Interview: ‘Game of Thrones’ co-star Natalie Dormer discusses her Margaery Tyrell

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been posting my interviews from the “Game of Thrones” red carpet premiere in Hollywood. At the event, I got a couple minutes with many of the show’s stars, but the actor I was most disappointed to miss may have been Natalie Dormer. 
The British actress, who I first noticed in “Casanova” and playing Anne Boleyn on the first two seasons of “The Tudors,” is giving what I think is one of the most interesting performances in the deep “Game of Thrones” ensemble. 
Dormer’s Margaery Tyrell is surprising partially because she has almost nothing in common with the child-bride introduced in the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels. As Dormer plays her, Margaery has an interesting and pragmatic understanding of the game that gives the HBO drama its title. She knows what she has to do to secure her position in Westeros and she’s prepared to do it, whether it meant accommodating Renly’s secretive sexual orientation or Joffrey’s not-so-secretive ickiness. And as the new season begins, Margaery is showcasing a different, even more complicated, side with the help of her feisty grandmother the Queen of Thorns, played by Dame Diana Rigg. 
Having missed her on the red carpet, I got on the phone last week for a longer conversation with deeply invested and fiercely thoughtful actress. 
The full Q&A is after the break. It contains information, but I wouldn’t think to call any of it “spoilers.” 
HitFix: Margaery Tyrell is one of the “Game of Thrones” TV characters with the fewest ties to her book incarnation. What are you actually able to get from the books to help you in crafting the character?
Natalie Dormer: I spoke to Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] when I took on the role and I said, “You know, guys, shall I read the books?” And they said, “By all means, read the books for your own recreation, but in regards toward your characterization of Margaery, it’s not so necessary, because we’re going to flesh her out and do something different with her,” which hopefully is more of an enhancement than a turn-away from the books, but I think they were a bit perplexed, to begin with, of what they were quite going to do with her. So I looked forward to the opportunity, with them, to flesh out another one of these characters. She’s not a POV character, because goodness knows if George Martin fleshed out all the characters in the books the way he fleshes out the POV characters, the books would be even five times longer than they are already. So we were like, “Well, let’s see what we can do with her that is in keeping with the books, but enhances her somewhat.”
HitFix: Where were David and Dan in the process of how they were shaping this character when you came on-board?
Natalie Dormer: I don’t think they were fully sure what they were going to do with her, to be honest. You’d have to ask David and Dan, but I’ve really enjoyed shooting Season 3 because Margaery brings this whole new element to the Game that you haven’t seen before, which is basically PR. It’s quite a modern ethos on PR and courting public affections, hopefully. We’ve all seen politicians kiss babies. It doesn’t mean that she’s insincere in her genuine hope to do charitable work and it’s just an interesting new comment on how you handle the masses and how you win power that maybe we haven’t seen in Westeros before. And her grandmother, The Queen of Thrones, Olenna,  played by the great Diana Rigg, they’re bringing a whole new identity and concept on how to win power.
HitFix: If Margaery has this instinct toward self-preservation and also winning power that is so strong, how much do you think that she’s actually being sincere at any given moment?
Natalie Dormer: I think Margaery is a more sincere girl than maybe the audience would give her credit for to begin with and what we’ve seen of her so far. That’s how I’m playing her, because it’s more interesting as an actor to play a more ambiguous line between sincerity and genuine affection and positive personality features. I mean, Sophie and I — Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa — we’ve had this conversation where, in another situation, the girls would probably be quite genuinely good friends. They both come from very close-knit families, ruling and privileged families, and under other different circumstances, they’d probably really quite like each other and have a genuine friendship and I think Margaery genuinely sympathizes with Sansa’s position and wants to be a bit big-sisterly to her, because she’s aware of Sansa’s naivety and she doesn’t want bad things to happen to Sansa. She wants to bring her into the fold of the Tyrells and under the Tyrell’s protection and I don’t think the two things need to be mutually exclusive. I don’t think the pursuit for power and being a nice human being, or having elements of genuine sincerity, have to be mutually exclusive. I think that’s a comment on half the modern politicians of the Western World. You know? Margaery’s just trying to be a viable, shrewd First Lady. That’s what she wants to be.
HitFix: Does that mean some of her affection for Joffrey might also be sincere, in your mind?
Natalie Dormer: The audience has the advantage over Margaery. The audience knows Joffrey. They’ve analyzed his psychology for the past two seasons and Margaery is very late to this game. She doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into. The Tyrell’s don’t fully appreciate what they’re getting themselves into. So you witness, through the third series, this very steep learning curve and this revelation for the Tyrells, Olenna and Margaery, when they come up against Cersei and Tywin Lannister and Joffrey and realize what they’re dealing with. There’s a very interesting scene in the second episode when Margaery is trying to find out where the line is, she’s trying to find out what makes Joffrey tick, so that she can control him and change him. It’s not a new concept that women try to better their men. Every woman tries to change her man in one way or another and Margaery’s job would be easier if she could genuinely get on with Joffrey. So she’s exploring when we meet her at the beginning of Season 3.
HitFix: In the first part of this season, one of the dynamics that’s most interesting is the relationship between Margaery and Cersei, these two women trying to maintain power in a patriarchal society and fighting, effectively, over Joffrey. Do you think that Margaery and Cersei are cut from similar cloth? Or are there big differences?
Natalie Dormer: I think the big difference between the Tyrells and the Lannisters is that the Tyrells are a matriarch family. The Tyrells are run by a women. Olenna is completely in charge of that family. The Lannisters are run by Tywin Lannister. It’s a very virile, very masculine-dominated Alpha Male family. And Cersei, as Lena has so beautifully portrayed in previous seasons, she feels a bit trapped and dominated and wishes she could have been a man so that she could get on the battlefield and fight. She feels suppressed by her gender. The interesting thing about Margaery is that she’s more cut from the cloth as a protegee of her grandmother, so she knows what it’s like for a woman to be in charge. I’m sure that in Margaery’s head, she’s hoping and and believing that she can marry Joffrey, have a son and put her son on the throne and be a matriarch herself.
HitFix: How much have you learned about Margaery this season from seeing the Queen of Thorns, from being able to interact with Diana Rigg’s character?
Natalie Dormer: Having the physical embodiment of Olenna, in Diana Rigg, has helped me five-fold, because when Diana was cast and I started interacting with her, it explained a lot of Margaery’s childhood and her background to me, to have it physically realized was a great help. Absolutely. I’m overjoyed that the Tyrells are now en masse and are now an extra clan to add to the Game.
HitFix: Did you have any favorite Diana Rigg roles, previously?
Natalie Dormer: I think we all remember Emma Peel from “The Avengers,” the feminist icon that she was in the late ’60s. She’s made of strong stuff as an actress and she brings that mettle to the role of Olenna. You can only be inspired by that as Natalie Dormer and as Margaery Tyrell. Yeah, it informs a lot of Margaery’s psychology, definitely, to have a strong older woman like that as a mentor.
HitFix: What is the energy or the stature that Dame Diana brings to the set on her first day?
Natalie Dormer: You’re right, she just bring an authority. She has a natural authority. She brings age and experience and wisdom and Sophie and I very much enjoyed working with her, because you sorta just sit back and you appreciate watching her work.
HitFix: Did anything in the experience of working with her surprise you?
Natalie Dormer: Not really, insofar as I’m not Sophie’s age. I’ve been professionally acting for 10 years and I’ve worked with quite a lot of impressive older actors. It’s not specific to Diana. Whenever you work with older, experienced actors, the sensible thing to do is sit back, watch and learn. That was appropriate for Diana the way it’s appropriate when I’ve sat back and worked with other great older actors. “Thrones” has an amazing cast. It has a lot of incredible veterans, be it Julian Glover or Diana or Charles Dance. These are incredibly experienced, nuanced actors and they bring a great weight and authority to the roles that they do and for the younger actors, especially the likes of Sophie and Maisie and Isaac, it’s wonderful for them to have that experience up-close, first-hand and so young in their careers.
HitFix: How old is TV Margaery? Have we established that?
Natalie Dormer: I don’t know. Have you talked to Richard Madden and asked him how old Robb Stark is? All the characters are aged up, even the New Stark generation is aged up. I haven’t had a conversation with Dan and David specifically giving an actual age, but every single character in the series is aged up, including myself.
HitFix: I have talked with Richard about that and one of the themes that comes up is that people in Westeros age in different ways than in our world, so a younger person in Westeros might seem a good deal older because of what they’ve gone through and whatnot.
Natalie Dormer: Oh, I see what you’re saying, that it’s a comment on the society of Westeros. Certainly it’s a very dangerous, dark world in Westeros and the younger characters have to go up very quickly, whether you’re talking about Maisie playing Arya or Isaac playing Bran, all the way to Loras and Margaery. Yes, I suppose there’s childhood taken away and innocence taken away from those younger characters we see in Westeros.
HitFix: You talked earlier about the different cloth Margaery and Cersei are cut from, going a different way… When you think about Margaery’s methods and her instincts and her aspirations, how would you compare her to Anne Boleyn?
Natalie Dormer: [Long pause.] They’re totally different women. Totally different women. [Pause.] Margaery comes from a very close family. She’s very much under the wing of Olenna, whereas Anne was very much out on her own and relying, primarily, on her love and her passion and her relationship with her man, with her king. I suppose the biggest difference is… If you want a soundbyte, if that’s what you’re looking for… Insofar as it’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Anne Boleyn was fire and Margaery is ice. Margaery is a lot more practical, cool. She’s been trained for this sort of level of politics and machinations from an early age. She’s intellectual about it, whereas Anne Boleyn was very much a creature driven by passion an instinct and visceral qualities. So, in their roots, the characterizations come from two different places
HitFix: Two different places, certainly. But because, I suppose, I was watching you, I found myself also reflecting on similarities in certain things that drive these women. There are questions regarding what these two women are willing to do to simultaneously protect and elevate their families, to insulate their families and to hold down power far from their homes.
Natalie Dormer: Oh, totally. Yeah, that’s a shrewd point to make. Both women are carrying the banner for their respective clans and hoping for the best for their children. I mean, as an actress, as you get older, you find yourself in a situation where you play mothers or women who are hoping to be mothers. And whether you’re talking about Anne Boleyn or Cersei Lannister — or Baratheon, as she became — or whether you’re talking about Margaery, these are women who are trying to put their children or their future children first. Margaery wants her son to sit on the Iron Throne. Anne Boleyn wanted her son to sit on the throne of England. And Cersei wants to keep her children on the throne. When you’re talking about this kind of politic, be it George R.R. Martin’s concept of a medieval society or whether you’re looking at genuine English medieval society or post-medieval society, the only way a woman could have power was to have a male child and have influence on him and get him as high as he can and, ultimately, that goal is a throne of whatever kingdom you’re talking about. So that is what unites them.
You’ll appreciate that I’m trying very, very hard as an actor to separate my characterizations. It was a concern for me when I took on the role that I wanted to differentiate them as much as possible. So I aim to do that and I challenge myself to do that every single day. I want to create a completely independent character.
HitFix: Absolutely and I wasn’t saying they were the same. I was feeling like one, to some degree, enriches or plays off of the other to some degree. Maybe?
Natalie Dormer: Yeah, maybe. I would stick to my point about women being mothers in these situations and that being what unites them, that maternal instinct to want the best for their children or their future children and raising the family that way.
“Game of Thrones” returns to HBO on Sunday, March 30.