By Rebecca Nicholson
Eva Green has played a lot of witches. “Different kinds of witches,” says the French actor, sipping a dark red juice that looks, naturally, like a cup of blood. Tim Burton made her a blonde witch in his 2014 film Dark Shadows, and liked her so much that he cast her as the lead in his next film, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. She’s done indie films, arthouse films and blockbusters, was a Bond girl in the best Daniel Craig Bond Casino Royale and put in some serious action hero green-screen time with 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. If there’s a complicated woman who may have a murderous side, or a supernatural side, or both, then Eva is top of the list.
She’s suitably goth-like today, dressed entirely in black and speaking in such a whisper that it’s sometimes hard to hear her. She says ‘I don’t know’ before she gives an answer, almost every time; sometimes to deflect, if she doesn’t necessarily want to get into something, and sometimes because she often seems unsure of herself. She says she was desperately reserved as a kid. Actors do that ‘Don’t look at me I’m shy’ false modesty thing all the time, but with her, you can believe it.
Right now she’s putting her dark side through its paces in the third season of Penny Dreadful, in which she plays Vanessa Ives, a demon-hunting medium who was possessed by the devil and fell in love with a werewolf. This time she looks set to romance a suspiciously mysterious stranger, as well as going through some early form of proto-psychotherapy. We talked about how it feels to be Hollywood’s go-to goth and why everyone expects her to take her clothes off on screen.
VICE: I just saw the first episode of Penny Dreadful season three.
Eva Green: Oh god. I haven’t seen it. I am not good at watching myself.
So what do you do when you have premieres and things like that? Do you just leave?
Yeah, actually it’s funny, I was thinking about it this morning on the train. Most of the time it’s OK but then one director, I won’t mention his name, took it really, really badly that I couldn’t stay. I stayed for the first 10 minutes then I had to leave. I just can’t… I don’t know, it’s weird.
Because you’re scrutinising yourself?
Yeah. It’s too subjective. It’s negative narcissism. It’s not good. I wish I could. Some actors can [watch themselves and] improve. I can’t.
Do you think Vanessa is a bit of a feminist hero? There’s a scene in this new season where she’s having what looks to be a sort of early psychotherapy session, with Patti Lupone playing her therapist. She’s talking about how Vanessa is drawn to damaged men, because ultimately she’d rather be alone… It struck me as very modern.
Yes! I loved that speech. I remember taking a picture of the script and sending it to some of my friends, like, oh my god. It’s very interesting. I think lots of women are drawn to broken, damaged men.
Was that a wry laugh there?
Yeah. Yep. [Raises her eyebrows] Vanessa is a very strong woman for those times, which were very repressed. She’s a woman who’s hungry to live now.
Did you do lots of research into that kind of woman?
On the Victorians? Ummm. Not as much as I should have. I’m a terrible student.
Why is that whole gothic Victorian era so fascinating to us now?
It’s funny, because I don’t put this show into the gothic box. A lot of people would of course. It is very dark, you know, but it’s not just scary, it’s far beyond that. I don’t think I would have chosen to be part of this scary adventure if it was just about possession… It’s terribly human. It’s difficult to get away from this character because it becomes part of you. There is something, you carry it.
Is that not worrying? It must be quite draining – I’m thinking of that scene in season one where she’s possessed by different people at the seance.
Oh yes. It was a very difficult scene because it could have been ridiculous – to play all these different people, and to find the transitions between the different people. It was very hard. And we did it for two days, more, and more and more. It was quite scary but at the same time quite jubilating.
How did you make it not ridiculous? The line between whether it became that or not must have been so delicate.
It was very scary, yeah. I don’t know, but you have to really believe with all your heart what’s going on. It was so weird. I rehearsed with [series creator John] Logan in his flat in London, I remember.
Does he have neighbours?
There was not shouting! We were like, OK, should I take off my… no, that’s too much. It was fun. It was like theatre.
The dialogue is pretty theatrical throughout Penny Dreadful, I think.
I love theatre and I’ve done it, and I’m too scared to go back on stage. I love it but I prefer – I think we are theatrical in a good way, but if we fuck up, we do it again.
Why are you too scared to go back on stage?
I don’t know. I get terrible stage fright. At 3, 4 o’clock it’s like [grabs stomach], oh my god, I have to go in three hours… And when you’re on stage then it goes away, but it’s just torture.
Did you just think, in the end, it’s not worth the anxiety?
I wish I could get over this. I don’t know.
Don’t they have people who can talk you down from stage fright?
I get more and more anxious through the years, so I don’t know. But I wish I could because I’m a control freak, so to know every night know what you’re doing, if it’s Shakespeare or something… If I was brave enough.
Many people relax as they get older, but as you said, you’re finding it harder as you get older.
That’s what I’d heard, and then since I was a child I’m like, it’s OK… When I was six, I thought, when you hit 20, it will be OK. Then 30, this is where you come to… I’m becoming more and more vulnerable, made of glass. In other situations I’m stronger, but yeah, I feel like I’m a sponge at this age. I don’t know.
Do you know where it’s coming from?
No. I have to tame my own demons. I don’t know. At the same time, it makes me who I am.
Let’s go back to your first film. The Dreamers came out in 2003, and it’s one of those films that has had a long, enduring life.
It’s interesting because when it came out, it was not very successful. In France, it died very quickly at the box office. It’s really through the years that people have liked it. I mean, I love it. It was my first movie, I was such a fan of Bertolucci, and it’s such a free movie. Very pure, fun. I mean I never watch my movies so this is only what I experienced. I mean sometimes, like if it was a guy, he’d go, [puts on a sleazy voice] ‘So, The Dreamers…’ You know, you go [she motions to button herself up].
But as a result of that film [she has a full-frontal nude scene], you’ve been asked about nudity for pretty much the last 13 years.
I think people are completely fascinated by nudity. I don’t like doing nude scenes. I find them very uncomfortable. But like in America, they will really… Sometimes you take it badly as an actor, you go, actually, I’m more than just naked, I am something else.
Do you think it’s because you’re French? Is it that cliché of European freedom?
They think it’s very easy for me to get naked. [sarcastically] Yeah, it’s fun!
You’ve spoken a lot in the past about feeling like a nerd, feeling uncomfortable, feeling awkward in your skin, and yet, you’re an actor…
It is paradoxical. My mother used to say, there are two people inside you. I don’t know myself. But at the same time it’s my salvation, or something. I feel alive when I’m working on a character. I could not do something else. I’m very lucky that I’m able to earn money and that it’s my job. I think my shyness would have killed me in other jobs.
You said once that people think you’re a weirdo. Do they still?
It depends. When they don’t know me, at the beginning… I think I was sort of joking.
Well, the roles that you play do tend towards the dark and the mysterious.
When they put me in the ‘mysterious’ box, sometimes I’m like, whatever. It’s because I have dark hair. [laughs] It’s true that I don’t belong… I’ve always felt like this as a child, I feel like I’m floating, a tiny bit. I wish I could be more grounded. I don’t know how to put it. It’s shyness. At school, I was never in groups, I always had one best friend. If I had to speak in front of anybody I would almost pass out. Anyway. So, now I’m doing this, you see.
And now you’re talking to strangers all the time.
Press conferences and things like that freak me out. You’re getting in front of people. It’s funny. I have to go and see a Patti Lupone in this century [laughs].