Victor Frankenstein’s Obsession with Life and Death, Having the Same Writer for Every Episode, and More
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 Harry Treadaway talked about how he came to be a part of this show, what drew him to the project, how much he knew about his character’s journey, having a writer as talented as John Logan write every episode, why this isn’t a rehash of anything, why the tone and approach to the material was so important, Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with life and death, working with such an amazing cast, exploring the light and shadow of the Victorian era, and how exciting it is to explore a character like this, over a longer period of time. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did this come about for you?
HARRY TREADAWAY: It was just the normal hustle and bustle of trying to find a job. I went in and tried to get it, and it worked out. John Logan is a wonderful writer, and it was really exciting, the idea of him setting this world in the Victorian era, but having it not be about that. That’s not the sole premise of it. To be honest, it didn’t feel like I was playing Frankenstein. It felt like I was playing this young prodigy, genius doctor who was pushing the boundaries of science and was driven, immeasurably, to the ends of the earth for what he’s trying to achieve. It just felt like a story.
What were you told about your character’s journey, when you signed on for this?
TREADAWAY: We just got the first episode or two, and then we were given them, as we went along. There was a feeling like you couldn’t plan it all out, in a good way. That keeps it alive, in some ways. You’re entering into this process and you don’t know where you’re going, but that’s helpful, I think. I knew the background and where we were coming form, but there were mysteries, as we entered into it.
What’s it like to work with someone like John Logan and have his words to work with? He not only created this, but also wrote every episode, so does it feel like you’re working with one singular vision?
TREADAWAY: Yeah, I think it’s amazing to have one writer write every episode of a series. It’s very rare, I think. You get a voice that continues. It’s a story that John’s been concocting for 16 years, or something. So, to have him on set and to have his mind available, throughout the process, was invaluable.
Is that intimidating at all, knowing that this is such a passion project for him?
TREADAWAY: You can’t worry about that, otherwise it becomes too precious. We had an amazing team on this. They built the sets for three months before we even turned up, and they’re as much a part of this as John’s hand on the paper. We had amazing designers and amazing actors. It was a joy to go to work.
When you’re taking on a character that is so iconic and whose stories has been told in various mediums, countless times, do you take any of that into consideration, or do you put that all aside?
TREADAWAY: I’ve never seen Frankenstein, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I just read what was in the script and went with that. I read two-thirds of the novel, and then we started shooting. The world that John has created is so fertile and consuming and detailed that as soon as you turn up on set, you’re involved in something that is not something that you’ve seen before. It didn’t feel like a rehash of anything.
This could have been a very different show, if it were approached with a different type of tone and feel. Was the tone of this show and how this material would be handled important to you as well?
TREADAWAY: Sure, of course, yeah. J.A. Bayona is a really special director. He had his filmmaking eye on the whole process, for the first two episodes. And obviously, John has worked in features, wholly, before now. Tone is always such an important thing, and that’s achieved through a multitude of people. It comes through the writing, it comes through the way it’s shot, and it comes through the production design and the sound design. It was a privilege to be a part of it all.
What can you say about your character’s journey, this season?
TREADAWAY: He’s obsessed with discovering that fine line between life and death, and what generates that. He’s playing god. The sense of ego and the god complex that might come with someone like that is huge. He clearly has done something that no one else on the planet has done, so there’s a huge arrogance, a huge sense of responsibility, a huge sense of shame and a huge sense of euphoria. He’s operating on a pretty high level of human existence. It’s hard to put it into words.
Why is Victor Frankenstein so obsessed with life and death, and the flicker that separates them?
TREADAWAY: Seeing his mother die, at a young age, he flips from being obsessed with literature and poetry and devotes his entire life to science. He saw his mother’s heart stop and he wants to try to counteract that process. He literally wants to do be able to start life, as opposed to doing terrible things with it. He becomes obsessed with that struggle with mortality. And he has the medical and science brain and drive to try to get inside that process of life and death, and see where it ends and where it begins. He’s obsessive about that.
There’s something so intimate in the relationship between Victor and Proteus. What was it like to shoot those scenes, especially with how little dialogue some of them have? As an actor, do you enjoy the opportunity to express yourself with more than just words?
TREADAWAY: It was a unique exploration of what it would be like to start to conduct a relationship with someone that you had created from death. He reforms a man and creates life, and so there are parental elements of that, there are friend elements of the subject, and doctor elements. There are all sorts of levels to that relationship. It was very interesting to explore.
When you work on a show like this, with these sets and elaborate costumes, do you really feel like you’ve stepped into another world, in another era?
TREADAWAY: Yeah, absolutely! In some ways you have and in some ways you haven’t, but every day, you turn up and walk through Victorian streets with men, women and children, and beggars and shop people. The world is created for you.
What’s it like to work with this cast?
TREADAWAY: They were great! Really top-notch. Timothy [Dalton], Eva [Green], Josh [Hartnett], Billie [Piper], Reeve [Carney] and Danny [Sapani] were all great, and then there were wonderful, amazing guest appearances throughout the series. To be working with such a strong, creative team, be it actors, or designers or whatever, it was a good work environment.
Just how dark will this show get?
TREADAWAY: As dark as the night itself. The Victorian world is extremely dark and extremely bright, as well. Hopefully, the show takes you through the shadow and the light of that era.
You work in film, where you get to explore a character’s full story in a finite amount of time, and you’ve worked in theater, where you get to explore the nuances in the same story, night after night, and in TV, you get to explore a character over the long-term without ever knowing the end until you get there. Do you enjoy doing all three?
TREADAWAY: I like doing all of it. I think they’re all brilliant, in their own ways. They have their different challenges, but I love doing it all. I love playing a character that has more than 90 minutes, and that keeps going. It can obviously spread out, in a longer way. It was fun to get to sit inside him for a longer period of time. It’s exciting. None of us really know where we’re going, do we? That’s just how you have to think of it. In some ways, it feels more real because you don’t know the end.
Penny Dreadful airs on Sunday nights on Showtime.