Just like Dorian Gray himself, playing the ageless hedonist hasn’t gotten old for Penny Dreadful actor Reeve Carney.
After a three-year stint on Broadway as Marvel’s webbed wonder in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the 31-year-old actor/singer/songwriter segued into the role of the legendary sybarite whose portrait grows old for him from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in Showtime’s hit Victorian horror mashup series. As part of the ensemble of lurid eccentrics in the John Logan-penned show, Carney’s Gray brushes up against (literally and figuratively) other gaslight luminaries and alters their lives with his avowed self-indulgence but also finds himself questioning his own rules of eternal existence as a result.
With the debut season of the series arriving on Blu-Ray earlier this week, Carney spoke exclusively with Spinoff Online from Dublin about his exotic character, exploring the source material and even — though sworn to secrecy about Season Two — a peek at the mood on set as the series moves forward.
Spinoff Online: Penny Dreadful is a fascinating show and Dorian is, I imagine for you, a fascinating part to play. Tell me, what was the thing about this role that really got its hooks into you and made you say, “I want to play Dorian Gray. I know I can do something fun with this part?”
Reeve Carney: First of all for me, the language — I mean John [Logan]’s storytelling combined with the beauty he creates with the dialogue. That stood out to me instantly as something I knew I wanted to be involved with. I was initially a bit hesitant when it came to knowing that I had to be without clothes. I had to be nude in a lot of this stuff. I was always a little nervous about that. But the language was so good that I just thought, ‘I gotta do this.’ And also it was so different from what I had been involved with at the time. It was Spider-Man: [Turn off the Dark], the musical. I just knew I wouldn’t want to go from Spider-Man to Thor, or Spider-Man to Superman, or even good guy to good guy. Not that Dorian’s a bad guy, because I think that even when you’re playing someone who is maybe a little bit more well-acquainted with the darkness, you have to kind of figure out where they exist in the light as well. In the same way a predatory animal doesn’t know they’re a predatory animal. They don’t think of themselves that way.
John’s given you some great material to work with, but I’m also curious, how closely have you explored the source material for inspiration in how you’re going to play it?
I felt it was my duty to explore the source material. I hadn’t actually read it in high school. But I did read it and talked to John about how much he wanted the novel to inform my portrayal of the character. So we discussed how much and how little would be involved. But I felt it would be a good thing. I would have hated to have been answering this question with a “No.” Like, “Nope. Decided not to read it.” So I kind of anticipated being asked that question [and] thought, “You know, I really think I should read this. Whether or not we use it as much more than a jumping off point.” Because that’s kind of what it is — using the novel as a springboard for where John and the storytellers choose to take it.
How did you want to put your own stamp on this archetypical story and character? What were the things that you felt you were going to bring to it that would make it your own?
I didn’t really consciously think about it a whole lot. You hope to try to remove your ego from the situation as much as you can when you’re playing a character — or anything, if you’re making music, ’cause I’m involved in both fields. You try to remove your ego from all of that as much as you can, ’cause that’s the goal. I don’t know. I’m not sure that I thought about anything I would particularly bring to the character. Once I got the part, I just worked as hard as I can.
We did not see Dorian’s portrait, which I think was a smart creative move, but do you have an image in your head of what he would really look like, given the life experiences that he’s had at this point?
For me, I think it’s more important to think about if we look at anything — a collection of beautiful clouds in the sky or a bunch of trash in the sewer — usually it’s not so much what we’re looking at that creates the emotional reaction, but it’s the thing that image leads us to that creates a sort of feeling and emotional reaction that transports you somewhere else. And so I guess for me, I try not to imagine so much exactly what it would look like physically, but what those attributes would remind Dorian of and where they would take him. Whether they be positive or negative, or a combination of both most likely. I don’t know if that’s a good answer, but I guess that’s sort of what I do.
You’re working a lot with one of the most interesting actresses out there in my opinion, Eva Green, and your scenes with her are very electric. Tell me about the experience of working specifically with Eva, because there’s something special going on on-screen between the two of you.
That’s great to hear. She is so hardworking, and I don’t know how she does it, really, because she’s in so much of the show, and the language is beautifully dense. She’s always on it. It’s a joy to work with everyone on the show. I mean, I really enjoy working with everyone equally, but it’s great to hear that about the scenes with Eva. I do really enjoy working with her. The first time I ever saw her on screen was in Casino Royale, and she definitely stands out in that film, and she stands out in everything she does.
You have some very sexually charged scenes with both Billie Piper and Josh Hartnett. Tell me how you’ve navigated those moments with your fellow actors when you’ve got to do those kinds of scenes, which I imagine can be embarrassing behind the scenes.
The good thing is, I find that having a good sense of humor and having a laugh tends to help most things in life, and that’s definitely the case with those, as well. You try to get to know people well enough that you can say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this. And this is — it’s pretty crazy.’ If you think about it, it’s kind of an insane job to have. If you had an office job, and like, ‘Okay, it’s 3 p.m. — now this is what we’re going to be involving ourselves in.” I mean, obviously it’s all acting anyways, none of it’s real, but it is kind of funny. I think letting yourself laugh about it helps. That’s my course of action.
What’s your experience been like being one of the Americans in this international cast and shooting abroad? How has that been for you?
It’s interesting. Coming to live in Europe or a European country — nothing has made me feel more American, in a way. But I have found an amazing hamburger place here, which has been a saving grace! [Laughs] I’m pretty American in some of my tastes, but actually I think I’ve always had a bit of a European mentality towards certain things. I didn’t really realize that, either, as much as I have having spent time here with these people. Yeah, it’s definitely different, but it’s great. And I think that having any sort of experience that allows you to expand your mind and understanding of different cultures is always a great thing.
Tell me about the show’s effect on you. Have you become an uber-fan, just eagerly wanting to tear into each script as they come in? Has that Victorian Gothic vibe become a bit of a new obsession for you at all?
Oh, definitely so. I don’t believe that there are a lot of writers like John Logan out there, and so it’s always a treat. There’s a lot of enthusiasm among the cast and the crew and everyone, in terms of getting the new material. And I love watching the show. I would have these little parties at my house watching the show last season, so I’m looking forward to doing that again. And it makes it a little easier to watch yourself, as well, because you’re surrounded by people that you trust and your close friends and it’s nice. Because it isn’t the easiest thing to watch yourself. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to do it until Tim Dalton actually convinced me — through his own experience, he convinced me that there’s a good way to watch yourself. Which he said is to make sure that you’re not looking for any things on the surface. That you’re just examining yourself to see whether or not you’re telling the truth. And as soon as I started doing that, I started looking at myself a lot differently and it made it a lot easier to watch myself, and actually learn from it.
Tell me about the experience of playing Spider-Man — how that affected you, what you learned from that and what you took away from it as you’ve gone on to this job and other jobs.
Yeah, Spider-Man — the character aside — that production and working on Broadway, I don’t think there’s anything better for developing an artist’s work ethic. That is the hardest work that I’ve ever done, I think, in my life. And it really helped me for any jobs in the future I think, just in terms of developing that work ethic. But yeah, playing that character was pretty incredible. I mean, the reason I wanted to play Dorian, ultimately, was that it is so far away from who Peter Parker is and who Spider-Man is, because I would never want to continue to do the same thing over and over again. I like to keep them for what they are, and I love them both equally in different ways. But, yeah it is great. The thing about Spider-Man is it was great to play a hero that was very kid-friendly. I enjoyed that. I think it opened up things about me. Each character informs you about yourself and helps you grow, and that helped me in one way and this has helped me in another way.
Have you had much time to work on your music during all of this excitement?
Yeah, I have. Thanks for asking. I’m just finishing a recording project, hoping to release it in April, but we’ll see. There’s no official thing with it yet. It’s a unique kind of a long lead time with this stuff, but yeah I’m working away on that in my downtime. I transported most of my recording studio equipment to Dublin to finish it.
Is there a member of the cast that in Season One you didn’t get a lot of time with that you’re hoping to spend more on-screen time acting with? Somebody that you’re like, “Oh, just give us a couple of scenes together”?
I haven’t had a chance to work with Harry Treadaway at all yet, but he’s actually one of my friends from before Penny Dreadful, so I’m hoping that that happens. That would be cool.
How was the vibe coming back, behind the scenes, for Season Two? Were you guys really excited? Had you kind of gotten the sense that the bar was going to be raised and it was going to be great to have a Season Two?
I think everyone was maybe slightly more relaxed, just as focused as we were the first season, but a little more relaxed and happy. Especially with Dublin it can get kind of rainy, so it can sometimes affect your mood, but the mood seems to be, overall, even brighter than last season, which is nice. And, you know, different construction — different sets that they had to build. It’s cool. It’s bubbling with excitement at the studios. It’s cool.
Is there anything from that era that you’ve become enamored with, either a clothing style or maybe a custom from that period you’re playing in, that you’re like, “Hey, we should do more of that today”?
I’ve always been fascinated with things of that era. I actually own a few pieces of clothing from the late 19th Century. I’ve always liked that stuff. Anything new? I don’t know. I’m actually really happy to be living in 2014, I’ve gotta say. Because we have this choice to live as though we’re living in 1891 or ’92, but we don’t have to. [Laughs] I’m pretty happy about living where we live.
You’re obviously a young guy, and you’re playing a guy who’s kind of fixed in age. Has there been any conversation about how they’re going to make sure you always look locked as the same age all the time?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I had the ‘good fortune’ of having an acne problem when I was a late-teenager and my early twenties, so I had to start taking really good care of my skin, so I’m hoping that that helps. We’ll see. I found these great products. This sounds so corny! This is so beauty-secret nerdy, but I found these great products like 12 years ago, I’ve been using ever since, so I don’t know. Hopefully it will help.
‘Penny Dreadful’ Season One is available now on Blu-Ray.
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