When it comes to his Penny Dreadful character Ethan Chandler, “the wolf is out of the bag,” chuckles Josh Hartnett.
At the end of Season One of the Showtime horror hit, Ethan – the noble but deeply troubled American frontiersman who’d become embroiled with the shadowy supernatural subculture of Victorian London – was revealed to be a full-fledged werewolf, thus bringing him in closer alignment to the various creatures of the night populating the show.
And with the second season underway, Hartnett reveals to Spinoff that Ethan’s about to become more of an open book as the show gets closer to revealing even more of his mysterious past.
Spinoff Online: So Ethan’s secret is out, but we’re gong to see that he’s got a lot more secrets?
Josh Hartnett: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what’s good about the character is that he’s not – and what I’ve liked about working in TV which I didn’t expect to like – was that John [Logan] has not revealed totally, entirely, even to me, Ethan’s whole backstory. I don’t even think he’s quite sure exactly what Ethan’s full backstory is. And we’re kind of seeing that sort of come to fruition the more the scenes play out. And that’s kind of cool. It’s organic the way that you can kind of watch the process determine the actual character in the long run. But the biggest thing for me in dealing with Ethan from the get go was to create a box big enough to hold a lot of different character attributes, so he could be many, many different things.
What’s been the fun of being able to embrace the supernatural element of him this season, not have to hold it close to the vest the big reveal?
The physical element is fun. Because we don’t use a lot of prosthetics really. I spend a lot of time in makeup but it’s more just facial stuff, so like the physicality of the character’s me. Being able to do that, being able to come up with our style of what this guy is, and I didn’t want it to be some sort of light on his feet sort of – I don’t want to name names of other actors who play roles like this, but some actors have this sort of prancy, sort of wolf-like loping thing going on. I just saw him more as this – I wanted the lines to be blurred, between whether or not this is an incarnation, purely from a curse from a bite or Western telling of werewolf-ism, or something that he might have brought on himself which is more of a sort of Western American skin walker sort of thing. So the rage within Ethan may be fuelling, not necessarily changing, but it fuels maybe some of this.
Merging that werewolf iconography into other iconography of the Buffalo Bill/Old West element – where do you find those two intersect?
Well, so much of it was I was in the dark for such a long time in the first series that I had to kind of take a little teeny cues and clues that John left and extrapolate for myself a character. And when John saw what I was doing and saw it played out on screen, he then was inspired to write something that was more in line with what I was doing, because in the first two episodes – which were the only two that I got when I signed on to the show – you don’t learn anything about Ethan at all. And even through the first season, you don’t learn much. He’s got issues with his dad. He’s a werewolf. You know what I mean? And that’s about it.
And there were a few things that were surprising that came to the forefront. They asked me to learn a Latin prayer for one point. My dad was an altar boy when he was a kid, learned a lot of Latin. And there was something in me that just wanted to learn the Latin well and to sort of show up Dad a little bit. So after we’d done that for a while, we sort of realized, well, maybe there’s something to this in Ethan as well. If we follow that thread a little bit, what is his relationship to religion? Was it something that maybe his mom and he had as a connection? His father doesn’t seem to be a very religious man or a pious man. Otherwise, why is Ethan running from him? Or maybe a different type of piety. There’s a bit of an old fashioned one that’s full of wrath and control.
And John and I started to talk about whether or not Ethan could be recovering from some sort of trauma that may have occurred between his father and his mother. There’s a whole myriad of things that could have occurred in Ethan’s past. And as we were discovering more and more about him, it’s the same thing that I said already, just coming at it from a different angle, there are things that I’ve done, things that other characters I’m sure have done that have suddenly just popped out and then become major character attributes that I don’t think John expected at the beginning. And he’s been, to his credit, watching with such a careful eye to cues that may change the course of the show entirely, from what he had originally intended.
There are two women that loom large life in his life – Vanessa and the late but perhaps not entirely deceased Brona. So tell me about his romantic life going into Season Two.
Well, Ethan and Vanessa’s relationship is going to blossom quite a bit in this season. Ethan comes to a realization quite early on in the season that he has a feeling for Vanessa that’s much stronger than what he’s felt for a long time. He loved and wanted to protect Brona. Loved her deeply, wanted to care for her. But there was something to that that was about protection and care that I think even though there is an element of protection within his love for Vanessa, because I think that’s just existent within Ethan no matter what, because he is someone who wants to protect – but there’s something there that’s hotter. There’s something there that has more need. It’s fiercer. And from what we’ve done so far this season, it’s been really nice to be able to explore that because I think last season, we sat across card tables. We didn’t touch each other last season.
He’s got an interesting relationship with Dorian Gray that’s out there as well.
Yeah, I’m surprised at how much people have been attracted to that element of the story or how much I’ve heard from people about Ethan and Dorian. And I always took it – one of the first things that John said to me when I first signed onto the show, he said, “I want the sexuality and the violence to be frank, and I want it to be honest. And I don’t we should put our own sort of morality on what we believed the morality to be at the time, of Victorian times.”
And so he had this book by Matthew Sweet that he always referred to. And I think it’s called Inventing the Victorians, and I read some of it. Didn’t read the whole thing, sorry to say. But something that he kept coming back to is that the Victorians started a lot of what we considered modern way of life. Films started at that particular time. There were basically key parties. There was a sort of sexual revolution, buttoned down under those ankle-length skirts. And that people were doing as much sort of sexual experimentation as they are now. It was just very much behind closed doors.
And with Dorian, I guess, my interpretation of that, from the get go was Dorian’s supernatural. Dorian has the ability to take what he wants, sexually, and otherwise, most of the time. He says as much in our scene. Where did you come by all this stuff? People give it to me. And there’s this quality to Dorian that explains their relationship for that moment. But Dorian and Ethan, I think, well as far as I know so far, it’s only a one night stand [Laughs]. We’ll see where it goes from there.
Was there anyone from the cast that you didn’t get to work with a lot, but you got more scenes with in Season Two?
A lot more with Simon Russell Beale, who is a genius. And we do a little exploring as far as Ethan needs to figure himself out. And something that comes up, having to do with the witches and Helen McCrory is this need inside Simon’s character as well to discover some things. And so our paths sort of intersect and we do a lot of research together. And of course, those scenes are comic relief, and he’s such a fantastic actor. And obviously, Eva, we spend a lot more time working together, one on one.
And a new character, Inspector Rusk is chasing me down. There’s some great scenes with him. And there’s a new character in Helen [McCory]’s daughter, played by Sarah Greene, who I have some great scenes with as well. There’s just a lot of elements, basically the first season, we couldn’t say much about Ethan. Now, this season, the wolf’s out of the bag, so we can start to focus on who’s actually hunting him down and what’s going after him. So there’s a lot more pressure put on Ethan.
And a relationship develops between him and Sembene as well. Sembene’s woefully underused in the first season, but he gets his due in the second season. So as two people who are outsiders amongst this group, we grow to really understand each other.
At this point, how do you feel about your decision to take on a TV series?
I’m very happy with the work that we’re doing. I’m hoping that people’s response to it will be… it’s hard to gauge because I’ve only ever gauged people’s interest in films based on the initial reviews and the box office. But with this, it’s a growing, living beast, so what’s going to happen this year? I have no idea. Will people like the direction we’ve taken, and will it have a positive effect? I mean, we take a lot of risks in this show. My character is not the most directly down the middle character. And so it’s fun to see, for me anyways, the mystery of it. Yes, I am glad I took it on because I have concept of how people are going to take this, how it’s going to go down with the public.
Eva, as an actress, is unafraid of all risks, and must be fun to share scenes with. What’s the dynamic like when you work with her?
Well, Eva’s, she’s very practiced. She comes with a plan, and she does what she wants to do. I’m much more the opposite. I am the opposite. I take a lot of time trying to figure out what I think the character would be going through, and then I throw it out immediately as soon as we start filming. And so I want to experiment. But she has these specific things that she wants to do. So coming at it from these opposite approaches has yielded some pretty interesting scenes, I think. She probably hates it [laughs] because I’m throwing things at her all the time that she didn’t expect.
If she has a road map, you’re going with the flow?
Well, I have a road map that I’ve set out very meticulously if you ask John. Then, when I get to the scene I’m like, “Ah, fuck that. Let’s just try this other way.”
Do you have a shelf full of Victorian literature, or have you not had time?
Well, before being involved in this show, I’ve read Dickens, and I read Frankenstein, but not Dracula. I read Dracula for this. What else? Not a lot…As far as this era goes, it’s only stuff that – this world, itself, which is not necessarily exactly Victorian London has taken up most of my time. I have to figure out how to work within the construct of this show. It’s not any one thing in particular.
What’s been intriguing or exciting to you taking these Victorian horror trappings and making it horror for the 21st century?
Throwing out my initial understanding of what it should be is always my greatest pleasure in working. When I read a scene and I think, “Oh, yeah, this plays well like this,” or “This is how I see it in my mind,” I want to find a way to divert those waters a bit. Try not to make the obvious choice. And people have asked me “How has different people’s interpretation of the Wolf Man affected your interpretation of the Wolf Man? Well, the simple answer is, I try not to let it in any way, shape or form. Of course, there are going to be similarities because of makeup and the nature of what happens, a sort of blackout rage. But I try to make it come from the point of view of who I understand Ethan to be. And is it possible that he’s bringing this on himself in a certain way? That this character is almost as much Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde as he is the Wolf Man?
Do you fight the temptation to look at every bit of the Wolf Man material that you can get your hands on?
Yes. I’ve seen most of it any way over the years. It’s so much a part of our culture. I mean, God, I don’t know. I’ve even most of the Lon Chaney, Benecio Del Toro’s. I’ve seen American Werewolf in London. I’ve seen the various – I’ve seen American Werewolf in Paris, even. I’ve seen these incarnations at different points in my life that what I didn’t want to do was go back as we were filming right now and look at all of their transformations and all these thing and try to ape them. I didn’t want to do a parody. If I could, what I hold onto strongest is just who I think is Ethan is in his relationships to people that made him who he is. And that’s it.
And this other thing, even to him, is an aberration. It’s something that he’s not quite sure of, and he will learn in this series or this season. He will learn what he is. But he has an inkling, I’m sure. There was a story of lycanthropy in Spain around this era. I can’t remember his name. When I first took on the role, I was wondering why Ethan was traveling to Europe except to escape. What was it about Europe? Was it to go to Eastern Europe and to try to find out – was it some interesting things that could be supernatural out there? There was a guy who got away with a bunch of murders by claiming that he turned into a wolf in Spain around this time. So these myths did exist back then, and I think Ethan has an inkling.
But what John in this season, is he tries to invert the concept of curse to power, to positive power. And we’re doing all this in the midst of being hunted down by very powerful forces. So it’s in the pressure cooker of all of the people that aren’t – I’ve committed this horrible massacre at the end of Season One. There are obvious people at play that have tried to find me there. There’s more maybe having to do with my father. There’s Helen McCrory’s character. There’s all these things that are coming into us. And in the midst of that, Ethan is also trying to figure himself out. So it’s messy. He finds some things. He makes some good decisions, and a lot of decisions are made for him. And that’s kind of cool too.