On Fox Network’s GOTHAM, now on Thursday night in its fourth season, Sean Pertwee plays Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred, as anyone who knows anything about Batman is aware, is the unquestionably loyal butler and guardian to Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), who is steadily becoming more invested in crime-fighting, though he has not yet become the Caped Crusader.
GOTHAM unsurprisingly has a cult following. Pertwee came to the series already accustomed to to the concept of fandom. Not only has the London-born actor appeared in a number of projects that have developed their own admirers – the films DOG SOLDIERS, EVENT HORIZON and EQUILIBRIUM – but he’s the son of Jon Pertwee, who played the title role in DOCTOR WHO from 1970 through 1974.
Pertwee’s Alfred is a more overtly tough character than some previous incarnations (think Michael Gough, Sir Michael Caine and now Jeremy Irons in the BATMAN feature films). Pertwee discusses this and much more during a sit-down interview.
ASSIGNMENT X: Alfred is one of a number of characters you’ve played who are rough, with military and/or dark pasts. Is that a type of part that you find attractive, or is that the type of character you’re often offered?
SEAN PERTWEE: I think what often happens is, one tends to get pigeonholed, by no fault of your own. I started off in the Royal Shakespeare Company. You just find yourself all of a sudden doing something which then, often what happens is, you get seen as that. And I played lots of gangsters, I was involved with science fiction, as was my father, and I did a few cult classics that have got legs still, DOG SOLDIERS, and EVENT HORIZON, and EQUILIBRIUM, and a lot of these kind of movies. So I was in New York, shooting with my old friend Jonny Lee Miller, shooting ELEMENTARY – I was playing another stalwart, Lestrade, in a modern version of Sherlock Holmes – and I got sent this generic speech [as audition material], but I knew it was written by an East Ender, or someone from London. It was really brilliantly written, about a guy who goes into a pub. I didn’t know what it was, and I’d heard in the ether that there was the possibility of this show called something about Batman, didn’t know what it was, but flew down to L.A. and asked [executive producer/director] Danny [Cannon] and [GOTHAM developer/executive producer] Bruno [Heller], and they said, “It’s for GOTHAM. It’s for Alfred Pennyworth.” So I did my test.
The extraordinary thing is, I’ve worked with Danny before on a couple of movies, but I’d never worked with Bruno, and when you have someone of their caliber and reputation, it was a dream come true. And so at the tender age of fifty, to be asked to come and play a legendary Brit in a very different way, and to reimagine it, not to redefine it, but to reimagine it, to give a subtextual story to the mythos of Batman and the upbringing of how this man came to be, and the importance of the character that brought him up, of his guardian and his father figure, which was Alfred. He didn’t just become Batman overnight. So it’s an extraordinary moment in my life, was to be here and bring that element of my dark sides, the characters that I’d played in the past and the training that I’d done – I’d trained with the SAS [British Special Forces] in Hertfordshire [England] for this [other] show a long time ago, and a lot of those elements came to fruition. So a lot of that was put to use. Alfred originally was written as someone from the Marines [which was changed to the SAS]. But our discussion was that, why would [Bruce Wayne’s father] the richest man in the world employ an East End, brusque, spiky, spiny-style character to be the guardian of the greatest asset in his life, which is his son? It’s because the guy was Thomas Wayne’s protector, and his butler, and his valet, and his confidante. And he entrusts him with the young Bruce’s life. So for me, it was sort of an amalgamation of all the things – being a father myself to a son called Alfred, who is the same age as David, literally, they play together – it was a dream come to true to be working in one of the greatest cities in the world, where my father had worked, and my friends had worked in New York, playing a legendary character, that I was a fan of the show anyway. And to go back twenty years, [Alfred had been played by] Sir Michael Caine and Michael Gough. So you have to pinch yourself, and remind yourself. And you really see the relationship grow, and the beginnings of their true relationship, where they work together as a dysfunctional father/son team. It’s surprised a lot of people, the huge curves that happen within the relationship.
AX: I think this is the first time in the Batman mythology where Alfred has been Bruce’s teacher in how to fight. Is that correct?
PERTWEE: Yeah. Well, there’s the Year One by DC that [DC Comics President and Chief Creative Officer] Geoff Johns has done, and of course our show runners work very closely with Geoff, and with DC Comics, and it was hinted at within the Nolan films, but it was something that we decided to really go for, and something that I was very keen to go for, was the militaristic background. And it surprised I think a lot of the hardcore fanboys and fangirls, because people were quite horrified, but we have to steady the buffs, because we knew it was going to be a long, slow reveal. It’s difficult bringing up a teenager, especially someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress. And then you start to realize in Season 1 that they both suffer from post-traumatic stress, and they both learn from each other as much as one learns from the other. Bruce keeps Alfred in check. He has a very shady past and he has nightmares of the horrors that have been incurred in his life, as does Bruce, and this forces them together. So they have this bizarre but workable relationship.
AX: Have you gotten to have input into Alfred, have you gotten to go to Bruno Heller and say, “What if this is true of the character?”
PERTWEE: Bruno and [show runner/executive producer] John Stephens and Danny Cannon, Danny and Bruno are Brits – the thing is, what we have to be careful of is about people understanding Alfred. I’ve thrown half of America into questioning what the hell I’m talking about half the time. And I have to say, thanks to Fox, thanks to our show runners, they’ve embraced that. They trusted me, and it was worrying [whether people would understand Alfred’s slang], because there’s nuance. But our show is shown in England, it’s shown in every country in the world, and there’s language that he’s always used, uses as a weapon, and that’s a very London thing. And I think people have embraced the weirdness of Alfred’s patter, how Alfred uses that as a weapon.
AX: What do you think Alfred’s attitude is towards Jim Gordon, who is played by Ben McKenzie? Does Alfred think the current Gotham City police captain is more useful than he is trouble, or does he think the opposite?
PERTWEE: He never trusts anyone. He swore a bushido-like oath to Thomas and Martha Wayne. He’s proved his mettle, but he’s fallible, as is Alfred. Alfred has made mistakes, and you’ll see a reconnect with Jim Gordon. Alfred’s fallible, he trusted someone he should never have trusted, so he realizes there’s a good man in there [in Gordon], but he’s worried about the bigger picture. Alfred’s life is his oath to Thomas Wayne to bring this child up, and that’s the only thing that keeps Alfred from going insane. So he doesn’t trust anybody, but he’s beginning to trust Lucius Fox, who’s played by Chris Chalk, he’s beginning to trust Gordon.
AX: And is Alfred ever going to get anything resembling a girlfriend, or would he think that would be too dangerous?
PERTWEE: There was a certain amount of frisson with Fish Mooney [the mob boss played by Jada Pinkett Smith], which we never expected, in one episode, but we shall see. He tries.
AX: How is it working with David Mazouz, who plays Bruce and is still in his teens in real life? He seems very mature …
PERTWEE: The greatest thing – my father was an actor, and he always used to instill in me and tell me that one of the great attributes of being an actor is that you’re not ageist, that you can be eight years old to eighty-nine years old, and you’re still treated exactly the same on set when you work with someone. David and I, and I’m proud to say – I like to think we do, I shouldn’t be blowing my own trumpet here, but we have a real special bond. I really do think that that shows. I’m working with an actor, I forget that he’s a young man a lot of the time. I treat him as a complete equal, as he does me. He’s one of the most focused, irritatingly talented young men that I’ve ever met in my life. We have a great working relationship, and I think that that is evident.
AX: Unlike many of your colleagues on the show, you have a lot of experience prior to GOTHAM in at least observing hardcore fandom. How would you say fandom now compares to the fandom you were observing when your father was playing Doctor Who?
PERTWEE: Well, the thing is, we’re being let into their world. It’s such a huge-echelon society now – the power of social media, the power of the blog, the power of the fan base. They’re very vociferous, they’re not fools, they’re not stupid, they’re very intelligent, artistic people, of which there are swaths. So for us, that’s the difference now. You’re not just a fan person, you contribute. You know the mythos better than the actors. You’ve got to know your s***, man, because you have to redefine a character, because of the way our approach is different, of course you have to get to the truth aspect yourself. But it was only later, when I started – because I’d never done Comic-Cons before. And it’s changing, the industry’s changing. And it was only after we’d started shooting – you have to find your own heartbeat, your own pentameter to your character – then I started rereading and going to back-tracking into everything that had been written about Alfred, and re-looking at Sir Michael’s and Michael Gough’s performances. And I’m happy to say that there are so many elements of the seventy-five years of history of these characters that we’ve actually fallen into, that we actually do include. And our fans know this stuff, and they quiz you on it.
AX: How was the Comic-Con experience?
PERTWEE: For me, it was fantastic. I went to Japan to promote it for Warner Brothers, which was one of the most extraordinary experiences. I went with Robin [Lord Taylor, who plays Oswald Cobblepot/the Penguin] and with Cory [Michael Smith, who plays Ed Nygma/the Riddler] and with Ben. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, taking our show over there.
AX: Is your son old enough to watch GOTHAM?
PERTWEE: Yeah, he watches it. He’s the same age as David. I think I’ve got props from my son’s friends for the first time. His friends watch it.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about GOTHAM?
PERTWEE: You’ve heard this a million times, I’m sure, from other companies, but our company, and it filters down from our show runners and from Ben McKenzie, especially, and Donal Logue [who plays police detective Harvey Bullock], our leads, that we are actually a family. And there’s no toys out of the pram [no one having tantrums] with us, we treat ourselves as a family. We do read-throughs, we do table reads of every episode, and we do it on our lunch break, and even if we’re not on call, we’ll come and read it. Because you need to find out what’s happening in the world. There are [many story] strands to any one of these tales, any one episode. So when we go away to these things, it’s awe-inspiring to go with people you genuinely love, like Robin and Cory and David and Camren [Bicondova, who plays Selina Kyle/the future Catwoman] and Morena [Baccarin, who plays Lee Thompkins]. We’re a very close bunch. So it’s an honor and it’s fun and it’s a joy.
What’s really nice is, people get it, and they trust us now with something that they love. So we feel confidence. There was always a sense of confidence, but there’s [an increased] sense of confidence. Because of the response of the fans, and the trust that they’ve entrusted in us, you’ll see a lot of interaction between a lot of the characters that are really loved and cared for by the fans, and you’ll actually watch Gotham descend into the inferno, into the fire and brimstone that everyone expected Gotham to be. It’s on its way down – it’s going to take a long time to get down to the bottom. Because when you get to the bottom, there are ashes. From ashes, the phoenix rises. In the shape in the mantle, in the cowl of Batman.
This interview was conducted during Fox Network’s portion of the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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Article: GOTHAM: Sean Pertwee chats Season 4 and all things Alfred – Exclusive Interview