She platys a bruja, or witch, but a nice one, trying to save her family. Much nastier is Magda, a shape-shifter. It’s an “actor’s dream, o play countless iterations” of the same character, Natalie Dormer said.
Their characters are against a backdrop of 1938 Los Angeles … but not the Hollywood version.
For three seasons, “Penny Dreadful” told dark stories set in 19th-century England. Writer-producer John Logan said the Showtime programmers encouraged him to do some more.
“So I showed up at their office one day and said, ‘It’s not Victorian, it’s not Gothic; it’s the opposite. It’s bright, sunny L.A.”
Even in that setting, he found lots of darkness.
For one thing, there were Nazi sympathizers. “New York was closed to them,” Logan said, “because Mayor LaGuardia was half-Jewish …. Los Angeles was like the wild West. The aircraft factories were centered here, the armament factories, the film studios, so it became really ripe for sabotage.”
At the same time, Los Angeles was planning its first freeway – slicing through a Mexican-American neighborhood. “What began as a civil-engineering project turned into a sort of de facto social-engineering,” Logan said.
The freeways have gone on to decimate neighborhoods, he said. “If you live on Cesar Chavez Avenue and you want to walk to Los Angeles County General Hospital, less than a half-mile away, you have to cross 41 lanes of freeway.”
In his story, the Chicanos protest, the policemen mass, the braja prays for peace and Magda whispers for war. In the midst of this is the braja’s son, the story’s central character.
“He’s kind of stuck between two worlds,” said Zovatto, who plays him. “He’s the first Chicano detective in the (police) force …. The freeway is being built right in his neighborhood and it’s completely changing the dynamic between him and his family.”
Helping him is his police partner, a veteran cop who has never fired a gun. He’s Jewish, in an era when bigotry was open.
“He’s got a lot of issues,” said Lane, who plays him. “”He’s taken this young detective under his wing because no one else would partner with him …. He understands what being an outsider is.”
Viewers are used to seeing Lane do broad comedy on TV (Pepper in “Modern Family”), in movies (“Producers,” Birdcage”) and on Broadway. But he’s also done dramas and now gets a deep one.
His on-set approach: “I barely make a joke,” he said,”and spend most of my time in prayer.”
Or not. “We have a lot of laughs doing this,” Lane said. “it’s been a tremendously happy experience … I can’t believe I have a stunt double. At 63, that’s very exciting.”
For Logan, a fun challenge was creating the era. “I love the late ‘30s,” he said. “I love the costumes, I love the hats, I love the gtuns, I love the cars. There’s a certain patina and panache to design.”
Some things came easily; the Los Angeles City Hall, built in 1928, ois an elegant setting for meetings.
And some are more complicated, Logan said. “We bought hundreds of cars and we rent other cars.”
Added Lane: “They all came from Jay Leno, I believe.”
– “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” 10 p.m. Sundays, Showtime; opener, April 26, is 10:10 p.m.
– – Reruns include 11:20 p.m. Sunday (April 26), 3:20 and 8:50 p.m. Monday, 10 p.m. Tuesday, 6:50 p.m. Wednesday, 8:50 p.m. Thursday and 6:50 p.m. Friday.