The new Showtime drama series Penny Dreadful is a frightening saga that completely reinvents literature’s most iconic and terrifying characters. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) recruit the help of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), as they cross paths with Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and other iconic figures, on their quest to uncover what lurks in the darkest corners of Victorian London, in this psychological thriller that weaves together classic horror origin stories.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Reeve Carney talked about why he was attracted to this project, what he looks for in a script, having been a bit nervous about the nudity before he signed on, that the actors are only let in on what they need to know about their characters, the depth of humanity in Dorian Gray, the development of the relationship between Dorian and Vanessa, how excited he is to be returning for Season 2, that he’s been told things are only going to get more wild and crazy, and how he’s hoping to get a new collection of songs out in the world soon. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
REEVE CARNEY: It came through similarly to the way most things do for me. It came through my agency first, and they sent me the script and some sides. Initially, I was a little bit nervous, just because I’ve never done anything that had any nudity and I wasn’t sure what that was going to be like. But once I read the script, the language that John [Logan] has written is so beautiful that it made me instantly interested. The writing is what drew me in, from the beginning.
You’ve said that you were reading other scripts, at the same time, and were turning them all down, before you read Penny Dreadful. Without specifically calling out any of those other projects, what was lacking in the other scripts that you were reading, that this project had?
CARNEY: When I look at any script or story, I look for similar things that I look for when I listen to music. For me, it’s imagination and boldness and authenticity. Those are the three words I would use to describe what most attracts me to a piece of art that I might potentially be involved in, or even just things to enjoy. But then again, every now and then, I love a good silly comedy. Billy Madison is one of my favorite movies, of all time. It has all those things that I just mentioned, but in a different way.
How much were you told about your character’s journey when you signed on for this? With as mysterious as Dorian Gray still is, do you even know much of his journey yet?
CARNEY: I know what I need to know, at this point. John Logan is a great teacher, as well as being someone who’s great to work with. I remember being in school and some of my teachers would only give me the information that I absolutely needed to have, and then there would be some master plan where it would make a lot of sense, down the line, in terms of how things are revealed slowly. John reveals things to his actors, in a similar way to how it’s being revealed to the audience. I don’t mean that I don’t know more than the audience knows, but I don’t know more than I need to know, which I think is good. Sometimes people want to know everything that’s going to happen to them. With a film, you go in knowing the entire script and where the story begins and how it ends. You don’t know that on television, and it’s interesting because it’s just like that in life. Life surprises you, all the time, and I think it’s good to keep the actors a bit surprised in the process, as well.
One of the things I really love about this show is that it’s so unpredictable. There’s really no way to know where it’s going next, or where it’s all going to end up, at the end of this season.
CARNEY: Oh, same here! The cool thing is that, even after reading the first season, I felt similarly to you. While there are things that are tied up, it still keeps you wanting more, which is what I love about this show so much. I haven’t seen the last three episodes of the season yet. I’ve been seeing them as they come out. I’m excited.
CARNEY: I haven’t seen the episodes, so I hesitate to say much of anything because I want to make sure I don’t misrepresent it. The thing that I was drawn to most about Dorian, that I didn’t necessarily get from reading the novel, but from John’s version of Dorian, I got more of a sense of his depth of humanity. That just wasn’t at the forefront in the novel, and I hope that comes across in this first season.
The Season 2 renewal has already been announced. Will you be back for the second season?
CARNEY: Yeah, I will be coming back. I’m very excited.
Have you had any discussions about where things could go next?
CARNEY: The only thing John did was imply to me that whatever I did this year, I should be ready for things to be more wild and crazy. I don’t know to what extent. I’m excited about that, though. It’s exciting to do things that you’ve never done before. I don’t know where he could take this character, but I’m really excited. I can’t wait to get that first script.
What can you say about the remaining three episodes?
CARNEY: In the next episode, you’ll see a different type of development in Dorian and Vanessa’s relationship. I’m excited for that. After that scene in Episode 2, you wonder about where that’s headed, so that gets explored further in Episode 6. Dorian is always looking for a new experience, and he’s drawn to them, no matter how dark they might appear to other people.
What’s it been like to work with this cast, most specifically with Eva Green, Josh Hartnett and Billie Piper, who you’ve had some very memorable moments with?
CARNEY: In terms of some of the more extreme stuff we have to do and the more shocking stuff we have to do, they make it very easy because they’re all professional with a great sense of humor, which is a good combination. Some of these situations they get themselves in could be very awkward, if you can’t laugh about it. They’re great. Billie and Josh and Eva are such professionals. At first, Eva can be quite intimidating. She’s a very quiet and professional person who’s very sweet. At one point, I lost one of my personal rings, and she made it her mission to find my ring. She tried to get everybody on board with helping to find my ring. It was really, really sweet and unexpected. They’re all really good people. It’s a pleasure to work with everybody.
CARNEY: Juan Antonio Bayona directed that particularly episode, and he’s great. He loves music. It’s a big part of the way he makes his films. For the parts where we didn’t actually need to have dialogue, and even some scenes he would just play the music underneath the dialogue, knowing that we would use the dialogue from another take, he really set the tone. There were times when it felt like we were actually in a real seance. It was crazy. That made it a lot easier. It wasn’t the exact music that you hear, but it was very similar to that. He knew exactly what he wanted, in terms of creating the drama with the visuals paired with the music. That definitely helped. That scene was crazy. Watching Eva do that, over and over and over again, all the way, every single time, she never backed off, at all. It was 100%, the whole time.
How is the experience of shooting this in Dublin, Ireland? When you work on a show like this, with the sets and the elaborate costumes, do you feel like you’ve stepped into another world and another era?
CARNEY: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I necessarily feel that way, all the time. There’s definitely a sense of reality to it, so I don’t know if I ever get confused by it. But, I’m blown away by the sets and costumes. It’s great to be able to do it in Dublin because we were able to take over an entire lot. Six soundstages on this one lot are all us. It’s amazing that we were able to have those sets. I don’t know how long they took to build, but they’re incredible. And the fabrics of the costumes are beautiful.
What’s it like to work with someone like John Logan, and have his words to work with? He not only created this, but he wrote every episode, so is it a bit more intimidating, knowing that it’s such a passion project for him?
CARNEY: From my work as a musician and songwriter and singer/performer, I feel similarly about the songs that I write and the collection of songs that I write, to how John feels about this project, and I deeply respect that. I can see how passionate he is about it. I can relate on the level of my music. It’s not intimidating to me, but it’s something to definitely be respected. You know how important it is. He’s been living with this for so long, and it’s our duty, as actors, to bring it to life the way that he thought possible. Sometimes he compliments us by saying that it’s even better than he imagined, which is crazy to hear, but that’s really great.
Has working on a show that’s so imaginative and creative inspired you, musically?
CARNEY: It’s quite possible. I don’t know of any direct links, at this point, but all of the experiences on the set definitely find their way into your internal fabric, as an artist.
Are you still looking to find a balance between acting and music? Do you think you’ll always want to keep music in your life, in some way, even if you can’t necessarily be out on tour?
CARNEY: Yeah, definitely. I’ve built a bit of a recording studio in my house, so I do that pretty much every day. Ever since I’ve been back from Dublin, I’ve been recording and writing songs. So, I always do it. It’s not always in the public. Right now, I’m focused on finishing this collection of recordings, so that I can actually share it with the world, hopefully soon.
Penny Dreadful airs on Sunday nights on Showtime.