How did Penny Dreadful combine Shelley, Stoker and Wilde to become a critically acclaimed hit? Victor Frankenstein himself, Harry Treadaway, explains all to Alex Christian
It’s appropriate that a TV show that mixes vampires, werewolves and Dorian Gray is named after a Victorian literary phenomenon that boasted titles such as Varney The Vampire and Wagner The Wehr-Wolf. Penny dreadful (a term coined by its detractors) was the pulp fiction of its day, a collection of Gothic tales that were as sensationalist as they were popular.
The genre’s spirit is carried forth in Penny Dreadful, the eight-part Sky Atlantic series in which vampire hunters Eva Green and Timothy Dalton work with Josh Hartnett’s sharpshooter and prowl the same smoggy London streets as Harry Treadaway’s Dr Victor Frankenstein (among others).
From the highs of the Hammer Horror films to the lows of Van Helsing, there have been many screen adaptations of Victorian horror. Here, ahead of the second series, Treadaway told us why his show succeeds where many have failed.
Penny Dreadful is a hybrid of different 19th-century stories and characters – were you initially worried it wouldn’t work?
With any job you’re never sure. But the elements were right: the script, production, characters and JA Bayona, who directed the first two episodes. When you describe it people may go, “So it’s Frankenstein and Dorian Gray in a new story?” It sort of sounds weird, but it doesn’t feel weird when you’re doing it.
How do you think your version of Victor Frankenstein compares to Mary Shelley’s?
It varies massively. He’s in a different context in the show with characters that didn’t exist in the book. This character’s been a source of stagnation for so long, he’s only normally represented in a story solely about him and his creations. Being able to look at such a fascinating character, to see him talking to someone not linked to the original story like Dorian Gray or Eva Green’s character Vanessa, fleshes him out. I tried using elements of how Shelley described him, like the way he spoke, but I felt because he’s such an interesting character, such a layered beast, that I had to see it as if it were the first time he was being played.
Did you do much research on the science from that period?
I went to Cambridge and spoke to professors who specialise in Victorian ethics and medicine. It was a route in – otherwise he’d become potentially too surreal a character. I felt like it had to be rooted in some sort of reality. When I spoke to those professors I realised Frankenstein represents the Victorian age of science, a world where electricity was being invented. While they were having light bulbs they were experimenting on dead bodies, putting electric currents through them and making their limbs move. They thought the electric current was potentially what life was made from. Was I a decent scientist at school? No, I was more into rugby.
So are you a fan of Gothic literature?
Yeah, the Victorian era was a melting pot of science, religion, witchcraft, the supernatural and the exploration of the world – it’s fascinating for horror. That’s why there are so many classic tales from that period.
There have been many other screen adaptations of those stories. Are you a fan of the classic Hammer Horror films?
I remember watching Christopher Lee’s Dracula as a seven-year-old – it really freaked me out. My best friend’s dad was into Hammer Horror, so I watched some of them growing up. There are moments in Penny Dreadful when you’re getting out of a horse and carriage into a Victorian black smog that you think, “I’m in that world.”
What’s it like starring opposite a former James Bond, Timothy Dalton?
It’s cool. Double-O heaven. Dalton’s great, his levels of energy and experience are unreal. He’s still so excited and invested in his work, getting underneath the story.
There’s another Bond link with Eva Green – what’s she like when not acting in intense exorcism scenes?
Not possessed, thank God. She’s kind and incredibly hard-working. The levels of detail she has on Vanessa are second to none. Her work level is beautiful and she’s a wonderful person, too.
Penny Dreadful is a world away from The Lone Ranger, your biggest film role so far. What was it like to film?
Like every boy’s dream: being given a horse, a gun or two and a cowboy hat. There were many moments when I was in Utah, Arizona or Colorado that I was pinching myself thinking, “How the hell has a boy from Devon blagged his way into an American movie, playing a cowboy, doing the whole yeehaw?” We had cowboy training for five weeks beforehand, twirling pistols and lassoing before jumping on actual moving trains out in the desert on eight miles of train track. I had a few scenes with Johnny Depp racing across the desert on top of a speeding train which was pretty cool.
In your first major film you ended up playing Stephen Morris from Joy Division in Control. What was that like?
Amazing – I’m a massive Joy Division fan and that was the closest thing I’ll ever experience to being in that band. We were doing live gigs in front of 300 people all dressed in clothes from the time, and using equipment the band really used. We’d created a little world for ourselves and playing the music between us really brought us together. And Anton Corbijn was the perfect man to direct it – he came over from Holland when he was 17 to photograph Joy Division.
Morris is a really quick drummer. Did you struggle to keep up with him?
He’s like lightning, a Duracell bunny. I managed to keep up. When he watched it at Cannes he turned round to me and said, “You got it right mate, you didn’t miss a beat.” That’s all I ever wanted to hear. I’ve kept up the drumming – I even bought a drum kit.
Finally, Frankenstein is a prodigious, hyper-intelligent young doctor. But have you ever thought about playing the Doctor himself?
Doctor Who? I’ve never even considered it before. There’s only one doctor in my mind, that’s Frankenstein, but you never know. Anything’s possible, right?
Penny Dreadful returns on 5 May, 10pm on Sky Atlantic HD