Over a decade after her breakthrough role as Anne Boleyn on The Tudors, Natalie Dormer is back on Showtime with the darkly charming Penny Dreadful spinoff, City of Angels, in which she plays Magda, a shape-shifting demon and craver of chaos. The lead role -- which actually sees her playing multiple personas -- is showcase for the English actress who has since garnered international acclaim thanks to supporting characters as Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones and Cressida in The Hunger Games films.
Set in 1938 Los Angeles, City of Angels explores the growing political and social tensions between the Latinx community and a growing insurgency of alt-right and Nazi sympathizers as murders of Mexican-Americans and a new highway threaten to tear the entire community apart. Created and written by Penny Dreadful’s John Logan, the series is infused with Mexican folklore and evangelism, with some characters connected to the deity Santa Muerte, played by Lorenza Izzo, and others aligned with the devil.
As the series’ antagonist, Magda is the one who seemingly holds sway over which way things will go. “All it takes for mankind to be the monster that he truly is to be told that he can,” she says in the first episode, planting the kernel for what’s to come the rest of the season.
“She’s the devil incarnate with limited power. She can only work with what’s within the human heart… yes, there’s an obvious anger slash sadness in her,” Dormer says, comparing Magda to a puppeteer, whose layers and intentions will continue to unfold and reveal themselves.
One of several ways audiences will get to see Magda exact her influence is by taking shape as various personas -- a mysterious mother, Elsa; a city councilman’s assistant, Alex; a ringleader of pachucos named Rio -- on both sides of the growing war. “You get an insight into Magda slowly but surely I think by listening to the three iterations that you see over the course of season one,” Dormer says.
And it was “getting four roles for the price of one” that the actress gleefully jumped at the chance to play. “Getting to change your physicality, voice and psychology to a certain extent is like catnip to an actress,” she says.
Each of the personas are “three dimensional characters with real human history,” she continues, explaining that despite Elsa’s “horrific Nazi sympathies, she has come from a war-torn and broken country where she's been raped, starved and had this horrific past that has given her a motivation to behave in a certain way.”
Helping her to bring Magda’s iterations to life is the distinct costuming. “A way to get into a character is physicality, and costumes does that for me immediately,” Dormer says.
While the demon herself is often seen in stunning dark black silhouettes, her human forms appear much different. For Alex, it’s spectacles, tweed suit dresses and gray hair that give her a mousy appearance, whereas Elsa is a striking blonde beauty in impeccably tailored fashions of the time.
And then there’s Rio, a member of a queer subculture of Chicanos and Mexican-Americans who expressed themselves by wearing zoot suits. “You feel the liberation that those women finally in the 1930s did when they got to put on those pants,” Dormer says, in complete love with Rio’s costuming. “What the pachucos did with their hair, with their makeup, with their clothes, you know, it was a social statement.”
While City of Angels gives Dormer an opportunity to shine as a performer, there’s no escaping her time as one of the wives of King Henry VIII on The Tudors, which ran from 2007 to 2010. “[Anne Boleyn] runs deeply with people,” Dormer says of fans, while also admitting that the role still holds a special place in her heart.
“The Tudors really was kind of my camera apprenticeship,” she says. “It was the show that I cut my teeth. So to have had the privilege of working on a show that has maintained on a production level -- I mean, think what happened to television in that time, it’s absolutely extraordinary. And I think Penny Dreadful, in how it looks on the screen, is a true testament to how cinema is well and truly here to stay.”