There is a lush, wooded area that rests just north of Mount Fuji in Japan known as Aokigahara Forest. It is a beautiful destination spot for tourists, hikers, locals… and those who wish to violently end their own lives. For decades, hundreds and more have gone to the Sea of Trees to commit suicide. It’s a phenomenon that Natalie Dormer saw the aftermath of firsthand in preparation for The Forest, a new supernatural horror film in which she stars.
While production on The Forest was mostly completed in Serbia, there was a week of shooting in Japan that allowed Dormer the chance to venture to the actual Aokigahara where hiking and greenery is punctuated by signs urging the distressed to seek suicide hotlines. In a beautiful wood supposedly haunted by Yurei, wrathful spirits seeking to haunt the living, it is a jarring juxtaposition.
It is also a main draw for The Forest, a thriller in which Natalie Dormer plays two twins, Sara and Jess. Both witnessed a tragedy during childhood, but while Sara seems to have persevered and moved on with her life, Jess has followed a downward spiral that ended with her being lost in Aokigahara Forest. But despite having vanished in that menacing location several days ago, Sara can sense her twin is alive. So with the help of a curious journalist named Aiden (Taylor Kinney) and their Japanese guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), Sara ventures into the Suicide Forest to stop her sister from commencing what the Yurei apparently drive any long-term resident toward doing: self-annihilation.
When I sat down with Ms. Dormer last month, we chatted about her experiences in the real Aokigahara, as well as how she inhabited the two sisters. Oh, and Game of Thrones just might have come up too…
So this is your first horror movie. Have you been a fan of the genre before now?
No, not really. I surprised myself from the way I responded to the script. I just like good filmmaking, I just like good storytelling. So regardless of genre, I enjoy watching a movie if I think it’s a really great, interesting narrative and well told.
I’m not a massive horror fan fanatic, but I love films like The Others, The Orphanage, I thought It Follows last year was very good. I think in every genre, you have the cream of the crop and the not-so.
What about this script made it stand out to you then? I’m sure there have been many other horror movie scripts you’ve read in the past.
Absolutely. To me, the intelligence and the psychology of it—it’s a psychological horror. I would like to think people who might not ordinarily think they like horrors would watch this and enjoy it, because really it’s about the psychological deterioration of the lead character. Her descent into madness. And I loved the fact that the central relationship was two sisters. A sibling relationship as a central relationship is not something you see that often, especially in a genre like this.
So I loved that and I loved this concept that you go into a place, and it holds your own demons back up at you. Because we’ve all got demons and we’ve all got baggage, so to me, it seemed very plausible and interesting as a concept.
Also this whole concept and legend around Aikoghara Forest is fascinating. Had you heard about this place before?
I was very surprised when I googled it. I googled it at exactly the moment in the script. The first time I read the script, where Sara googled it with Google Images, I did exactly the same before I read any further so that I was up to pace with her. And no, I hadn’t [heard of it], and I’m deeply surprised I hadn’t to be perfectly honest, because you would think it is something you would know about.
And I was just fascinated by the whole heritage of the place. And having spent a week in Japan, and I took a daytrip up there, and going to the real place, and witnessing—it’s a sacred place to the Japanese. They have a lot of superstition and respect for it. It’s sacrosanct to them.
I understand from what Google research I did about it that they have signs urging visitors, if they’re feeling depressed, to call a suicide hotline.
Did you see anything like that or anything unusual while you were over there?
Oh yeah. I didn’t see anything unusual, but I stood in front of the signs. They’re there. And the tape that people tie around trees, or rope, to walk in is there. It’s really there. It’s very interesting: the day I went, it was a beautiful sunny day, the birds were singing, it was a blue sky, we saw lots of hikers. People with kids walking along, very happy, a lovely hiking trail. Beautiful. But at the same time, every sort of half-a-mile or whatever, there will be a sign like that as you say.
So, I think you just feel a compassion and a sadness that there are still people who go to that place with the intention of going in and not coming out. And then you just imagine that was someone you really loved, who was making that decision, and you’re halfway there in the psychology and the acting psychology of where you need to get to be playing Sara.
But you’re just not playing Sara, you’re actually playing two sisters. They’re identical twins, but very different personalities and perspectives. Can you talk a little about how you were able to play two distinct characters?
It’s very much on the page. They’re the perfect example of two people who have had a trauma and gone in the opposite direction. One’s gone wild child, and the other’s become very overachiever, a control-freak, really. So, they’re almost like textbook blueprints of how you can go if you suffer a real trauma as a child.
And the characterizations weren’t difficult, because the writing was there. For me, it was more just making sure that when I played them on the same day that they didn’t cross-pollinate. And you know, I didn’t take Sara’s walk into Jess’ walk. The voice was still a little bit where I could give some kind of distinction between the voices. It was just making sure in the actual, technical physicality of them that they read differently.
What’s also interesting is that Sara is the ‘nice one;’ she looks away from the world’s horrors. But this whole story is about her experiencing that horror, suffering from it. I am sure you are aware of the paradox, but did it influence or inform how you approached the character?
I think that Jess is the sane one [Laughs] because Jess is the good one, because Jess is the one who is in communication with her emotions. Sara, as a line of one of the Japanese characters says to Sara, she says, ‘In the forest, you do it to yourself.’ I just loved the fact that Sara is carrying this profound guilt that she has never processed. And maybe she went to therapy at some point, but she never would have let go enough to actually get some real quality out of the therapy.
It’s almost like she did it to herself. She held onto this thing and she hasn’t processed it.
This is what I mean about the genre almost being irrelevant, because you start talking about just the human condition. We have all done things in our past that we regret. That we wish we could take back. We’ve all hurt someone that we care about at some point and wish we hadn’t. Or regret the way we did it. So that’s what I love about a really good genre movie is there will be these hidden themes that are just the general human condition that the audience can identify with.
This is a very physical role, I don’t know if you were shooting in Japan for much of the forest—
We were in Serbia the whole time that we were running around in the forest.
I couldn’t tell.
Good! The location scouts will be so pleased! [Laughs]
But you’ve never done a role like this before. What surprised you in the process of shooting it?
I don’t know if I was surprised; it was as I expected with how tired I got. Because when you’re playing a heightened state of adrenaline constantly for five weeks, it kind of effects your muscles. You’re playing tension constantly, so you become a bit [spastic]. You’re carrying that tension back to the hotel room with you every night. So, I did a lot of yoga and I tried to get a massage when I could, because you’re in this state of heightened adrenaline and terror. And I’m very grateful to the decision that was made, it was a collaborative decision I think, it’s very unusual in filmmaking to shoot something in chronological order. It’s highly unusual.
But the choice was made for the forest to shoot as chronologically as possible, because it helped hair and makeup, and prosthetics stay in continuity for the breakdown of my physical demise. But it really helped me with the psychology of knowing exactly where I come from and where I’m going. And as the shoot went on, I got more and more tired, especially as we got on to night shoots, and the bags got bigger and bigger under my eyes, it just all informed the character. So, it was emotional and physical gymnastics, but it was a real challenge, and I loved it for that fact because I felt like I had achieved something by the end of the day.
To change gears for a moment, have you finished shooting yet season 6 of Game of Thrones?
I just wrapped, I personally wrapped season 6 last week [this interview was conducted in early December].
Margaery is in a different place this season than she was at the beginning of last year. Can you talk a little about how you prepared for that?
What I love about Game of Thrones is every year you don’t really know who your pairing is going to be with. I’ve had some great stuff with Sophie Turner in the past, and some great stuff with Lena Headey. And I’ve got a whole new partner to play with in this season. So, I had a lot of fun there.
I read the books between seasons 1 and 2, and on the page Margaery was an intriguing and mysterious character. She had a real Anne Boleyn quality to her, especially in the later books with what Cersei accuses her of doing. Were you ever able to talk with George [R.R. Martin] or [Game of Thrones showrunners David and D.B. Weiss] about those historic parallels and if they influenced you at all?
I contemplated not taking the role of Margaery Tyrell because I thought it was too close to what happened to Anne. So I spoke to David and Dan about it, and I said, ‘I love the show, I’ve watched the first season as a fan, and I’d love to be in the show with you, but I’m scared that on the page, the events that happen to Margaery are too close to Anne Boleyn. And I don’t want to play the same character twice. And Dan and David were like, ‘Nat, we trust you. You’re a talented actor,’ bless them for saying. ‘Don’t worry about it, that’s not going to happen. Your characterization will be different, we trust you.’
And I went, ‘Okay!’ Maybe more fool you! [Laughs] But in the end, they were right. They did turn out to be two totally different women. They want to be queen for different reasons and also, their demise of being thrown into a jail cell has definitely been played very differently. So, I think I had real trepidation and concern about doing that. Basically, the answer to your question is that Dan and David, the creators of the show have told me not to worry, and I think, if I believe what fans have told me in hindsight, they were right. They read as different people completely.
I’m also glad you took the role.
Thank you very much and Merry Christmas.