From showrunner Larysa Kondracki and adapted from the iconic 1967 Australian novel by Joan Lindsay, the mini-series Picnic at Hanging Rock (streaming at Amazon Prime on May 25th) tells the story of what happens when a group of schoolgirls from a local college take a day trip to Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day 1900, and three of the girls and their governess go missing. The disappearance deeply affects the students family and staff of Appleyard College, none more so than enigmatic headmistress Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer), who becomes increasingly fearful that her own dark and secret past will be revealed.
At the press day, held at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actress Natalie Dormer (who gives a terrific performance, as the endlessly complicated Hester Appleyard) about why she was reluctant to put on another corset, the appeal of playing this character, the challenge in finding the humanity of someone like this, why she approached Hester Appleyard as two separate roles, working with this diverse cast, and what she looks for in a project.
Collider: So, is it true that you almost didn’t do this because you just didn’t want to put on another corset?
NATALIE DORMER: I wouldn’t say that I almost didn’t do it. It’s just that when it was pitched to me and when I read the original email, I was like, “I can’t! I mustn’t!” And then, I read Bea Christian’s first three scripts and I spoke to (showrunner) Larysa [Kondracki] for 90 minutes on FaceTime and I was like, “Aw shucks, these women are incredibly talented. I’m gonna have to put a corset back on again!” That’s what happened.
Had you just gotten to the point where you just didn’t want to wear a corset again because no one deserves to be tortured like that?
DORMER: It’s not so much about the physical duress, although you’re quite right. When you’re six weeks into a shoot and your ribs are aching, you’re like, “Remind me why I did this again?!” No, it was more not pigeon-holing myself in my casting, so that people think, “Natalie only does period drama.” I was anti sending that message to the world.
How did that 90-minute conversation with Larysa Kondracki go? What exactly did she say that really interested you?
DORMER: She started pitching how she saw Appleyard and how she needed to be humanized. In other hands, she might have become a two-dimensional villain, so she was unpacking the psychological baggage of Hester. I’d only read three episodes, so she explained four, five and six, which was important. That moment of self-reckoning for Hester, at the end, and of looking at herself squarely for what she’s done, is incredibly compelling. And then, on another level, just listening to Larysa talk, her references were not what I was expecting. When she started talking about David Lynch, visually, I started to understand that it wasn’t just these scripts that were bold. The way Larysa wanted to realize it was going to be unorthodox, and I started to hear a true artist from the director’s voice. She really did have a vision, in the true sense, and I was curious. Add the fact that I’d never been to Australia, and I was curious. I was very respectful of the idea of Australia saying, “Hang on a second, we can make prestige, high-production value TV, too. We can do what the Americans and the Brits are doing.” This was their offering, which is a national treasure of a story. So, for all these reasons – these scripts, Larysa’s vision, the way she described it, a curiosity to go to the other side of the world, and a curiosity of that country to claim a place at the table in the industry – was the reason that I said yes.
This was a movie in 1975, but I like the fact that this was very different, and you have so much more time to explore things that we haven’t gotten to see in this before.
DORMER: Yeah, I agree with you. As far as I’m concerned, they’re disparate things. Ours is a re-imagining of the novel. If you go back to the novel, all the hints, nods, and winks that Joan Lindsay gives to different characters and their backstories, Bea was able to flesh out. Bea really went back to the book and fleshed out all the hints that Lindsay left.
What was the challenge in finding the humanity of this character?
DORMER: The challenge was in qualifying her actions. I think she’s the least self-aware character that I’ve ever played. She does not want to unlock the box of what haunts her. What I love about Picnic, for Hester, as for all the characters, is what isn’t said, as much as what is said. The imagination fills in the gaps of what Hester’s life has been, when you start seeing the flashbacks to London. You don’t need to fill it in because the audience gets it, immediately. You start to comprehend what she’s running from and that she had the balls to say I’m gonna go to the other side of the world and completely reinvent myself, by herself, at that time. The most a woman could hope to do, at that time, was really become a super duper version of a governess, and therefore become a headmistress with her own equity, financially independent of a man. There were very few professions, at that time, that you could do that within, which was either hospitality or education. She has everything going for her, except her inability to process her ghosts. With the domino effect of the girls going missing and a spotlight being shown on her authenticity, she loses control quite quickly. It was a tough characterization because she’s broken and she’s running, literally and metaphorically, from herself. She’s also self-medicating with alcohol, which I do not identify with at all!
What did you go into this being most excited about getting to explore, and what did you grow to love about her, as you got to know her?
DORMER: There’s a deliciousness to her. There’s some comedy to be played with Hester, and I loved peeling back layers and slowly revealing her to the audience. It’s quite a schizophrenic performance, insofar as Mrs. Appleyard is a construct and Hester is the real woman. It was effectively two roles for the price of one. It’s Appleyard and Hester. I love Hester, and Appleyard is a construct. I think Hester hates Appleyard. She’s a persona. I get to play her jumping back and forth between the two and increasingly losing control of being able to do that. The thing I like about Hester, and it seeps through the pores so it looks like it’s Appleyard but it’s Hester, is that there is no judgment on sexuality, or race, or being a fallen woman, or being isolated. When you get the flashback to her interview with Mademoiselle, you see that her original manifesto was to be a place for waifs and strays and the teachers. She doesn’t see Maddie’s skin color. She says that the parents will see it, and she’s right, but she doesn’t judge her on her skin color. She doesn’t judge McCraw on her sexuality. She doesn’t begrudge the art teacher for her husband having left her and being shunned or ridiculed by society. She’s liberal and tolerant in those ways. It’s like Hester can’t quite put the lid on that unorthodox side of her past from London, as long as it doesn’t threaten her position within society and it doesn’t threaten the construct of Appleyard and Appleyard College. That’s what I like about her.
What was it like to work with all these girls, and were there ever times where you just felt really bad for having to be so mean to them?
DORMER: Oh, it was horrific! It was not easy doing that scene with little Inez [Currõ], who plays 11-yr old Sara. That was not a fun day at work. It was a rewarding day at work, but it was not a fun day at work. It was hard to dig in and be that thing. But I loved watching Samara [Weaving], Lily [Sullivan], Maddie [Madden] and Ruby Rees increasingly gain their confidence as young actresses, and explore and play. It was a joy to watch those young women increasingly get more confident.