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Natalie Dormer: \'Sex and romance is a huge part of human motivation\'
Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer – who will star in a new BBC drama about a Georgian sex scandal – likes to play women on top, she tells Olly Grant
\'Sometimes, if something makes you uncomfortable as an actor, it’s interesting\', says Natalie Dormer
Some actors spend a lifetime within their comfort zones, ploughing the field most furrowed. Natalie Dormer isn’t one of them. “You know what?” she asks, as we discuss her latest project. “Sometimes, if something makes you uncomfortable as an actor, it’s interesting. And you have to work out why it’s making you uncomfortable: why do I feel threatened by this scene? Because sometimes it’s the stuff that makes you uncomfortable that is actually the good drama.”
Dormer, 33, has form when it comes to uncompromising parts in envelope-pushing dramas. She first came to wide attention playing a sexed-up Anne Boleyn in chamber-hopping drama The Tudors. She is best known as the queen of Westeros, Margaery Tyrell, in the perpetually controversial Game of Thrones. Now the refreshingly forthright actress is adding another provocative role to her CV.
She plays the title character in the BBC period drama The Scandalous Lady W. The controversies arraigned here – elopement, writs, wife-leasing, voyeurism and a rabid tabloid press – are as outlandish as anything dreamt up in the courts of King’s Landing. Not least because they are true.
Dormer as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones (Photo: HBO)
The film tells the story of an 18th-century sex scandal involving two Hampshire nobles, the titular Lady Worsley, played by Dormer, and her husband Sir Richard (Endeavour’s Shaun Evans). At the time of their marriage in 1775, the Worsleys were a feted power couple. She had inherited a £50,000 fortune; he was a respected MP and future governor of the Isle of Wight. By 1782, however, the gilded edifice had crashed down in one of the most infamous trials of the Georgian era.
Even today, the twists of the case make for extraordinary reading. When the story first came to her – the script is based on Lady Worsley’s Whim, a bestselling 2008 book by Hallie Rubenhold, who consulted on the adaptation – Dormer was supposed to be avoiding costume dramas. “I’d made a small pledge to myself to keep away from corsets for a bit, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed,” she says, smiling at the irony. We are meeting on set, in the drawing room of a stately home, where she is layered in 18th-century silks; her hair, a savage tower of curls, glares down at us from the top of her head.
(The pigeonholing is a little unfair, Dormer feels, since most of her roles have actually been modern: a lawyer in Silk, Moriarty in Elementary, rebel-with-a-camera Cressida in The Hunger Games franchise. “Look at my contemporaries – say, Keira Knightley, who played the Duchess of Devonshire [in The Duchess], a contemporary of Lady Worsley, and Anna Karenina. She has played four or five historical characters. And I really haven’t. It’s weird, people’s perceptions of me. It seems disproportionate of me being in costume drama.”)
\'We are not making a documentary. Drama invariably sexes things up" (Photo: BBC)
But then the Lady W script arrived, and she couldn’t put it down. “You read the real-life details and find yourself saying, ‘She did what? He did what to her?’ I was just intrigued. And then I thought, you know I could manage three weeks in a corset again. This is worth it. I’d like to tell Seymour’s story.”
The story starts out along familiar lines. Behind the scenes, the Worsleys were ill matched. He was affected and aloof; she was headstrong and volatile. One night in 1781 she tired of the pretence and ran off with a neighbour, George Bisset. Sir Richard’s response, however, was unusual. Rather than pursuing a divorce, he decided to sue Bisset for “criminal conversation”, a writ that sought redress for injury to a man’s “chattels” – in this case, his wife. The sum demanded was £20,000, or £20 million in today’s money.
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In court, Bisset and Seymour faced ruin. Worse, she couldn’t take the stand to protect herself. “I think this will be the biggest hurdle for a modern audience to get over – that women in the 18th century were their husbands’ property,” Dormer says. “The reason Seymour doesn’t stand up in court to defend herself is that you would no more ask a wife how she felt about being with a man than you would ask a cow how it felt about being stolen.”
"It’s the stuff that makes you uncomfortable that is actually the good drama" (Photo: HBO)
It was at this point that the defendants dropped their bombshell. Seymour couldn’t be worth £20,000, her counsel argued, because she had taken 26 other lovers besides Bisset during the marriage. Moreover, she had done this with Sir Richard’s consent as he was a voyeur. As ex-lover after ex-lover took the stand to confirm the liaisons, the nascent Georgian press went wild, gorging on the revelations in satirical cartoons and trial transcripts. “It was one of the first acrimonious tabloid marriage break-ups,” says Dormer. “It’s a PR tale where you have that original, Hogarthian press searching for scandal and anecdotes to fill newspapers. Tearing a personal life to shreds for entertainment value.”
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I ask how much she thinks contemporary culture has changed. When scandals are written up in the press, for example, isn’t there often a disproportionate focus on the woman – the “gold-digger” seeking the divorce settlement, the female spy set as a honeytrap?
She looks sceptical. “I don’t know. You can’t point the finger just at the press. I think it goes back much further.” She pauses. “You know, I’m scared of giving you a sound bite, a line, because you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of years of sociopolitical study as to how men and women have evolved to become two different entities. I can’t encapsulate that in a sentence.”
“If we can slip in these little triggers that make people think a bit, then a little bit of artistic licence is valid” (Photo: Anna Huix)
What I mean, I say, is that sometimes women are more vilified for their indiscretions than men. She nods, conceding the point. “Yeah, there is still a popular culture of making a woman either angel or whore. Definitely. And men seem to have a little bit more manoeuvrability on the spectrum.”
The thing she liked about Seymour was that she didn’t slip easily into either of those categories – even as a child she was a more impish character. One contemporary tale from Seymour’s teens, not featured in the film, has her stealing a carthorse after a New Year’s ball, raiding an inn and burning its militia flags, urinating on the flames to put them out, dumping a chamber pot on a gentleman’s head, then driving off to a country house where she trashed the library.
“Look, Seymour was flawed,” says Dormer. “We’re not saying she was just the wronged, victimised woman who found her strength. It’s not that kind of earnest, unreal story. She’s as three-dimensional and contradictory as any male protagonist.”
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This is an argument, of course, that is often applied to Thrones – that the rounded characterisation of the female characters offsets, or justifies, the show’s flirtation with gratuity. It was a debate that roared back to life in June’s season finale, with the character Cersei had to make a naked Walk of Shame. Does TV’s fixation with sex ever make Dormer uncomfortable? “I think sex and romance is a huge part of human motivation,” she says, shrugging. “So long as it’s informing the story then I don’t see what the problem is. Obviously no one likes gratuitous sex or gratuitous misogyny, the same way people shouldn’t like gratuitous violence.
“But I think Thrones is quite good in that way. The violence is quite naturalistic. It’s not hyper-stylised. It’s not glamorised. And the sex is quite real and dirty as well. It’s about those raw, visceral qualities of human life that make good drama.”
Filming sex scenes has never been a concern – certainly, she insists, she has never felt pressurised into them by a script. “Welcome to being an actress under a certain age in the industry,” she laughs drily. “But, you know, there are sensitive men in the industry as well – writers, directors, producers. It’s not just men against women. David Benioff and Dan Brett [the Thrones showrunners] are liberal-minded Americans who believe in equality. And we’re all serving the story.”
"The violence in Game of Thrones is quite naturalistic. It’s not hyper-stylised. It’s not glamorised. And the sex is quite real and dirty as well" (Photo: HBO)
This is the conundrum of being an actor, she says: knowing when to sit tight and trust the producers, and when to put up a fight on behalf of your character – even on something like The Tudors, which was never renowned for letting historical accuracy get in the way of a juicy plotline.
“I bent [writer] Michael Hirst’s ear a lot to try and get more authenticity in there. Only boxing Anne’s corner, because only she was my business. But it was very important to me that we portrayed her as a true Protestant revolutionary, as opposed to an avarice-driven woman who just wanted to get her leg over in order to be queen.”
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Inevitably, you sense similar tensions broiling beneath the premise of The Scandalous Lady W, where empathy with Seymour and Bisset sits somewhat uneasily alongside the film’s rollicking depictions of Lady W’s exploits (or exploitation). Are we indulging in a kind of voyeurism – serving sexed-up history for telly titillation? Dormer thinks not. “We’re not making a historical documentary here. Drama invariably sexes things up a bit, and simplifies. But I think that’s completely valid if it brings an era of political and social history to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise know about it.”
Lady Worsley was the subject of “one of the first acrimonious tabloid marriage break-ups”
She thinks for a moment. “I mean, only 230 years ago, in this country, a woman was the property of her husband. That’s something that women in their 20s should consider when slagging off ‘feminism’ on Twitter. Or, when this was set, only 15 per cent of the male population over 21 had the vote. Yet everything on the news at the moment is apathy towards politics.
“If we can slip in these little triggers that make people think a bit, then a little bit of artistic licence is valid.”
One in the eye for the historical purists, then. And perhaps also for the easily offended. But then Dormer isn’t out to make people feel comfortable.
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