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Jack Bannon on Alfred Pennyworth stepping out of Batman’s shadow

Rito P. Asilo

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network

 /  Mon, June 29, 2020  /  07:03 pm

What makes a superhero? For Jack Bannon, the 29-year-old actor tasked to breathe life into the title character of Warner TV’s sleek 10-episode action series “Pennyworth,” which premieres on Monday, you need not fly like Superman, swing around on spiderwebs like Spider-Man, or drive a Batmobile like Batman to be a hero.

A superhero is defined by what one does with whatever ability he has, Jack told us during this exclusive interview last week. “Though Alfred has no powers, he’s just as much of a hero because Batman wouldn’t be around without his guidance.

“In fact, in the coronavirus world that we live in, superheroes are constantly being redefined by the people who keep us safe—from the healthcare professionals and scientists, to the delivery drivers who were once considered just ‘ordinary people.’ Now they’re considered ‘essential.’

“Like Alfred, a superhero is an ordinary guy with extraordinary ability to help others because his moral compass is quite strong.”

Superhero aficionados familiar with the Dark Knight will be thrilled to see the younger Alfred as a man of action—a refreshing tweak in the character’s mythology that Jack welcomes with open arms.

“We’ve always known Alfred Pennyworth as a butler and a much older guy, but we don’t know how he got there,” Jack said. “So, when I first read the script, I was very excited by this action-packed depiction of Alfred’s story that [showrunners] Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon have come up with. But other than the action, audiences will also be surprised at how funny the show is. Even if it’s set in the 1960s, that doesn’t make it less of an entertaining piece of modern TV.”

What makes Alfred special in this world of villains and vigilantes, and why does the focus of a whole series need to be on him?

“That’s a great question,” he replied. “At the moment, there’s a lot of prequels, sequels and origin stories, so when I first heard about it, I had exactly the same question. A lot of people consider him a secondary character, but since I began playing him, I started to feel quite protective of him because I now see him as a primary character. “And even though he’s the guy behind the guy, he is Batman’s teacher and mentor. You can learn things academically, but there’s nothing better than a mentor who had experienced the things that he teaches.

“I’ve always wondered why Alfred does what he does and in what way he has experienced the grittier side of life that he coaches Batman about so well. It’s a world that is 30 percent darker than life as we know it. So, to answer your question, the reason we need this backstory is simply to fill in some gaps.”

“Pennyworth’s” tantalizing origin story follows the character-forming adventures of the Waynes’ trusted British butler as a James Bond-channeling ex-soldier who meets undercover CIA agent Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) as a young adult, while he’s employed as an ambitious bouncer at a London restobar in the swinging ’60s.

Thereafter, Alfred meets the love of his life, nightclub dancer-cum-aspiring actress Esme Winikus (Emma Corrin), as well as secret agent Martha Kane (Emma Paetz), whose passion and crime-busting shenanigans further complicate his life.

In a country on the verge of political turmoil and moral collapse, people’s loyalties are torn between a vigilante group called the No Name League and the sinister Raven Society, run by Lord James Harwood (Jason Flemyng) and his sadistic wingman Bet Sykes (the scene-stealing Paloma Faith), whose main mission is to overthrow the British government.

Read also: Batman, Wonder Woman among DC heroes featured in upcoming virtual event

Our Q&A with Jack:

What makes the show significant for you? Can you talk about its challenges for you?

To begin with, it’s the first time that I’m playing the lead in a show like this. But just getting to work every day to collaborate with a great cast is my favorite part about it.

On the other hand, the most difficult bit begins with the pressure of knowing that the role has been portrayed by great actors (like Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons and Michael Gough). Or knowing that people online are asking why a series needs to be about a butler, so they think it’s going to be boring (laughs). But my doubts about the role dissipated quite quickly when I was given license to make it my own.

The whole experience has been special for me. The show kept me busy because we shot Season 1 for six months, followed by the press rounds—so, it’s been my life for a year and a half. And we barely began shooting Season 2 when the pandemic struck.

How different is your Alfred Pennyworth from those created by the likes of Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons?

For starters, Alfred here is much younger (laughs). But if there’s any version of Alfred we’re sort of a prequel to, it would be Michael Caine’s. I’d say though that we’re completely stand-alone.

The only reason I would give Michael Caine a nod is because he told Christopher Nolan (director of “The Dark Knight” trilogy, starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne) he’d play the character if he could make Alfred a former member of the Special Forces or the Army—so he added that in. And our story explores that.

Moreover, he was a huge movie star in London in the ’60s, so that was a nice addition for me because I’m a big fan of his. Certainly, the kind of voice that I used for the role was not an accident—we started from there. That was something that Danny, Bruno and I spoke about. And since Bruno and Danny also did “Gotham,” people began thinking it’s a prequel. 

You completely owned this role. But there were moments when it seemed like an audition tape for a James Bond movie. You brought to the role the same complex combination of a suave sexy, brutal and vulnerable protagonist. Were there other fictional points of inspiration other than Bond, like The Saint maybe?

The Bond thing is a comparison I will gladly take, but you know all too well that if you put a British guy in a suit and give him a gadget, that will have done it for you (laughs). Seriously, the script itself was my starting point in characterization.

I did watch old Michael Caine movies (like his Harry Palmer character in 1967’s “Billion Dollar Brain”). It’s that kind of spy reference that perhaps gives the character its James Bond elements.

The world you hinted at is, as you said, 30 percent darker and weirder. But there’s some relevance right now to the current situation around the world. You see Britain divided and in political turmoil. Was that pure coincidence, or was that always part of the story?

It was in the script. We shot this over a year ago, so that was even before the coronavirus came. But it was during Brexit, when England left the European Union. So yeah, I agree with you, it’s a political time of division. I’ve never known the world to be so divided!

We’d often joke with Bruno how he seemed to be a bit of a prophet. He’d write things, then they would happen in real life. That’s art imitating life, or the other way around!

So, for Season 2, we begged him to write about a nice peaceful world (laughs). Obviously, that doesn’t make for great drama. He created instead a world that then began to mirror what was happening. But it wasn’t meant as a direct analogy of what was going on in the real world.

Something has to be said about the abiding affection between Alfred and his parents (Ian Puleston-Davies, Dorothy Atkinson), despite conflicting ideological beliefs. It probably explains his unquestioning loyalty to the Wayne family. Did you have a similar relationship with your dad?

His relationship with his parents is quite interesting. It’s something that people experience the world over, where the current generation is striving to fare better than the previous one.

But I do have a fantastic relationship with my dad, who’s an engineer. When I told him I wanted to be an actor, he said, “That makes no sense! Why don’t you get a proper job?” He blindly supported me, but he didn’t really understand my decision to pursue it. It’s like Alfred’s relationship with his butler dad, who said, “Maybe you’ll be a butler before you’re 40 if you play it right.” 

There’s something that feels very sinister about the series, from the political turmoil in the UK to the creepy characters like Lord Hargrave and Bet Sykes. But this was shot before the pandemic. How do you think will the world in quarantine react to such doom-and-gloom prescience?

Good point. I think however that it can be quite cathartic for some people, because things are not as bad as they are in “Pennyworth” … yet. But who knows (laughs)? Ours is a bleak world, but at least people are not being hung in the streets while spectators are applauding. But at least we’re still a long way from that.

What have you been doing since the start of the global lockdowns?

Wow. Like everybody else, we’ve been coping. Some days have been great, while others have been disasters (laughs)! I’ve gone through stages. I remember getting locked down the day before my 29th birthday (March 24). They said, you’re not allowed outside, so it went by as a strange day.

But it was also kind of nice because I’ve been watching stuff and reading things. So, it has been a slower pace of life, allowing people to take stock of their lives and what they have. And you realize the most important things you need in life—your health, your family and your friends. That’s all I need, really.

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This article appeared on the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper website, which is a member of Asia News Network and a media partner of The Jakarta Post