Natalie Dormer Plays 4 Different Roles on 'Penny Dreadful: City of Angels'

402 - Dead People Lie Down
Q&A
Warrick Page/SHOWTIME

Natalie Dormer is known for  her edgy portrayals of  strong, sexy, power-driven women: Anne Boleyn (The Tudors), Margaery Tyrell (Game of Thrones), and Irene Adler/Moriarity (Elementary).

In Showtime’s supernatural  drama, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, the English actress has scored another memorable role, or should we say roles.  She plays Magda, a shape-shifting demon and three of her incarnations, all dedicated to inciting racial unrest in 1938 Los Angeles as WWII approaches.

Here’s Dormer’s take on the role.

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The star talks playing a veteran police detective in late-1930s Los Angeles for the Showtime spinoff.

What was your reaction when you heard this gig is playing four different roles?

Natalie Dormer: To play multiple characters was one of the reasons I took it!  The opportunity to explore your physical and mental range in one job won't come along very often in a career. So you sort of sit up straight and pay attention when it's a possibility.

What’s the key to playing Magda and her creations?

To think of it as playing one character but to invest in playing all of her iterations as fully fleshed out, three-dimensional characters themselves.

Natalie Dormer as Elsa in PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS, "Wicked Old World." Photo Credit: Warrick Page/SHOWTIME.

In the show’s heart-rending opener, Magda says, “All mankind needs to become the monster he truly is-- is being told he can."  In other words, humans are evil.  Will we find out what causes this hatred of humans?

I hope we'll find out. I have urged [executive producer] John Logan to explain her motivation. I did not take the job to play a two-dimensional baddie, because what's the point in doing supernatural or sci fi if it doesn't heighten these moments for humanity. The way he pitches Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, is that it's set in 1938, but it's about today. As he sees it, good people do bad things because they're either scared, angry, in pain or trying to protect their families. I’m hoping that for Magda there is an anger and a grief that has come through her relationship with her sister that will be explored. I want redemption– if redemption is never an opportunity for your character, then I don't want to play that character.

What is the relationship with her sister, Santa Muerte, who in Mexican folklore guides the dead into the afterlife?

Santa Muerte has rejected her sister in a way that has profoundly pained Magda.  People who are familiar with the first three seasons of Penny Dreadful in its London  gothic guise, will know that John Logan does these philosophical, thematic stories that  encompass many story lines  over a  long haul. I can only imagine that his genius mind  has a plan.

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Magda has three adult incarnations: Elsa, a German housewife who tempts a married pediatrician; Rio, a leader of Mexican American youth who goads one follower to strike out against the LAPD; and Alex, an icy political aide who corrupts a closeted gay councilman.  Which was the most challenging?

They were all challenging in different ways, I really enjoyed how physically removed I had to [become] to play Alex, but they all explore facets of Magda and her different ways of empowerment.

Empowering her victims to give into their worst natures!

Well, she is the antagonist of the show. Actually, she has quite limited power. What she can do is [tap into] to people’s psychology. Dr. Peter Kraft ( Rory Kinnear), for instance, seems to be a man with integrity, but she sees that he can be seduced by  Nazis messaging. It’s not about binary good vs. evil. There's a lot of fun along the way, but it's so important in our current climate that people understand that it’s not just, "Ooh, the devil exists, and she's going to turn you into a bad person." It's what's inside ourselves that makes us make certain choices

You had a very impressive Latin dance routine on May 10, the third episode.

It's such a tremendous ambitious sequence and such a joy to shoot and really show this sort of subculture, the Pachuco counterculture that was happening at that time. Unfortunately, a lot of people think that Pachuco is just really a tag word for gangster. But if you go back to its origins, it's a genuine, dignified subculture of the American Mexican community associated with the really colorful clothes that they wore and the jazz music that they identified themselves with. Our choreographer, Tommy Tonge, created this fantastic kind of swing dance that has elements of lindy hop and salsa.

Natalie Dormer as Rio in PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGEL, "Wicked Old World". Photo Credit: Justin Lubin/SHOWTIME.

Was it the first time you danced on screen?

Johnathan Nieves, who plays Mateo Vega, and I were dancers before we were actors! I haven't danced for years but Johnathan is a very accomplished dancer. We had a six week rehearsal process with Tommy and we just had a ball.

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Right now, things are looking pretty good for Magda’s chaos.  Who will try to stop her as the story progresses?

Maria Vega, played by Adriana Barraza. She clearly has [supernatural] powers and an affiliation with Santa Muerte. Another gift for me in this job was that playing multiple characters, I [worked with] the full talent of this ensemble cast--It was particularly wonderful to work with Adrianna and Nathan Lane (Det.Lewis Michner)—and I get to do that in a way that no one else in the show gets to.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Sundays, 10/9c, Showtime