If you’ve been watching the new EPIX drama Pennyworth, then the delightfully sadistic Bet Sykes has probably gotten your attention. Bet is crafty, charming, brutal and oddly sympathetic, and she’s proven herself to be a tricky adversary for Jack Bannon’s young Alfred Pennyworth. But what is Bet’s end game? How did she wind up where she is? As an original character, there’s so much we don’t know about Paloma Faith’s scene-stealing villainess, so we leapt at the chance to sit down with her to see if we could learn more. In the process, she shared a few thoughts on building a villainous persona, how Pennyworth’s 1960s-era London reflects the world of the day and why it’s important that Bet is taken seriously…even if that means breaking out the riding crop.
Note: The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Are you having fun playing the villain?
I was excited by playing by the villain because I think to be a good actress, you have to have a lot of empathy. I don't really like villains when they're just straight-up nasty. I just think it's a bit one-dimensional and I don't think that's very realistic. I think that I have a lot of similar feelings to Bet Sykes, I just don't necessarily respond to them in the same way. I don't stab people to death because of my feelings.
Where do you find your inspiration for this character since she’s an original creation?
I feel like I sort of just dance with that. My stamp on this universe needs to be a female villain that is profoundly deep, has layers and is taken seriously, not just as a piece of ass.
How did you build Bet’s persona?
I think what's brilliant about the DC Universe and the history of the films that have come before—and we have treated this like a film. It’s not really a TV show, it’s like a really long film. But what’s interesting about the DC films is that they delve into subjects and things that affect all of us. It's all about the human condition and about psychology and misplaced feelings in the universe, almost.
I think, as a female character particularly, what was important to me was I didn't want the main thing that people feared about me to be their desire because I think women have a lot more going for them than sex. I mean, we're great at that as well, but it's not our only thing.
I had a very clear interpretation of Bruno Heller's writing. I sort of felt like I knew this person. I had it in my mind that I wanted to play with what makes us the same as human beings and not emphasize the gender divide. There are often parallels between her motivation and Alfred Pennyworth's motivation, even though he's considered a good guy and she's a bad person, and I wanted to play with that idea. How did we both end up fighting for the same thing? Aren't we supposed to not agree? I think socio-politically that's important. We can deal with subjects of class, race and gender divide. People get confused when they have extreme opposing ideas. The inherent thing underneath it all is that we're all human beings and we have the same desires. We have the same need for human connection, and I feel like that's what I wanted to put into this villain. She's deep!
How did she end up working for the Raven Society?
She's a working-class woman. She has a sister and she's a little bit of a liability. Like me, Bet's got a bit of a short attention span and she feels frustrated by the norm, the everyday. She's sort of found a place to put her talent working for this extreme far right political group, which is part of an underbelly civil war that's happening in London. I think it's very reflective of the current political climate in Britain and America, where there is this weird 50/50 thing of good and evil and everyone butting heads with Trump and Brexit. All of that is happening, in a replicated sense, in the show.
Does she thrive on chaos?
I think she's addicted to it and she doesn't really know very well how to get the human connections that she wants. She knows how to deal with chaos and she knows how to deal with violence and she's also very aware of her own powers.
Will you be busting out an evil laugh?
I don't actually do much laughing!