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A Picnic to Remember

The new Amazon adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock was a revelation to Natalie Dormer.

Sarah Hirsch
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Tucked away in one of the many gardens at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, Natalie Dormer looks picture-perfect, sitting on a blanket beneath a shady tree.

If it wasn’t for her mirrored sunglasses and her hair worn down in loose, wavy curls, she would appear — dressed as she is in a vintage-looking white frock — as if she was ready to shoot a scene from her new Amazon limited series, Picnic at Hanging Rock, available to stream May 25.

Unfurling over six episodes, the series follows the mysterious disappearances of three schoolgirls and their governess on Saint Valentine’s Day in 1900, as well as the subsequent investigation and the back-stories leading up to the fateful event.

Dormer plays Mrs. Hester Appleyard, the patrician headmistress of Appleyard College. The character rules over the students with an iron fist, while constantly battling with her own sordid past.

The series — which is an adaptation of a 1967 novel by Australian author Joan Lindsay — was adapted once before, into a 1975 film helmed by Peter Weir. The classic novel and beloved film adaptation made taking on a new version all the more daunting. “It’s the jewel in their crown,” Dormer says of Australia’s love for the novel. “It’s kind of their Great Gatsby. It is their national treasure.”

The British, classically-trained actress, best known for her work on HBO’s Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games film franchise, sat down with emmy’s Sarah Hirsch to talk about Dormer’s first trip to Australia, crafting her character and the lasting impact of the feminist novel.

How did you first come across this material?

I was sent the first three scripts by [series writer and script producer] Bea Christian, and loved the way she writes. She’s very distinctive in her voice — a unique talent. She is, first and foremost, a playwright.

Then [establishing director and creative consultant] Larysa Kondracki wrote me a beautiful letter saying that she needed an actress that could play vulnerable next to tyrannical, terrifying next to broken. And she thought I was the woman for the job, who could oscillate between those. Then she and I had about a 90-minute FaceTime, and after I hung up I realized I was going to Australia.

What were your initial impressions of that country?

Maybe as a Californian you take it a little bit for granted, but it is the majesty of Mother Nature. It has an energy. The colors of Australia, the sights, smells and sounds, are truly unique, so it’s a very special place. The landscape is majestic, and it is a character in our piece.

What were your thoughts when you first read the script, particularly about the character you would be playing?

I wanted to know who she was. I couldn’t work her out. And then as you venture into the six hours, you pull back the layers, and you get the flashbacks to London. Then you start to see this broken, damaged, defiant young woman who has literally run to the other side of the world to reinvent herself.

Did you create a backstory beyond what was in the novel and the script?

Oh, 100 percent. That’s what Joan Lindsay does so beautifully in the book. She sort of nods at this past — not just to Hester, but to a lot of the characters. Then Bea grabbed the opportunity to fill in the subtext, and ran with it. Bea, Larysa and I forged the past of Appleyard together. Hester, I should say. Appleyard is a persona — a construct of Hester.

Can you expound on that?

It’s a spoiler. When you watch all six episodes you’ll understand.

What do you think is the source of Hester’s cruelty?

She’s a tyrant and a bully because of profound pain and hurt that she hasn’t processed. I’m not condoning it; I think it’s quite disgusting.

How do you think she views herself?

Appleyard doesn’t envisage herself as cruel. She thinks it’s tough love, that she’s doing the girls a favor. And it’s just profoundly misplaced. But that is always the diligent, hard work of an actor, to make your characters real, and three-dimensional. None of us are good, or bad. We’re all gray. That’s what it is to be human, that is the human condition.

So what was the most challenging aspect of playing a character like this?

Within the darkness of her, being cruel. I did not enjoy my scenes terrorizing 11-year-old Inez [Currõ], who plays Sara. That was difficult. So I had to dig deep to find Hester’s motivation and qualification for doing that, which is her own pain and tough love.

Did you do any research into the time period?

Oh, I always submerge myself into the historic period. Working out everything, like how long she would have been on the ship from London to Australia. And Edie Kurzer, our amazing costume designer, was very authentic with the way she dressed us — from our under-garments all the way to the detail of the amazing chatelaine that swings by my hip.

What are your thoughts on the pro-feminist themes in the series and the relevance for audiences watching today?

It’s set in an era when women didn’t have the right to vote, or to have financial, emotional or political independence. There are some terrifying comparisons with today.

It’s really three periods of time. It’s set in the 1900s, Joan Lindsay wrote it in the 60s, and then we get to 2018, when the conversation is still going. It’s waves and echoes. It shows how far we’ve come, and yet, how far we haven’t come. It’s that juxtaposition that I think makes it so compelling as a drama.

What was the experience like of finally watching the finished series?

I’m in awe of Larysa. I think she is a profound talent, and she did everything that she said she would — in her bold, stylistic choices, in the surrealism of it, the Lynch-ian, Lewis Carroll-ian, kind of weirdness of it. She really embraced the supernatural elements too, and it makes it more like a sci-fi series, than a costume drama, to my mind.

I read somewhere that you classified it as an “enchanted thriller,” which I thought was a perfect characterization.

Those are Larysa’s words. I nicked them. She calls it an enchanted thriller. It’s a mish-mash of genres: it’s gothic, it’s dark, it’s also profoundly funny in places — thanks to Yael Stone and Ruby Rees. And there’s drama, there’s a love story in there, there’s coming of age stories… That’s what I think makes it unique. It manages to dance in and out of different genres.