By Julie Miller
French actress and former Bond girl Eva Green has played no shortage of witchy women in her career—including a 300-year-old sorceress in The Golden Compass and Johnny Depp’s supernatural seductress in Dark Shadows. But in the Showtime horror drama Penny Dreadful, the actress dials up the intrigue and mystique for her most enigmatic character yet. As Vanessa Ives, a Victorian-era spiritualist on the hunt for a woman being held hostage in some kind of demonic underworld, her character encompasses the duality of good and evil under a veil of secrets. And in Sunday’s episode, “Closer Than Sisters,” we finally learn some of them.
Last week, we phoned Green to discuss the episode at length as well as the difficulties of playing crazy, Victorian psychiatric treatments, and her masterful séance scene earlier this season.
[If you have not yet watched tonight’s show, do not read further.]
Julie Miller: Your character is so complex and full of contradictions. How did [Penny Dreadful] creator John Logan describe her to you when he pitched the character?
Eva Green: He didn’t really have to. He sent me the first five episode [scripts] and I kind of connected with the character straightaway and I loved that she had such an amazing journey full of twists and turns. You discover her secrets little by little. It’s an extremely complicated character that I was lucky to be offered.
Other characters in the TV series are based on famous literary figures, like Dorian Gray, Frankenstein’s monster, and Mina Harker. Did John say if Vanessa was based on any famous literary or real-life figures?
No, I mean, sometimes I feel like I am playing John Logan himself. [Laughs] It’s a completely original, fictional character.
Did you consult any mediums or spiritualists before filming?
Oh yeah! I saw two psychics in Paris—one that kind of showed me how to spread the Tarot cards. I kind of got into that weirdly. I thought that was fascinating and if it’s well done, it can give you some [insight] into how to make the right decisions. I spoke to people who had visions and said they can see the future. It’s a bit scary but I completely believe in it now because I met a psychic who told me things [about my life] that nobody knows. She knew what had happened and told me what would happen in the future—so we’ll see if she is right.
Vanessa’s character is so offbeat, especially for a woman during that time period, and, at times, frightening. Where did you find this character inside yourself?
At the end of the day, she is a very tormented, torn human being and she is at war with herself constantly. She seems very smooth and in control, but underneath is all of this fire and all of these demons. She seems very cold sometimes and then she has these mad moments, especially for that time period. Victorian women were so uptight and almost seen like wax figures but she is kind of a rebel. She is ballsy and hungry to live, dance, and explore.
In [tonight’s episode] you discover the background of Vanessa and will understand why she is like this and how she has all of these powers and how she is completely consumed by guilt after her betrayal of Mina, Sir Malcolm’s daughter. And this guilt will manifest in a kind of sexual hysteria—or that’s what people think has happened. So I have lots of absolutely insane scenes, literally, that I had to do and they were a challenge. I love extreme scenes—it’s fun to let it all out rather than play the boring girlfriend or something.
What are some of the challenges of playing insane?
It’s scary because of course you do explore the darkness inside you. It’s cool to be crazy. It’s fun and people might think I’m a weirdo. But it was full-on, let’s say, and very demanding. I was completely shattered at the end of the day. But the crew was very nice and John Logan was looking after me like my dad.
Do you stay in character between scenes, especially for this episode where your character is going crazy?
Oh no! I need to laugh actually. It helps me to focus. I always find it so pretentious when actors stay in character. I like to have a great relationship with the crew. For those difficult scenes, I like to listen to a lot of music. It helps me concentrate and remind grounded.
Your character is subjected to some frightening psychiatric treatments common during that time period, including having a hole drilled into her brain to let what the doctors think are demons out. What kind of research did you do on the subject?
A lot. They used lots of water, freezing water, to kind of numb all of the senses. They used crude brain surgery. Women were not allowed to really express themselves—sexually, for sure, that was out of the question—but in any way. In this episode, we now know that the doctors and family think she is suffering from sexual hysteria but we know that it is this obscure force inside of her doing all of this damage. I am very visual so I looked at lots of pictures of women in hospitals during the time period. They were so scary that they were almost funny—women with their mouths very much open, looking very much like animals. It’s a bit scary because we don’t talk about sexual hysteria very much any more.
Did becoming that unhinged for those scenes affect your personal life in any way? For instance, did you have nightmares?
When you do something like this you do become a bit more aware—wondering whether there are forces around us. But sometimes as an actor, you have to put up your armor [to what your character is experiencing] otherwise you will end up in an asylum. When you do a role like this, you do approach the dark side. Though, now I know all of my prayers in Latin so I can also fight the devil. [Laughs]
I have to ask you about the séance scene earlier this season, which was incredible. [For those readers who haven’t seen it, Green channels a series of men, women, children, and the devil, in a six-minute tour de force worthy of its own Emmy.] How did you go about preparing for that?
My god, that was one of the most challenging scenes for me because I was worried I was doing too much. The most challenging things were the transitions actually, going from the little boy to the older boy and then to Mina and then the devil. I wanted to be understood and to be clear because it’s so fast and very easy to look ridiculous [acting that out]. I made sure to have like four cameras on me so I didn’t have to do it too much. It was hard though, to find the right recipe.
How did you even rehearse? Did you tape yourself?
I worked with my drama coach because by yourself you would drown in that scene. You need someone external who can help you a bit. That was very necessary for that scene. I also worked with John Logan and the director, J. A. Bayona, who was amazing. About two weeks before, we rehearsed that scene while playing really intense, mad music and trying to find the right amount of things I should do. J.A. was wonderful and if it had been another director, I would have been worried. For example though, in rehearsal, he gave me a rope and I was kind of pulling it. . . it helped me find moments, like where I was doing the child, and resisting. It helped me find the physicality. He’s very physical, very Spanish, and he helped me channel all of these little people inside me. [Laughs]
What I noticed is there was a butterfly during that seance that was around for those two days [we filmed the scene] and then it followed me around for the whole shoot, for all eight episodes. It was like my little guardian angel. It was very weird. Everyone was laughing. It was like a Penny Dreadful butterfly. A spirit.
What do your friends and family think seeing you play this kind of insane character?
Well I am in France and it hasn’t aired here yet so they have not seen it. But they know I work very hard. Actually I have not seen it either. I never watch anything I am in. I tend to be negative and it’s better to kind of keep [your films and TV shows] at a distance, like it was a dream or something.
What can you say about Vanessa’s development the rest of this season?
She wants to redeem herself and that obsession with redeeming herself gives her some weird power and makes her special at a time when women were so oppressed. You will see. She is unique by having this gift and for her it is very hard to give it up. You’ll see what she wants to do with it in the last episode. Mina is the love of her life and she will do anything to rescue her wherever she is in the underworld. It’s her cross to bear.
Source: Vanity Fair