, like Rio, you stand in a very particular way in contrast to Alex, who’s standing in an awful tweed, masculine, uncomfortable piece. Your physicality changes immediately, and [the characters] all move differently. You find a voice and a different placement in your mouth, whether it’s an accent or tone. Alex talks down here in her throat and [is] guttural. Rio is in her chest, and Elsa is up here in her nose. There is a process that happens in that hour-and-a-half, two hours when you’re sitting in the hair-and-makeup chair than is just about what is physically being done to you; you’re getting your brain into it, as well. The crew was extremely supportive in those transitions [from character to character] when I had to do them, when I did have to play two characters in one day and sit in the hair-and-makeup chair for three hours in between the process. It’s acting in its grassroots. I remember it said in [the script for] John’s pilot episode, “We meet Alex and we meet Elsa. This is not prosthetics. This is not trickery. This is acting,” with capital letters and underlined. When an actor reads that, that’s a dream to see that written down.
How much of Magda’s different characters came directly from the script and how much were you able to conceptualize on your own?
John is a maestro in how he envisions things. I would float things by him. He loves the detail. So, when I first got the job, I would send him voice messages, trying out different accents and voices. That same attention to detail happened in the makeup trailer trying different wigs, different postures. The physicality was me, but visually — what they wear, what their hair looks like, costumes — John had a strong vision. I was trying to feed into the gaps. He is a strong creative force. How gorgeous Penny Dreadful’s Los Angeles looks on screen. It’s this epic cinematic that happened on screen. It really is John Logan’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.
A version of this story appears in the May 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, which is available here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.