Sean Pertwee interview: Gotham season 2, Alfred, Doctor Who

Ahead of the Gotham season 1 DVD release, we chat to Sean Pertwee about season 2, Alfred, and whether he'd join Doctor Who...

Warning: contains spoilers for Gotham season 1.

Between Sean Pertwee’s excellent performance as Alfred Pennyworth in Gotham and his appearances in Elementary, The Musketeers and The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, he’s been on something of a geek roll of late. Add to that the small matter of him embracing his family’s Doctor Who heritage on Twitter, which is a wonderful sight to behold.

Ahead of the Gotham season one DVD release on Monday, I chatted to Mr Pertwee over a crackly international phone line about season two, playing Alfred, and Doctor Who

Where are you in the world right now? Are you in England?

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Oh no, no, I’m in New York! We started shooting last Monday! We’re halfway through the first episode, which is quite phenomenal.


We’ve just read two and three, which are just phenomenally good. So, we’re very confident, should we say. Very excited.

What can you tell us about what’s been going on so far? Or is it strictly under wraps?

It’s strictly under wraps, I mean, you know the Penguin rises to the top, and you know that the criminal underbelly has imploded. Fish has taken a swanny over the bridge. Um, and you know that something is discovered behind the fireplace. So, it really is that discovery that leads to the change with our relationship. Specifically when they discover what’s in there.

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You start to see much more of a direction in Bruce’s angst. You know, he’s less… he’ll always be traumatised, he’ll always have a dark soul, as does Alfred, but you’ll see more of a direction. You’ll see more of an active involvement, within the city, and trying to understand the mechanics of it. Before he can then rise, like a phoenix from the ashes, and help the city – breathe life back into it.

You’ll see more in this season – the descent to chaos and anarchy. They will be, as Penguin said, ‘rivers of blood in the street.’ So, this series is why I’m so excited. It’s about Gotham burning, it really gets dark, and it gets to an extremely dangerous place. There was some semblance of reality, because it was run by organised criminals, but it’s not anymore. It’s gone. The wheels have fallen off. It’s rudderless. And, um, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. A bumpy flight down, you know?

That sounds great! Changing tack a little, how did you first approach Alfred when you took the role on?  Your take is quite different to the ones we’ve seen before.

Well, the whole process was strange. I was given this…. I was here doing Elementary at the time, and I was given this… I got a phone call saying to go over to Warners, I said ‘what’s it for?’ and they said no-one knew what it was for. Then this extraordinary one-page soliloquy came through, to read, and I thought ‘this is written by a guy who knows London,’ it was about a guy going to pub on the Isle of Dogs, and I thought ‘this is strange!’

We’d heard rumblings of this version of Gotham, and I auditioned, and I got the call, and I went down to L.A., and I saw Danny Cannon [Executive Producer] and Bruno [Heller, Showrunner]. And I said ‘what is this?’, and they said ‘it’s Gotham! It’s a prequel to Batman.’

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So, then, I saw the scripts. And I saw… the idea of his military background was evident. So I wrote a Bible with Bruno, and presented to the rest of the showrunners, to give him a backstory. Because this is a series called Gotham, and it’s about moulding. How could we mould these characters to become who they later become?

We all know where they end up, but the interesting thing is to see how they get there. So we had to start from the beginning, and a lot of the hard core fans, at first, were sort of horrified, saying ‘that’s not Alfred.’ But, you know, why would an East-Ender be in the employ of the richest man in the world? It’s because he wasn’t just a valet or a butler or a chauffer, he was hard as nails and he’s ex-special services. Ex-SAS.

That was the initial idea, the only one that is totally trustworthy. The only one who his father can completely trust, before he’s assassinated, is this wily old butler. Um, who’s not a butler! That’s the approach that we had, and the fun part of it was ‘why would this character, ex-services, know how to handle a traumatised young boy?’ So, he himself, as you later discover, is traumatised himself. So, people now are beginning to realise – bringing up a teenager is no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination. Let alone if you were just his guardian. And that was the fun element of it – we had to find the truth.

And the real heartbeat behind exactly that was their relationship, how they found it, finding a way of communicating, to be let in by this traumatised boy. It just so happened to be violence. In a way, a respectful violence, about dignity, and about knowledge. And all of these things, from the moment he hit Tommy Elliot [in season 1 episode 8, The Mask], that was the birth of Batman.

So that’s our… our approach, our enabler. How would he enable him? How would he influence him? So that was our approach, and I think people are getting it now and understanding it now, and where we’re going. I’ve no doubt they’ll enjoy it, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s getting more fun in season two.

Because David [Mazouz, who plays Bruce Wayne], like my own son, is growing up, and fast becoming a man. So, their relationship is changing. We shoot chronologically anyway, we shoot the scenes chronologically, so he’s growing before my eyes and the audience’s eyes. And of the course, all the good stuff that goes with it. The arguments, the breaking of the voice, the breaking of furniture! All of these things are included, because that’s what it is.

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The great thing about Batman, is that he doesn’t fly, he doesn’t have laser eyes, he’s a man. He’s a man that’s been educated and honed himself out of this darkness, this post-traumatic stress, and his real dark soul. He’s moulded him self into being a superhero, in the correct sense of the term. He actually becomes a remarkable educated and focussed individual.

And what’s it been like working with David from such a young age?

Without a doubt, he’s become a second son. He is the most consummate professional I’ve ever worked with. He’s fun. We have a… I’m so lucky to be working with a person of his stature and skill. We did some scenes the other day that were just mind-blowing. Absolutely breath-taking. He’s a young guy, but he’s an old pro. He’s been working since he was very young, and he’s a consummate professional. He’s nothing but a joy, and I’m honoured to work with him every day.

What would you like to do with Alfred in season 2? Would you like to reveal more of his past?

We’re going to see them going forward together, I think. You’re going to see a lot more of that. You’re going to see the training of Bruce. You’re going to see their relationship change. Because, their relationship has to change. It has to change, they have to find out… They have to find a medium. Because, ever since Alfred got stabbed, he questions his own mortality.

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He suddenly realises that it’s very important for him to be around. To protect him. So there is a softening, to him becoming a more parental figure, with a sense of warmth, that was portrayed by Michael Gough [Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s Alfred]. And there’s a sense of history that you’ll have, which was presented by Michael Caine [in the Nolan films].

And also, there’ll be more of a sense of training. They’ll be more unified, they’ll start to come together more. They’ll start to act as a team, and they’ll start to discover a façade for him, to be able to do this. To start to be more active and investigative. He’ll need to develop a façade, which Alfred, of course, helps him with. You know, the art of concealment, which is something the S.A.S. specialise in.

And have the showrunners given you any indication of how long this on-screen relationship might be going on for? Are you tempted to hold anything back in your performance for later seasons?

No… And this is the great thing about the show. This season we know the arc. Last season, we were slightly wrong-footed in a way. And not in a bad way, it was a bloody honour. But we were given six more episodes halfway through the season. So, that put the cat among the pigeons slightly. Also, it was much more like standalone episodes. But the ones that we always thought worked were the slow burners. And it’s going to be much more of progressive drama now.

So, we’ll see. We don’t know. Like I said, we shoot chronologically, so their relationship’s developed chronologically. Although I know what the arc is, in this season, I don’t know what’s in it. That’s the other great thing about this show. You have the scripts, until about Christmas, and then you’re not sure which way it’s going to go.

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I’m aware we’re running out of time here, but I’d just to talk briefly about your brilliant use of social media. I saw your picture on Twitter of your Alfred mixed with your father’s Doctor Who  –

That wasn’t me! It was someone… I’ve got to find who actually posted that. I’m not very good at doing re-posts, I don’t know how to do all that stuff on social media, I’m just a newbie. Like all, sort of, older people. I just don’t quite understand that stuff.

It was some brilliant guy who put my dad’s hair on my head! And it even fooled my mum! It was extraordinary, it went all over the place [laughs]. It was hilarious! I’ve really grown into his nose.

What was it like seeing the fan reaction to that, and to your Halloween costume last year?

Oh, you know, they thought it was hilarious. But you know, they know me, they know what I look like. And they say that my mannerisms are like him now, and there’s lots of stuff I’ve naturally inherited from him. So, it’s funny though, the older I get, I do look more like him. Very strange.

It’s a very fatherly relationship that Alfred has with Bruce, in Gotham – did you take any inspirations from real-life into your performance?

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No no no no, I think, the thing is – I sincerely hope that I don’t echo Alfred’s relationship with my son [Laughs]. It’s totally dysfunctional! But, um, the one thing I do have is the real sense of love. And, um, caring for the boy, and I think that is something

It’s like, you know, when people see unequivocal love, for someone, I think people find that attractive. They find that an attractive notion, and I think that’s the thing with Alfred. Alfred would shoot himself or jump out of a building, at the drop of a hat, for Bruce. And I think people see that. That sense of loyalty, everyone hopes, exists. You know? And, um, that, I think, is probably the only one.

And just finally, with all those Doctor Who fans messaging you, have you ever thought about joining the show? Has that ever been discussed?

I’ve never been asked. You know, I think my father probably would have a heart attack from laughing so much. The notion of me playing him, I think he’d find that triflingly amusing. I wouldn’t. I’d be… Listen: very large shoes to fill, that’s all I’m going to say. He was fantastic.

The one thing I do think was interesting, though, was that he was considered the ‘action’ Doctor Who. And I’m considered the ‘action’ Alfred. That’s a similarity there.

A family of action!

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Yeah, a family of action – there you go!

Sean Pertwee, thank you very much!

Gotham Season One is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 5th October. Season Two is coming soon.

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