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Reeve Carney on Playing Dorian Gray in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and Turning Off the Dark

Reeve Carney. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In the spring of 2010, the band Carney had just released its first full-length album, Mr. Green Vol. 1, and its guitarist, Reeve Carney, who’d been playing guitar professionally since his teens and had played rhythm guitar in bluesman Jonny Lang’s band in his early 20s, seemed on the verge of making it as a rocker. Then he put his guitar away and donned a mask and some tights.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark may have been plagued by cost overruns, injuries, and lawsuits, but for nearly its entire controversy-plagued run beginning in November 2010, Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man was a symbol of constancy. The rest of his band, including his brother Zane, played the music Bono and the Edge had written for the production. When Carney finally took off the Spidey suit last September, he was at a crossroads — actor or musician … or both? Zane, who’d been a child star on Dave’s World left to record a solo album and joined John Mayer’s band. Reeve, while still hoping to balance his two interests, plunged into a new acting challenge, playing Dorian Gray on Showtime’s new John Logan–scripted series Penny Dreadful.

Do you mind if people still think of you as Peter Parker or Spider-Man?
I wouldn’t have done it so long if I didn’t love it. It’s an honor to be associated with that show.

Did you walk away with any souvenirs?
I kept a few masks. But also when [stuntman] Chris Tierney got hurt in that bad fall early on they had to cut him out of his Spider-Man suit and he gave pieces of it to everyone in the cast. He gave me his right glove. That’s a definite treasure.

During your superhero days, you also played Taylor Swift’s love interest in her award-winning “I Knew You Were Trouble” video. How did that happen?
She told me she was a fan of Mr. Green Vol. 1 and wanted to work with me. I thought that was pretty cool. Playing that darker character also helped get me ready for the transition from Peter Parker to Dorian Gray.

When we spoke for an interview during the show’s early days you said that you wanted to go back to recording afterward yet here you are acting in a TV series. Is the music stuck on the back burner?
No. I love exploring different aspects of myself, but I’d never want to replace music with acting — during Spider-Man I ended up building a recording studio in my apartment. I recorded a solo album playing all the instruments. When I went to Dublin for Penny Dreadful, I set up equipment there so I could mix the songs — one of the great things about working on your own is that if you decide you don’t like something, like a piano part, you can take it out without offending anyone in the band … The album is now close to done.

What influence did doing the show have on your album?
The show definitely helped me with my work ethic — for a musician having to show up on time every day is not the easiest thing in the world. Singing night after night in Spider-Man helped my voice mature. But also recording with Bono was a huge influence. There’s only one Bono. Watching him in the studio was one of the biggest factors in my building my own studio — he’d sing into a $100 microphone and just surrender completely to the muse, to his inspiration, without worrying about the equipment. I went a bit more high-end than $100 microphones, but the idea stayed with me.

So what made you shift gears and tackle a TV show?
This script kind of came out of nowhere. My agency had sent me other scripts that I kept turning down. But I was attracted to John Logan’s writing. I found it intriguing. And I always like doing something that will challenge me. This was as far as possible from what I’ve done in the past. The one thing that Dorian Gray and Peter Parker have in common is that they go in the direction of their fears instead of running for them — for Dorian it’s because of his fascination with the unknown.

Had you read The Picture of Dorian Gray before?
No, in high school we had the choice of two books and I chose Heart of Darkness instead. So I read it before the auditions. Then John Logan said, “That’s great, but don’t worry about it — the book is just a stepping-stone for where Penny Dreadful will take it. We’re going to do our own thing.”

Was the transition from theater to television easy? And how was shooting in Dublin?
My new work ethic definitely carried over. I spent a lot of time on the dialect and practicing my lines, because the language is beautifully dense and quite different from anything I’ve ever done. But TV is so different — that hurry-up-and-wait life requires a different type of focus and discipline. And often the first chance to work with the director for an episode is when you’re on the set and rolling. Dublin is a beautiful place with rich history but in winter it can be dreary — it’s rainy and cold —  and that  added to the feeling of isolation and loneliness that seems to be the common thread for the characters on their journey.

You were also cast, back in 2011, in the eagerly anticipated but long-delayed Jeff Buckley biopic. There seems to have been more postponements and changes in directors. Are you still attached to the project?
Yes. I feel things will happen when they’re meant to [and don’t] worry about it. Jeff’s mom, Mary Guibert, is such a huge part of the creative process, and she understands her obligation to do this properly. Things are not quite sorted out, but I still talk to her frequently.

You’ve talked before about Buckley being so open and vulnerable, while you’re more protective of yourself. Did the Spider-Man controversies play a part in that?
It’s definitely something I’ve learned as result of my experience. You need different processing mechanisms to protect yourself in certain situations, even though as an artist you want to be as open and vulnerable as possible.

How did you discover Buckley’s music?
When I was 16, two years after he passed away, a friend said, “You look so much like him so you should listen to his music.” He did look like he could have been my older brother — and then I loved the music. For years people kept saying, “If they ever make a movie about him …” but at that point [I] wasn’t into acting.

Now that you’re into acting, would you go back to the grind of touring in a rock band?
I’d love to. My brother and I have to figure out how we’d play together now that he’s doing his own thing — it might have to be more of an equal partnership. Maybe my sister would collaborate, too. I also heard Jonny Lang was looking for a new guitar player and called him up. We talked about me going on tour with him this summer, but he wants something more permanent. I still might look for another opportunity like that — there’s something freeing about being the side man, about not being in the spotlight, but just playing the music.

Reeve Carney on Penny Dreadful