Gotham season 3: Sean Pertwee interview

As Gotham season 2 arrives in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray, we chatted to Sean Pertwee about Alfred, action scenes, and season 3...

Contains spoilers for Gotham season 2.

At a posh London hotel back in June, I sat down for ten minutes with Mr Sean Pertwee to discuss all things Alfred Pennyworth. Gotham season 2’s DVD release was around the corner, and season 3’s arrival was a little further down the road.

Pertwee – sporting a V-neck and, thanks to a considerable amount of jewellery, the air of a pirate – proved to be a generous interviewee, very open to disclosing ideas he has about the show, including many that haven’t yet come to fruition. We also spoke about how his performance led to the writers penning him more action scenes, and the idea of Gotham crossing over with the myriad other DC Comics shows on TV.

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We spoke once before on the phone, just when the season 1 DVD was coming out. You said then that Alfred was starting to question his own mortality a bit after getting stabbed.

That’s right, after getting stabbed by his friend Reggie. Yeah.

He’s still not afraid of a fight, though, is he?

He’s not afraid of a fight. That’s one of the joys of our show, we always feel that… we were told and very flattered, all of us by [showrunners] Bruno [Heller] and by Danny [Cannon] and by John Stevens… that they follow us. We follow them as the writers, but they also follow elements of us.

And when they saw that I’m quite physical and that always was something I enjoyed, it made an awful lot of sense to the audience why this spiny East-Ender would be in control. Why would he be working for the richest man in the world? It’s obvious now, people went ‘oh my God, that’s why Pertwee’s been doing it like that. It’s because he was there not just as a butler, but as a confidant, a protector, a driver, and the only person that could be trusted to look after his son. And to protect him.

So, me as an actor, I don’t bounce like I used to, but I absolutely love, relish doing those fight sequences. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Because Batman didn’t become Batman overnight. You know, there’s a germination process. Who taught him how to fight? Who taught him how to drop his shoulder? Who told him how to throw a knife? Who told him to do all of these things?

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So, to cook all of these elements in there, Alfred is sort of a Swiss-army knife. That’s why I made him S.A.S., and Geoff Johns kindly let me do so. Because originally he was a marine, and didn’t have a leg. But there’s too many limps in the show already. It’s kind of, everyone will be limping!

So they let me go for this S.A.S. idea, because I was lucky enough to train at the Kill House [a real-life S.A.S. training facility] for a while, in Herefordshire, for a different show. They have to excel in so many different aspects, from small-arms fire to combat skills to explosives to everything, to concealment, which I thought would be a good idea for the progress for the boy to become the man that dons the cowl and becomes… Batman!

[Pertwee yelled that bit. It was great.]

That was another thing you mentioned back then, actually, the idea of Bruce kind of building up a façade and learning how to conceal better and not just storming in.

Do you know what, I think I remember talking to you about this actually. Isn’t it funny, the way that you think the series is going to go, and then it doesn’t necessarily go that way. But that is the world of Gotham, isn’t it? And also he is a teenager, and of course he doesn’t listen to his parent, or guardian. I think that will become an issue, in season 3. That Richie Rich element, that idea of stopping.

You know, we had the foot firmly on the gas, with the computer in the beginning [of season 2] and the Wayne cave. We’re not allowed to call it the Batcave, because it’s not the Batcave yet. It’s the Wayne cave. And the computer, and Lucius Fox, and all of those elements.

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And it looks like you do a lot of the fighting yourself?

I do, yeah, I do virtually all of it. The last one, with Azrael, was tricky because there was a lot of glass involved, which I managed to smash and stab myself in the eye. We have a fantastic stunt team, but they let me do as much as I can, because I love doing it.

I loved that street fight scene, where you’re showing Bruce how to take down a big guy.

Oh yeah! I really hurt myself doing that. Because the guy was 380 pounds and 6 foot 7. And he had stacks on. That was a lot of fun. Shooting it where they shot The Warriors and all that was good fun. And again it kind of replicated sort of Yoda-style in the next episode when he has a fight with Butch Gilzean’s nephew, and you hear me saying “big muscles require lots of blood”, you know, “just outlast them”.

So, saying the writers are following you and you’re following them as well, was the idea of Alfred having all these fights not something that was in their original plan?

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Well, I don’t think… you try and stay away from a lot of the source material when you’re developing your own interpretation of a character. But I did read something – in one of those very, very old books, one of those big sort of Batman edition things, Batman history things – that said ‘Alfred Pennyworth, when he got in a fight, he never put a crease in his suit’.

I really liked the idea of that, so it was very important to me when we had our first brilliant costume designer, Lisa Padovani, I said, “It has to be cosseted, because I want him to be…”

This is a thing mentioned in [season 2] episode 1, when Reggie comes, he literally can’t sleep, he suffers from post-traumatic stress. He cossets himself in this costume, but he has to be able to move, that was my big sort of pointer. And I was lucky enough, when the stunt guys saw I could handle… I picked a cane up, we were trying to find something to beat a guy off, and they could see that I could twirl a cane and I can swordfight. I did lots of it, fighting Sean Bean, fighting a myriad of people with swords.

They saw that, and they then started to encompass things like that into the show. So that element is really kind of cool.

And how much do they tell you, or do you know for yourself, about Alfred’s past? I do wonder when the S.A.S. bit stopped and when the working-with-Thomas-Wayne bit started.

Well this is something that will be discussed. In the Earth-One book… I’ve gone back, like I said, I did try to ignore it but Earth-One is the one that I did read because it’s the one that’s nearest to our interpretation of it. But I’ve always thought, Alfred basically would basically come to his father, Jarvis’ aid, from the services, because he was dying. And that’s how he took on the mantle.

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But there is this theory that Thomas and Alfred fought in the desert, and had he saved Thomas Wayne’s life. He said, “If you need help, come to me.” And he actually, to go on about the leg again, got his leg blown off. And he buys him a prosthetic leg. Which, I’m pleased that we dropped that idea.

So there is that reason. He becomes his batman, if you’ll pardon the pun [Google tells me that a ‘batman’, in military parlance, is an officer’s personal servant]. He literally becomes his batman in the services. And that’s why he was there. They met in the services, and that’s why he was there and he becomes the valet, the confidant. The only person he can trust with the greatest asset in his life, his son.

One of my favourite bits all season was right at the end of the finale, when you encourage Bruce to leave, and he tells you that the investigation isn’t finished and you just go “oh, bloody hell”.

I know; that’s Bruno [Heller] for you. Now it’s the Court of Owls, “oh, bloody hell” [laughs].

Do you know for sure that’s where the investigation is going to head, then?

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Well I think we will be delving into the Court of Owls, which is very interesting, because it’s something that is part of the ancient part of the mythos, the canon of Batman. It’s an integral old part, and aficionados out there will already know who these people are, and to find out they are the puppeteers, pulling the strings of Gotham, is going to be very interesting.

As is the fact that there was this escape of the lunatics, which puts our villains that we already have… just knowing that they’re out there, whether we see them or not, makes this place more and more a dangerous place to be. That the doppelganger of Bruce Wayne will exist, we can say that. There will be involvement there with the DNA, a genetically modified version of Bruce Wayne, that will be explored.

As will The Mad Hatter, which I’m really excited about, because it’s a deeply emotive element to Bruce. David [Mazouz] and I have talked about this at great length. Won’t it be wonderful, because of course Martha Wayne used to read Bruce, every night, Alice Through The Looking Glass and Alice In Wonderland. So, it’s going to be an emotional villain aspect for us. So I’m looking forward to that.

I’m looking forward to David playing the doppelganger version, too…

So am I, yeah. Imagine if he was Clayface as well, he’d be playing three people. I think we’re all looking forward to playing Clayface, I’m gonna do mine like Dick Van Dyke I think.

That sounds great. Ben McKenzie’s Clayface scenes were just hilarious.

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Yeah, I know. He had fun, right? You can tell he had fun. He absolutely loved it, from being this burly, brusque man to this kind of joyous, freewheeling lothario, it’s kind of amazing.

Totally. Have they given you any indication of how long the show might run for? You were saying, the last time we spoke, they’d only ordered season 2 quite recently, so it’s hard to tell…

Yeah, I think the thing is, we’re incredibly proud to get season 3. People get our world now, and understand our world. And they understand where we’re going with it, and they trust us. And they know that we’re under the very brilliant, very watchful eye of DC Comics and Geoff Johns, and our showrunners who are deep fans of the show.

And so I think the thing is, the show will continue, and long may it last. The thing is, that people always ask this question: will we see him don the cowl? And I think the point is, when he’s 19 off he disappears to Tibet to finalise the dark arts for five years. He leaves the estate to Alfred and then he comes back, and lo and behold he’s Batman.

When I think the show will end, is when he makes that decision. To go. But how does he get there? Who teaches him all of this? Alfred is a huge part of that.

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Just one more thing before I’m ushered out. Today I’ve been speaking to people from The Flash and from Legends Of Tomorrow as well. And their shows are kind of connected and they have crossovers within them. Can you imagine Gotham ever having a crossover with anything else?

Um… no, I can’t. And I have nothing but tantamount respect for all of these other shows. As you know, they’re fantastic. But Gotham is a prequel… to them all. It really is after Batman that these characters are born, in many respects. This is an earlier time.

I also think it’s a very different show. It’s operatic, it’s dark. The CW does a much more vibrant, accessible version of these shows. But we are a prequel to that all. So our world is pre-existing. It would be great, but I don’t see it happening. I don’t see how it would necessarily work.

I do love in Gotham that you never quite know what year it is, or what era it is. They’ve got phones and computers, but it doesn’t feel modern.

Well that’s our sort of Grimm’s Fairytale, Taxi Driver thing. At first, you know, everyone has an idea of what Gotham, in their mind’s eye, should be. People have come around to our way of thinking, and are now accepting our interpretation of Gotham. Which is the central character. The city that moulds ordinary people into becoming extraordinary people, that we know and love, later on in life.

Sean Pertwee, thank you very much!

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Gotham Season 2 is out on Blu-ray and DVD today, Monday the 1st of August.