Natalie Dormer on new TV series Picnic At Hanging Rock

Natalie Dormer stars as Mrs Appleyard. Picture: PA
Natalie Dormer stars as Mrs Appleyard. Picture: PA
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The stars of Picnic At Hanging Rock talk to Georgia Humphreys about the new TV series

Picnic At Hanging Rock is such a quintessential Australian novel that some believe it’s a true story.

(L-R) Madeleine Madden as Marion Quade, Samara Weaving as Irma Leopold, Lily Sullivan as Miranda Reid. Picture: PA

(L-R) Madeleine Madden as Marion Quade, Samara Weaving as Irma Leopold, Lily Sullivan as Miranda Reid. Picture: PA

Now, over 50 years since Joan Lindsay’s book was first published, the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their governess on Valentine’s Day, 1900, has been re-told for a six-part series airing on BBC2.

“I thought the way this whole community and school had been fleshed out between the lines of what is present in the novel was wonderful,” says Game Of Thrones star Natalie Dormer, who plays Appleyard College’s enigmatic headmistress, Hester Appleyard.

“There is a magic that we have very much injected into our re-imagining of Picnic At Hanging Rock, one that is hopefully very faithful to the tone of the novel.”

Here, Dormer, and some of her co-stars – a new wave of leading Australian actors – tell us more about what to expect from this beautiful period drama.

We are taking a classic and a beautiful, period piece – and destabilising it

For Reading-born Dormer, 36, the biggest mystery of the series is her character Hester, who moved to Australia at the end of the 19th century to give herself a new identity.

“We slowly reveal the ghosts and the baggage of that past, who she is and this little kingdom that she has created 10,000 miles away from home to hide from her past.”

Meanwhile, Queensland native Lily Sullivan plays Appleyard College student Miranda.

“She’s earthy, strong, opinionated... I think that comes from growing up on a farm with four brothers, totally treated as an equal, gender does not apply whatsoever,” the 24-year-old says. “I think out of all the girls she’s really tasted the notion that women are equal to men.”

Former Home And Away star Samara Weaving takes on the role of Irma, a prize recruit of Appleyard College who “likes beautiful things”.

The 26-year-old says: “There’s the obvious, narcissistic side to that, which is that she likes jewels, wears the fanciest clothes and gets things imported from France.

“But on the flip side, Irma wants the world to be beautiful, she wants it to have a heart and to be sparkly.”

Their “total bookworm” classmate Marion is portrayed by 21-year-old Madeleine Madden: “She’s also really brave and follows her heart. She isn’t afraid to show who she really is.”

Finally, Ruby Rees tells us about playing Edith Horton, both the school dunce and a know-it-all.

“She wants to be a part of everything and she wants to be in the middle of all the action,” says the young Aussie. “She wants to go on adventures a lot of the time, sometimes to her own detriment.”

“Growing up, it was my mum’s favourite film so I had seen it a bunch of times,” Sullivan says of the 1975 film version of Picnic At Hanging Rock.

“As a kid, there was that haunting element, but then also the beauty of it...”

She adds: “I think we are taking a classic and a beautiful, period piece – and destabilising it. It’s also following powerful, beautiful, strong, twisted, tormented, flawed women.”

“It’s not ethereal and feminine like the film, this is really rock and roll,” says Weaving.

Across the episodes, issues of repression and sexuality, freedom and suffocating respectability are explored.

“We’ve got this powerhouse cast of amazing females,” says Weaving.

“Both of the writers are females and we have two female directors. The more time I spent in pre-production and started to realise who I’d be working with, the more excited I became.”

Perhaps one of the most stand-out characters in this series is the Rock itself, a striking geological formation found about an hour outside of Melbourne.

“The day before my final audition, I went to the Rock for the first time and started running my lines dramatically whilst having a picnic on one of the big, giant boulders – looking out onto the horizon,” Sullivan recalls of preparing for the role. “It was wonderful.”

“It was really important for me to be welcomed to the Rock by the clans that surround the Rock,” says Madden. “To go into such an important place, which means so many different things to different people, it was important to go in respectfully and to leave respectfully. You can feel that it’s a very spiritual place.”

And how did Dormer find the experience of filming Down Under?

“This was my first trip to Australia, so to stand in the Macedon region and look out over the Hanging Rock made a big impression on me as well,” she says.

“No acting required. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and scale of the Australian landscape.”

• Picnic At Hanging Rock starts on BBC2 on Wednesday, 9:05pm