EW's Best of 2015: How Penny Dreadful crafted Lily's big speech
The standout moment of Penny Dreadful’s second season was a scene-stealing (or world-stealing) turn no one expected — and that was the point. In a nearly nine-minute demolition of the facade she’d spent all season building, Lily (Billie Piper) revealed that she remembered everything: her life as Brona, her death and reanimation courtesy of Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), and the mistreatment she’d suffered at men’s hands in both this life and the last. After taking out her anger on her fellow “undead thing,” the Creature (Rory Kinnear), Lily offered him a chance to rule the world at her side. As part of our end-of-year coverage, EW spoke with showrunner John Logan, who has also penned every episode of the series, about the attention-grabbing scene, which had been a long time in the making.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’ve talked a bit before about how Billie crafted her performance leading up to this scene in “Memento Mori.” Was there anything she did here that surprised you?
JOHN LOGAN: Billie always surprises me, and she’s one of the actors I really, really enjoy writing for because no matter what I think she’s going to do something staggering that I didn’t imagine. The character of Lily — first Brona, and then Lily — was all about, really, getting to that speech. And I always knew, from years ago, that it would be a slow burn of the character until that episode, when suddenly the grand plan was revealed. I talked to Billie about it at length and said, “Trust me, you’re going to love me or hate me for that speech.” But she just brought such passion to it, and such anger, and such outrage, that I couldn’t have been happier with the way it came out.
Why was this the right moment for her revelation?
It was episode 8 [of a 10-episode season], so I thought it was a natural place for a big, important event to transpire. And by that point, the fans had seen Brona go through a very degraded life and finally die very tragically. They’d seen the birth of Lily and what they thought was the gradual education, and if anything, the emancipation of this young girl who was born into a world where she didn’t understand any of the rules. But the intention I always had was that she knew exactly what she was doing, and everything we’d been witnessing was a charade… was a master manipulation of Dr. Frankenstein. So at some point, we were going to let the audience in on the truth.
We’d seen her murder this man in London for no seeming reason and do it in a highly provocative way, where she clearly enjoyed it. The murder we witnessed at the end of episode 7 set up the speech in episode 8, so the audience would want to know what the heck is going on with her. Everything, really, for the first two years of the series, for that character, was about getting to that point where finally we could hear it all come out. And the important thing about Brona and Lily, as much in the first two seasons as the season we’re filming now, is that the character really is about examining what it was to be a woman, particularly an underclass woman in Victorian society, and how it was possible to rebel against that or not. Because we’re a genre show and we deal with Gothic horror, Lily is able to rebel against the conformity of Victorian society — the degradation she experienced as Brona — in a truly transgressive way, which is through violence.
Was it always going to be the Creature who witnessed this moment?
Yes, because he could so uniquely understand what she was going through as a very unique life form. Part of the tune of the aria, if you will, has to do with the two of them being superior beings. They’re special for a reason. And is he going to have the nerve to step up and celebrate his exceptionality? Which he doesn’t and she certainly does.
Can you talk a bit about what motivates Lily to want to rule the world while the Creature wants to be immersed in it?
When [the Creature] was born — or reborn, or reanimated — he had nothing. He was like a child, and he educated himself through Dr. Frankenstein’s books, reading a lot of poetry, reading about his creation and witnessing the world around him, and watching people interact. And what he saw was the way that human beings treated things that were different in a horrible way. And clearly he was different, because his face was so grotesquely scarred and his whole form is what was perceived as monstrous. But the pull to belong, to be accepted, to be loved, is the major focus because he was born without love. He was born without a parent, without anyone to care for him. So his whole story is about, “Will I find the place where I belong? Will I find a home?” in a way. His journey is about finding amity, if not acceptance, with the world around him.
Lily’s life story, on the other hand, was one of pain and being trod underfoot. And there’s no way to overemphasize how horrific it was being a whore in Victorian London: trying to scratch your living by providing sex four, five, six times a night for two bobs when you’re not trying to scratch out a living in some soulless factory, in John Milton’s dark, satanic mills. It was a life full of pain and outrage. In this season, we learn more about what her life was like as Brona. Some of the things she lost along the way motivate a desire for revenge against the people who have wronged her — particularly men or men who are abusive to women or force them to be submissive in some way. And finally the desire for revenge leads to something even more powerful, which is the desire for mastery: to not only have revenge but to have these people suffer something that you experienced.
Lily tells the Creature that no being will ever love him like she does. What is her understanding of love?
I think that’s a very complicated question. I think she is so smart, like all the characters — not like all of the characters, but like most of the female characters. Certainly like Vanessa (Eva Green) or Evelyn Poole (Helen McCrory). She’s smart enough to know that people require different things out of love. What the Creature requires is acceptance: someone to accept him for who he really is. What Victor Frankenstein requires is someone to serve him. His image of domesticity, which would be from a typical Victorian man, would be about, like, my little wife is going to make me eggs, and that’s going to be wonderful. She’ll keep my house while I go do wonderful scientific things up in my lab. No fault of his — he’s more compassionate than most would ever be, because of his own unique feeling of freakishness, but love is a complicated thing for Lily.
The whole speech is almost nine minutes long, and it’s gorgeous. Were there any lines that came to you right away or any beats that you knew you wanted to hit?
I knew I wanted her to revert to Brona. I knew I wanted her to go back to that sort of gutter snipe, tough, violently aggressive character who had to survive on the streets of Belfast and then London in very difficult times. And I knew the speech would want to zoom back and forth very crazily between aggression and affection, so on one hand she’s tearing the creature to pieces and on the other she’s trying to seduce him, simultaneously. It’s a bit of madness, that speech. And it’s meant to be a bit of madness — it’s meant to be very chilling in terms of what she means when she talks about the future and the master race and the next thousand years. There’s something very fascistic about the speech that I wanted to try to communicate.
In terms of the cinematography, were there any visuals that you had in mind?
Kari Skogland, the director, and I talked about that scene probably more than any other scene in the episode, in fact, because it is so unusually long, and it is simply one person for the most part. Billie has 98 percent of the dialogue in the scene … One of the joys of the show, for me, is that I can have Victorian characters wax on with some degree of eloquence, but I also knew the scene would have to have a visual panache to sustain it. Kari came in and just shot the hell out of it in terms of different angles, and it was Kari’s idea to use the shattered mirror to suggest all the different parts of Brona’s-slash-Lily’s personality all coming together and exploding all at once. I think maybe that’s why I love that scene so much: Billie gives a tour de force performance where you see from second to second all the pain and all the heartbreak, as well as all the aggression and madness, coming out. It really is quite a cornucopia of emotion she goes through
Did you have any instructions for Rory Kinnear?
Rory and I have such a long relationship and such a close shorthand. He knew instantaneously it was Billie’s scene, and what his job was to support her. It was a very difficult shoot. We shot it over two days. Not a word was cut from the speech. There were some people concerned that it was too long and too dense, and I said, “No, I think audiences are a lot smarter than that.” And I just had faith that Billie could pull it off. But it certainly wasn’t easy. It was a tough shoot.
Are there any other stories about the making of this scene that you wanted to share?
I remember when I sent the script to Billie, I wrote an email saying, “You’re going to either love me or hate me.” And that’s all I said. And she emailed back when she read it, “Love you.”