'Penny Dreadful' actor Josh Hartnett discusses his role on the Victorian TV show

'Penny Dreadful' actor Josh Hartnett portrays a sharpshooter on the Showtime drama. 'Penny Dreadful' includes such classic literary characters as Dorian Gray and Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

Jonathan Hession/Showtime/AP
'Penny Dreadful' stars Josh Hartnett (l.) and Eva Green (r.).

A big reason film actors are drawn to TV is that it offers the sort of character-driven projects found less and less in a movie world tilted toward blockbusters.

That's partly why Josh Hartnett jumped into "Penny Dreadful," an eight-part series airing on Showtime. He plays a troubled American, a gun for hire, ensnared by Victorian London's dark side in the horror drama-cum-psychological study.

Hartnett also appreciated the guarantee that the project would be marketed and presented to an audience, something he's become painfully aware isn't always the case with independent films.

"I've had worthy films not get a correct release, and have people come up to me later and say how much they enjoyed the film," seen after the fact online or on DVD, he said.

"It's gratifying to know that people go back and see stuff," he said. "But it would be more gratifying to be part of the cultural dialogue and (know) that it [a project] had an impact when it was released."

Hartnett was in his early 20s when he made a splash in 2001 with two major Hollywood movies, "Pearl Harbor" and "Black Hawk Down," part of a varied slate for him that year that included the Warren Beatty comedy "Town & Country" and "O," a modern take on "Othello."

"It's really exciting to have a big movie release," said Hartnett. "Everybody should be so lucky to have that experience. You feel like the whole world's focused on you for a little while, and it's overwhelming."

The actor is seeking other rewards now, those he said that have "less to do with climbing the Hollywood ladder" and more to do with personal and professional growth.

"I thought if you're doing interesting work, interesting people will want to work with you. So far, I've been lucky enough to have that happen," said Hartnett.

One example: An upcoming sci-fi drama, "Parts Per Billion," with veterans Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands in the cast.

But Hartnett's profile was reduced as some films suffered spotty or delayed releases. His starring role in "Penny Dreadful" has put him squarely back in the publicity spotlight and, he says, has led to some media confusion.

"The narrative that's been created over the last couple months is that I disappeared, and I was some hermit for the last few years and joined a cult or something," he said. "It's just crazy. ... I was doing work I thought was worthy."

But he's fine with the renewed attention. "Being 35 and not 18, I'm less susceptible to the negative aspects" — given the satisfactions of working on "Penny Dreadful."

(It's his second TV series, and after a long absence. He co-starred in "Cracker: Mind Over Matter" in 1997-99.)

The foremost attraction for Hartnett was working with creator-executive producer John Logan, a Tony Award-winner for "Red" and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose credits include "Gladiator," ''Hugo," and "Skyfall," and executive producer Sam Mendes, the "American Beauty" Oscar-winning director.

The series they have wrought is an undeniable creepfest. Its title is drawn from the nickname for cheap, 19th-century publications that offered serialized tales of violence, death and general sensationalism.

Showtime's version finds renowned and rich explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) in the hunt for a monstrous killer. They recruit Harnett's sharpshooter, Ethan Chandler, a man with a shrouded past, and one Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway).

The not-so-good doctor isn't the only familiar fictional character in "Penny Dreadful": Dorian Gray, dropping by from Oscar Wilde's novel, is part of the macabre world that writer Logan said was inspired by a childhood love of monsters.

"I didn't want to just write a Frankenstein story or a Dracula story or a Dorian Gray," he told a news conference. "That's why I created the characters that Eva and Josh played to be the centerpiece of the story, because I wanted a fictional story" that was fresh for viewers.

Like the actor who plays him, Ethan faces a difficult but potentially rewarding journey – albeit with much gore added.

"He seems to be a man with a death wish. And what happens in this series, no matter how dark, how messed-up, it gives him reason to live," Hartnett said.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.