Josh Hartnett has worked in TV before. Sure, you probably know the actor from such blockbusters as “Blackhawk Down” and “Sin City” or cult favorites like “The Virgin Suicides” and “The Faculty,” but the Minnesota native also starred in 16 episodes of ABC’s series “Cracker: Mind Over Murder” from 1997-1998. While it wasn’t quite his breakout role, Hartnett is hoping for a longer run when he returns to the now very different medium in Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” a dark horror story from writer/creator John Logan and executive producer Sam Mendes. Hartnett flew back from Dublin, where he’d just wrapped on the series, to attend the SXSW premiere of his new show, and afterward sat down to with Indiewire to discuss it.
When you came into “Penny Dreadful,” you said you only knew as much as the first two episodes told you about your character, Ethan Chandler. What was it that drew you toward this if not the character?
The people involved. Showtime had offered me a couple of things, so I looked at their scripts and spoke to David Nevins and the rest of the team over there. They seemed to be focused on allowing filmmakers — I’m going to call them filmmakers because John [Logan] and Juan [Antonio Bayona, the director] have only done films before — to expand on a world that they wanted to create without too much typical note-giving. I would fear television in which you would try to fit the square peg of this show — the creative process — into the round hole of what you knew was going to work for TV.
Since John hadn’t done this before, I read the first couple scripts and he told me what was going to happen with Ethan, but he purposefully didn’t tell me everything. I knew that he was going to create a vivid context for me to do my work, and that he was going to be allowed to create that world because Showtime was on board with his vision. That’s a really happy circumstance for creating something new, and for me as an actor, I like the decisions being made. It’s like working in independent film. The decisions that are made on set are decisions that will last, and that’s a fantastic feeling. It’s not like everything has to be run by a million people before it can be changed just a bit.
It’s interesting you say that he told you some things, but “purposefully didn’t tell you everything.”
Did that help you in your portrayal in the end?
John would say it helped me, but I always like to know. I don’t think that any actor would like to feel as though they haven’t prepared themselves to give their character the best arc it could have. John held some of what my character was going through because he was still deciding between a couple of things, honestly. He wasn’t sure what was going to come across and what wasn’t going to come across. It shows interesting foresight on his behalf, being someone who only worked in such finite mediums as film and theater where you have one product. It’s a two-hour product and that’s it.
In this, he knew there might be some things he’d want to shift — he did that to a lot of us. Of course, we’re chomping at the bit to find out more about our characters’ backstories, and he said, “Well, we’ll see.” Oof. I could kill the man, but in the end it served a purpose in that, for me anyway, I learned to let go of what the character might be going through in the future — even what the character has gone through in the past — and focus on what it is he’s going through right now. John’s words are so idiosyncratic and fulfilling as far as the actual structures of the sentences that it’s just fun to say them. That’s rare in modern film and TV. You look at some of the speeches that Tim [Dalton] or Harry [Treadaway] have in this first episode and you get a sense of what sort of dialogue you can expect from the rest of the show. It’s really unique.
Did you have any concerns about going back to TV rather than doing more movies? Do you see as broad a difference between the two these days?
These days a lot of good work is being done on television, so why not go work in TV? I’ve never had the fear of any medium that some people have in the past, but — to be honest — I’ve also done quite a few independent films that haven’t been seen by many people. It’s a lot of work down the drain in a way because when people do see them eventually somewhere down the line on Netflix, they say, “Oh, that’s a good film. Why didn’t we hear about this?” And you go, “There was no P&A [promotion and advertising] behind it.” “Why was there no P&A behind it?” “Well, it was trying to do something a little bit different. It didn’t fit into the construct of what the studios were looking for at the time.” So this is off the beaten path enough, and it’s going to be seen. It’s great. You get to work with these people. That’s the biggest thing — I’m excited to have the work that I’m doing seen by masses of people as opposed to having it only be seen eventually down the line when it doesn’t make a difference to my career.
Did the brevity of the season — eight episodes — appeal to you? Does it give you enough time to pursue other projects?
Definitely. That was a big part of our conversation at the beginning. It would be very difficult for a person like me who is interested in exploring all sorts of different things to do 22 episodes a year of anything. It doesn’t matter how good it is. You’d be doing it for eight, nine months a year. You’d just want to sleep the rest of the time.
I’ve done five-and-a-half months of this. I just finished on Friday. Now, I’m going to go work on a film and then go back and shoot another season. We’re hoping it comes back for another year, and we can do another six months in Ireland. What’s great about this is the quality is not going to suffer because John’s writing the whole thing. How the man finds the time to write this and also go do Bond — he also wrote the new Bond and now he’s back to working on season two of this — is incredible to me.
So this is the first year of the Episodic section of SXSW. When you first heard you were going to a festival to premiere a TV show, how did that make you feel?
Well, I’ve done a lot of festivals over the years and it was strange to hear that that’s the way things are going. It’s one more step in that direction of TV becoming the new film, you know? It’s great. It’s flattering, and at the same time interesting that you’re only viewing a part of the product. So what is it that you write about? Do you write about how intriguing it will be to see the rest of it come forward? When you bring a film to the festival you hope that people say, “Oh, what a fantastic completed project. Everybody go see this.” And you want the same effect for the TV show, but you guys only have so much information. I’m more curious as to what you guys think of it.
That’s one of the interesting aspects of the festival presentation. You also mentioned that some of your indie work wasn’t seen enough. How do you feel about this coming here already with a distributor? You know it’s going to be seen as taking screen time away from projects still seeking that shot at a wider audience.
Well, it’s a question of the function of film festivals these days. There’s been a lot of them over the years I’ve seen like Sundance, Cannes, and Venice change dramatically the way that they even market new filmmakers — if they even market new filmmakers. Sundance is so much about the Lab now for new filmmakers, but as far as the films that are being shown it’s about films by already well known people with pretty well known people in them. Those are the films that usually get bought by the studios for distribution. So it’s about what the marketplace is interested in, really, I think.
It’s great to have a festival that’s devoted to film entirely. I think there are still quite a few festivals that are devoted to film entirely. But the way people are viewing television and the way people are viewing film these days is changing, and it’s not just necessarily about going to the theater and seeing it. The content is becoming content and not necessarily film or TV. Is it interesting content to go see? That’s a question I think people are asking themselves when they’re creating programs for the festivals like this. So it seems a natural progression to me, but I’m not a programmer. I’m curious to see how the rest of the festivals go.
Did you approach this festival any differently knowing this was a TV show, as opposed to when you went to others as an actor for films?
I never like to watch my own work, but when I watched this — I’ve seen it twice now, I watched it with the crew back in Dublin and now with you guys — I’m more curious about people’s reaction to this because in film, you’ve seen it. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can maybe do a little bit of re-editing, but you’re not going to go back and reshoot the whole thing. Here, they’re still filming. They film this week. I completed early to come here. So you know there’s a lot left for people to ingest, so you’re judging it in a different way.
It’s more nerve-wracking for me to have somebody look at the final product of a film we worked two years on, and there it is and that’s all there is to it and you can’t change anything and they judge it and that’s it. On this, we know people aren’t getting the full picture. So are they intrigued? That’s really what I want to know, and it seems like people are. That’s exciting. I think that we’re going to deliver on that. I know the scripts deliver on it. We’ll see if our work holds up to that initial intrigue.
This pilot wasn’t really a pilot at all, but it still didn’t feel like an ordinary first episode. I feel like I had so many more questions coming out of it than I did going in.
Good. I mean, I think that’s good because you’re working with someone who’s only worked in film who’s the director. The writer, same thing. Lot of the actors, same thing. We’re looking at it like this eight-hour film, in a way. So a lot of the questions will be answered by episode eight, and hopefully we’ll have a whole set of new questions for the second season.
What’s good about doing what they call serial TV as opposed to the more courtroom dramas or things like that — this is structured like a film. Bayona, like he said, I don’t know how to do it any other way. We’re revealing the story bit by bit, but is there a set construct for the show? No. Each episode varies and that’s what’s fun about it. There are episodes that are just vastly different than the other episodes on the show.
When I first heard about the show, I worried it was going to be more of a procedural.
We’re aiming really high, and we hope that we achieve it. We hope that audiences follow us through. That’s the fun of doing this show. If it was just something like that, I don’t think any of these people would be that interested in being involved. Tim doesn’t do much. I choose very carefully. John has obviously made a lot of important work over the last few years, and Juan… they’re really great people who hopefully denote this will be something special.