Natalie Dormer Explores the Dark and Twisty World of 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
Natalie Dormer wasn't exactly seeking out a project like Picnic at Hanging Rock when it came across her lap last year. After all, the 1967 Joan Lindsay novel on which the six-episode Amazon Prime miniseries is based, is widely considered to be one of Australia's most revered texts. But it was a personal pitch in the form of a letter Dormer received from showrunner and director Larysa Kondracki that quickly diminished any qualms she may have had about taking on such sacred, complex source material.
"When I spoke to Larysa Kondracki, I realized how bold and inspiring she was in her vision for the show. It was sort of infectious," Dormer tells ET. "Having read the first three scripts, which were so beautifully written by Beatrix Christian, it was the combination of the writing and hearing Larysa talk so passionately about her vision that really drew me to it."
Set in 1900, the story -- told through a modernized lens -- revolves around the mysterious disappearance of four schoolgirls from an Australian boarding college, headed up by the cunning and strict headmistress, Mrs. Hester Appleyard (Dormer), during an innocent Valentine's Day picnic at Hanging Rock. The aftermath of their sudden vanishment unravels a litany of repercussions for the school, its students, its staff and the surrounding community. As the search for the missing schoolgirls heats up, the secret Hester's been hiding about who she really is begins to consume her. (The tale was previously adapted into a 1975 film by director Peter Weir.)
“I was just like, ‘Who the hell is this woman?’" Dormer says of her initial reaction to Hester. "She’s obviously not who she says she is, so you slowly strip back the layers to reveal her true self and what she’s running from. Larysa sent me this beautiful letter, where she wrote, 'We’re in danger of making her a two-dimensional villain. I need an actress who can humanize her and flesh her out.' It was a massive compliment." The former Game of Thrones star singled out one sentence in Kondracki's letter that still rings in her mind to this day: "‘I need an actress who can be terrifying one moment and vulnerable the next,' and I was intrigued by the challenge of doing that by humanizing this bully.”
It wasn't a difficult search for Kondracki -- whose first thought was "Absolutely not!" when she was asked to help develop the miniseries for television -- to find the perfect actress to play Mrs. Appleyard. Her first and only choice was Dormer. "We got on the phone and she didn't want to do it," Kondracki recalls. "We talked for like two, three hours and she was like, 'F**k, I'm coming to Australia.'"
"First of all, she's a fantastic human being and has such gravitas onscreen. She can be vulnerable yet strong, and she had comedic timing, and was able to be in a psychological thriller. It's a very demanding role. She's someone who's incredibly bright and an amazing partner," she says, adding that Dormer contributed to the project in "almost a producerial capacity." Kondracki believed that the 36-year-old actress is one of Hollywood's most underrated actresses. "She's someone, who, I don't think reached the peak of her career yet. She's been doing very well, she has a massive following and she's a big star, but you can tell that there's a hunger there to explore more. That's the best thing in an actress."
It wasn't until after Dormer committed to the miniseries that she read Lindsay's book, immediately falling in love with the provocative storytelling, lush visuals and nuanced writing, promising that the adaptation mirrors that same energy. "Joan Lindsay leaves so much subtext, so much left unsaid, so many questions unexplored on who these people are," Dormer says. "Bea really grabs that [and she] deliciously delves into who these various people are and the dynamics of them all together in the wake of this tragedy. The spirit and ethos of Joan Lindsay is very prevalent."
Dormer, though, was surprised by the profound heaviness she felt while playing Hester and said she "never felt comfortable in her shoes." Kondracki, for her part, shared that the shoot was one of the most difficult of her career.
"I wasn't expecting to find myself so saddened as the actress looking in," Dormer says. "I always look at my roles a little bit like friends and I view Hester as a tragic antihero. She's carrying so much pain. She's not self-aware at all. She hasn't processed any of her history or her trauma, and unfortunately, unwittingly, she doesn't mean to be cruel. It wasn't her original intention. She was trying to right the wrongs of her past, but in a misguided way, she ended up being oppressive and a tyrant. To me, that's sad. To me, that's tragic. I felt profoundly sorry for her in the end."
For Kondracki, Picnic atHanging Rock is "a meditation on the completion of time."
"[Lindsay's] point was that the rock was there a million years ago and it's going to be there a million years into the future, and we're just little ants that inhabit a tiny space, and then we go away. So who the f**k do we think we are?" she muses. "In that sense, what the show is examining is timeless. Other than the corsets and the fact that there are horses not cars, I relate to every single character here -- standing up for yourself, figuring out who you are, being a version of your best self and true to yourself without giving into what you think society wants you to be. That's tough."
Filming commenced on Picnic at Hanging Rock months before the #MeToo and Time's Up movements took hold last fall, but the relevancy in its themes makes it much more than a period drama. "Everyone's got problems and things are happening behind closed doors that we don't know, so it feels incredibly relevant. It has edge. It felt like Heathersand The Breakfast Club meets The Shining," Kondracki says. "Hopefully we're additive to that conversation. On the other hand, it's sad to me that [this is the case], but I'd rather be a part of it than not."