It takes a special kind of actress to convincingly play multiple roles in one project—and in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Natalie Dormer plays four. John Logan’s spin-off to his cult-popular Showtime series finds the Game of Thrones alum playing a demonic figure named Magda, who takes on multiple forms—a German immigrant named Elsa, conniving city councilman assistant Alex, and pachuco ringleader Rio. But Dormer makes the task of toggling through these characters’ various accents and physical presentations effortless—a slinky grace that carries echoes of Eva Green’s stunning performance as Vanessa Ives in the original.
One thing Dormer makes clear, however, is that her character is not to be mistaken for the Devil.
“How boring would that be, a two-dimensional use of that?” Dormer says in an interview with The Daily Beast. Instead, she said, the character Magda “was pitched to me as sort of a capricious, supernatural goddess—like the jury was still out in her head about whether mankind is fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, which, I think is a pertinent question for our time.”
With City of Angels, John Logan leaves Penny Dreadful’s original setting of Victorian London behind in favor of 1930s Los Angeles. The show’s supernatural, literary elements—a prominent feature in the original, which included figures like Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Grey, and Dracula—have been somewhat muted in the spin-off, which, at least for the first five episodes, seems to limit its supernatural elements to the Mexican folk figure Santa Muerte and her sister, Dormer’s Magda.
Magda makes her philosophy clear at the very start of the series, when she tells her sister that the only thing required to make men release the monster inside them is to provide permission. “You’re like, ‘Wow, Magda, who hurt you?’” Dormer quips, noting that in addition to her rage, Magda is posing a philosophical question about whether or not mankind can be manipulated, positing, “I think there’s going to be the pushback, ultimately, as we go forward.”
Both the original Penny Dreadful and City of Angels ask a series of increasingly complicated questions about monsters and how we demonize others. The main philosophical difference, Logan has noted, is while the former asks us to “Accept the monster within yourself,” the new series emphasizes, “Beware the monsters around you.”
Dormer’s talent for archness and shifty smirks feel right at home in this world, especially as she plays a demon whose primary source of power is quiet manipulation—whispers the audience can, at times, not even hear. And here, she disburses those skills across four characters—a key aspect of the project that piqued her interest.
“As an actor, you go, ‘When am I going to be given this opportunity again?’” Dormer said. “Probably never, so you should grab this challenge with both hands.”
One of Magda’s guises is Elsa, a German immigrant who gently prods a German-born pediatrician to further embrace his Nazi allegiance. (Rory Kinnear, who played Frankenstein’s monster in the original Penny Dreadful, returns to play her mark, Dr. Craft.) Elsa was Dormer’s first crack at fully committing to a German accent, although she did have to study up a a bit once before for a stage play.
“But luckily I have several German friends, actually,” Dormer said. “It’s a nation that [has] good representation in my friendship group.” In addition to her dialect coach, Dormer said, she would send her friends “pleading voice-recorded messages on WhatsApp at various times of the night going, ‘Could you just say this word to me again really slowly?’… My German friends are very good friends and I owe them all a bottle of champagne.”
But it was Alex, assistant to a xenophobic city councilman, who wound up being Dormer’s favorite. Despite her mousy appearance, Alex is one of the show’s most brazen and cunning characters. “It’s one of the most distant roles from myself, physically, that I’ve gotten to play on camera,” Dormer said, adding that she and Mad Men alum Michael Gladys, who plays councilman Charlton Townsend, had a ball on set.
Another draw that clinched Dormer’s interest in the series is her well-documented love of history. (As several profiles have noted, Dormer only narrowly missed out on studying the subject at Cambridge.) She recalls John Logan telling her that although the series was set in 1938, it’s really about where we are today—an angle that becomes apparent as the series explores rising tensions between the Chicano community and the government that seeks to drive them from their homes to build a freeway as literal Nazis hold demonstrations in public parks.
“I think sometimes actors, wittingly or unwittingly, take jobs to help them process things,” Dormer said, “We get attracted to stuff because it helps us with stuff that our subconscious is dealing with—be it personal or on a bigger scale. I think I recognize some of the arguments that John wants to explore—the demonization of others, the dangers of political leaders that pander to people’s prejudices. So, it’s all that and hopefully it’s all wrapped up in a really entertaining, whodunit cop heist, as well. Hopefully it does both.”