LOS ANGELES - A big reason film actors are drawn to TV is that it offers the sort of character-driven projects found less and less in a movie world tilted toward blockbusters.

That's partly why Josh Hartnett jumped into "Penny Dreadful," an eight-part series debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime as part of a free preview weekend. He plays a troubled American, a gun for hire, ensnared by Victorian London's dark side in the horror drama-cum-psychological study.

Hartnett also appreciated the guarantee that the project would be marketed and presented to an audience, something he's become painfully aware isn't always the case with independent films.

"I've had worthy films not get a correct release, and have people come up to me later and say how much they enjoyed the film," seen after the fact online or on DVD, he said.

"It's gratifying to know that people go back and see stuff," he said. "But it would be more gratifying to be part of the cultural dialogue and (know) that it (a project) had an impact when it was released."

Hartnett was in his early 20s when he made a splash in 2001 with two major Hollywood movies, "Pearl Harbor" and "Black Hawk Down," part of a varied slate for him that year that included the Warren Beatty comedy "Town & Country" and "O," a modern take on "Othello."

"It's really exciting to have a big movie release," said Hartnett.

The actor is seeking other rewards now, those he said that have "less to do with climbing the Hollywood ladder" and more to do with personal and professional growth.

"I thought if you're doing interesting work, interesting people will want to work with you. So far, I've been lucky enough to have that happen," said Hartnett.

One example: An upcoming sci-fi drama, "Parts Per Billion," with veterans Frank Langella and Gena Rowlands in the cast.

But Hartnett's profile was reduced as some films suffered spotty or delayed releases. His starring role in "Penny Dreadful" has put him squarely back in the publicity spotlight.

The foremost attraction for Hartnett was working with creator-executive producer John Logan, a Tony Award-winner for "Red" and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose credits include "Gladiator," "Hugo" and "Skyfall," and executive producer Sam Mendes, the "American Beauty" Oscar-winning director.

The series they have wrought is an undeniable creepfest. Its title is drawn from the nickname for cheap, 19th-century publications that offered serialized tales of violence, death and general sensationalism.

Showtime's version finds renowned and rich explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and the mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) in the hunt for a monstrous killer. They recruit Harnett's sharpshooter, Ethan Chandler, a man with a shrouded past, and one Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway).

The not-so-good doctor isn't the only familiar fictional character in "Penny Dreadful": Dorian Gray, dropping by from Oscar Wilde's novel, is part of the macabre world that writer Logan said was inspired by a childhood love of monsters.

Online: www.sho.com