Ahead of the UK’s Season 1 Tuesday finale of Penny Dreadful, EvaGreenWeb got a chance to exclusively interview its resident vampire. Armed with 15 questions and copies of Vanessa’s prayers in Latin, we ventured to the Demimonde to talk to Oxford School of Drama, Biochemist turned actor Robert Nairne. Find out below what the Cheltenham-raised actor thinks about the show, transmogrification, Ireland and what it’s like to work with Eva Green.
EvaGreenWeb: How did this all come about for you?
Robert Nairne: Well, I had been acting professionally in London for around two years, largely in fringe theatre productions and voiceovers/audiobooks. A breakdown then came in on Spotlight (the casting hub in the UK) looking for a very tall slender actor with some stunts experience…already my interest was piqued, but then when I researched the incredible production team and the pitch for the show I was gobsmacked by the opportunity, and did all I could to be seen…. Luckily the wonderful casting team responded straight away to my various pestering emails and I met them for an audition a few days later – and here I am now..! I will truly never forget that phone call offering me the role. At one point I think I actually asked if she was joking.
EGW: Can you briefly describe and explain who your character is to those who haven’t seen Penny Dreadful yet?
RN: Very little is really understood about these creatures in the Penny Dreadful universe so far. They seem to exist in the Demimonde, described so elegantly by Vanessa – preying on the living and roaming amongst the dead.
In ‘Penny Dreadful’, one such Vampire has abducted Sir Malcolm’s daughter, Mina Murray, prompting his increasingly frenetic hunt for her throughout the series. Why has she been taken though? Ooh you’ll have to watch and see…
EGW: There are so many different types of vampire lore now over the centuries, and this series uses specific types of lore that maybe people aren’t familiar with. Did you just go with what was in the script?
RN: The market is certainly quite saturated at the moment – which is why Penny D and its Vampires were so refreshing! I did of course do some research – I read Dracula and the original penny dreadful ‘Varney the Vampire’ (brilliant), and watched various movies from ‘Nosferatu’ to ‘Overworld’ – but yes the prime inspiration came from the script and John Logan’s brilliant mind. We had various discussions about The Vampires (affectionately named Penny and Felicity) throughout filming!
EGW: Was it freeing being able to play the baddie? Did you bring anything different to your process?
RN: These creatures were so much fun to explore. So liberating! They were a gorgeous amalgamation of so many visionaries – primarily John Logan’s vivid descriptions in the script and Nick Dudman’s inspired designs; as well as the concept artists, the four series directors, the chief MUFX artist Sarita Allison, the stunt coordinator Pete Miles; and my own musings on how and why these creatures exist, move, think, feed, attack, flee. As ever with a villainous character though – be they human or otherwise! – the key is remembering that they don’t really think of themselves as a ‘baddie’. Unless they’re totally psychotic of course. I’m sure there’s a dash of that in The Vamps. But these Vampire(s) in particular are also extremely primal and bestial – their motivations are very much (though not solely…) survival and propagation, just like any animal in the wild. Or at least as far as we can surmise thus far. Van Helsing put it very well to Frankenstein in episode 6!
EGW: How long did the make-up process take to transform you into a scary vampire?
RN: The whole transmogrification – from daily head shave to contact lenses – took around 6 hours. Which meant lots of obscenely early mornings..! But each glimpse on screen of Nick and Sarita’s gorgeous work shows it was worth every minute.
EGW: What’s your favorite Gothic novel?
RN: Frankenstein. Such a beautiful reflection on mankind.
EGW: This is a very large cast with veterans and up and comers. Were there a lot of points for you to learn from that as well?
RN: This was essentially my first large-scale acting job, particularly on screen, so I really was in at the deep end in many ways. Everyone has heard the comparisons nowadays but it is such a very different world to the theatre I was used to – and I had to adapt very quickly, there was no time to be faffing! It was however so incredibly inspiring, comforting and thrilling to be surrounded by such passionate people in all departments – from actors to producers to drivers to decorators – I totally thrived on that manic buzz on set between takes, and then the ethereal calm during a shot. It really got me through some of those long days covered in blood and buried under piles of corpses. What magic these people create as everyone comes together as one!
I did indeed learn a huge amount – both technically and emotionally – that will stick with me throughout my career. Watching the other actors, training for stunts, fine tuning positioning for the DOP, watching the make up team’s transformations – the list goes on. I was very lucky!
EGW: Was it fun to work with this cast?
RN: Oh yes, very. I flitted back and forth throughout filming, but my trips to Dublin always felt like a visit to a fun and slightly wacky family in various Gothic hideouts. But yes the cast and crew were all so fun, welcoming and extremely hardworking – something completely evident in the stunning quality of the show.
EGW: Any funny stories from the shooting or about the cast?
RN: I will never quite forget the day I spent diving – with a running leap – from an apple box onto a crash mat in a green screen warehouse. In full make up and in front of a good 50 people. So surreal. Olivia (Llewelyn) and I had great fun filming the fiery Persephone sequence too.
EGW: What was it like to work with Eva Green?
RN: Such a privilege! What a beautiful, powerful actor. She is utterly breathtaking in sequences like those in ‘Possession’. And still on set she was wonderfully friendly, open and always full of fun!
EGW: Could you share any specific on set moment/encounter with Eva Green?
RN: Bless – during the necropsy scene with Frankenstein in episode 1 she kept rushing over to cover me up between takes, and make sure I was keeping warm. So lovely. We were in a stable in mid-December and playing dead doesn’t warm you up all that much – it was greatly appreciated!
EGW: How did you like Ireland?
RN: Ah what a gorgeous country. I had never been, and grew up by the sea and in the countryside so it was a wonderful place to have the chance to visit. Very, very chilly though. To put it mildly. Especially when you’re very bald and essentially just wearing paint and in a bare warehouse in deepest Irish winter!!!
EGW: Is there any specific story or angle that you want your character to do or go?
RN: I’d love everyone to discover more about whence these creatures came; how and why they have developed into the beasts they are. In particular the hieroglyphics tattooed onto the inner body…if only for some location shoots in Egypt!
EGW: Do you know what you’re going to do next (future film, television and theatre projects)?
RN: In terms of creature work – I’ve recently completed filming a feature film called ‘Howl’, playing one of a particularly nasty pack of Werewolves. Look out for that one early next year. I have another outrageously exciting project coming up too but I’m afraid I can’t say much about that one!
I do also still play humans, when the opportunity arises! I’m currently in rehearsals for a play to be performed in Brighton later this month; and also about to record another audiobook for the RNIB Talking Books service.
EGW: Without spoiling anything, could you describe the season finale of Penny Dreadful in 3 words?
RN: Tantalizing. Fraught. Exhilarating.
…Penny Still Sassy?
EGW: Thank you for your time, Robert.
RN: Thanks so much! And all the best!