Penny Dreadful: City of Angels - ‘This is a show about politics’

Tony and Golden Globe winner John Logan talks to BT TV about the making of his highly anticipated Sky Atlantic series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 22 June 2020 - 3.26pm
Drama NOW TV

Penny Dreadful

Watch Penny Dreadful: City of Angels on Sky Atlantic with NOW TV from July 1.

“While Donald Trump was raging about the wall, I was thinking about what the freeway did to Los Angeles.”

John Logan believed that he had left the world of Penny Dreadful behind when he concluded the horror drama series in 2016 after three seasons of chills and thrills.

However, political events in America and a certain 45th President reeled him back in.

The second instalment in the Penny Dreadful universe is a very different beast to the original. Rather than exploring Gothic literature and poetry, this new series is set in 1930s Los Angeles and sees social and political unrest at simmering point.

Grisly murders, the destruction of Mexican-American communities by the building of the first freeways, the rise of radio evangelism and espionage from the Third Reich are among the multiple storylines all playing out in the first season.

The connecting factor across these plotlines is the dark goddess Magda, played by Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer. Appearing in multiple guises, Magda is the demon on the shoulder, slowly pushing the city of Los Angeles towards chaos.

BT TV caught up with three-time Oscar nominee, Tony and Golden Globe winner Logan (Skyfall, The Aviator, Gladiator) to discover how this timely new chapter of Penny Dreadful was made.

A story set in 1938, inspired by 2020

First look at Penny Dreadful: City of Angels on Sky Atlantic Showtime Networks

"The impulse for the first Penny Dreadful was really poetic and took in my interest in Gothic literature. I wanted to explore female protagonists literally and figuratively. It was a work of drama and poetry more than anything.

"This new show is a show of politics.

"Like everyone, these last few years have been traumatic. Everything we’ve gone through, in the UK and US, and around the world. It’s been very alarming.

"Everywhere you look you see the resurgence of dangerous political extremism and irresponsible political demagoguery and vehement racism and anti-Semitism. And the demonisation and marginalisation of ethnic minorities.

First look at Penny Dreadful: City of Angels on Sky Atlantic Showtime Networks

"In America, that demonisation has focused on the Mexican community. All that nativism is very troubling to me. I wanted to respond to that and I was struck by the similarities between the moment and Angeleno history.

"I’m an Angeleno and I love the city's history. And I was amazed as I looked into it how much the history connected with what is happening now.

"Like any dramatist, the past is a great way to look at the present. 1938 was the choice because that was when they built the freeway. As soon as I landed on that, you can’t tell the story of the freeway without telling the story of the communities most impacted. You can’t tell that story without telling the story of the Mexican-American experience."

Casting Natalie Dormer as Magda

Natalie Dormer in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Showtime Networks

"She is fearless. First in, number one, she is fearless.

"We knew that this role would take an actor of incredible courage to play all four of those parts. One of the first things Natalie and I talked about was that we weren’t going to play these characters with a wink to the audience. We were going to play them very straight.

"The idea of this pervasive metaphor for evil, invading all our lives and whispering on our shoulders was very powerful to me. I think it happens to every one of us every single day, whether it’s social media, politics or personal interaction.

"The temptation to listen to not the angel of your nature, but the devil of your nature is profound.

"I thought it would be interesting to embody that with one performer. Natalie worked on the characters with me. She is ferociously courageous and tireless. And smart as a whip. It was a great benefit to the show and me personally to have her."

A different view of Los Angeles 

First look at Penny Dreadful: City of Angels on Sky Atlantic Showtime Networks

"This isn’t a story about Hollywood and it isn’t a film noir piece. This is about downtown LA and real people with a political and social dimension.

"What’s unique about Los Angeles to me is the quality of life. It is hot, it is blazing, and it is relentless.

"I thought after the last show, which was shrouded in Victorian myth and haze, doing a morality play on a sun-drenched landscape was really interesting.

"I worked really closely with our directors and directors of photography to find the right look for the show, so it could look romantic when it needed to and also harshly brutal when it needed to.

"We spent more time refining the colour than we did refining the script to get the right tone for the show."

A soundtrack to match epic storytelling

Natalie Dormer and Michael Gladys in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Showtime Networks

"Some people would say I’m a perfectionist, but I’m very involved in the music.

"John Paesano, our composer, is absolutely magnificent. He was delighted in our first meeting when I said I wanted large sweeping scenes. I don’t want bare backgrounds, I want music and scenes that audiences will have an emotional reaction to.

"As an opera-goer it’s something that I find very exciting and it’s not something that is done all that often.

"The music for the show, every song, every dance number has been carefully chosen, composed and arranged to carefully reflect the mood and emotions of the characters.

"It’s really fun and exciting part of the job for me to get hands on with that part of the work."

A dream ensemble cast

Nathan Lane in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Showtime Networks

"We spent almost a year casting this show.

"I wrote the character of Peter Craft for Rory Kinnear. He is pound for pound one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with. I really wanted him in the show again as a supportive friend going into a new venture and partly because he is just so brilliant.

"I called him, promised him the part and told him, ‘I promise you won’t have to spend four hours in make-up for this one!’ And at the point he was immediately excited.

"And I also wrote the role of Lewis Michener for Nathan Lane (above). He brings incredible soulfulness. Yes, he can deliver the lines, the jokes and looks great in the costumes. But he is a gifted performer, who feels things deeply and knows how to manifest them for audiences.

"He saw the potential for the character and also for the potential in people seeing him in a new role. People who haven’t seen him in theatre haven’t seen him embrace that side of his talent. They’ve just seen his comic or musical roles. I think he saw it as a challenge to show what he could do."

A hidden history of Los Angeles

Rory Kinnear in Penny Dreadul: City of Angels as Peter Craft Showtime Networks

"Mexican-American history is utterly, utterly ignored. It’s so sad. One of the wonderful things about Los Angeles is that we’re always at the cutting edge of modernity.

"But that means the past isn’t always around us like London and New York, where it is everywhere you walk. You have to search for it in Los Angeles.

"It’s important to remember that 100 years before this show was set, Los Angeles was Mexico. And we have a strong, strong relationship with our Mexican past. And sometimes it is viewed as a negative.

"This show is very eye-opening for people who consider Los Angeles just the place of fun in the sun and Hollywood. The social politics and interpersonal dynamics in Los Angeles were every bit as profoundly violent and emotional and exciting as they were in New York and London.

"We’re in a moment of important national dialogue right now. And this show deals with race very specifically. And as the series progresses it deals with it in even more wrenching ways.

"Like every artist I'm grappling with what this all means for me personally, what it means for storytelling, what it means for the story I choose to tell.

"I hope this show will continue to embrace very actively the moment we’re living in, because that’s what inspired it in the first place."

Watch Penny Dreadful: City of Angels on Sky Atlantic with the NOW TV Entertainment Pass from July 1.