It’s not often a conversation ping-pongs from talking about abstract painter Mark Rothko to James Bond to Frankenstein in a matter of minutes, but with John Logan, it’s easy to do.
As a playwright, he wrote the Tony Award-winning “Red” about Rothko. As a screenwriter, he penned “Skyfall,” the most grown-up Bond film, and now he has created and produced his first television series, “Penny Dreadful,” an intriguing and atmospheric Victorian-era drama reimagining some of horror’s most famous characters like Frankenstein. It premieres tonight on Showtime.
“John makes the rest of us look like slackers,” says Josh Hartnett, who plays Ethan Chandler, an American with real gun skills pretending to be a cowboy in a Wild West show in 1891 London. There he is drawn into a strange demimonde — “a half-world between what we know and what we fear,” as one of the characters describes it.
Hartnett says, “It’s really rare for me to read something I can’t put down,” but the “caliber of John’s writing” and Logan’s commitment to the series made him “feel at ease” about taking on a TV series, the first for the 35-year-old actor since he was a teen.
There is an air of mystery about Ethan. “Everybody on the show is hiding some sort of secret and my character is no different,” says Hartnett, adding that Logan was even cryptic about the background of his character while being very open about collaborating with him on how Ethan evolves.
Logan says “Penny Dreadful” came about because he has always loved monsters: “I grew up building the monster models and watching the old Universal movies on TV, and they always broke my heart.” About a decade ago he reread Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” and found it very moving in a way he hadn’t remembered. “It just set me thinking about what it is to be a monster. What it is to be alienated from the world you live in,” Logan says.
“Penny Dreadful” — named after the nickname for lurid serial novels of the 19th century — revolves around Vanessa Ives, played by Eva Green. She’s a woman driven by guilt over something she has done involving the disappearance of the daughter of Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a wealthy African explorer, and she approaches Ethan to help.
The first episode also introduces a young, poor and obsessed Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), working amid those who traffic in body parts. He, too, is hired by Sir Malcolm in the quest.
And where there is Frankenstein there is a monster (Rory Kinnear), but upon meeting him, instead of terror, it becomes a surprisingly tender moment. On the other hand, the vampires are neither sexy, sympathetic (at least so far) nor evil manipulators as is the trend these days. Let’s just say they are grotesquely deadly.
“It’s such a magnificent story,” says Green. “All the characters are very flawed, complicated, and it’s just great to sink your teeth into.”
No, her character isn’t a vampire. Vanessa is something of a clairvoyant who goes into trances. “It’s such a repressed time, the Victorian times, and so she’s very hungry for life. All of her five senses are very much alive, tingling all the time,” says the actress.
Logan says he spent six months wooing Green for the role. The onetime “Bond” girl (“Casino Royale” with Daniel Craig) praises Logan’s writing. “He is so talented,” she says, adding that while “Penny Dreadful” may be scary, it’s “a very human show. It’s not just scary for the sake of it.”
If you don’t know Logan, you would be hard-pressed not to have seen any of the movies he wrote. The list of Logan’s scripts is impressive. It includes “Any Given Sunday,” “Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” “The Last Samurai,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Hugo,” “Coriolanus” and the upcoming “Jersey Boys.”
Last year two of his plays debuted, “Peter and Alice” in London, starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, and “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” on Broadway, starring Bette Midler. If that isn’t enough, he’s working on “The Last Ship,” with music by Sting, about the rock icon’s memories of growing up in an English shipbuilding town.
“John was interesting because his father was a Belfast shipyard worker,” says Sting. “So he understood the territory.” “The Last Ship” premieres in Chicago next month before heading to Broadway in the fall.
Logan is also writing the next two James Bond films, but wouldn’t give away anything about them. See what Hartnett means about the rest of us seeming like slackers?
Since he had never done television before, Logan told Sam Mendes, one of “Penny Dreadful’s” producers, and David Nevins, president of entertainment at Showtime, that he wanted to write all eight episodes before they started.
“When I was finished, I couldn’t wait till the next season. I’ve never had as much fun on anything,” he says.
Logan notes one of the challenges of doing the series is that horror characters like Frankenstein have been done so many times on stage, film and TV that they are “not disturbing or frightening anymore.” He says it was important that he approached them as “seriously as I would Mark Rothko or James Bond or anything else I do — as complex, three-dimensional characters.”
He wanted to do “Penny Dreadful,” which is shot in Dublin, as a TV show rather than a play or movie because “It takes time to really show all dimensions and facets and potential of these characters.”
So far he’s enjoying his experience in television, which he sees as combining both of his other jobs. As a playwright, he says you need a “certain artistic swagger” about what you’re doing. As a screenwriter, you have to be “something of a tactician,” always handing your work over to over people.
With “Penny Dreadful,” he hands his work over to others — Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) directs the first two episodes — but he still gets to stay hands-on.
“So far I find the synergy between the two really exciting,” Logan enthuses.