Telling White Lies

Telling White Lies

By Michael Pickard
March 12, 2024


Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer speaks nothing but the truth about the fortuitous circumstances that led her to star in South African crime drama White Lies and how she is building her experience behind the camera as an executive producer.

After returning to work following the birth of her daughter, British star Natalie Dormer has three new projects coming along in quick succession. Feature films Audrey’s Children and The Wasp are both in post-production, while South African audiences can now watch her latest leading television role in crime drama White Lies.

Dormer is also an executive producer on the series, which debuted on M-Net last week, as she continues to expand her interest in bringing shows to air behind the scenes, as well as developing a slate of original projects through her own company Dog Rose Productions.

That she joined White Lies in the first place is rather serendipitous. Dormer first worked with global production group Fremantle when she starred in 2018 Australian drama Picnic at Hanging Rock, and subsequently set up a first-look deal there with Dog Rose.

Then around the end of 2021, White Lies producer Quizzical Pictures sent Dormer a pitch proposal to star in the series, at the same time that she was asking Fremantle about the company after being impressed by Quizzical’s previous series, Reyka – a show distributed internationally by Fremantle.

“I trusted the Fremantle global drama team because I had been developing stuff with them since I had such a wonderful experience with them on Picnic, and almost by coincidence Quizzical sent me White Lies – and they didn’t know that I was as close to Fremantle as I was,” the actor tells DQ.

Natalie Dormer as investigative journalist Edie in White Lies

“[White Lies] wasn’t one of my babies. But when the pitch came in, I turned to Fremantle and said, ‘I’m in if you’re in,’ and they were like, ‘Well, we’re in if you’re in.’ So Fremantle and I were able to come together, give some extra finance and give some confidence in terms of international sales because of the good experience they’d had with Reyka. It was just the perfect storm coming together.”

Dormer also sought another valuable opinion on the prospect of working with Quizzical – from Reyka star Iain Glen, who worked with her on HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones. “So I texted Iain and said, ‘What are they like?’ And he was like, ‘Go!’”

The show stars Dormer as investigative journalist Edie Hansen, who gets caught up in the ugly underbelly of Cape Town’s wealthy Bishopscourt neighbourhood, leading her to face up to her turbulent past.

Following her estranged brother’s murder in his luxury home, Edie’s world plunges further into chaos when her brother’s teenage children become prime suspects for the crime. As Edie investigates, she comes up against veteran detective Forty Bell (Brendon Daniels) and a crumbling police force, a corrupt political system and the secretive world of extreme Cape wealth.

“It’s not an original story that comes from me and my slate, but I am passionate about it. I fell for it for other reasons,” Dormer says. “When the pitch came in, I was fascinated by this journalist and the contradiction, one dares to say hypocrisy, of a woman who is obsessed with the truth and yet cannot face her own truth. As a protagonist, she was just a wonderful thing to delve into.”

White Lies also offered the star the chance to shoot in South Africa for the first time, and revisit a country she had been to several times during her childhood.

The series is the first project Dormer has filmed in South Africa

“There’s a Dormer contingent in South Africa. I’d been out when I was 10 and 12; we’re talking the early 90s here. The second time I went was the year Nelson Mandela was elected and, as a child, obviously that passes you by, but the textures, the colours and the cultural impact it has on your senses was so expansive for me. So much [film and television] shoots in South Africa, especially in Cape Town, that it was absurd I hadn’t gone back in all that time to visit my family.”

In that sense, Dormer’s return to South Africa is similar to Edie’s own “homecoming,” as the character left the country nearly 16 years ago and reinvented herself as a UK-based journalist in order to shed the dark memories of her past.

The actor was also fascinated by delving into the show’s depiction of social issues. Created by Sean Steinberg and written by Darrel Bristow-Bovey, White Lies is described as an urgent exploration of race and privilege, inequality and identity, all wrapped up in a murder mystery.

“At the end of the day, it’s a great whodunit – and who doesn’t love a great whodunit?” she says. “But for me, it’s refreshing for British and American audiences to watch racial or class tensions, or corruption or disappointment in government, in a fresh microcosm. These are themes that speak to us, this frustration with the powers that be, when we feel society’s going sideways. But when you watch it in this fresh environment, it feels curious and interesting.

“Darrel is good at making those uniquely South African tensions accessible to an international audience. I really came in and just asked lots of questions because I’m the outsider. I then also pushed very hard on Edie’s background story, like what actually happened? Why did she leave? How did she become a journalist in Britain? It’s not there [in the series], but Darrel and I know and you need that. The characterisations have to hold water, else it doesn’t feel real.”

On screen, most of Dormer’s sparring took place with Daniels (Trackers), whose cop character previously clashed with Edie on another case and isn’t thrilled to find she has a personal connection to his latest investigation.

Brendon Daniels (left) is veteran detective Forty Bell, who clashes with Edie

“The unlikely friendship is always such a strong choice in a script, the enemies that slowly find their way to friendship,” Dormer says. “I can’t say enough wonderful things about Brendon, I really can’t, and it was a great to be exposed to a wealth of talented South African actors. Brendon’s right there leading that brigade, holding the torch. He’s fantastic.

“They’re really two heroes who are both obsessed with justice and truth and, in our social media-dependent world, there’s that push-pull of what is the role of journalism and reporting and is it just another kind of storytelling? And for the police, what kind of stories do they tell to get their job done? There’s a lot there thematically in this show.”

As an exec producer on the series, Dormer’s role went beyond being number one on the call sheet. She joined at a time when “money was still being refined and talent being secured,” and she had a “real input” in a process that brought in John Trengove (The Wound), Thati Pele (Lerato), Catharine Cooke (Reyka) and Christiaan Olwagen (Poppie Nongena) to direct the drama.

She also spent time with Bristow-Bovey breaking down the script. “To have that opportunity to really get under the car bonnet of a script with the writer, and as an EP help be part of the comradeship that hones the journey, was a wonderful opportunity for me to hone those skills,” she says.

Dormer, whose credits also include Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Elementary and The Tudors, previously exec produced 2018 feature film In Darkness, on which she was also co-writer.

“It’s a very interesting experience as an actor because, especially if you’re leading [the cast], you have to compartmentalise and turn off the part of your brain that knows what the issues are with tomorrow’s location because you’re privy to those conversations,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s wonderful to be a gun-for-hire actor and just come and do your turn, have no responsibility and leave. That’s obviously a beautiful, very rewarding thing in its own way, and it’s a different beast when you come in and you’re literally part of the team. It scratches a different kind of itch.”

The series is produced by Quizzical Pictures for M-Net

Establishing her own company at a time when much of the television industry is in flux – Dog Rose still has an “unofficial” relationship with Fremantle – the actor says she tries not to read too much about the challenging climate facing broadcasters and, subsequently, programme makers.

“You can obsess about it. It is ever thus that people are scared. I don’t think that’s new,” she notes. “Commissioners have always been nervous, but you really have to fight for your space now and be offering something unique or a really fresh take on something.

“The three projects I have done since having my maternity leave, I worked 10 months in a row without catching a breath. But I believe in all those three projects so wholeheartedly, for different reasons. As a professional trying to hone her EP skills, I was fascinated by what Quizzical were proposing and trying to achieve with Reyka and then White Lies. Their ambition to grow and the perfect storm of my relationship with Fremantle made this a unique experience and made me pick up my family and go to South Africa for four months.”

In particular Dormer “gets a kick” out of breaking down story and looking for a fresh angle or perspective on what might otherwise be a familiar theme or genre. Dog Rose is developing “two or three” such projects, though she is reluctant to discuss them too much lest she jinx their path through development.

Going forward, whether she will exec produce a series or not will be decided on a case-by-case basis. “It’s always going to depend on the project, isn’t it? Being an EP gives you a wonderful influence, but also there are those beautiful pieces, like The Wasp that I just did with Guillem Morales, where as an actor you just come in, do the craft and not worry about anything else,” she says. “It’s good to flex both those muscles [as an actor and producer], but having the experience of knowing the conversations on the other side of the camera makes you a more compassionate actor to the nature of the production. How any of us get anything made is a miracle.”

Through White Lies, which Fremantle is distributing worldwide, she is now inviting viewers to immerse themselves in a crime thriller set against the backdrop of a “beautiful tapestry of cultures and communities.”

“This diverse, vibrant country has deep, profound issues but also has so much going for it,” she says. “It will be exciting for an international audience to watch a good old-fashioned, traditional whodunit, but get an insight into the beauty and the troubles of the Cape because it’s such a unique place to experience, and hopefully they’ll find it curious and exciting. It’s refreshing to watch those themes – and to have a good old family drama as well – but in the context of this very vibrant, beautiful city and country.”

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