By Jessica Hundley
Photography by Matthew Tammaro
"Dorian is omnisexual,” says Reeve Carney, describing his alter ego on Penny Dreadful. “He is open to absolutely anything and everything.” Carney, who made his name as the lead in Broad- way’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, has gracefully emerged from that much-beleaguered production to play Dorian Gray, one of the many fictional Victorian-era characters whose stories are interwoven, with wonderful complexity, into the new Showtime series.
Penny Dreadful’s title derives from the lurid dime-store serials of 19th-century London. Hugely popular, these publications were filled with macabre tales of terror, sex, and violence — in short, anything and everything to titillate horny teens at the time. In creator John Logan’s highly charged reimagining (which also stars Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, and Timothy Dalton), several infamous horror figures, including Dr. Frankenstein and characters from Dracula, interact amid an epic subtext. The result is the ultimate battle between good and evil, victim and victor, the dark side and the light.
“The writing is what blew me away,” says Carney of the series. “At first I was reluctant, because I knew the Oscar Wilde story, and knew it would mean living up to this amazing literary character, and trying to bring him to life in a way that felt respectful of the original but modern, too. Then I read the script and there was just so much there.”
Logan, a queer writer nominated for three Oscars for his work on Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo, brought a richly layered take to his reworking of Wilde’s doomed antihero. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is Gray’s vanity that has trapped him; in Penny Dreadful, his situation affords him a kind of reckless, melancholic grace. He is utterly free and therefore has nothing left to lose.
“In John’s version, we don’t know how long he’s been this way, so we kept asking ourselves, How would you behave if your mortal body was no longer destructible?” explains Carney. “Dorian’s gone through so many extremes before we meet him, from complete debauchery to being completely alone. The key thing for me was to bring a kind of humanity to the role, to make him real and make him vulnerable.” Logan and Carney worked together to find those vulnerabilities. “I think it helped that I was scared of the role, of how completely open he had to be — the way this character is just looking for cliffs to jump off,” says Carney. “It also, at times, meant full nudity and having to act out intensely sexual situations. I had been doing theater for three years, which is so different. In theater it’s about expression; in television and films it’s about naturalism. So I had to really learn a new way of doing things.”
Carney’s experience on Broadway and his background in indie music have ultimately served him well on the show, lending Gray a certain dramatic charisma. Before his stint as Spider-Man, Carney was a full-time singer-songwriter and guitarist (his band, Carney, has opened for Arcade Fire and U2, and released an album, Mr. Green Vol. 1., on DAS Label/Interscope). As a result, Gray possesses both vulnerability and swagger. He is a Victorian rendering of a rock star, an elegant, liquid-eyed beauty, the pretty boy with the mysterious wound whom everyone wants to save, or screw, or both.
“He has that romantic sadness,” says Carney. “If you live forever, anyone you ever love will die, and there is an inherent sorrow that comes with that. And while Dorian may be eternal, there is a temporary nature to his sense of permanence, because he is the only thing that ever stays the same. Everything around him changes. It’s those struggles that I want to bring to the surface — those complicated struggles with your own emotions.”
Stylist: Annabelle Harron. Groomer: Ananda Tuyes. Top photo: Shirt by Dior Homme. Lower photo: Shirt by Dior Homme. Vest by Nudie Jeans. Collar clip by Bones and Feathers Collective.