Actor Sean Pertwee plays Alfred Thaddeus Pennyworth in the hit Fox TV series Gotham, which explores the rise of Jim Gordon and the teenage years of Bruce Wayne.
A central aspect in this adaptation of the DC Comics universe is the relationship between Alfred and the young Master Bruce (played by David Mazouz). Thanks to Pertwee, this iteration of Alfred is much different than the many older interpretations that have been depicted on the small and big screens.
With Season 3 of Gotham airing at 8 p.m. Mondays, we caught up with Pertwee to discuss how he helped change this character into a butt-kicking hero, and why he’s also embracing virtual reality and video games in this exclusive interview.
Digital Trends: What has it been like bringing this much younger iteration of Alfred Pennyworth to life in Gotham?
Sean Pertwee: It’s been nothing but an honor, really. He’s never been seen this way before, and it was important to give him subtext and to give him a reason to actually exist in this world called Gotham. The most important thing was to find a reason for why he is there and why would the richest man in the world employ an East Ender. It was obvious to us that he was there as protector and as a confidant, and also he’s the only person that Thomas Wayne could trust with his most precious attribute — his son, Master Bruce. I’ve got a young son myself, and bringing up a young boy, especially someone with post-traumatic stress, is extremely difficult.
Alfred never asked to be a father, so he has to learn as the boy has to learn. And they learn from each other. You’re beginning to see now in Season 3 a real coming together. You can actually feel a sigh of relief from the fan base that they’re edging toward a Michael Gough relationship with Michael Keeton (from the 1989 Batman movie), which was one of respect but also of parental love.
Where does this character fit in everything you’ve done as an actor thus far?
They give me an opportunity to play one of the very British folk in the superhero canon. It’s been great to subtextualize him and give him a backstory over 50 hours, as opposed to just a movie version, which is 90 minutes usually.
How were you able to put your own stamp on this character?
Alfred was originally written in the script as a former Royal Marine, but I knew some of the Special Air Service (SAS) guys from training at Kill House (the SAS training facility). I spoke to (series creator) Bruno Heller about this, and what I really liked was the aspects of the adaptive skills that they have. I thought that would be a really nice bullet point for the upbringing of young Master Bruce, to have someone that can adapt to any situation. That question of thinking outside the box, which all of our special services are capable of doing, that includes Delta, Navy Seals, SBS (Special Boat Service), and SAS. They know medical skills, they speak different languages, they have art concealment, they’re skilled in small arms, they’re skilled in defensive driving. These are all things that later would be very useful to help educate young Master Bruce to the person he later becomes, which, of course, is Batman. He doesn’t become it overnight, so that was very important to me. (Comic book writer) Geoff Johns sanctioned it, and the fact that Jeremy Irons’ Alfred in the (latest) movie version is SAS as well, that’s what we went for.
Alfred is like a Swiss Army knife. He’s capable of doing really anything to a certain degree, apart from being a great parent, which is something that he struggles with. But who doesn’t? All of that education gets passed on to this extraordinary young man, Bruce Wayne, who actually becomes Batman and then utilizes that knowledge.
The villains have always received a lot of attention in the Batman films. How has having so many complex bad guys in Gotham opened up creatively?
If you look at the way that it’s written, it’s certainly arched. People have accepted our interpretation of it in their mind’s eye as an idea of what Gotham is, what it smells like, what it sounds like. At first, it’s difficult because it’s like a Grimm’s fairy tale in that everyone has an image of what Gotham should be in their mind. Our Gotham is still based in our rich sense of reality, as are all of our villains. So you’re not only seeing Alfred and Bruce at a time that you’ve never seen them before, you’re also seeing villains from a time that you’ve never seen them before.
What I love about the brilliant writers we have on the show is that if you push a frail, ultra-intelligent young man so hard, he’s going to snap, i.e. the Penguin, played brilliantly by Robert Lord Taylor. That viciousness is born from being obscenely brilliant and abused. And then there’s the mental disorders that Corey Michael Smith’s Ed Nygma (The Riddler) has. All he wants to be is liked and accepted and he’s vilified and riled every day, and he has a multiple personality disorder. He snaps. Although he is arched, it’s all based on a certain sense of heightened reality.
The exciting thing about Season 3 already is we’re heading towards the Mad Hatter. It’s this more trippy interpretation of the world that is slightly heightened, but it’s still based in our reality. The villains are there for a reason, they don’t just appear. Batman is born out of the fact that these people have to get to that nth degree where they start putting on costumes and become supervillains. The fun part is seeing us get there … In Season 3, you’ll see these weird allegiances being formed from people that you might never expect, so that’s going to be the fun thing this season …
Over the course of many movies, Gotham City has been re-created in London, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. What does Gotham being filmed in New York City add to the show?
Well, it is Gotham, isn’t it? I live in Manhattan near Chinatown, and I can see the studio from my apartment. Let me give a quick anecdote. I was working with Cameron Monaghan — who plays Jerome brilliantly — and these special effects guys. Jerome had his throat slit. I was bashed to pieces with a black eye and blood all down my front. And we’re walking with two severed heads through Chinatown and not one person even did a double take, or even looked at us. That’s Manhattan, people just don’t really care. And that’s why it’s kind of extraordinary.
Also, it’s a huge box to be checked to be an actor filming on the streets of Manhattan, in Chinatown, in Staten Island, in the Bronx. It’s just an extraordinary experience for an English actor. It’s one of those dreams come true.
A lot of Gotham fans have heard your voice in games like Microsoft’s Fable and Sony’s Killzone franchises. What do you like about doing video game acting?
I’ve always been interested in any sort of new technology. It’s funny because my son grew up playing shooters with me. I played two different characters in the Killzone PlayStation games. When we did that, it was motion capture, which I was really interested in because it was a new aspect to the process. That game brought people in like Brian Cox and myself, and they used motion capture.
The only problem now is there’s a shoot-’em-up out there that some 12-year-old can shoot me in the head within 30 seconds — it’s depressing. In fact, my son can actually kill me in Killzone. I can’t kill myself at the end of the game. I won’t kill myself, but my son has no problem with killing me.
Just in a short time since you first entered gaming with Primeval and Medieval: Total War, to more recent titles like Assassins Creed IV, how have you seen this medium evolve?
The game engines are always evolving. I watch my son play Madden or FIFA, and they’re always moving forward. I did a virtual reality game with Nick Frost from Shaun of the Dead the other day, Esper 2. I told my agency I wanted to do it because they started making the first game, and then they were told to scrap it and start again. It was a really interesting process working with those guys and doing it. Virtual reality is something, isn’t it? You want to be involved at the forefront. That’s the great thing about our profession, the technology is fascinating. I love that they still consider me worthwhile to be working in things like this, to be honest.
Have you checked out virtual reality at all?
Yeah, down in San Diego. I was able to check out PlayStation VR with the shark and everything. It’s just extraordinary.
Are you going to get a PlayStation VR?
I’m an Xbox guy, so I’m holding out for the new Xbox (Project Scorpio). My son already knows we’re getting that next year.