Inside a Working Class ALFRED for Epix's PENNYWORTH with Co-Creator BRUNO HELLER

Credit: Epix
Bruno Heller
Bruno Heller
Credit: Kathy Hutchins /

Jack Bannon may be but the latest to play Alfred Pennyworth with this weekend's debuting Pennyworth TV series, but he and series co-creator Bruno Heller are approaching it as if he's the first.

Well, because he is.

Beginning this Sunday with the premire episode of Pennyworth, Bannon will be playing an earlier version of Batman's iconic butler/father figure and showing a man trying to find out who he is - while audiences know who he will become.

Heller is creating Pennyworth after a successful five-year run with Fox's Gotham, but this new premium cable show is darker, more English, and cuts back into Heller's earlier work on Rome. For Heller, Alfred Pennyworth is a working class man who becomes entangled with historical moments - in this case, DC historical.

Heller spoke with Newsarama in the day leading up to Pennyworth's Sunday debut, discussing the initial casting of Bannon, crafting the perfect mix of warmth and warrior charm, and how Heller's own past - and that of his father's - impacts the show.

Newsarama: Bruno, I first learned of Jack Bannon from Endeavor - where'd you first come across him, and what led you to see him as your ideal Alfred Pennyworth?

Bruno Heller: Actually, the first time I came across him was in the audition. We had a a single page of test dialogue for everyone to read, and everyone except Jack came in and did the piece with menace.

Nrama: What was the scene?

Heller: It was Alfred asking someone questions in a pub.

Everyone else did the scene in a bit of a Jason Statham style, but Jack was charming and soft-spoken, while still managing to convey that he was a guy not to f**k about with.

Credit: Epix

Also, he looks fabulous. He has a very distinctive appearance, and he does a brilliant Cockney accent for someone who's not a natural Cockney. Charming.

After the fact, I saw other stuff he'd been in to make sure he was a member of the equity. [Laughs]

Nrama: When I watched the first episode, Jack's Alfred has a real paternal warmth over some severe military training - an iron hand in a velvet glove, as they say. How did you go about balancing that in your script, and in how you and Danny went about producing the show?

Heller: That's a good question.

That's one of the things about casting, especially in a TV show - you have to cast for the natural quality of the actors. In a movie, even if he's not the kind of guy you need they can generally play it for 90 minutes. For a TV show - not in the pilot, but moving forward - they're on their own to a large degree; creating the character on their own.

So in the pilot, we make sure none of the scenes were wrong-headed, or portrayed Alfred as too macho or someone without that warmth of charm. We just let him go with that, and he nailed it.

Credit: Epix

I'd love to take more credit to how it came out, but it's really Jack.

Nrama: Pennyworth was announced while you were wrapping up Gotham - how did that show, and particularly Sean Pertwee's much older Alfred - influence you with Pennyworth?

Heller: Well, I was very keen not to do a prequel to Gotham. While many aspects of it might seem like a natural fit, with Pennyworth we wanted to create a different kind of show for a different platform. And it has a much different vibe, while still reamaining within the DC Universe - which is naturally kind of a dark and gothic place.

That was key - finding all the sorts of ways we could differentiate it from Gotham. Pennyworth is a character drama, but Gotham was more of a carnival pageant with villains and heroes.

That being said, Sean Pertwee gave one of the great, iconic performances with Gotham's Alfred. Like Michael Caine in the Christopher Nolan films, he did it as a butler but also working class. Working class with rough edges - something the other Pennysworths haven't been.

Jack Bannon has said that when he was preparing for this role, he came to understand that he's the first Alfred - everyone else is following him. He's the youngest Alfred in 100 years, and he is portraying the birth of Alfred as we know him as a character.

As much as possible, you want the actor to feel free to do their own version as opposed to imitating someone else, but when you are following after Caine, Jeremy Irons, Pertwee, and the others, I can understand how it might give your head a spin.

Nrama: I really appreciate how Pennyworth feels like a English TV miniseries format versus the traditional U.S. serialized format. After doing the former for so many years, what was it like to return back to this?

Heller: It's been great. It's very liberating as a writer to be able to tell stories in a kind of organic way rather than wrap things up in a procedural way but keep subplots going.

Also, writing 10 episodes as opposed to 23 is like comparing chess to speed chess.

You can do a story laid out over 10 episodes, but spreading a story out over 23 has the tendancy to get baggy - you have to constantly re-direct the show to keep it within the format.

It was a lot of fun.

Credit: Epix

One of the other things was not having to write to commercial break; not having to write for cliffhangers, but to be able to take the show, and the Batman universe, symbolically into the nitty gritty, much darker places.

Nrama: Plus your hour-long story isn't being interrupted by commercials for detergent and restaurants.

Heller: [Laughs]

That's true, and also speaks towards the difference in the American commercial-supported format versus the English format.

But also, with American-style shows there's those sort of 'lock and load' punchlines as cliffhangers and ending scenes, which is sort of un-English. English shows generally leave off with a downbat or some awkward silence rather than a moment of irony or high drama. So it's important when we're doing Pennyworth to have that understated sensibility.

Another way I've heard it described is that in America you're kind of appealing to an arena audience, while in England it's more of a cabaret or small club where you're talking directly to them. So you can be more intimate with this, and more personal. But beware of the opposite - you can't get too bombastic or spectacular, or you'll lose the audience.

Nrama: You seem to be toiling similiar ground here that you did with Lucius and Titus in Rome - working men pulled into bigger struggles, historic in some cases. Also the idea of a working man's place in class systems, and breaking through. How big a part of that was this for you in Pennyworth?

Heller: That's very well spotted there, the connection with Rome.

This is a theme I know and understand from being brought up in England; yeah, it's very much about that. That's the natural theme inside of the Alfred mythology.

The central mystery of Pennyworth is how does a decorated SAS soldier who is very much an independent man become a butler, which is in many ways the opposite - a servant, a passive figure. How did this character get on that journey?

And on the other side of that is the nature of being a soldier. I was reading a lot of soldier stuff for Pennyworth, including Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm. It deals with guys who have PTSD, and the salient thing I took from it was that hardcore combat soldiers aren't traumatized by war, but by peace. The tedious and sometimes droning civilain life drives them mad. The war, the combat, the fighting - as much as that disturbed them and upset them, it became something they're used to.

Being close to death is an immense high, as long as you survive. Alfred is someone who, despite himself, considers his time as a soldier as his education. But because he is a warm, loving, good-hearted man, he is repelled by that and knows there's a better way of living. The tension between those two aspects are key.

The same with Rome's Lucius. One thing soldiers miss in peacetime is the camraderie and brotherhood of friends who've risked their lifes for one another. It's important that they're not men who are or were alone, but they had a squad.

I don't have brothers, so many this is in a way wish fulfillment - reaching for that transcendent, male friendship.

Nrama: I want to talk more about family in a second, but first - I don't know if you've been following trades, but the DC CW shows have been all about announcing actors from other DC-based shows and movies coming in for a crossover event. Rights issues aside, would you be open to Gotham and then Pennyworth being part of the DC Multiverse that the CW shows seem to be developing?

Heller: I think one of the things about being on the premium cable channel Epix is that it's much harder to integrate those two tonalities.

Nrama: But then you see Burt Ward from the 1960s Batman show possibly crossing over with the world of CW's Arrow. That's some different styles coming together.

Heller: True. God bless CW, but that's the interesting thing about the DC universe - it runs from Teen Titans Go! to Joaquin Phoenix's Joker, but they wouldn't cross those over.

I'll say this - this is showbiz, so never say "never." If there's a bottom line somewhere... I suspect the ones you mentioned are kind of cute and correct and those guys will have brilliant cameos, but it would be tough to see how they'd get from our shows to there.

But I'm an old showbiz hack, so show me the bottom line and we'll see.

Nrama: Last question - This show, in a way, is about the secret life of someone who's seen as a father figure. Growing up the son of a famous screenwriter, Lukas Heller, is there a bit of you in there with Pennyworth?

Heller: You're probably right; it never occured to me.

My dad didn't want me to be a builder, or go into showbiz.

Credit: Epix

I didn't get into the business until many years after he was dead. The only time we talked about it, he showed me a dastardly piece by Raymond Chandler on how screenwriting was the worst possible job in the film industry.

I understand now why it's a very tough business. You either fail or discover it's a lot harder to be "successful" than you thought.

You'd make a good therapist, Chris.

The other side of this is the Batman mythos, which is all about fathers/sons and the legacy of violence. What I love about Pennyworth is that it allows me to explore themes in a much more kitchen sink, organic way.

Alfred's father, in our case, is not a mythical offscreen character - he's a real man with hard edges and soft parts as well.

Credit: Epix

Also, one of the things I've been reiterating many times is that Pennyworth is just as much about mothers. You'll see Martha Wayne introduced, and the DNA of her and Thomas is what ultimately creates Bruce. As you'll see, Thomas has that rational, dutiful detective part, but Martha gave him the impulsive, vengeful vigilantism. Bruce is very much a schematic part of the two.

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