’80s James Bond actor Timothy Dalton stars in Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful, a new psychological thriller series from Skyfall‘s writer John Logan and director Sam Mendes.
Featuring some of literature’s most terrifying characters in Victorian London, the cast also includes Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Billie Piper (Doctor Who), Rory Kinnear (Black Mirror).
Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray in the show, a hardened African explorer on a deeply personal quest.
Can you start by telling us what Penny Dreadful is?
“Oh gosh, it’s actually a really difficult thing to describe, it’s a bit like saying what Moby Dick’s about. It’s about a captain chasing a whale, but if you said that you’d miss the entire point. When I read Penny Dreadful, I was thrilled. It was involving, disturbing, exciting, really strange and brilliantly written.
“On one level it’s exciting, there’s blood, sex, violence, mystery, fear, psychological terror, and a lot of very good looking people, and on another level, it’s quite a highbrow story about guilt and redemption – there are gods and demons that we all carry within us.”
Sir Malcolm is definitely carrying a lot of guilt and demons, but do you think he’s, to some extent, an unwilling participant in the things we see happen?
“No, I don’t actually. What’s fascinating is that the story is, in a way, framed by the time it’s played in, which is that late Victorian, height of industrial revolution period when science was really challenging religion and ancient mythology.
“Our world encompasses both, so your mythological or religious demons, your devil or your gods, can exist side by side in reality with your scientific, psychological, psychotic demons if you like, or psychoses as well. Sir Malcolm is an explorer and an obsessive and determined man on a quest to find his daughter, a quest of extreme difficulty and danger that needs courage.”
During the period Penny Dreadful is set there was a fascination with the supernatural or otherworldly, so you have people like Arthur Conan Doyle around at that time who were enthralled by fairies and séances and things which we see in the series. Do you think it’s that blend of science and supernatural that makes Penny Dreadful so unique?
“What makes it unique, I think, is the quality of the writing and the imagination, and that has all come from John Logan. Don’t forget gods, devils and demons have been in people’s minds pretty much forever – go back 3,000 years to the Greeks, for instance.
“It was only when science started to really burst upon the world, and that happened in this period, driven by the industrial revolution and international exploration, that all those mythological theories were challenged.
“In the first episode, there’s a scene where I’m talking to Frankenstein, played by Harry Treadaway, and there’s an argument about old-fashioned beliefs versus the scientific in which Malcolm says something about science and superstition walking hand in hand. I think that is a clue to the nature of Penny Dreadful because we can see devils. People’s devils are real but so are their psychoses.”
You mentioned Sir Malcolm is very driven and determined, whether it be the quest for his daughter or the quest for the source of the Nile. Do you think there’s anything he wouldn’t do in order to achieve his aims?
“I truly think not. I don’t think he’s just using a figure of speech when he says to save his daughter he would murder the world. He means he would kill our leading lady, who is marvellously played by Eva Green, who I love – I think she’s fantastic and fantastic to work with. He would sacrifice her to save his daughter.
“Interestingly, she describes him as weak, foul, lustful and vainglorious. You are getting rich characters here.”
This is very much a big ensemble piece. How were the cast to work with?
“Ensemble isn’t a word I particularly like, I think it tends to imply diminishment of responsibility. But we have got brilliant actors coming in – look at Simon Russell Beale, Helen McCrory, and as you go down the list they are marvellous people and it’s thrilling they’re doing this because it’s a great show. And I know it’s done really well. There is a lot of action in the series.”
Did you enjoy getting your sleeves rolled up for some of the fight sequences?
“Yes, there’s a fight at the beginning of episode one. You need action, it is a real element of life and it’s a necessity if you’re on a dangerous quest. I thought it was done very well.
“Very good people choreograph these things and then the actors come along and mess it all up, which actually gives the added texture of realness. Fights are good because they liven things up – you’ve got to have variety in a story and it has to have its dangerous moments.”
Were you a fan of some of the original texts on which this is based, Dracula, Frankenstein and so on?
“I know the Frankenstein story of course, and Dracula and Dorian Gray and all that, but no, I’m not a fan. My knowledge of Dracula comes through those wonderful old movies.”
At the start of the interview you said it’s difficult to define exactly what Penny Dreadful is, but is the fact that it’s got elements of so many different genres what makes it quite appealing?
“If you are a fan of horror there are horror elements to the series, if you like thrillers there are thriller elements, and more than anything it is just brilliant writing. It’s wonderful writing and I think that’s what captured all the actors.
“Most actors that I know have always wanted to be in a horror film, most male actors have wanted to be in an American Western since they were boys, and I think you could go further with lots of other genres, too. This isn’t a horror movie, but it does have those aspects and they are thrilling because it’s so well written.
“Everything has a kick back to us as individuals, we are all complex and we have our strengths and weaknesses, our gods and demons within us, and often it’s the demons that drive us rather than the good.”
Penny Dreadful begins in the UK on Sky Atlantic in May.
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