There's a new Penny Dreadful in town -- and just in time. Nearly four years after the beloved gothic horror series wrapped up its three-season run in 2016, its spirit has been reincarnated in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, premiering April 26 on Showtime and available to watch online now. Created, written, and executive produced by John Logan, the visionary behind the original series, City of Angels tells a fresh story with a new cast of characters, but a supernatural twist gives it that Penny Dreadful flair. (Plus, the shows share a series regular in Rory Kinnear.)
Set in 1938 Los Angeles, City of Angels follows Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the first Chicano detective in the LAPD, and his partner, Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane), as they investigate a gruesome murder that inflames tensions in the community. The situation is made even more volatile by the shapeshifting demon Magda (Natalie Dormer), who's out to prove to her sister, Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo), the Angel of Holy Death, that mankind is easy to corrupt. Dormer plays four parts in the first season -- Magda and her three human guises -- moving between storylines to tie the world of the show together.
It's a busy, sprawling, colorful series that's well worth diving into. In anticipation of its premiere, TV Guide caught up with John Logan to get his take on what City of Angels has in common with the first Penny Dreadful, seeing echoes of the present in 1930s L.A., and working with Dormer, who's "number 1, 2, 3, and 4 on the call sheet."
What gave you the idea for the show?
It was sort of our changing world around us. As the world went through the seismic changes, both political and social, in the last five years or so, I started really thinking about a certain period of L.A. history. I'm an Angeleno, I'm a proud Angeleno, I love the history of this city, and there are so many shocking parallels to me about what was going on then and what's going on now... I always think of the show as: It's set in 1938, but it's about 2020.
And what was it specifically about 1938 Los Angeles that you were drawn to for this story?
: It's the rise of really irresponsible political demagoguery, the marginalization and demonization of ethnic communities, how civil engineering can create quarantine zones or ghettos in what would otherwise be the free flow of exchange and ideas. And certainly, as we were learning about the Russian influence in the last election, it shocked me to think about how much the Third Reich was involved in Los Angeles in 1938. So the idea of a pernicious foreign power infiltrating our information systems is also a great parallel. And the real jumping off point for me was the building of the first freeway, which was the Arroyo Seco freeway here in L.A. And you can't tell the story of building a freeway unless you talk about the people who were displaced by that freeway, and you can't talk about the history of Los Angeles without talking about the Mexican American experience, so that's where the idea of writing about a Mexican American family really came from. Because if you're in Los Angeles, the influence of Mexican American culture and Latino culture and Chicano culture is pervasive everywhere, but it's a part of our history we don't always celebrate and don't always acknowledge, so that's something I wanted to explore.
Did you always feel like it was a Penny Dreadful show, or did you start sketching it out first and then realize this could be a Penny Dreadful story?
It always started as a Penny Dreadful in my mind, because when you explore the folk Catholicism of the Latino community you quickly come to Santa Muerte, and Santa Muerte as a folklore figure is very powerful in the community. The idea that certain members of the family, particularly Maria Vega (Adriana Barraza), the matriarch of the family, could have a really strong response to Santa Muerte and a deep faith in that religion seemed very naturally to open the door to a supernatural world around the world we think we know.
Thematically, what do you think City of Angels and the original Penny Dreadful have in common?
The first Penny Dreadful to me was always about celebrating the humanity within all of us. As monstrous as you may feel, there's still the potential for grace and for nobility. And I think that's explored in all the characters in the original Penny Dreadful, and I think [in] these characters as well. In City of Angels we don't have monsters, per se -- we don't have Frankenstein's Creature, we don't have Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde -- but we have antagonists, we have monstrous characters, and human characters who are forced to make really strong dramatic decisions about their ethics and their morality. So the moral questioning of complex characters that I like to think was a hallmark of the original series is very much present here too. Also, in the first show we did a lot of world creation. We created our version of Victorian London to suit the characters and the stories we were telling. This show is world creation times a hundred, because we're bringing back to life 1938 Los Angeles, and it's a very textured and complicated society that we're trying to represent.
I think one of my favorite aspects of this show so far is how rich this world feels. What was it like transforming L.A. into the 1938 version of the city, and how did you build the specific look of the show?
It was a joyous process and a challenging process. Because there's a lot of old L.A. left, but you have to look for it. Some things are completely unchanged. You go to the L.A. River, it looks exactly like the L.A. River. There are parts of Pasadena and Koreatown and Downtown that are completely unchanged except for some signage and traffic lights. But there's a lot that we had to create. We decided very early on we wanted to build two things completely, because the heart of the urban Latino community in the '30s was North Main Street, which no longer exists... That's sort of the beating heart of the urban part of the show; it's where Tiago Vega lives. So we did incredible photo studies on what that actually looked like, and Maria Caso, our production designer, was able to re-create some of the actual buildings. The record store that we feature in the first episode is an exact copy of the record store that was on North Main Street, and Tiago's building is an exact copy of a building that was several blocks away. We were able to create six blocks of a real city, which gave the actors and the directors a sense of authenticity. They could move in and out of these sets. We could create something real.
The other thing that we wanted to create was Belvedere Heights, which is the community where the Vegas live. We built the Vega house entirely, practically, so you can walk down that street, walk into the house and through all the rooms, because we wanted to show that this community is a real place, a thriving community that's been threatened by progress [and] by the advent of other forces. So, luckily, we had the ability out in Santa Clarita, at the Melody Ranch, to build those things full size... I'm very, very proud of what the show looks like, because it should feel that you're stepping back in time.
We have to talk about Nathan Lane, who's so great in this show. How did he get involved?
I've been a big Nathan fan for many years. I'm a theater person, so I've been seeing him in plays and musicals forever. I saw him in a production of The Iceman Cometh that my friend Bob Falls directed, the O'Neill play, and I just thought he was so extraordinary in it. And then many people since have seen him in Angels in America as well, which is a very strong dramatic performance. So when I was building the show, I started with Tiago Vega, which is the character Daniel Zovatto plays, and then the next character I thought of was his partner. And I wrote it specifically for Nathan, because I know his capacity as both a comic actor and a serious actor, and I thought it would be really exciting to give him an opportunity to shine to all of America in his truest, most dramatic form. And it's been a total pleasure. Thank God he wanted to do it.
Tell me about crafting the Magda character and all of her human forms.
That was by far the hardest role to think about when I was forming the piece. Because I wanted Santa Muerte to have a counterbalancing force, an antagonist who could stimulate a lot of story ideas and whisper into the ears of our various characters and offer them choices -- those choices we talked about between moral and immoral. Almost like [how] Mephistopheles speaks to Faust and offers him the world, but there's a price to be paid for that. I wanted to create a character who could move through various stories influencing various people in semi-demonic, supernatural ways. And I thought it would be incredibly interesting if we had one actor play all those parts, but without heavy prosthetics, without heavy makeup, so we're owning the fact that we're saying yes, that is absolutely the same actor. And Natalie was thankfully interested in doing it, so she and I began to work together. We talked on the phone a lot, we talked about accents, we talked about the themes of the show. Then we got together in New York, and we worked on three of the characters. And we really worked, just to see how comfortable she was going between the characters and what kind of rapport we could build. Frankly, I can't imagine another actor doing what Natalie does, because it's courageous what she does. She's number 1, 2, 3, and 4 on the call sheet. She's working constantly because she's the one character that goes between all the storylines. It's been a joy watching Natalie recognize that challenge and then seize it and then do so well with it.
There's a fantastic dance sequence in Episode 3 with Rio, one of Magda's human guises. What was that like to film?
That's perhaps my favorite sequence in the show, in the third episode when they go to the Crimson Cat, which is the big Latino dance hall that's based on the actual dance halls in 1930s Los Angeles. We do practically a 12-minute sequence that's entirely dance, and it's storytelling through dance. Our choreographer, Tommy Tonge, who also choreographed the first series, was able to work with our actors to be able to tell their story choreographically, which is something you don't see a lot. So those days were extraordinary, because you'd go in and there'd be a hundred dancers and a hundred extras all on our soundstage. And the way we move through that I think is incredibly exciting and very unusual, because dance isn't often celebrated on television, and rarely in narrative form -- to actually tell stories through dance. To get a chance to do that was thrilling... And just wait. There's a lot more dance coming up. Episode 9, half the episode is set in the Crimson Cat, and we get everyone dancing.
When you were writing this series, were you conscious of either appealing to fans of the first Penny Dreadful or bringing in new ones?
No, I think all good entertainment speaks for itself and has to earn its own way. I'm incredibly proud of the first series and all the fans who supported it, because they supported something I believed in, which is that gothic horror can be meaningful and important and moving in a very modern way. And so I hope they'll get a chance with this show as well to be [moved] by something slightly different, but with the same point of view behind it and with the same care and love put into each episode.
Obviously, circumstances in the world have changed even since this show was filmed. How do you think City of Angels will speak to where we are now?
You know, I think this is a very frightening time. The world is changing in such dramatic ways; we're all living now in ways that you and I could not have imagined six months ago. And I think in any time of crisis people are seeking comfort and are seeking something they can believe in. And the Vega family is a strong family unit that survives a lot of hardship as a family, so to get to spend time with a family with that much love and that much care for each other I think is very rewarding. And I just think people are desperate for new stories now, and I'm really proud that we get a chance to tell ours.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premieres Sunday, April 26 at 10/9c on Showtime. The first episode is available to watch online for free now.