Where would Batman be without Alfred Pennyworth? While Robin may be the Dark Knight’s partner in crimefighting and Caped Crusading, Alfred is the emotional lynchpin who keeps Batman’s whole operation functioning. But have you ever wondered what kind of a man chooses to take on that role? To serve and support someone who’s very mission in life is doomed to fail?
In the new Epix television drama Pennyworth we meet Mr. Pennyworth much earlier in his life, long before Bruce Wayne was ever born, and discover he was no stranger to rooting out corruption and evil himself. He may not wear a mask, refer to himself by a flashy name or boast an arsenal of animal-themed gadgets and weapons, but Alfred was a man of action…and every bit as cool as his eventual Gotham City employer. We recently had a chance to sit down with the man bringing young Alfred to life, actor Jack Bannon, who let us in on a few secrets from Alfred’s backstory.
Note: The below interview has been edited for clarity.
How does it feel coming to San Diego Comic-Con to help launch your show?
It's crazy. It's mad. We shot the whole thing in London and I'd go home at the end of every day and my friends would be like, “What are you up to?”, and I'd say “I'm shooting this TV series, but you'll hear about it.” Now I come out here and it's crazy. I think the fans are mad and we haven't even premiered yet, so no one really knows who we are this year. I've been told this is your free pass year, next year I'll be very different. It's insane.
What does it feel like playing Alfred Pennyworth and building the man behind the butler?
It's strange because obviously we've always seen him as kind of a stiff upper lip straight guy and this Alfred's got swag. Bruno Heller's script was great and that was my bible. I started with that. He had some great ideas and we sat down and spoke about it. The great thing about when it's a first season like this is that you're creating a whole world. It's 1960s London, but it's DC 60's London. It's 13 degrees weirder and darker. It’s macabre and strange. But also, we're creating the look, the clothes, the physicality and the sounds. The accent was a nod to Michael Caine because he's the one who came up with the SAS background or pushed it properly in the Nolan films. It's been a blast really filling the gaps.
Aside from Michael Caine, what else influenced your performance?
Lots of different films and stuff from that era. Michael Caine, yes, he played Alfred, but also, he was like the film star of the 1960s. He encapsulates that era, so that's why lend themselves perfectly to it. But my starting point always is the script—learning your lines and all the boring stuff like that. I immersed myself, and Danny Cannon made a Pennyworth playlist on Spotify, so we were listening to that and everyone was sort of getting in the zone that way. I thought the playlist was going to be loads of ’60s stuff, but because we have the license to go wherever there's also modern day stuff.
What mark do you hope to leave on the character of Alfred Pennyworth?
I just want people to watch it! I don't know about leaving a mark, but it's a daunting list to join for sure. The way I processed it in my head was “you're fine because even though they shot all their stuff years before and people have loved it, technically you're before them.”
So, they're following me, I'm not following them. It makes no sense but that enabled me to go to work without losing my mind.
How is the interaction between Alfred and Thomas Wayne?
It's a by-chance meeting that throws them together. Thomas's sister is in the nightclub where Alfred works, and he comes to get her. The exciting thing is asking the question of what if that didn't happen, then none of this whole thing would've happened.
Their relationship in the first season, they're not mates really. Alfred doesn't really like Thomas to begin with, but they're kind of thrown together. I always saw it like two tigers circling each other. There's a mutual intrigue, and they're scoping each other out. They both possess something that the other needs. Thomas has money, status and all these things, while Alfred is a lowly doorman or bouncer who needs to get his business off the ground. Ben hates it when I say this, but Thomas is a wimp, so he needs Alfred's army skills to save the day. As much as they're trying to get away from each other, they're constantly drawn back together. Alfred does have a respect for him when the shit hits the fan. He's also a very moral guy, and that's something they share.
Were you a fan of the Batman franchise growing up?
Absolutely! I was a bit young for the Tim Burton movies so mine were really the Christopher Nolan films, and of course those had Michael Caine.
Flashbacks are a huge part of the pilot. How big of a role will Alfred’s military backstory play in the series?
It’s a massive part. We sort of examine what we now would call PTSD. In the ’60s that wasn't really diagnosed but it is such a huge part of Alfred. As the series goes on, it kind of becomes a bigger and bigger thing to the point where it almost completely overtakes him. So, watch out for that.
What’s it like working in a universe that has a large pre-existing fanbase?
It's great because it has the Batman , but you can definitely watch the show even if you know nothing about Batman. It's a character-driven drama and we've just nicked some of the characters from the canon. It’s fantastic because we have free rein, we can rewrite history. We can change anything.