From Warner Horizon Scripted Television comes the series Pennyworth, which airs on EPIX (coming to Showcase in Canada this Fall!) and is a ten-episode one-hour drama series. It’s a surprising and kind of violent origin story for Batman’s butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by Jack Bannon), but with a really surprising turn from Thomas Wayne (played by the charismatic and versatile Ben Aldridge, who played very different characters in Reign and Fleabag). He presents a fascinating character study of Batman’s father in the swinging sixties in a series that feels extremely cinematic.
We spoke to Aldridge by phone recently as part of his whirlwind press tour and this is a condensed and edited version of our scintillating interview with the transformative Ben Aldridge.
BT: I loved the look of this series! It must have been awesome being in this expansive and cinematic world.
BA: It was really exciting. I guess that when you sign up to a series, you’re never quite sure. You get the script and you always hope for the best, because as an actor your creative input is limited to the character and the character is your job, nothing beyond the character is your job. So we kind of discovered the world as we were going along and that’s the most exciting thing I think that this show has to offer, is the world that Bruno (Heller), along with all of the other creatives, have created. So this 1960’s London that’s familiar, you can recognize the fashions, the mod / rock / pop / punk music, the architecture of London, but then it completely twists on its head, what we’re referring to as “13 degrees weirder” and that’s where the DC element comes in, in that it’s darker and more twisted and macabre and it’s very unpredictable. It’s got this homely, sort of quintessentially British feel and then something very strange will happen, or someone will cross through the frame wearing a really weird outfit that doesn’t exist in any world. That was really exciting and yeah, you’re right, the tone of it and how cinematic it is: the first day, I showed up on set in this brilliant location called Millenium Mills, in the hideout / shootout scene in which Alfred and I are talking in the car. It was this amazing, huge location and I was looking at the monitor and went: “this is great, this is really great”, and a couple of days later, I was not on set, but someone sent me a screengrab of Jack (Bannon) filming in Trafalgar Square, and it’s not often that many productions get to film in such iconic locations, so I was like: “These guys are making a big TV show and we’re in it and that’s exciting!”.
When I was at drama school, I wanted to do period pieces. Whatever period, I wanted it to be distinct. I’ve managed to do things set in the ’30s and a few set in Victorian England, but I’d never yet gotten the chance to do anything in the ’60s. I”m a Mad Men obsessive, so it was very exciting to inhabit that world where there’s brilliant mid-century sets. I’m obsessed with mid-century furnishings so I loved it. It was a box ticked off, to be honest.
BT: The story of Batman and his family is so iconic. Did you have any connection to the comic books prior to filming?
BA: Yes! Growing up, you can’t grow up and not be aware of Batman. My first exposure, and I can remember this very clearly, is Tim Burton’s films. I remember seeing Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman [laughs], and I remember watching it in my house, I was probably about nine or ten, and I loved the scene where there’s a cat nibbling at her fingers, and she wakes up, drinks a pint of milk, and she’s Catwoman, and then she stitches together her costume. I thought that was a really inventive way of someone becoming a superhero. Then when the film was done I said “I want to be Catman!”. [laughs] I went to my kitchen, my parents were making dinner, I drank a pint of milk, I drank milk then, I put on black clothes and walked around the street, we lived in a safe neighbourhood, and I started jumping around and saying I was Catman. [laughs] That’s my earliest memory of it. I don’t think I had any desire to be Batman, and that’s not really full circle, but to end up in a DC connected universe..I guess that was a young desire to want to act and to transform into some kind of superhero.
BT: I think the upcoming incarnation of Batman, as played by Robert Pattinson, should be fascinating too.
BA: I think so, for sure. As the DC world progresses into more and more movies and spinoffs and series, a lot of them, or the ones I’m enjoying, seem to be the ones that are about the psychology of the characters and the superheroes, rather than just the fact that they’ve got powers. It’s more about them being flawed and interesting human beings. I can’t wait to see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, that looks insane. I feel like casting Robert Pattinson in Batman is taking that character in the same vein probably. That’s more of the direction that our show is – it’s very dark, very driven by the characters – it’s about the psychology and problems that they’re facing. I think it’s all headed that way.
BT: Did you find any commonalities between yourself and your character?
BA: Interesting! I don’t know. I don’t think I’m very much like him at all. [laughs heartily] That’s something I really enjoyed actually. Here’s a similarity: he’s a perfectionist, a bit exacting, and very tidy, and obsessed with those kinds of things, so that’s something similar that we share.
BT: How did you begin crafting your particular take on the character of Thomas?
BA: In a meeting with Danny and Bruno, they just said to me “think of Cary Grant”. They wanted him to have this 1950s old film star Hollywood feel, which are quite big shoes to fill. That meant that I looked at a bunch of his films and back catalogue and creating this suave billionaire whip-smart American. It was a real pleasure to watch those films and try and imbue a little bit of charisma into the role.
BT: Without giving anything away, tell me how your character is woven into the series.
BA: I guess what I like about him the most, and this goes across the board for the project, is that we know where all the characters are heading – we know where Alfred ends up, we know Thomas ends up dead – but we don’t quite know how they get there. It’s finding out about the parents and the genetic upbringing that Batman comes from, so we’re filling in a lot of history, and I think that was an exciting thing. We know he becomes this good upstanding citizen of Gotham, a very charitable man, but did he start off good? Is he always squeaky clean? We start to find out that that’s not necessarily the case. He’s involved in this underground world in London and in the journey of our first series he works in a morally compromising positions where he makes choices that he doesn’t want to make. It was exciting discovering who they are and also, on this series, Bruno (Heller) didn’t write all the episodes up front, they were episode to episode, so we were finding out who they were as we were going along. Some actors wouldn’t like that but I really loved it, it was exciting.
BT: Tell me about the look of Thomas, particularly the facial hair.
BA: [laughs] Well the moustache came about at the starting point. When I heard that I was cast, I was looking at all the visual depictions of him, every film version of him. In nearly all of them he has a moustache and definitely in the comic books he had a moustache. I wanted to stay true to that and nod to the comic books in that way. Then they were like “do you want to grow it yourself?” and I said “yeah, I’ll grow it myself”, so I was stuck with it for seven months, but then I became very attached to it. [laughs] So when it came to shaving it off, which I had to do for an audition, I was like “oh my goodness! who am I?”. You know when you get a bad haircut and you’re like “oh my goodness, I don’t know what’s going on”, so it was a bit like that. Now I’m in between both so I don’t have to part ways with it completely.
BT: Tell me about working with this fantastic ensemble.
BA: This cast gets on really well. It’s full of brilliant actors – Jack (Bannon), Dorothy (Atkinson), Ian (Puleston-Davies) – they’re seasoned pros and they’re so good humoured and lovely. Everyone has such good set etiquette on this. Emma Paetz, who plays Martha Kane, has become a very dear friend of mine, we get on brilliantly, as do Jack and I. Paloma Faith is wonderful as well, she’s hilarious, she’s the total wild and unpredictable wildcard. Of course she has a shimmering pop career as a pop star and as a musician. It’s a really exciting bunch of people. They’ve assembled a group of really nice people, which is the best you could hope for when you go work on a TV show, it’s not always the case.
Brief Take: You filmed Reign in Toronto, what do you like most about the city?
Ben Aldridge: I love Toronto. I really did. I got to play Antoine of Navarre, a crazy character, this evil guy who ran around in leather trousers poisoning people and having sex with everyone and I didn’t know much about the show, but I really fell in love with the city. I arrived there in the winter, didn’t bring enough warm clothes, the costume department had to give me a coat [chuckles] to wear the entire time. And then I came back probably about 5 months later, I think, for the summer and I was amazed with the way that the city transformed, I basically didn’t see anyone in the winter, and then in the summer, I was like: “Everyone’s in the street, it’s summer, there’s so much going on” – Kensington Market, I did kayak out loads on the lake, yeah I loved it. Also, in the winter, all the bars and nooks and crannies you can find and little hideouts, I loved it. It was fantastic. Well done for living there! I grew up with a lot of Canadian friends actually. I know everyone says this but it’s a friendlier, more approachable New York.
BT: What did you like most about working with Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag?
BA: I think she’s a genius and she really is [chuckles] an example of what that word means. It was exciting. I don’t think she knew it would be as big a hit as it is, but people clearly resonate with the character that she’s written. I feel like everybody can recognize a bit of themselves in Fleabag. She is a dangerously honest character that I don’t think that we get to see on TV very often, but I think that it does really reflect the situation in which we find ourselves in real life. Working with her is an absolute joy and I feel like if I was in that position, I would be an absolute control freak ,but she is very relaxed and charismatic on set, she’s very collaborative. I think that I filmed that first series, I think that I had a week and a half off from something else and I was very lucky that she managed to fit me in and get it done. We were finding out who he was as we went, with which we had a lot of fun. You can make suggestions to her, or she can make suggestions to you, and I’m very proud to be in it. I have to say that whenever anyone mentions it, I get a little bit hot under the collar, a little bit sweaty, because I am faced in my head with visions of things that people have seen me do. [laughs] So people will be smiling at me and be like “ah, you’re the asshole guy from Fleabag!”, and I’d say “ooh yes. I’m very proud.” But I couldn’t be more thrilled for her success. I think she’s a wonderful, wonderful human.
BT: You’ve done some fantastic theatre work as well, including in American Psycho. It’s amazing to see the success of everyone who was part of that production.
BA: Yeah, definitely! People have done really well from that show. When it came to America, we all wanted to do it again, which never happened, but yeah. I’m told this, I don’t know if it’s true, but Phoebe and I knew of each other socially, we had met once or twice, but I believe she thought of me for the role in Fleabag because of the character she’d seen me play in American Psycho. So I’m very thankful for that chain of events for sure.
BT: You’ve done some producing and directing work. Would you like to do more of that in the future?
BA: I’d love to direct a feature, that’s something that I have my eye on. I directed a TV pilot years ago, when I was 26, I’m 33 now and I haven’t done it since. I would love to do that! I think every on set experience is time to learn from those around you. I actually shadowed for a day on Pennyworth. I shadowed a brilliant director, the episode four director named China Moo-Young, who is a wonderful woman, and she allowed me to be on set with her and ask her questions in every scene I wasn’t acting in, a lot of technical questions. Being on set you can always learn. There are so many jobs and every one is doing their own thing, so there’s a world of things to learn about.
BT: I’ve heard from other talent that one of the best things about Comic-Con is that you get to meet the fans. You have your own army of fans! Are you excited for them to see you in this show?
BA: They’re incredibly supportive. They’re very loyal and very faithful and I think they’re already excited to see Pennyworth, which I think is on in the U.K. in the autumn, so they won’t get to it until then, but I am excited for people to see Thomas and to get to know the show. We got a good reception at Comic-Con, we did a signing, and people don’t know the show yet but there was definitely a buzz of anticipation surrounding it which we could feel, so that was cool.
BT: What’s something in particular that you’re excited for people to see in the show?
BA: I can’t say spoilers but around episode six or seven, it takes a very unexpected twist for Thomas, which, even when I read it, I was like “woah! I didn’t know that was going to happen.” So I’m expected for people to see that. The thing I’m most excited for is for people to get to know the world. I think it’s a very specific world they’ve created and that we’ve created alongside him. It’s got its own political system, it’s got its own entertainment system, for example, capital punishment is still around. In our story they televise the public hanging, which is weird and dark, and we’re on the brink of a civil war. So it’s a familiar but completely fictionalized version of England. And also, within that, I know that Danny (Cannon) was initially worried about where they’d get their villains from, and what they’ve done is famous figures from British literature. So we’ve got some of the Sherlock Holmes characters, we’ve got Jack the Ripper, who’s not fictionalized, he was a real murderer in London, so they make appearances as well.
BT: Which shows have you enjoyed watching lately?
BA: Recently I’ve been watching Chernobyl on HBO and I think cinematically it’s so well executed, it’s cinematic and so visually poetic. I think Johan Renck did an amazing job at telling a brutal story that we all know about, I just loved that. And another HBO show, Euphoria, which Sam Levinson directed and created, and again it’s a very honest depiction of what it’s like to be a teenager right now, which is generationally so different from even my generation. Because of the internet and social media, kids are growing up in a very different world. I think it’s the first thing I’ve seen where I’ve gone “that feels truthful” and visually it’s got such a unique..the cinematography is incredible. Those are two shows that I’ve been enjoying watching recently.
BT: Would you be open to returning to the part for a season two?
BA: For sure! My favourite part of a TV show involves reading it, thinking about it, working on the character, taking it to press, which is what we’re doing now, and getting to watch it, but I just love playing Thomas. I’ve had such a good time creating him with Bruno (Heller) and Danny (Cannon) and then executing that. I can’t wait to be back in costume on those sets and to see where Bruno takes the story. I have no idea where it’s going to go. Episode to episode I’d always be surprised, so I really enjoyed that element of it.
Pennyworth airs on Sundays at 9pm ET on the Epix channel and on the Epix app