“I’ve been burnt so many times”: actress Natalie Dormer on sex, lies and being misquoted

“I’ve turned down roles involving sex because I’m terrified of perpetuating that clickbait image.”

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Natalie Dormer is not on Twitter, Instagram or any kind of social media – and that’s becoming a bit of a problem.

“I have been misquoted and taken out of context quite regularly on the subject of sex on screen. I don’t have any immediate redress to counter it,” the actress tells me, sitting at the other end of the sofa, but leaning towards me and watching how her words land. “How absurd to go, ‘Should I just tweet to say that journalist took my words completely out of context?’ It creates another story.”

It’s clear the events of 2015 have left Dormer very wary of how her words will be interpreted – or misinterpreted – online. The episode concerned Dormer’s comments about her Game of Thrones character, Queen Margaery Tyrell, seducing a 12-year-old boy. The character, King Tommen, was played by actor Dean-Charles Chapman, who was actually 16 at the time of filming; but the scene was the subject of immense interest, and came up in every interview she gave at the time.

Dormer’s comments on the scene were later twisted online to imply that she condoned having sex with underage children. She released a statement to website GossipCop.com (the original can no longer be found through googling), explaining that she considered Tommen to be “a naive 17-year-old” and “wouldn’t have played the scene if I believed different”. She also made it clear that she does not “condone, in any shape or form, sex with a minor. That is child abuse. A serious criminal act.”

What strange times we live in, that Dormer had to issue that rebuttal – and, yes, it did create another story, one that has outlived the original. “Having been through those experiences with journalists means your hackles are up,” she says. “But the interviewer doesn’t understand what the hackles are, they misinterpret it for caginess, aloofness.”

Dormer narrowly missed out on the A-Level grades she needed to take up her place to read history at the University of Cambridge. She speaks in long, discursive sentences, breaking eye contact to act parts of her speech out, and referring frequently to what she’s reading and watching. In the course of our conversation, she quotes prominent 20th-century psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, Emma Thompson from her appearance on a recent Front Row Late, and New York Times writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s recent anti-profile of actor Bradley Cooper.  

Dormer has an actor’s memory for a good line, sure; but when speaking to journalists she’s looking for more nuanced, longform conversation. “I find your job fascinating,” she tells me, “because I’ve been burnt so many times. I want to break it down and understand it, how did that happen?” Over the years, her long sentences have been cut down to soundbites, headlines and social media snippets that she feels add up to an inaccurate and damaging portrayal.

The immediacy of social media and online publishing has created even more obstacles for the famous actor who would like to have some control over his or her public persona. In a digital age, the classic celebrity profile seems to be dying a death – as pop music critic Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times two months ago, Dormer notes. Caramanica blames the shift on the direct line to the fans that the internet gives celebrities: not only do the fans stop reading the profiles, butthe celebrities stop consenting to sitting down for them.

Dormer is still willing to do interviews, despite her raw past experiences. Between trusting the internet to portray her faithfully, and speaking to a journalist who’ll need to find an angle on her story, she still chooses the latter. She can’t have a conversation with the whole internet, and who’s going to listen when she takes issue with her Wikipedia page?

She points to this line in the “Personal Life” section as being particularly wide of the mark: “Dormer is noted for frequently appearing in nude scenes… She has said that she is comfortable doing nude scenes.” She imagines “some person in their bedroom late at night,” writing that sentence, she tells me. “There’s an underlying chauvinism.”

The claim is bolstered by footnotes with links to several press interviews, but her actual quotes don’t make her sound as though she’s comfortable doing nude scenes. In 2011, she told the Independent that sex scenes are “very traumatic” and “like an all-over medical examination that us women have to go through at the doctors.” (That piece makes the point that her “naked romps” from BBC 2’s hyper-sexualised series, The Tudors, which aired 2007-10, “are a YouTube favourite.”) In 2015, she went on to tell the Telegraph that nude scenes are a requirement of being an actress who’s “under a certain age in the industry.”

In two separate Evening Standard pieces from January 2016 (one a classic celeb profile clearly written for the print magazine, the other written for search and social traffic online), Dormer says that she took the role of Anne Boleyn in The Tudors because she wasn’t working at the time: “I was grateful to get the job. People would say, ‘The Tudors was so hyper-sexualised, why on earth would you make that decision?’ Well, I made the decision because I was unemployed. I didn’t know what The Tudors was going to be, I didn’t have all ten scripts; I’d just got a job, for fuck’s sake.”

Dormer said all of this before the #MeToo movement went mainstream in October 2017, but it feels like the editors of her Wikipedia entry don’t want to discuss her discomfort with the sex scenes that she felt she had to do, alongside the internet’s continuing enjoyment of those scenes. “To set the record straight, I have never been comfortable doing sex or nude scenes,” she tells me, eyes wide with disgust. “Are you joking? How many people would be? My job specification is finding motivation in the text,” she goes on. “I’ve turned down roles this year that have involved sex, solely because of the way I’ve been misrepresented. I’m so terrified at the moment of perpetuating that clickbait image of me.”

She recalls an interview last summer, when she was promoting In Darkness and Picnic at Hanging Rock: a one-to-one for a broadsheet newspaper. “And the journalist quoted something I’d said in 2007. I was 25, I’d just done my first job! It’s naive to think that my life and professional experience hasn’t altered me,” she says.

“The culture has changed, too. You couldn’t make The Tudors now, exploit the female body like that. When I took [that role], I was 24 and just grateful to be on set. I didn’t know I could query things, say if I felt uncomfortable. Now I have some profile and influence on a project.”

This year, she moved into filmmaking with the aforementioned In Darkness, a thriller that she produced and co-wrote with her former partner of 11 years, the film’s director Anthony Byrne. The two met on the set of The Tudors; they’ve parted ways since promoting the film this summer.

Dormer only has positive things to say about Byrne. However, their promotional interviews for the film have continually included references to how difficult it was writing together: “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a writing room but I wouldn’t recommend it with your other half” (Dormer in 2016); “you end up being the bad guy and end up having massive arguments” (Byrne in May this year).

The film is a about a blind pianist, Sofia (played by Dormer), whose friendship with the socialite living in the flat upstairs (Veronique, played by Emily Ratajkowski) drags her into an underworld of hitmen, the Russian mafia and war criminals. Dormer does act in nude scenes – but this time, she’s had input into the writing and directing. The nudity has been called “gratuitous” by the Hollywood Reporter, which led Dormer to defend herself to another journalist, this time Guardian arts and media correspondent Vanessa Thorpe. “There has to be sexuality in the power play of a thriller,” she told Thorpe. “In this film the sex scene, which for me was a love-making scene, is a metaphor for the way my character connects with the part played by [fellow Game of Thrones actor] Ed Skrein.”

Dormer remains proud of the film, in defiance of scathing reviews, telling me: “[In Darkness] seemed to take on a tone that was completely out of my control. I was mortified that it had been interpreted in a gratuitous way. It was like a slap in the face.

“I was a bit naïve,” she adds. “I learnt a lot in that writing and production process. It’s that right to trial and error, to grow. It feels like, in this social media age, we’re not allowed that.”

There is an upside to Dormer having weathered the critics of her first foray into writing and producing: global distributor Fremantle has just announced a development partnership with the actress. Dormer’s first project with the firm will be firmly behind the camera, developing Vivling, a series based on the life of Gone with the Wind actress Vivien Leigh, once described by the film’s director George Cukor as a “consummate actress, hampered by beauty”.

I wonder if Dormer might enjoy the power to shape her own image that using social media could give her. Sending out an announcement or rebuttal in an Instagram story or Twitter thread is a darn sight easier than speaking to journalists, after all.

That doesn’t mean it’s better, though. To be famous in the 21st century, though, means covering both sides of that online conversation, again and again and again.