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Hiatus Helper: Penny Dreadful’s Cast and EP Talk Season 1 and Tease Season 2 


Warning: Spoilers Ahead

I love genre shows, so when I heard Showtime’s Penny Dreadful would include mashup of some of the best known horror villains there are — Frankenstein’s monster, vampires, a wolf man — I knew we were in for a treat. That combined with the strange and tormented lives of all the main characters makes for an interesting and intriguing show. Now that I’ve been introduced to these characters and come to know them a bit better, I can’t wait to see how their relationships change and mature as they fight a new villain.

Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Harry Treadaway, Helen McCrory and EP John Logan participated in a panel at the Winter 2015 TCAs for Showtime. They discussed their characters, what we can look forward to in season 2 and more.

You’ve used these literary archetypes. How hard it is to create something that we haven’t seen before instead of relying on something that we understand.

John Logan: “It’s the challenge we get up to every day, whether you’re doing a horror show, a drama or a historical piece, which is why is this new? Why should the audience watch this? What’s the crackle of the contemporary world and contemporary meaning that makes this world doing in the first place. I actually don’t worry too much how is our Victor Frankenstein different than Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein or how is Sir Malcolm Murray not Sir Richard Burton or Explorer Stanley? How are these people unique? I worry about how they are true, how are they interesting. How are they complicated is more interesting for me.”

But isn’t there something in the back of your head that says, “I want to develop something that scares the crap out of people that they haven’t seen before and that they have no reference to?”

John: “Absolutely. Absolutely. I say that’s the flash of creativity and the imagination that all the artists bring to it. A good example is our witches this season. Once I had embraced the idea of the occult and necromancy, I thought, ‘Well, we’ve gotta have witches,’ and, ‘What are they going to look like?’ I knew I didn’t want, speaking to your point, old crones with black hats. What I always do when I’m writing is I go back to those things that scare me. I hike a lot in California where I live and I see a lot of rattlesnakes. I thought, ‘I want to feel the way I feel when I see a rattlesnake,’ that I find something very beautiful and the scales capture the light in such a way that they’re bewitching and in instant, it become something else. 

So talking to Nick Dudman, our makeup designer and saying, ‘Think about that, tease that.’ Talking to the actors and saying, ‘This is where my witches came from. How do we create that feeling’ is how the new ideas come just to me as a writer and honestly, I would be lying if I said I am not completely reliant on my colleagues. I need Jonathan McKinstry to come to me and say, ‘I have a vision for Soho’ or Gabriella Pescucci to say, ‘You know the ball scene? What if Vanessa’s doing this, because this is where she is emotionally, so this is how we manifest it physically.’ I’m absolutely nothing without the people around me.”

Sexuality was a big part of the first season. Can you talk about what we’re going to see and some of fluidity of that in the second season?

John: “Everything becomes more fluid and more liberated in the second season. We know the characters and now we get to unspool them in different ways, so erotically, romantically, supernaturally, both in terms of ugliness and beauty, including sexuality. I think we just get to explore them deeper.”

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images

Josh, when you signed on to the part, how much did you know about Ethan’s secret?  Were you just told, “He’s an American gunslinger?” Or did you know you were going to be playing a werewolf from the get‑go?

Josh Hartnett: “I knew that I was going to be playing a wolfman from the get‑go — as John calls it — not a werewolf. But it was only the first two scripts that we were allowed to read. So as far as how he would be revealed as a werewolf or how he would be revealed as the type of person that he ends up becoming in this second season, I had no idea.

For me, it was an organic process. I had to learn as I went along. Actually, John encouraged me, because I had not done this before, to just make choices for the character that then may pay off if they made the edit. So there were a lot of things that we came up with over the course of the first season that have gone through this year, I think.”

John: “Although I will confess that was one of the great harrowing moments for me in the entire process of Penny Dreadful because I met with Josh the first time. He was the actor I desperately wanted. He had read the first two scripts and I had to say the words, ‘Oh, by the way, you play a werewolf.’

Josh: “I said, ‘How many scenes will there be where I have to sit in a makeup chair for eight hours per seating?’ It’s daunting, but it’s fun to be. I mean, I had to be something. Everybody is something here, aren’t we?”

We only saw a little bit of his wolfman form in the finale. Is he pure wolf? Or will we be seeing a merger of his two sides and this will be a gun-toting werewolf?

John: “You’ll definitely see more this season because one of the great revelations for Ethan is he himself learns what he is. The dread, if you will, of it has encompassed him, the sense of not knowing the capability for violence is defined. He can put a name to it. He can put an image to it. So how we treat lycanthropy is a major part of the season and the ongoing story for Ethan.”

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images

Timothy, Sir Malcolm has a very complicated relationship with Vanessa Ives and you almost do a 180. Did you and John discuss his feelings in depth? Or were you discovering his feelings as each new script appeared?

Timothy Dalton: “Yes, absolutely, propulsion and retraction. But it was a great relationship, wasn’t it? I mean, it’s a very strong dynamic and I hope you understand why.”

Did you and Mr. Logan discuss that?

Timothy: “I don’t really think so, did we? It was clear in the writing. You take the writing. The blueprint is there. The essence is there. Eva and I and John, we just make it work.”

John: “Although I must say Mr. Dalton and I do spend a fair number of hours in the dressing room of the office talking, finding our way through the scenes together, do we not?”

Timothy: “Yes. It’s one of the special things in doing Penny Dreadful is that you have a writer with you. So many times you’re doing work when there’s no chance of talking to a writer and one of the best questions you could ever ask is, ‘What was in your mind when you wrote this? How did you see it? What is the point for you? What do you want to get out of this scene?’ And you can get it from the author’s mouth and that’s a great guide. Then our job is to give that added value.”

How much of you yourself is in Sir Malcolm?

Timothy: “I don’t think any of us could understand those men thoroughly. They lived in such a different world. One of our problems is we have to communicate a different world to a modern audience. Those men were extraordinary men. I have known in my life a couple of men who are now gone who I would say are truly hard men, good men, tough men, sometimes quite bad men and sometimes very loving men. I remember when they went and they died, I thought this was a loss because we’re not going to see people like that anymore. Think of what those men did? Think of the world they conquered and challenged and their bravery and courage and their cruelty? Extraordinary.

So you find it and we’ve all got those qualities inside us somewhere. Our job is to find those qualities and find a good mixture that’s dynamic and exciting and works right for the script. You use the script as a blueprint, but you gotta search intellectually your knowledge and inside yourself.”

Josh: “I don’t know, Tim. I think that if you were born back then, you wouldn’t have been seeking the Nile. The Nile would have sought you.”

John: “Tim’s a great example of how, for me, the second season is different from the first, because when I wrote these characters, they didn’t exist. The actors didn’t exist, other than Eva Green being in my head, I had no idea who these actors were going to be. Now I’ve spent a year with them. I’ve worked with them on set. I’ve seen their performances and their voices have gotten into my head.

In the second season, I’ve been able to bring the characters more and true in a way towards something I sense in the actor. Tim’s a very good example, because Sir Malcolm in season 1, he’s a man on a mission to save his daughter and he’s a ferocious character for the most part. But Tim Dalton is a joyous man and having dinner with him, you will laugh constantly and there’s a wicked sparkle behind his eyes. I thought that would be very interesting for Sir Malcolm. So bits and pieces of the actors as I get to know them better find their way into little facets of the characters. That is exciting for me anyway.”

I don’t remember the last time I saw an actress give a performance that was as committed as what Eva did in the first season of that show, aggressively committed. Can you talk a little bit about working with her when she was in those fugue states, as it were.

Timothy: “Well, I did a lot of work with her last year. Most of my work was with her. I will tell you simply, there were occasions when I was really proud, as a man and as an actor, to be on that set with her. I could have cheated.”

Harry Treadaway: “I felt sorry for her at times. She was cowering in the corner and possessed and dankering and scabs all over her and paper fiddling with her.”

Timothy: “And she had to get up at 4:00 in the morning.”

Harry: “‘Are you all right?’ ‘Let’s just do the scene.’ But she was brilliant. She was brilliant.”

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images

I thought the journey that your character went on last season was really interesting. Could you talk a little bit about what are you excited to explore with him in season 2?

Harry: “It has been very exciting exploring season 2. It’s where Mary Shelley started with the novel in such an inspiring character and such a rich fertile head space to be in. Then with John’s fresh take on it and being able to take this character, who has resonated for 150 or so years and to lead him through new rooms and new journeys is a privilege really, because it’s such an interesting character.

This year he’s building on the layers which were set in place in the first season. He’s onto the crush from his creature who’s taught him, in a way, about the need for love and this whole big thing that he’s done which is creating life, it’s going to be a bit worthless if that life doesn’t have an opportunity to love within it. I think he’s realized that. So something he has created has taught him a lesson and is demanding that he gives him a vessel for love. That’s what he sets out to do at the beginning of season 2. It doesn’t all go to the plan, though.”

You can go all the way back to the original Frankenstein and maybe many of the Grimm Fairy Tales and it seems like the thread is most monsters are tragic creatures. Who up there believes that and why? Are most monsters are tragic creatures?

Helen McCrory: “Well, it’s the idea, isn’t it, that Shelley talks about in Frankenstein that the monster is not what he creates but actually what mankind makes the creature to be when they reject him for being ugly or other, as John was saying at the beginning.

It is society that brutalizes, which is one interpretation of what makes a monster is everybody around that person. What’s interesting is that in John’s writing ‑‑ he could contradict me now ‑‑ I think that’s almost true of all your monsters, that they all have a vulnerability and a need to be accepted by those around me.”

John: “Yes. the universal story for me as a dramatist is the search for love, no matter how you manifest it. I don’t believe in heroes and villains. I don’t believe in them in life and I don’t find them interesting in drama. A good example of that is Evelyn Poole who Helen plays. You think, ‘Well, she’s the villain.’

I always think of her as the antagonist. She believes in what she’s doing. She has herself an ignoble calling. It’s a calling that runs contrary to Vanessa Ives or Ethan Chandler or Sir Malcolm, but she believes she is on the side of the angels, if you will, even though she’s serving the devil. That, to me, makes an interesting character. Otherwise, we dispense with them. We just flip them away.”

Is Helen McCrory essentially meant to be Elizabeth Thackery?

John: “No, but I’ve had that question before. I was planning this season ten years ago and thinking about these characters and world. I became fascinated with a particular part of Vanessa Ives’ past, where she learned to read the tarot, because it’s not something that a girl, even one as unique as Vanessa Ives, knows how to do. Thinking about that led me into the world of the occult and the supernatural.

This season we embrace witchcraft, so I created the character that Helen plays, Evelyn Poole. We introduced her last season and this season, she becomes the antagonist for not only Vanessa but all the characters. Last season we set the players on the board and now we get to play with them in interesting ways. So characters meet who have never met, hidden things are revealed, mostly because of the pressure that’s on them. There will be external pressure from Evelyn Poole and the psychological pressure between all of them.

Ethan in this season learns exactly what he is. He’s hunted by a very dogged Scotland inspector played by Doug Hodge and has drawn closer to Vanessa in every conceivable way due to the pressure on them. Sir Malcolm, who at the end of last season saw family come together, is drawn into a relationship with Evelyn Poole that alienates him, both romantically, personally and supernaturally from the rest of the people in the series. Dr. Frankenstein himself is grappling with a new life form which is, in fact, the woman he killed, Brona Croft, and has to deal with what those emotions, what those feelings, what those sensitivities are.

So that’s a long way of saying that Evelyn Poole this season becomes an actual antagonist who can speak. Last season we had the vampires, brooding and silent creatures and now we have a proper villain and we enjoy her immensely.

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images

Helen, is this the most powerful character you’ve played? Can you talk about the difference between playing somebody who is very powerful unto themselves and somebody who depends on others for their power?

Helen: “When I played Euripides’ Medea at The National for 1,300 a night in the summer, so it was quite a quite a good warmup for the rainy days in Dublin. I think to answer your question, is she the most powerful? I don’t know. She’s one of the most powerful because she wants what she wants. She wants it more than anyone else. We have a line that John talks about in Episode 6 of this is a battle of faith and who has the strongest faith will win. So all these characters have very strong beliefs in what they want and that’s what drives her as a powerful character through. 

I think that because she’s on the side of him down there rather than him up there, often it’s seen as more powerful to be evil. Of course we all know it’s far easier and it’s possibly more powerful, to be a Vanessa and to try and make life good set and more complex. Yeah. It’s an extraordinary role and kicking it into touch as best I can.”

In one of the scenes from the first season that really struck me was when we see Victor raising what turns out to be the second creature. That’s a scene that’s been filmed dozens, if not hundreds of times in movies and television and I don’t feel like I’d ever seen that specific version of it before. How did you try to approach that? Harry, what was it like being in the center of one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the cinema?

John: “What Harry and I talked about is it’s not thunder and lightning and rain. It’s a birth. So we talked about what would it be like seeing your child for the first time.”

Harry: “It was so fascinating. Such a huge leap of the imagination to make believe for a second that you were creating life and you had brought someone back from the dead. I relish that kind of challenge and to be in that moment. I hadn’t watched any of the other Frankensteins because I thought that would probably cloud me more than help me and just try to read the story and scripts and to stay inside it, really. But I was aware on the day that 85 times, or whatever, that someone has tried to do this, this scene. 

So I felt blessed to be working with the team that I was and that Bayona was directing it. I was getting to tell that scene in this incredible space which had been designed so beautifully, and Alex was brilliant as this creature. And I think Bayona was wonderful the way that he shot it and there was a freedom and a kind of looseness on the day with which we approached it. That’s how it felt for me, anyway, and it was a pleasure to do. Great scene to be a part.”

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Showtime/AP Images

How different is the second season from the first? Or is it more of the same? David Nevins said he sees season 2 as more or less a make‑or‑break year for Penny Dreadful. Like anyone who admires a show, he has visions of it carrying on for a number of years. But I’m wondering how proud you were of the first season, whether you saw any need to make any dramatic changes tonally for the second season or whether you feel any sort of pressure?

John: “I was immensely proud of the first season, primarily of the work of all the artists on the stage and that I work with who were able to bring it to life with integrity. It was a very challenging target to hit, which is a horror show that would break your heart and I believe that’s what we accomplished.

This season I think is much better and tonally very different. I would think there is more pressure, there’s more tension this season because last season our heroes were hunters. This season, they are the hunted. They are the prey. So there’s a foxhole mentality because there’s so much pressure on them externally from Evelyn Poole and also internally because they’re growing closer and the stakes are higher emotionally. We unleashed Helen this season. We go for broke. So it is our make‑or‑break season and we’re going for it.”

Josh: “The metrics of working on a television show as opposed to a film — what we had to do last season was set up so many characters and create the dynamics between them. In this season, it just gets to mature. The characters’ understandings of themselves and the characters’ relationships are able to mature so it just feels richer. It just felt to me like a richer version of Penny Dreadful.”

John: “And we have ten hours. So there’s more time to tell the stories, which helps.”

Have you started breaking a third season?

John: “Yes. I am nothing but confident. Any man who faces a blank page every day must have swagger.”

Since the master vampire was vanquished last season, will we be seeing more vampires? And, is one of Ethan’s secrets that he used to be a priest?

Josh: “John?”

John: “All to be revealed. Sorry to be elliptical.”

I was just wondering that because of the exorcism scene.

John: “He has a strong spiritual past to Ethan Chandler.”

As someone who has done theater but also done a lot of features, how much do you like being able to be on TV, the one who has the directors come to you and match your vision rather than giving them a script and no longer having quite the say anymore?

John: “I’ve had great relationships with film directors and very collegial and collaborative ones, but I’ve never enjoyed any job as much as this. I can’t imagine the elation of doing anything else other than getting up every day, writing these characters, working with these actors and continue to tell these stories.”

Juan directed the first two episodes of the series and pretty much established the visual template for the entire series. Since Juan didn’t direct any episode this season, can you talk about the opportunities that presented and how the visual style of the second season was shaped by whichever directors had?

John: “It’s no secret that I learned how to do what I do by working with directors, first on stage, then on film. The people who taught me to be a screenwriter and write for the picture as opposed to the stage were Oliver Stone and Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, the relation with directors is exceedingly important to me. They are my right arm.

So working with James Hawes or Brian Kirk or Damon Thomas this season, I seek an absolute colleague who will make my work better. All of them have brought their own perspective. What I’ve said to them is, ‘I know we have a template for the show. Well, then throw it out. Bring me a new template. Make it true to this episode.’ And some of our episodes have a very different look and feel to them. It’s still Penny Dreadful. It’s still the same set. It’s still the same costumes, but they have the director’s eye to bring them and it’s very exciting for me.”

So many spooky stories have been written about this era.  What is it about this era that lends itself to this kind of story?

Josh: “In England at this time, there was a lot of murder. There was a lot of change happening. The Industrial Revolution was having an effect on people’s understanding of culture in general and of family and of city versus country. I think the life expectancy in London at this point was something like 26. It was very low. And there happened to be wonderful writers tapping into that and writing allegorical stories about that fear.”

John: “I think that’s exactly it. It’s, to me, horror and about the alienation. It’s about being divorced from yourself and trying to figure out where you belong in a society. England in 1891 was on the cusp of new era. Everything from electrical lighting to everything Dr. Frankenstein explores to vivisection to the religion being established.

As Josh said, the agrarian economy was an industrial economy and a whole workforce was out of work. People were disquieted. They were alienated. They didn’t know what the future was going to bring and those great writers ‑‑ the H.G. Wells, the Bram Stokers ‑‑ were able to take that and transform it into literal representations of that anxiety and also that hope, because, to me, what I always come back to for Penny Dreadful, surprisingly, given the inherent darkness of the show, is that these people are aspiring. They live in dark rooms, but they are trying to find the light in some desperate way.”

I am very curious about the music in this. Abel Korzeniowski is a Polish classical composer. He really does not do TV. How did he happen to come on this? Was he somebody that you chose specifically? How important to the atmosphere of this show is the music?

John: “It’s gigantic. It’s important in any show, in any sort of dramatic event because it can set a tone, a mood, counterpoint a mood. Juan Bayona, who directed our first two episodes last season, loved Abel’s work, so he made me familiar with it. What I liked about it, ironically for a show with so much passion in it, is it was very intellectual music. It was very smart music and there was something austere about it.

So I met with Abel and we discussed the feeling of the show. He said, ‘What do you want this to feel like musically?’ and I said, ‘I want it to be poignant and I want there to be anguish in everything; the pulse‑pounding horror, the shock, the build of menace are extra to me.’ That’s the sweet spot of what Abel composes and this season, in fact, he’s composed three waltzes for us. There’s a major dancing component to this season and they’re all original. They’re all unique to the characters. There’s a Vanessa and Ethan waltz. There’s a larger waltz for the other characters. There’s a creature waltz. So seeing him write in that form specifically for these characters has been very exciting.”

Have any of the scenes, for any of the actors, given you nightmares the night after you’ve filmed them or you’ve seen them in rushes of some?

Helen: “Nightmares sometimes during the scene.  That scene [from the season 2 trailer] where I’m lying in a bath of blood, the blood was very carefully constructed for months and months. Many, many people had jobs in making sure that I could lie in it without you seeing or you saw various things until we discovered that you float in that blood. So that was a nightmare within the sea as I bobbed, bobbed, bobbed along to the top.

I think that there are quite a few people in our makeup department that haven’t seen a lot of it that get nightmares. I’ve had nightmares after one particular set. Evelyn Poole’s set becomes an entire stage in this series and the artwork in those rooms are extraordinary. There’s one room in particular which gives you nightmares.”

John: “It’s one of the great pleasures of doing a second season. I was able to turn to Jonathan McKinstry, our art director, and say, ‘All right. Evelyn Poole’s going to have a mansion and it’s a witch’s lair. It’s in Hampstead, but no one goes inside it unless they know what she is or they’re quickly going to discover it. So the propriety of Victorian architecture doesn’t apply. So go mad.’

And people ask me a lot, ‘Are any of the sets frightening to you? Do you get freaked out?’ I don’t except for that set. Walking around that stage is very disorienting because it’s intentionally built to be a bending, confusing, frightening place, and if you’re on the second floor of the two‑story set, you can get lost and you wander around saying, ‘Where is the crew?’ So hopefully the audience will feel a little bit of that disquiet that we understand so well, Helen.”

Helen: “Exactly.”

Edited for space and content.

Season 2 synopsis, from Showtime:

Season 2 finds Vanessa and Ethan forming a deeper bond as the group, including Sir Malcolm, Dr. Frankenstein and Sembene, unite to banish the evil forces that threaten to destroy them. Meanwhile, Dorian Gray, the Creature and Brona are all waging battles of their own. Patti LuPone will guest star as a mysterious character of great importance in Vanessa’s past. Helen McCrory returns as Evelyn Poole (a.k.a. Madame Kali), the seductive spiritualist who will pose a unique threat to our protagonists this season, along with Simon Russell Beale, who is back as eccentric Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. Additional guest stars include Douglas Hodge as a Scotland Yard investigator; Sarah Greene as Poole’s powerful daughter, Hecate; and Jonny Beauchamp as a man with a singular past.

Season 2 of Penny Dreadful premieres Sunday, April 26th at 10/9c on Showtime. Want to know more about Abel Korzeniowski and the music of Penny Dreadful? Check out my exclusive Q&A with him here.


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