"The hair," Natalie Dormer says with considerable relief, "is growing back."
She tosses her lustrous blonde mane to one side to reveal newly sprouting tufts where, just weeks before, this side of her head was completely bald. “I’ve missed it,” she says.
Dormer is an actress—and a good one—which means she’s prepared to do whatever’s required for a particular role. In the past, this has included donning corsets for costume dramas like The Tudors (in which she plays the doomed Anne Boleyn) and Game of Thrones (in which she plays the put-upon widow Margaery Tyrell); being directed by Madonna in W.E., the 2011 biopic about Wallis Simpson; and enduring perhaps more than her fair share of on-screen, and corset-less, sex scenes, many of which have subsequently found their way onto YouTube. But she has never had to make drastic, long-lasting changes to her appearance—that is, not until she signed up for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (Part 2 follows with haste next year), in which she plays Cressida, a documentary filmmaker. “My character is tasked with packaging Jennifer Lawrence as the poster girl for a revolution. It’s pretty intense stuff.”
She hopes that running around with her head half-shaved will help challenge people’s perceptions of her. “Perhaps it will also challenge my own perceptions of myself,” she suggests ruminatively, over a peppermint tea in a café not far from her southwest London home on a warm fall morning. At first, she found the style liberating. “But it also made me realize just how much of a woman’s identity—her sense of attractiveness—is wrapped up in her hair. I don’t know what men think of when they look at a woman’s hair. Do they see the hair before the face?” She shrugs. “It was definitely an edgy moment when I first saw my head naked. It got very cold. I had to wear hats.”
Dormer, 32, was born in Reading, an unremarkable satellite town outside of London that journalists seem contractually obliged to remind everyone is the same place from which Kate Winslet also hails. She was raised by her mother and stepfather, a builder, and has a half sister seven years her junior. She says she spent much of her childhood in her own highly imaginative head, and was prone then, and still now, to thinking a lot, to philosophizing. When asked why she became an actress, her response is to ask why I became a writer, or why any of us become the things we do.
“It used to amuse me when people asked what drew me to certain roles,” she says. “I would be like, ‘Fucking hell, mate—I haven’t worked in months! This is my job!’”
But it might not have been. Initially, she had planned to study history at Cambridge University, but she didn’t quite get the necessary grades. Instead, she followed her heart to London. “I was desperately in love at the time, first love, and we all know what first love is like, don’t we? He was at university here, and I just wanted to be near this guy, because he rocked my world. So I ended up studying drama nearby, and the rest is history.”
At the utterance of this well-worn cliché, she laughs, loudly, and in doing so manages to draw every eye in the place toward her. But then it’s not easy to overlook Natalie Dormer, the kind of actress who is entirely in possession of the aura she exudes. She has an incredible face, an impish mixture of Björk and Cate Blanchett, all high cheekbones and pixie nose, her eyes almond-shaped and the color of a summer sky. Her hair, and especially the way she tosses it from side to side as we speak, might well possess aphrodisiac qualities. You sense she knows this.
She lives in London with her fiancé, director Anthony Byrne, but has seen precious little of him recently due to the requirements of her job: Parts 1 and 2 of Mockingjay were filmed back-to-back over a period of nine months. “It’s an interesting dichotomy every actor struggles with: the professional and the personal,” she muses, adding, “I complain about it all the time, but I get a kick out of it as well. I must. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise, would I?”
Recently, Dormer has been featured in several “ones to watch” lists—the consequence of appearing in a mega-franchise surrounded by big stars. But this, she insists, is of more importance to her agents than herself. Were it the other way around, her sanity might be compromised.
“If you attach too much anxiety to contemplating that sort of thing, you end up self-sabotaging, I think. You undermine yourself. It’s important to appreciate how the system works. This is a game, essentially, and within that game you must carve out your own artistic integrity.”
She laughs again. “That’s the goal, anyway.”
Photography by Zoey Grossman. Text by Nick Duerden.