By Louis Peitzman
The French actor and former Bond girl has made a habit of playing supernatural beings, but on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, she uncovers her character’s humanity.
Vanessa Ives may not have the name recognition of Victor Frankenstein, Mina Harker, or Dorian Gray, but she holds her own alongside her more infamous peers. On Showtime’s Penny Dreadful — which incorporates characters from Victorian horror literature like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray — it’s the all the more impressive that Vanessa, an original creation, is the standout character.
It helps that Vanessa, as portrayed by Eva Green, is relentlessly enigmatic, at times appearing to be the show’s ostensible heroine while also harboring dark, potentially dangerous secrets. Even after the June 8 episode (“Closer Than Sisters”), which explored Vanessa’s traumatic backstory, there are still innumerable unknowns.
“Oh, I think [creator] John Logan would kill me,” Green told BuzzFeed when asked to elaborate on Vanessa’s mysterious past. “I don’t know what to say, my god. I mean, she still has that kind of force inside her, and she’s trying to kind of tame it, let’s say, but sometimes it pops out. It’s always kind of interesting to play with it.”
That force inside Vanessa is a demon that has possessed her — but it’s unclear to what extent the demon is in control. And because Vanessa’s psychic abilities seem to predate her possession, it implies she was never all that human to begin with.
For Green, knowing just enough about Vanessa but not the whole story has aided her performance, which wavers between restraint and intensity. “It’s a challenge,” she admitted of having to hold her character’s cards close to her chest while revealing just enough to not tip off the audience. In fact, Penny Dreadful’s success lies largely in the perpetual suspension of that mystery, slowly portioned out over the course of the eight-episode first season.
In “Closer Than Sisters,” a flashback reveals that Vanessa can, to some extent, see the future, which places a heavy strain on her devout Catholic upbringing. In a moment of prayer, she is possessed by…something. Soon after, Vanessa finds herself inexplicably ill and suffering from terrifying seizures, until a stay at a mental institution — complete with restraints, frequent ice baths, and hosing down — and a subsequent lobotomy leave her nearly catatonic.
While these painful reveals came as a nasty shock to viewers, Green, however, had the luxury of exploring Vanessa’s arc ahead of time, receiving most of Logan’s scripts before production began.
“I was given seven episodes before I signed on,” she said. “There’s a thing about TV sometimes that is a bit scary — when they give you two or just even one episode, and they go, ‘OK,’ and you feel like a puppet. You don’t know where you’re going. [It] was very important to me, to know what was going to happen and what happened as well.”
Another important piece of the puzzle revealed in “Closer Than Sisters” was the origin of the rift between Vanessa and her friend Mina Harker (Olivia Llewellyn), a character from Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel Dracula. Their relationship is complicated, like so many on the series: Green likened it to the pairing of nurse Alma and her patient Elisabet in Ingmar Bergman’s psychological horror film Persona. Like Alma and Elisabet, Vanessa and Mina are both intimate and adversarial, with a persistent Sapphic subtext to their friendship. They’re the original frenemies, perhaps, eternally locked in an embrace and mutual strangulation.
Since Penny Dreadful’s premiere, Vanessa and Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), has alluded to Vanessa’s unforgivable transgression. We now know that Vanessa had sex with Mina’s soon-to-be husband the night before their wedding, setting in motion a series of events that sends Mina away — and eventually into the arms of a powerful vampire.
“Mina becomes her cross to bear,” Green said. “What happened in Episode 5 is very complex, and myself, I don’t even have all the answers. I don’t know if she was really responsible, if she did it on purpose.”
While Vanessa continues to blame herself for Mina’s predicament, Green suggested that the truth about their circumstances is not as easy to uncover.
“I didn’t want people to think that she was a bitch, that she betrayed her best friend just because she fancied her boyfriend. It’s a fine line,” she said. “I think people will go, ‘Is she bad? What happened?’ [But] I try to understand her heart … She’s not bad.”
And it’s not as though Sir Malcolm is without fault, as he failed to protect Mina from falling under a vampire’s sway and took his son, Peter (Graham Butler), to Africa, only to have him die, which could have been prevented by Vanessa had she acted on her visions. The scenes between Malcolm and Vanessa, which Green said are her favorite to film, are fraught with tension. There’s a bit of a father-daughter relationship between them, coupled with bizarre and palpable sexual tension. Penny Dreadful’s “Closer Than Sisters” took that one step further, as Vanessa had sex with a demon who had taken on Sir Malcolm’s form.
At the end of the episode, Vanessa explains that while both she and Malcolm want to save Mina, only Vanessa is willing to kill her — if that’s what it takes. Green wouldn’t reveal much about how this conflict of interest might play out in the future, but she did speak to the complex dynamic at its core.
“I think it’s the most explored relationship in the first season, those two. It’s very complicated,” Green said. “Vanessa feels very guilty and she still has to redeem herself, but at the same time, she feels that Malcolm is not completely blameless at all, and she would like him to take some responsibility for what happened to Mina. It’s kind of a love-hate relationship. It’s very British, in a way.”
Whether in scenes with others or by herself, Green’s treatment of Vanessa is appropriately nuanced. She switches from confident and collected to pained and animalistic, growling and roaring in moments of possession, such as in Episode 2’s séance scene, in which Vanessa channels Sir Malcolm’s dead son Peter as well as her demon. Green watched footage of alleged victims of demonic possession in order to get a handle on her performance. The research was effective, she said, but as creepy as one might expect.
But while the supernatural elements are familiar to fans of Green’s work — she’s played a witch three times, in The Golden Compass, Camelot, and Dark Shadows — Green insisted that the attraction of Penny Dreadful was more in the multidimensionality of her character. It’s not Vanessa’s ambiguous powers that make her interesting, but rather her all-too-human vulnerabilities.
“What I really love about Vanessa is that she’s always at war with herself. She’s very flawed,” Green said. “We shot eight episodes and we really have time to explore her soul … It’s a very, very rich character.”