John Logan's Penny Dreadful - bringing together a wide spectrum of characters from Gothic literature set in the era of Victorian England - has begun its third season, with Timothy Dalton among the returning cast. The actor portrays Sir Malcolm Murray, a British explorer of the African continent on a deep personal quest that, over the years, has taken a heavy toll, including the deaths of his wife and children. He is also inextricably tied to the journey of Eva Green's Vanessa Ives through the course of the series. In this exclusive candid conversation, Dalton shares his views on the show as a whole and this new year of episodes.
Penny Dreadful is innovative in a number of ways, one of which is the fact that in seasons one and two John Logan wrote all of the episodes. Unless you're Aaron Sorkin, that's pretty rare.
Timothy Dalton: Well there were other writers on season three, but John was very hands-on, which is actually something that I loved in many ways. The one sort of constant in my life, in my career, when I do anything - whether it's a classic play or a piece of TV or a movie - is you ask yourself, "What did the writer mean or what was he thinking when he wrote this line? What did he want the audience to feel when he wrote this line or this scene?" And it's wonderful to have a writer with you that you can actually go to and say, "C'mon, man, what was in your mind when you wrote that?" I mean, usually they say, "I forgot." [laughs] But, you know it is gold to have a writer with you, because that's what we do: We try to realize bits of black and white on a piece of paper. Now we can realize it in a way that comes from our experience of life, but, by God, how about expanding the boundaries of one's own imagination by fully understanding what the author of the text meant? So great to have a writer on set.
Obviously we're now in the third season. What's your feeling about the episodes that are coming?
Dalton: It represents a big opening up of the show. We've got a lot of new characters coming in and we've got a lot of new locations, like the American West. So the whole show has opened up. There's many more stories now. There's lots of new characters, interesting characters. It's like a tree where the branches keep growing and growing and growing. We started off with, like, four main characters. And then in the second season we got Helen McCrory as Madame Kali and her daughter, and it started to open up, and now it's really sort of burst open with lots of different stories. On the one hand, it's really great because you've got different locations, different things for the audience to see and new storylines. On the other hand, if they don't all work, it's going to be a drag. And I don't know, because I've not seen it. Theoretically I think it's a good thing. There may be more narrative now than psychological complexity, but I think maybe one does have to live with the fact that you get the psychological complexity in season one, you know the people and then you just perhaps have to let them loose on their stories.
The material you are given, is it still satisfying?
Dalton: Well, that's a very good question. I don't do a lot in season three. I remember in one of the meetings we had with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, one of the journalists stood up and said, "Mr. Dalton, yours is the only well adjusted character in the entire show. Is that a problem?" And he's absolutely right. So, Malcolm, yes, he's killed lots of people. Yes, he's exploited people. Yes, he's fucked his way across Africa. Yes, as Vanessa says to him in season one, I can't remember the exact words but she referred to him as a foul, lustful, vain, glorious, egotistical piece of shit. Well, yes he is. But he can deal with all that.
Is he someone that's driven by guilt over the past?
Dalton: He's got his guilt. You saw his guilt in season two with his family. But that's guilt, not psychosis. Now, you look at Vanessa from that moment as a young, relatively innocent, teenage pubescent girl seeing her mother having sexual intercourse with the next-door neighbor, Sir Malcolm, in the maze. I mean, her psychosis seemed to start with that. Every time she has sex or orgasms, it's interpreted in her mind as being a possession of evil. An evil that will grow so big that it will damage the world. That's a terrible psychosis to live with. She is the heart of the story; she is what the story revolves around. It makes a fantastic psychological exploration about how to help her deal with it. Sir Malcolm is kind of culpable, whether he realizes it or not.
This season you've also got Ethan Chandler played by Josh Hartnett, who seems a perfectly nice guy until he gets angry. It's a pretty severe form of anger. You can turn it into a fucking werewolf. You've got the Creature, which is a wonderful role I think. I mean, you've got Dr. Frankenstein building the form of the human being but not the content of the human being. A body without a soul and the Creature struggles to find himself as a human being. To find a soul. To learn what it is to be a human being instead of just being a body. I think that's a fantastic storyline. These are serious problems that these people have and they make for fascinating stories. But Malcolm, I think, is difficult to write. You know, he's relatively well-adjusted, he can cope. I'm saying this to John Logan right at the beginning, and he said, "No, no, it's all right. We've got some good storylines." He didn't' seem to have a problem with Malcolm's coping mechanism.
How would you describe season three as things get underway?
Dalton: Season two finishes with everyone going away. The Creature goes off to the north, like in the original book. Ethan has been caught by the wonderful Dougie Hodges' Inspector Rusk and he's being transported back to the United States. Sambene is dead. Although there is not a point made of it in the show at all, it's interesting that everybody connected when Sir Malcolm dies. Generally because of Sir Malcolm's monomaniacal self-interest or ego or whatever. All of his family are dead, and it's his fault, really, for lack of care. And Sambene, who tried to save him, dies. Everyone is dead. I leave to take his body to Africa, back to where he came from to be buried. Everyone has moved away to different parts of the world and Vanessa is left in London.
To somehow fend for herself, which I found incredibly insensitive of the other characters.
Dalton: You've hit the nail right on the head. Which allows all these new characters to come in. And as far as Sir Malcolm is concerned, yes, you can say it's fair enough to go and bury somebody, but it does take him away. But what he does of course when he's down there is he's totally hypocritical. He sees an Africa that's been exploited, it's been taken over by the Belgians and the Germans, and it's all gone to wreck. Which is, of course, a process that he started himself - exploiting everything.
So how would you describe where he's at as a character this year?
He's been a bit melancholy, romantic and all the rest of it. And then all of a sudden, turns up the strangest person you can imagine in Zanzibar: An Apache American Indian who wants Sir Malcolm to come with him. And just as Sir Malcolm is bemoaning the lack of quests, the lack of challenges, the lack of glorious journeys, this American strange shaman or whoever he might be is asking him to come to America. So I basically tag along behind Wes Studi, who is playing an Apache American Indian although he himself is, in fact, a Cherokee American Indian. And he's got something to do with Ethan, but we don't know what. So Ethan is being transported to America by the police and we are going to America together. But I would say my role for the first half is just tagging along with an Apache and exploring this new challenge, this new country, and where you were so right is, yes, he doesn't go back. He doesn't go back to Vanessa. Which he should have done, rather like he didn't go back to his son when his son was ill. I mean, it's just his own self-interest that's working here. I can't tell you much more because it would spoil the story. But that's one side of it. Then there's the Creature side of it. And Frankenstein and the death story with Lilly. There are actually a list of things... none of which we can talk about at this stage.
Penny Dreadful airs on Showtime in the US and Sky Atlantic and Now TV in the UK.