Penny Dreadful wore its horrific influences on its lacy, blood-soaked sleeve. Showtime’s dearly departed drama immersed the supernaturally tormented Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) in a world of vampires, werewolves, and gothic literary characters. But one of those characters, Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), carried a burden — a portrait bearing his sins and making him immortal — that proved especially hard to bring to life.
“Of all the many challenges of Penny Dreadful, one of the most profound was trying to figure out what the hell that picture looks like,” series creator John Logan tells EW. “When I was grappling with the forebears of all the great monsters and myths we dealt with, whether it’s Dracula or Frankenstein, I was inspired by past versions of those creations.” But previous reimaginings of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel proved more difficult for the showrunner to shake.
“With The Picture of Dorian Gray, I was sort of haunted by the Ivan Albright painting that was in the  MGM movie,” Logan says, “mostly because I lived in Chicago for 25 years. It was at the Art Institute; I saw it every time I went there. And Ivan Albright’s one of my favorite American painters. So I was sort of flummoxed by that because I think it so perfectly, and in such a beautifully artistic way, created what Oscar Wilde was talking about. So I said, ‘Well, we can’t do that, so we have to do something else.’”
Early drafts focused on the character’s loneliness
Before he could conceptualize his version of the portrait, Logan had to grapple with some serious questions. “How do you show sin appearing on a painting?” he wonders. “What is sin? How does it manifest itself? Is it sort of like a plague? Does it look like an illness? Is it pustules? Is it aging?”
Ultimately, the showrunner realized he was drawn to a more internal pain. “To me, what is poignant about Dorian Gray is that he’s everlasting,” Logan says. “He’s eternal, and he will live forever, and the loneliness inherent in that I find very moving. So what I wanted was an incredibly sad image, a very lonely, haunting image, because the true pain of Dorian Gray, it seemed to me, had to do with loneliness.”
But when the team designing the portrait zeroed in on that emotion, attempting to convey it through a “huge close-up” on the character’s face, the end result fell flat. “It was too literal, it was too something,” Logan says. “It wasn’t quite capturing what it needed to capture.”
Plans to reveal the painting at the end of season 1 were scrapped
When he went back to the drawing board, Logan had to let go of a few expectations. Initially, he recalls, “I wanted it to feel modern, but I definitely wanted a painting. I didn’t want visual trickery and I didn’t want it to be like a CGI effect, which of course it ended up being.”
Logan credits visual effects supervisor James Cooper for getting him to consider a CGI portrait, convincing him that “what could be provocative about the painting is that it moves.” But the new direction required actor Reeve Carney to suffer for his art. “Poor Reeve stripped down to a little G-string, did a thousand video studies of him chained up, lurching in his chains, being angry, being happy,” Logan remembers. The results were then rendered to look like a painting, giving the portrait a handmade effect.
The painting tied into Gray’s untold backstory
“Had we continued with Penny Dreadful, I had a backstory I wanted to create for Dorian Gray that was set in revolutionary France,” Logan reveals. He thrills at imagining the hedonistic character “having an affair with Saint-Just under the shadow of the guillotine.”
With that history in mind, the showrunner envisioned a portrait influenced by the arts of the time. “I wanted something that felt Man in the Iron Mask-y, something that felt Alexandre Dumas,” he says. “So we got sort of a castle-y look with candles. You’d never know it looking at the painting, but that was infusing it. When I was talking to the art department and the visual effects house, I said, ‘Think about that history of France. Think about those costumes, those clothes, and the feel of those paintings.’”
And a familiar face made a cameo in that backstory, however indirectly. Logan points out that the painting at the entrance to Gray’s secret portrait room is actually a portrait of Eva Green in a French revolutionary-era outfit. “I thought if we ever did a backstory,” Logan explains, “it would be nice to weave the Eva Green character in it as sort of a lost love for the revolutionary period. So I asked the art department to create this series of paintings set in that period that were of Eva, which they actually did. But we don’t really focus on it in the show.”
Gray keeps his portrait in ‘the heart of darkness’
“We very much wanted his secret painting to be off his gallery,” Logan says, “which is of course filled with paintings, which is one of my favorite images, if not my favorite image, visually, from the show.” The walk into the hidden enclave took Gray through a mirrored hallway that “suggested narcissism and the self-involvement of the character,” but the room housing the painting itself was left intentionally bleak: a cold, round space with brick walls. As Logan describes it, “He’s in the heart of darkness. It’s him and his soul.”
The unseen still reigns supreme in horror
As pleased as he is with the finished product, Logan admits that nothing could compare to what viewers were already picturing. “In a way, I’m almost sorry we ever showed it,” he says, “because I think the spur of the imagination is so powerful, and mystery is important.
“I think there’s a reason the Greeks left the violence offstage,” Logan suggests. “When Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, it’s offstage, because you imagine it so much more horrific and blood-chilling than it could be dramatized. I think Dorian Gray’s painting is a very good example of that, where the audience will bring to it a lot more than we could create.”