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.”
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
Opening track from the upcoming soundtrack from the film The Salvation with original score by Kasper Winding, feat Javier Mas on Archilaud and the wonderful London Philharmonia.
— Eva Green Web (@EvaGreenWeb) May 26, 2014
The film was acquired for Germany and Austria (Concorde Filmverleih), Japan (Tohokushinsha Film Corporation), Korea (Cinema Republic) and Russia (Cinema Prestige). TrustNordisk is now in negotiations to close multiple territories.
“The Salvation” is already set to travel to North American (IFC), Benelux (Wild Bunch), Australia/New Zealand (Madman Entertainment), France (Chrysalis/Jour2Fete), Greece (Hollywood Entertainment) and Estonia (Estin Film).
Pic was penned by Anders Thomas Jensen (“In A Better World”) and Levring. It stars Mads Mikkelsen as a Danish settler in 19th century North America.
Cast is completed by Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mikael Persbrandt, Eric Cantona and Jonathan Pryce.
It was produced by Sisse Graum Jørgensen for Zentropa Entertainments, in co-production with Spier Films from South Africa and Forward Films from UK with the support of The Danish Film Institute, Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) and Nordisk Film & TV Fond.
WARNING: SPOILER-FILLED CLIPS!!!
By Casey Cipriani
IFC Films announced today from the Cannes Film Festival that the company has acquired all North American rights to Kristian Levring’s Western “The Salvation.”
Set in 1870s America, the story begins when settler named Jon kills his family’s murderer, which unleashes the fury of notorious gang leader Delarue. Betrayed by his corrupt and cowardly community, the peaceful pioneer must turn vengeful hunter, slay the outlaws, and cleanse the town’s black heart.
The film, with a screenplay by Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen, stars Mads Mikkelsen as the lead character Jon, with the rest of the cast rounded out by Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt, Jonathan Pryce and Douglas Henshall. “Kristian Levring has assembled an incredible cast and created a classic Western that keeps you on the edge of your seat,” said President of Sundance Selects/IFC Films Jonathan Sehring.
“The Salvation” was produced by Sisse Graum Jørgensen, and executive produced by Peter Aalbæk Jensen and Peter Garde. The film had its world premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival in the Out of Competition Midnight section. The rights were acquired from Danish company TrustNordick and the deal was negotiated between Susan Wendt, Head of Sales from TrustNordisk and Arianna Bocco, SVP of Acquisitions from Sundance Selects/IFC Films.