Discovery: Harry Treadaway

Published May 9, 2014

ABOVE: HARRY TREADAWAY AS DR. VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN IN PENNY DREADFUL. PHOTO COURTESY OF JONATHAN HESSIAN/SHOWTIME.

Harry Treadaway has “itchy feet.” Come June, the British actor has some free time, and he’s trying to decide what to do next: “I’ve just realized that it’s all out there, and time is of the essence,” he tells us. “Which way do you turn? Do you buy a van and go and explore Europe for the summer, or do you go and make a film?”

In the meantime, Treadaway is promoting Showtime’s new gothic horror series, Penny Dreadful. Set in Victorian London, the show features a few familiar literary characters including Oscar Wilde’s ageless aristocrat Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker’s vampire victim Mina Murray, and Mary Shelley’s doomed doctor, played by Treadaway, Victor Frankenstein. It also introduces some new ones: Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), an American trickster with an ambiguously privileged past; Brona Croft (Billie Piper), an Irish immigrant with consumption; wealthy explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton); and Sir Malcolm’s mysterious companion, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). Premiering this weekend, Penny Dreadful is Treadaway’s first premium American cable show since the short-lived Meadowlands (2007). “It’s a weird time, just before something comes out. You sort of forget about it,” the actor explains. “When you’re doing it, you’re not aware that it’s ever going to come out. It doesn’t seem like a thing; it’s just this world that you’ve created, and that’s all that matters. Then a few months later, you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck. Someone was recording it…'”

Dr. Frankenstein, who, in the show, is demoted from a wealthy Italian to an ambitious, perilously-open-minded English morgue worker, is easily the most interesting character of the bunch. He is, as Treadaway eloquently summarizes, “this rather tasty combination of the empirical and the ephemeral.” Part-Romantic hero, part Nikola Tesla-style mad scientist. “Philosophy and science supposedly look at the world in different ways, but they are entwined, aren’t they?” comments Treadaway. “Don’t even get me started, ’cause I’ll start, and it won’t come out right.”

Now 29, Treadaway made his film debut alongside his twin brother Luke in 2005’s Brothers of the Head, filmed between his first and second year of drama school. Returning to school was “heavily, heavily strange,” he recalls. “Going into Restoration comedy after doing this naturalistic, very all-consuming role. But it was good,” he adds. “Chalk with the cheese.”

Last month, the actor’s two-hander thriller with Games of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, Honeymoon, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and was purchased by Magnet Releasing. “Rose is bloody amazing; a simply extraordinary person and actress,” gushes Treadaway. “The entire film was one location, one other actor, five nights, a honeymoon, a cabin by the lake. Psychological turmoil at the end. It was great.”

AGE: 29

HOMETOWN: Rural Devon, England

CURRENT LOCATION: I’m in Portland, Oregon, with my mate. We went to do a bit of kayaking on the rivers for the last couple of days. Oh, man, it’s so great. They’ve got beautiful rivers here, beautiful coastline. We were in Cape Kiwanda, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. We’ve been hiding out in the countryside, but we’ve just come back to Portland today.

DON’T GET ME STARTED ON…: Kayaking. I love it! Don’t you think it’s the best thing? My old drama teacher from secondary school, when I left secondary school, he left and went off to start a whitewater rafting company called Adventure Ardeché, down in the Ardèche region in the south of France. Since I was 20 or so, I would head down there and help out on the river. It would be trips for schools, so you’d help kids get down the river for three days and you’d stop off on the side of the river to camp, and then we’d do rock climbing and cycling. I’ve done it a few times, but I do like to go down there for pure hangouts; [I’m] not always chaperoning. It’s really fun. I’m probably my happiest just paddling down a river, to be honest.

CHILDHOOD HOBBIES: I was just into life. I was into everything; it didn’t really matter, I was into it. I did sports, I did music, I did drama. What did I want to be when I was five? I probably wanted to be 10. [laughs] I was running around in fields, and making dens in hedges. That’s all I was doing.

MY HIGH SCHOOL DRAMA TEACHER: He’s a great man. A friend now. I was down in the middle of rural Devon, in the countryside, and he turned up from London and had been working on the river. When we’d been doing scene studies—when I’d started losing interest in drama—he came down and was like, “Right, get on the floor in fetal”—he put on Massive Attack—”Feel the fucking night in your ankles,” and I was like, “I am off, mate. Let’s go.” [laughs] It was all more physical, instead of just boring, how you say a line, that thing. It made it seem more abstract, I think, in a good way.

DRAMA SCHOOL: Did drama school prepare me for working in the film industry? No, I don’t think so. I think you, yourself, is the only thing that serves you. I don’t think any training helps in any industry, really. I can’t speak to others, but you spend quite a lot of time afterwards trying to forget what you picked up, and a lot of extra baggage comes from that.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN: I read up to a point where I felt like it informed what was in front of me, but then it started to not be helpful with the story we were telling. I read two thirds of it. [laughs] The story that John [Logan] was writing, the script was so compelling and detailed, the world was in that. It wasn’t like we bringing in something that was already told. We were trying to do a new thing.

JOHN LOGAN’S FRANKENSTEIN: What an incredible avant-garde, genius Victorian scientist—quite punk in his philosophy. Through John Logan, he has these incredible thoughts and musings on life and death and what it is to be alive. It’s a never-ending stimulating headspace to be in. The research it led to was interesting. I went up to Cambridge University and spoke to a couple of professors who specialize in Victorian medicine and ethics, and had some one-on-one sessions with them. Have you been to Cambridge before? You can feel the scholarly buzz in the air—the synapses crackling around. To be up there and spend some time with those professors and have a crash course in Victorian medicine was just really interesting.

VICTORIAN MEDICINE: Was there anything that disturbed me? My goodness me! The galvanism—the experiments they were doing with silver diodes; placing silver diodes on either side of muscle tissue, either on cadavers or people they deemed “mentally insane.” They would do these experiments with electricity—electric current was in its first stages and they thought it was the stuff of life. They [thought] it would help the paralyzed and stimulate movement and signs of life, but there was little regard for human rights. It was pretty out there. Also, chopping a leg off. How long do you think it took, the first amputation of a leg? [About] 28 seconds. They fucking got that thing off as quickly as possible. With a saw. Telling someone to just bite down on a stick dipped in brandy.

SCIENCE AND THE CITY: The Science Museum had to be one of things you do on the early trips to the “big smoke.” You go to the V&A and the Science Museum. I went to Starlight Express. [laughs]

FIVE FILMS YOU SHOULD WATCH BEFORE YOU DIE: The Shining, Badlands, Pulp Fiction, Cool Hand Luke. Oh, and that fucking crazy one The Holy Mountain.

THE FIRST EPISODE OF PENNY DREADFUL AIRS THIS SUNDAY, MAY 11, AT 10 PM ON SHOWTIME.