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LOS ANGELES — A big reason film actors are drawn to TV is that it offers the sort of character-driven projects found less and less in a movie world tilted toward blockbusters.
That’s partly why Josh Hartnett jumped into Penny Dreadful, an eight-part series debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime as part of a free preview weekend. He plays a troubled American, a gun for hire, ensnared by Victorian London’s dark side in the horror drama-cum-psychological study.
Hartnett also appreciated the guarantee that the project would be marketed and presented to an audience, something he’s become painfully aware isn’t always the case with independent films.
“I’ve had worthy films not get a correct release, and have people come up to me later and say how much they enjoyed the film,” seen after the fact online or on DVD, he said.
“It’s gratifying to know that people go back and see stuff,” he said. “But it would be more gratifying to be part of the cultural dialogue and [know] that it [a project] had an impact when it was released.”
Hartnett was in his early 20s when he made a splash in 2001 with two major Hollywood movies, Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down, part of a varied slate for him that year that included the Warren Beatty comedy Town & Country and O, a modern take on Othello.
“It’s really exciting to have a big movie release,” Hartnett said. “Everybody should be so lucky to have that experience. You feel like the whole world’s focused on you for a little while, and it’s overwhelming.”
The actor is seeking other rewards now, those he said that have “less to do with climbing the Hollywood ladder” and more to do with personal and professional growth.
“I thought if you’re doing interesting work, interesting people will want to work with you. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to have that happen,” said Hartnett, who offers carefully chosen words with a slow, low-pitched cadence.
One example: An upcoming sci-fi drama, Parts Per Billion, with veterans Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands in the cast.
But Hartnett’s profile was reduced as some films suffered spotty or delayed releases. His starring role in Penny Dreadful has put him squarely back in the publicity spotlight and, he says, has led to some media confusion.
“The narrative that’s been created over the last couple months is that I disappeared, and I was some hermit for the last few years and joined a cult or something,” he said. “It’s just crazy. ... I was doing work I thought was worthy.”
But he’s fine with the renewed attention. “Being 35 and not 18, I’m less susceptible to the negative aspects” — given the satisfactions of working on Penny Dreadful.
(It’s his second TV series, and after a long absence. He co-starred in Cracker: Mind Over Matter in 1997-99.)
The foremost attraction for Hartnett was working with creator-executive producer John Logan, a Tony Award-winner for Red and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose credits include Gladiator, Hugo, and Skyfall, and executive producer Sam Mendes, the American Beauty Oscar-winning director.
The series they have wrought is an undeniable creepfest. Its title is drawn from the nickname for cheap, 19th-century publications that offered serialized tales of violence, death, and general sensationalism.
Showtime’s version finds renowned and rich explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) in the hunt for a monstrous killer. They recruit Harnett’s sharpshooter, Ethan Chandler, a man with a shrouded past, and one Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway).