Natalie Dormer is renowned for playing women who mix sympathy with ruthlessness, including Margaery Tyrell (“Game of Thrones”) and Anne Boleyn (“The Tudors”).
And that’s how she nabbed her latest role as Hester Appleyard in Amazon’s “Picnic At Hanging Rock.”
“[Showrunner/director Larysa Kondracki] won me by writing me the most incredible letter,” says Dormer. “They were going to use [Appleyard] as the nucleus from which all the other ensemble cast radiated. Larysa was like, ‘I need an actress that can play her humanity, and be terrifying one moment and vulnerable in the next.’”
Premiering Friday, the six-episode miniseries is based on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name. Set in Australia in 1900, the David Lynch-esque “Picnic” follows the event surrounding the disappearance of three students (played by Lily Sullivan, Samara Weaving and Madeleine Madden) and a teacher (Anna McGahan), at an upper class girl’s boarding school during a Valentine’s Day picnic. (It was also fodder for Peter Weir’s 1975 big-screen adaptation starring Rachel Roberts.)
Appleyard is the school’s Headmistress, and her prominence, youth, and increased aura of intrigue are among the main differences between the Weir film and the miniseries.
“We are in a zeitgeist era of anti-heroines,” says Dormer. “In the industry, we’re really exploring what male protagonists have had for years — that luxury of the antihero. What I mean [by ‘anti-heroine’] is fleshed-out, three-dimensional heroines with flaws, foibles and things that we need to forgive and they need to forgive themselves for.
“That’s good drama, to me.”
Nonetheless, because the Weir film casts a long shadow, not everyone initially agreed with Dormer that “Picnic” would be good drama.
“Everyone holds that film in extremely high regard, so we’re happy that it is quite a different take,” says Kondracki, who’s previously directed episodes of “The Americans” and “Better Caul Saul.”
“But [in Australia] ‘Picnic’ is the bible and Shakespeare and ‘The Great Gatsby’ rolled into one,” she says. “At the end of the day, you can’t take on history —you’re aware of it and you just try to do the best thing you can. There was [initially] a lot of negative press against us doing this. But once the Australian reviews came out and they were just unanimously ‘Brilliant!’ that was a phenomenal feeling.”
Previous versions of “Picnic” have left the mystery ambiguous. The miniseries does too, but it also leaves room for theories.
“There’s a real ‘choose your own adventure’ element to it,” says Kondracki. “Some people think aliens took [the missing girls], some think they ran away. [Of our] two writers [Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison], Bea thinks they disappeared into a different dimension, and Alice is convinced they run away. The scripts are still cohesive — everyone has their own opinion on what happens, and it all works. What’s so magical about the show is you get to define what it means.”
“It’s sophisticated storytelling,” adds Dormer. “It’s something that doesn’t spoon-feed its audience. To me, it’s six hours of cinema.”
“Picnic At Hanging Rock” Series premiere Friday on Amazon
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