Since FOX debuted Gotham back in 2014, one of the show’s key figures has been the brilliant Sean Pertwee as Alfred Pennyworth, the faithful butler and guiding figure of David Mazouz’s young Bruce Wayne. Giving audiences a younger, more rugged take on the classic Alfred character, we saw the struggles of Pennyworth as he was thrust into a situation that was just as strange for him as it was for Master Bruce. With Season 2 of Gotham arriving on Blu-ray and DVD shortly, we were lucky enough to catch up with Sean Pertwee to discuss the ever-evolving relationship between Alfred and Bruce, the fantastic chemistry between himself and young David Mazouz, plenty of other Gotham antics, and we even had a brief talk about Doctor Who.
STARBURST: Your take on Alfred is a little bit different to what some audiences might be used to. Did you have any particular point of influence or reference for your incarnation of the character or did you just view the role as a blank canvas?
Sean Pertwee: No, it all started with an epic speech that I was sent when I was doing another show called Elementary. I got sent this speech for a guy who walks into a pub and breaks someone’s larynx. It was a superbly written two-side speech by someone from London and I didn’t know what it was. We’d heard that floating around in the Hollywood ether there was a prequel to possibly the Batman story, so then I flew down to Los Angeles and I saw Bruno Heller, who I’ve always wanted to work with, and Danny Cannon, who I had worked with. I said, “What are you doing here?”, and they said, “We’re seeing you, you mug!” I said, “What for?”, and they said, “Alfred Pennyworth!” So I was as confused as you were, as the audience was, about the first time that you see a very butch version of Alfred shout at Master Bruce to get his bloody arse down from on the roof. We’re seeing Alfred at a time where no one has ever really seen him before, and the growth of their relationship and it being difficult. He never asked to be a guardian, he never expected to be, but he made a promise to protect this young man. So we see this very bumpy ride, this very bumpy relationship as a butler brings up his charge and then slowly but surely growing to have eternal love for this boy. Then you also have the opportunity, of course, to plant the seeds that germinate and he becomes the man who we know dons the cowl. One thing I was keen on doing was making sense as to why would the richest man in the world have a spikey East Ender living in his house. not just to be a butler or a confidant but to be a protector in so many respects. I think one of the telling sequences was the first time that he was let out the Manor after him sort of self-harming, when he takes him to confront this bully and says, “Stand up for yourself. You always stand up for yourself”. It was a very interesting, poignant moment for David is a relatively dysfunctional one, but dysfunctionality implies that it doesn’t work. With these two, they are damaged characters, so each of them needs each other as much as the other. So Alfred needs the boy as much as the boy needs him. Then it develops into a sort of paternal relationship as well.
Enabler is a great term to use, although in the second season we see a lot of Alfred pulling back, that things are too much too soon, particularly when they find the computer in what’s to become the Batcave. How was that for you, seeing as it was a slightly different approach from Alfred than in the first season?
It is. He’s learning the hard way how to become a parent. He’s not perfect. Alfred is not perfect, he knows he’s not. He makes a terrible mistake in Season 1 by inviting his past to visit in the shape of Reggie, who stabbed him. That’s the turning point. The turning point to me was a very important moment, when we see the horror from 20 years ago. You saw the flipside to Alfred. And what’s so clever about that is that they never tell a subtextual past by flashing back; they always do it by going forward. So you saw and learnt about Alfred’s dangerous past and what damaged goods he is in the form of Reggie. He could’ve gone Reggie’s way and he didn’t. The family saved him and the boy saved him. So it was a very tenuous time because Alfred and Bruce weren’t particularly getting on at that time. They were still butting heads. He was still acting very much the manservant to the boy as opposed to a paternal figure. There’s a very telling scene where Reggie is teaching Master Bruce how to fight, and Alfred steps in as that could’ve been a tipping point. That’s the great thing about our show; every one of these characters have good elements and bad, and it depends which way they decide to go. The show is called Gotham and it’s about a city that moulds people into who we later know they will become. The interesting thing, of course, is seeing how they get there.
You’ve had a hugely varied career over the years, working with many teenagers on various projects. With the character of Bruce Wayne, though, he’s very quiet, very calculated, and very driven, even though he’s still very much a teenager. How was it tailoring your character to play off that?
The thing is, he learns from the boy as much as the boy learns from him. Alfred realises that he is not an ordinary boy and that Alfred is not an ordinary father. They have to find a way of communicating. He understands his intellect, and Alfred is an extremely bright man who has an innate sense of street smarts. He completely appreciates the boy’s brilliance but he does it very badly; his parenting skills haven’t got off to the best start. He tries in the one way that he can. The thing is, the turning moment is when he just says, “Look, with any teenager, if they want to do something then they’ll do it. All you can hope is that they talk to you and tell you about whatever they’re doing, whether it be for good or for ill”. And he says that to Bruce, that he can’t stop him but just for him to tell Alfred. And you start to see that later on in the movies and later on in their relationship. He still disapproves but he’d rather be with him than against him. He made a promise to Thomas Wayne to protect him and be there for the rest of his life.
The chemistry between yourself and David Mazouz seems like it clicked from the very first episode. Was that something that was just there or did you have to work on it at all?
The chemistry was there from Day 1. We’re lucky enough as professionals to be able to act from 8 to 85. But it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re only as good as the person you’re in the scene with. I have a son who’s the same age as David… and this extremely talented and focussed young man walks on the set and we have this complete affiliation, this complete understanding. People say how do you prepare for these scenes – we look in each other’s eyes and it’s there. I’m proud to say the chemistry does exist. I think that their relationship, from the first series it had many strands, but one of the heartbeats of the show is their relationship, and I’m very proud of that because it is a very heartfelt one. I spend as much time, more time probably, with David than I do with my own son. We shoot in New York and he’s become a son to me. Not only is he an extraordinarily talented actor, he’s an adorable professional and an absolute joy to be in work with every day.
Expanding on that a little, it seems like there’s a great camaraderie and dynamic amongst the whole crew. Are there any actors or characters on the show that you’ve not had much screen time with yet who’d you love to do more with?
The thing is, and you’ve likely heard this a million times before because people always gush about it, but we actually genuinely love working with each other. I don’t see how it’s going to happen, but I would love to be working with The Penguin . I’ve brushed shoulders with nearly every actor on the show so far, and what’s interesting with the dynamics of that, the talent of our showrunners, is that you find affiliations with characters, such as Alfred and Bullock, that you don’t see on the page until you’re on the set because they’re both straight shooters, they’re not bullshitters, so there’s a natural affiliation between them.
Obviously your father is fondly remembered as one of the most well-revered, well-known versions of Doctor Who. Has there ever been any interest from you in maybe playing the Doctor yourself at some point?
No, it’s too big a set of shoes to fill. My dad was the Doctor. My dad was my Doctor, my generation’s Doctor. I’d love in some capacity to be involved. I was offered a part but I couldn’t do it because of shooting. At some point, I’d be honoured as an ode to my dad to be involved in some capacity in the future. I’m looking forward very much to what Chibnall’s going to be doing. I’m very much looking forward to seeing that.
Season 2 of Gotham is available on Blu-ray and DVD from August 1st.SHARE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW OR ON TWITTER @STARBURST_MAG
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