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'There is an ugly side to us all... good people do bad things'

Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels might well be set in 1930s LA, but its themes are just as relevant today. Gemma Dunn chats to the stars

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Natalie Dormer as Magda, Rory Kinnear as Peter Craft

Natalie Dormer as Magda, Rory Kinnear as Peter Craft

Natalie Dormer as Magda, Rory Kinnear as Peter Craft

The promise of "no make-up" was all it took to sell Rory Kinnear a role in Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels. Show creator John Logan had made the admission in an email subject line, aware that the British actor had previously spoken of his gruelling transition into Frankenstein's Creature for the first iteration of the dark fantasy drama Penny Dreadful.

The lure of a simpler guise - in this case a German paediatrician - then, had successfully worked to secure his return for its much-anticipated spin-off.

"I knew that something might be up, because I'd often mentioned the fact that he made me have a three-and-a-half-hour make-up every day," realised Kinnear (44).

"So I was already interested and then he sent me the script. He knew how to whet my appetite."

Yet the characters aren't the only element getting a makeover: billed as the original's "spiritual descendant", the brand-new 10-part series will transport viewers from Ripper-era London to the Golden Age of Hollywood in 1938 Los Angeles.

A time and place deeply infused with social and political tension, the sequel, which opens with a grisly murder, sees detectives Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) and Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane) battling the city's rich history. From the building of the first freeways and its traditions of Mexican-American folklore, to the dangerous espionage actions of the Third Reich and the rise of radio evangelism.

In amongst the uprising, Kinnear plays Dr Peter Craft, a father of two who flits between caring paediatrician and his turn as head of the German-American Bund, an organisation he hopes will keep the United States isolated from the growing threat of war in Europe.

"Peter has a lot in common with a lot of characters in the show in that they're all complex, conflicted and struggling to do the right thing whilst coming up against temptation," says the star, who's also worked with screenwriter Logan on Bond films Skyfall and Spectre.

"He has a troubled home life, in that his wife is an alcoholic and has seemingly cut herself off from looking after their children," he continues. "And his profession is all about looking after kids, so we're expecting that (viewers) sympathise with him.

"But obviously in meeting Elsa, the path that's in front of him changes, and as a result the audience may have their sympathies change as well."

Elsa is just one of a number of guises adopted by Natalie Dormer's character Magda.

Dubbed a supernatural demon who can assume the form of anyone she chooses, the Game Of Thrones actress, whose character believes humankind is evil, has her work cut out, as she shifts between blonde German housewife Elsa, government assistant Alex, and androgynous freedom fighter Rio.

Her goal: to prove her point by nudging the city towards a race war. It was a major endeavour, says the 38-year-old, "in so far as it's a physical and mental exercise because it's four characterisations for the price of one".

"We realised quite quickly that I had to play them as separate entities because if you don't play Elsa and Rio and Alex as fully fleshed out, three-dimensional characters, not only are you doing a disservice to your co-stars, the truth of the entire thing gets completely lost."

Similarly, Kinnear states: "I like playing characters with lots of different shades and Peter comes upon a fairly invincible force in the shape of Elsa and Magda.

"But we don't know how much strength he has in him to withstand that temptation. You see over the course of the 10 episodes that he does try and he's also trying to stand up to the more radical, Nazi wing of the German-American Bund as well, to try and make the claim for peace."

"Magda has this theory that 'all mankind needs to become the monster he truly is, is to be told that he can'," Dormer follows.

"For me, there's a bit of a premise that good people do bad things, whether it's to do with threatening their family, their country or their vulnerability. It's that philosophical question of what it takes to bring out the uglier side in all of us."

As for the show's key political themes - take othering, racism and divisions in society, for example - it seems they're as relevant today as they ever were.

"What this shows is that all the tensions and difficulties of any large city, which has had a history of oppressing minority groups, have not gone away, and that they will continue to resurface if they're not fully addressed or addressed honestly," recognises Kinnear.

Watch all episodes of Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW TV from Wednesday

Belfast Telegraph