With reporting by Josh Horowitz
To the untrained eye, it might appear that Natalie Dormer rose to fame out of nowhere. After all, between her fierce roles in both "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay" films and the juggernaut that is "Game of Thrones," there's no denying she's been a major franchise presence over the past couple of years -- and before that, unless you watched her 1.5-ish seasons on Showtime's period drama "The Tudors," you probably never heard about her at all.
But rest assured, Natalie Dormer was there the whole time. It just took a whole lot of falling off that horse to get her to her first leading big-screen role, in January's "The Forest."
In a recent interview with Josh Horowitz's "Happy, Sad, Confused" podcast, Dormer told the host that the 2005 Heath Ledger starrer "Casanova" -- her first role -- ended up being a major lesson in how to deal with disappointment.
"It got me a three picture deal with Disney, but it was never exercised," she explained. "It was one of the greatest lessons I ever learned, to be perfectly honest with you... it was bad representation at the time. Opportunities were missed that shouldn't have been."
After that missed opportunity for a big break, Dormer was unable to find acting work for 9 to 10 months, and "had to go back and temp in an office, and do cold-calling jobs."
"My heart sank," she said. "It was really dispiriting. I remember making Christmas cards that year, because I couldn't afford to buy Christmas cards."
Two years later came "The Tudors," where Dormer was able to turn heads and gain critical favor as King Henry VIII's most famous doomed wife Anne Boleyn, and in 2011 she played a private who kissed Steve Rogers in "Captain America: The First Avenger." But it wasn't until David Benioff and D.B. Weiss came calling in 2012, for "Game of Thrones," that she was able to feel truly comfortable sending those Christmas cards.
"It was 'Game of Thrones' that really gave me -- all of us, actually, as a cast -- the exposure," Dormer explained. "We slowly got used to the fact that the show meant so much to people, and doors started to open for all of us. As a family, we kind of held each others' hands."
One major door that opened for Dormer was a role in the 2013 Ridley Scott film "The Counselor," as well as a recurring gig as the sexy siren Irene Adler on CBS' "Elementary." These were all major gets, but the actress did realize that, between "Tudors," "Thrones," and "Elementary," she was getting typecast as the seductress.
"You're earning your stripes," she said, adding that she was "bored of playing the femme fatale" by the time the Michael Fassbender-led "The Counselor" came along.
"I was like, 'I've done this enough,' and then you get a call saying 'Ridley Scott wants you to play the femme fatale in his new movie,'" she said. "You'd be an idiot to turn the opportunity to be on a set with Ridley Scott down. So, you take a project for different reasons."
Now that "Hunger Games" and "GoT" have given Dormer adequate exposure to where good projects are coming in -- and now that the former is over -- she's planning to use this "breathing space" to work on more films like "The Forest," which features the actress playing twin sisters who get stuck in a Japanese forest where people go to commit suicide.
"I am striking out in the fear factor of trying exciting, slightly terrifying new things," she explained. "I hope it's a thrill ride for people who love the genre ordinarily. It's got the jumps and the scares, but it's also a thoughtful piece. It's kind of a thinking person's horror movie; it has this psychological element that hopefully targets a different audience."
She's also working behind the camera, finally bringing to life a psychological thriller that she and her fiancé, Anthony Burns, began writing six years ago, and she really wants to make her debut on the American stage. But in the meantime, Dormer is just happy to be out there promoting her first leading role on the big screen -- something she says that would have been a whole lot more difficult five to ten years ago, when she was still finding her way as the femme fatale.
"I wouldn't have been as philosophical, and understood the mechanics of the industry as well as I do now," Dormer said. "I'm grateful that I'm fully informed, when I get to this point."
"The Forest" hits theaters on January 8. And be sure to watch her trounce Horowitz on a "Game of Thrones" spelling test, below.