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Josh Hartnett talks 'Penny Dreadful,' monsters, and more

Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in "Penny Dreadful."
Josh Hartnett as Ethan Chandler and Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in "Penny Dreadful."
Showtime/Jonathan Hession, with permission

"Penny Dreadful" is a new take on a series. In it, some of literature's most famously terrifying characters -- Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Dracula, to name a few -- are all re-imagined by three-time Oscar® nominee John Logan and become embroiled in his unique tale set in Victorian London.

In the first episode, we meet Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a sharp shooter in a Western show not unlike that created by Buffalo Bill. His prowess with a gun leads the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) to hire him to assist her and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) in a search for Murray's daughter, who has been kidnapped by an evil creature. Sir Malcolm believes he can rescue his daughter and has worked tirelessly to find her.

It is through this search for his daughter that Ethan, Vanessa and Sir Malcolm will come into contact with the famous characters from literature. In the first two episodes, we meet Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who are seamlessly woven into the story.

At a press conference for the this psychosexual thriller, which will be eight-episodes long Hartnett talked to reporters about his return to television after a long absence in films, working with "Penny Dreadful"'s guest stars, how he actually listened to a recording of Buffalo Bill to get ready for the role, and more.

Tell us a little bit about the appeal of doing a horror project on cable TV.

For me, the entire interest in doing the project was based on the people that were involved -- being able to work with John who's created so many interesting stories over the years in film, and knowing that this was his first television project, and having sat down with the people at Showtime, and really feeling like they were people that would be interesting partners to work with over a long period of time and very, I think, I don't know, supportive of the process and allow us to do things that are a little bit different. It didn't have anything to do for me so much with the subject matter, as it usually doesn't when I choose anything else to work on. It has more to do with the people involved, the quality of the scripts. And usually I pay no attention to the distribution. I've done a lot of independents that have no distribution. And then, this one, we're lucky enough to have it coming out soon, which is kind of exciting.

Tell us a little bit about your character Ethan.

Ethan has been working in a Wild West show. It's not necessarily the top Wild West show. It's kind of a second-tier Wild West show. But back in the 1800s -- since Buffalo Bill created the concept of the chivalrous cowboy and the nefarious Native American, it was the biggest show on earth, and it traveled. Buffalo Bill's show traveled. I don't know if any of the second tier ones traveled. We're taking on this as though it were a follow‑up act in a way and my character finds himself in London in the middle of this intriguing situation. He decides to stick around and see what happens, and we don't know why really, and that's why you have to watch the show

How are Vanessa and Ethan going to be weaving in with the stories of the different creatures, like Frankenstein?

The interweaving of the historic horror characters and our characters is seamless. You won't watch the show and say like, "Oh, well, there's a character we've all seen before." Because ,I think, even the people that are playing characters that you've seen before are playing them in a different way. So it just feels unique from beginning to end when you're on set. You're not seeing an interpretation that's been done before. And so, I think, we all kind of fit in that same area.

Do you have any favorite guest stars?

When you get sick of us, there's always someone to pick up the slack. It's unbelievable. We have a new actor come in and it's like, "I've seen you in everything. I adore your work," and they'll go on and do something you have never seen them do before, and that comes down to casting so much. I mean, just being able to allow ‑‑ you said this to me actually early on, I think, in our first meeting. You said, "I like to write to an actor's potential, not necessarily what he's done before or she's done before," and it really shows with a lot of the actors that have come in and done things that you would not have expected from them, and they have done excellent work like to the point that it's kind of awe-inspiring and a little bit humbling.

Could you discuss preparing yourself for doing some of the heightened dialogue? You're saying you're working with a lot of actors who have done a lot of Shakespeare and things like that, so they have done heightened dialogue their whole lives. Have you had much experience with that kind of thing? And what did you do to kinds of prepare yourself?

Like I've said, I'm the only American in the piece, and John's version of this particular American is not the most verbose. Yhere's not so much that we can say about where the characters go, but there's a sleight of hand trick with most characters. There's an intriguing side of them that isn't shown initially. The dialogue for me was never a problem.

Is it true that you listened to recordings of Buffalo Bill?

Yeah. Well, there's only a couple of recordings of Buffalo Bill you can find. It was interesting to try and find an accent for this character because where he grew up is very much a part of who he is.

"Penny Dreadful" premieres Sunday, May 11 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.

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