Thanks to the previous live-action takes on Alfred Pennyworth, the man behind the Batman, the bar has been set unimaginably high for the man behind his latest incarnation.
From the aged sophistication of Alan Napier on the television show, to the grandfatherly warmth of Michael Gough in the early films, to the bitingly honest but surrogate fatherly charm of Michael Caine in the Christopher Nolan films, and the rough-and-ready style of “Gotham’s” Sean Pertwee, Alfred is a role that seems to bring out the best in a certain breed of British thespian.
And now, for “Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” here comes Oscar winner Jeremy Irons to both reinvent Alfred as a younger, even more capable Man Friday for the Dark Knight. At the same time, he captures more than a bit of the dryly caustic caretaker of “The Dark Knight Returns,” who’d just like to see his aging young mentee focus on ensuring the Wayne family name lives on. In a one-on-one talk with CBR News, The actor declassified the details of exactly who this Alfred Pennyworth is and how he came to be.
CBR News: We’ve all grown up with Batman and Alfred out there in the pop cultural ether, and I’m curious: when did you discover the character? Is he something you’ve known about and followed for a while? Or was it kind of a brand new thing to you?
Jeremy Irons: I’ve been aware, of course. My first Alfred was [Alan Napier], on the television, Michael Gough and then Michael Caine. I’m not a great aficionado, but I had seen [Napier] on the television in the old days, in “Batman.” And Michael Caine I looked at after I’d been asked to take over for him, so to speak. I looked and I thought he was wonderful, but I thought he was Michael Caine. I thought, “Well, my Alfred is going to be different from his.” And [director] Zack [Snyder]’s ideas were very different.
So I came to it, really, as a virgin piece of paper. To listen to Zack’s ideas and [screenwriter] Chris Terrio’s ideas and to create a character, just as the new Batman has differences. I’m not enough of an aficionado to know how out on a limb we went. I hope I created a character who was surprising and interesting, and who made a lot of sense to me, as the sort of person who Bruce Wayne — Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne — would want to have at his side.
What were those things that came out of those conversations with Zack and with Chris that informed the backstory of the Alfred that you were playing and creating?
I remember going to dinner with the late J. Paul Getty — he was a neighbor of mine in the country. I arrived on the edge of his estate, and the gates were opened by two gentlemen. Then, I got outside the house and my car was taken away by another gentleman. I walked into the main hall, and my coat was taken, my wife’s coat was taken by another gentleman. A sixth gentlemen was there with a tray of glasses of champagne. I went in and joined the party and learned during the evening that all the staff were special service operatives, and that Paul Getty had his defense team all around him.
I thought, “Ah, well, that’s very interesting.” Let’s think back to Mr. and Mrs. Wayne and their young son Bruce before they died. They assuredly had worries about their son being kidnapped for ransom. So who would you make his tutor, his guardian? You’d employ somebody who had as much all-around experience on defensive matters, on matters of morality, cooking prowess, the sort of man who would get on with his young guardian-ee, and that is the man that I tried to make Alfred. The ideal person they would employ.
Not so to speak, a butler, although I believe he makes a rare dry martini, and can brew a fine cup of coffee, and indeed make a fantastic breakfast. But he’s also somebody who when he was maybe driving back with Bruce Wayne over the moors at 3:00 in the morning when he was 17 years old, and the Aston Martin breaks down, somebody who would get under it and fix it. In other words, cover every possible problem. Also, a man who Bruce, as a young teenager unsure of things, could discuss issues with. Issues of morality, issues of life, issues of the relationships. That was the Alfred I wanted to find.
There’s also that element of the withering remarks that Alfred does get to toss toward Bruce Wayne. That’s been a part of the character since, oh, the ’80s when Frank Miller introduced that aspect — a very John Gielgud-in-“Arthur” quality. Was that fun for you to figure out how to hit that tone and be able to throw those barbs in just the right way?
Well, I’m very fortunate to have Chris Terrio writing. I think he was pleased when I was cast, because he felt that I could communicate that sort of ironic humor. I mean, I’m very comfortable in that area. I think it’s very important to have humor in any situation, any film, and Chris wrote me some really nice little lines. I think that’s important. The English know their irony, and you can communicate many things through humor. Often better than in other ways.
What does it mean to you to be a part of this kind of escapist entertainment on this level with these iconic characters in pop culture? Is it something special for you to take part in this kind of movie?
Of course it is! I was absolutely delighted when I was invited. I’m a huge admirer of Zack and Chris and the way they put the film together, the way they wrote it, the way Zack directed it, the way it was cast. Wonderfully, slightly iconic cast in a way, very strongly cast [film]. To be part of it — I’m not saying that if someone had come along with a mediocre script of “Batman 8” I would have jumped at it — I wouldn’t. But I thought this was a serious project. It’s a fantastic script.
For an actor like myself, who spends a lot of time making fairly low-budget movies, but interesting movies, it’s very useful to be part of, now and again, a film which goes very wide, which is seen by almost everybody. Playing an iconic role in that is a good, inflationary aspect of one’s career, to have a chance to do that.
What was the biggest treat about working with Ben Affleck with whom you share so many scenes? Was there a special kind of chemistry the two of you found together?
I hope so, and I hope that shows on screen. I was a great admirer, a bit in awe of Ben actually, probably as Alfred is in Bruce, in a strange way, even though he’s older and wiser. Ben is a consummate director, and a serious actor. So when we were playing with the two-handed scenes together, I was able to work, as I would with any good actor, with great ease.
It’s very easy working with good actors. It’s very hard working with poor ones. If you have a good script and a good actor, and a director who lets you get on with it, it’s a perfect situation to create something. So I was very comfortable and very grateful it was Ben.
What elements of Alfred do you look forward to playing if all goes as planned? What are the sides of him that you want to explore further?
That is a secret, and that will come as a surprise, I hope, to the audience. It’s great to be able to surprise an audience, to behave in a way they’re not expecting. I hope that future scripts will give him that opportunity. He will always remain Bruce’s sidekick, as he should, because without him, he’s nothing. But I hope within those confines, he will be able to surprise and amuse future audiences.