Prepare to see Thomas Wayne like you've never seen him before. In EPIX's Pennyworth, the DC Universe will flash back to Alfred Pennyworth's younger years. The show will explore the time following Alfred's tour as an SAS soldier for the British army. Soon after he returns home, he finds himself involved in a conspiracy that could tear England apart, but he's not alone. An American named Thomas gets caught up with him, leading to a friendship that sets the stage for Batman's birth.
Speaking to CBR, Thomas Wayne actor Ben Aldridge explained what sets his character apart from the incarnations that have come before. He teased the arrival of Martha Kane, Thomas' future wife, as well as his role in action to come. He also discussed his dream story arc for the character, how Thomas' relationship with Alfred evolves, what the show offers for longtime Batman fans, his first Comic-Con International experience and more.
CBR: I feel like a lot of actors who land roles in superhero TV don't necessarily know what they've been cast as until after the fact. Was that the case for you?
Aldridge: No, no, they didn't have to be super top secret about the scripts, I think. I don't know why. So we were sent the first episode and I knew they would be [for] Thomas Wayne. So no, it wasn't shrouded in secrecy. I knew exactly what I was going for. I just did a self tape, which is the way everyone auditions nowadays, and then went and met Bruno [Heller] and Danny [Cannon] once, and off that, I heard that I was playing it, and that was great.
Were you familiar with Gotham before you auditioned?
I knew about it being a huge success over here in the U.S. -- and in the U.K., actually, it's got a huge following as well, but I hadn't familiarized myself with it. I hadn't seen it and didn't watch any until getting the part and had a glimpse of what they'd done together. But no, I was aware of it, but wasn't a viewer.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for the role?
So, in that meeting I went and met them, they didn't say much but they said Cary Grant. They said Cary Grant about three times in the meeting. And they were looking for a kind of Cary Grant-esque character. They wanted Thomas Wayne to feel like he was from the 1950s and an old school Hollywood movie star, so that was my jumping off point, really. I started watching some Cary Grant films. North by Northwest is brilliant -- a brilliant film to go back and watch. He has a similar journey to Thomas, in that he accidentally ends up in these crazy situations, where he's kind of like a covert intelligence.
So that was a jumping off point and really fun to research and then I looked at all of the visual depictions that exist of Thomas Wayne in the films, which there aren't a huge number of them... which basically does contain to him dying, being murdered in crime alley by Joe Chill, so there wasn't a huge amount to go off there. But there's a sense of him throughout the films and in the comic books, in terms of what Alfred Pennyworth tells Bruce when he's growing up, is that his dad was very moral and he's obviously a philanthropic upstanding citizen of Gotham.
So the endpoint is really up to Bruno and his scripts and his imagination, his creativity, to fill out that backstory, which he's done brilliantly. In the comic books, Thomas Wayne is involved in surgery and in medicine. In our world, as I said, he's caught up in a much more covert underground intelligence service kind of world, and that makes quite an interesting character, I think.
What else sets your version of Thomas Wayne apart from the other incarnations?
Other incarnations, they don't explore his journey as much, so this is fully detailing him as a person. In the rest of them, like I said, we just kind of see him be a bit cold and weird with Bruce and then he dies, in most of the films. So I don't know if it sets him or me or the character apart from the other versions, but it gives a backstory and the detail that have never before been seen.
I guess what was really interesting about Pennyworth and the entire series is that you get to meet the three people that have had the most influence over Bruce Wayne, who then obviously becomes Batman. So we have Alfred, who obviously becomes a huge influence in his life, but we meet Martha Wayne as well, played by Emma Paetz, and Martha -- well, she's called Martha Kane in Pennyworth -- she has a huge role in it.
I guess Bruno wanted to examine the kind of DNA and the personality types in Thomas and in Martha, that then later on become the DNA of Bruce. But there are recognizable traits, such as the detective side of Thomas, and then Martha has this kind of dark, brooding, troubled quality to her that they explore through the series, and I guess that all then becomes Bruce Wayne much further down the line. That's kind of a cool thing, to give him that history, that backstory.
It's a bit like discovering that your parents had a life before you existed, like looking at old photo book. I've done this with my parents recently. I've seen them in their really cool 70s clothes, and they're sort of rockers and hippies and just finding out bit more about them that you forget to ask. I guess this offers that option to the entire DC fan base, is that they get to see those figures in Bruce's life as real people before Bruce is alive.
Martha Kane's introduction is right around the corner. Tell me about her.
It's not love at first sight by any means. It's set in this kind of dark, twisted 1960s London, which is all at once familiar but very alien and unpredictable. Bruno has set it in this world that he's created. Basically, the country is on the brink of civil war, England. It's very political, and civil unrest. It's a dangerous time, so everyone's looking over their shoulders, none more so than Thomas, Alfred and Martha. So I think everyone's just suspicious of everyone else.
The line of work that Martha and Thomas are in means that they are kind of scoping each other out. It's not instantaneous friendship or one of trust. They're working with each other. But they have quite different ideals and they rub each other up the wrong way. She challenges him and she's just an incredible role. She's got such strong principles and she's very forthright and dynamic, particularly for that period, and she kind of rubs Thomas up the wrong way. I think he is more used to a traditional woman.
How does Thomas' dynamic with Alfred evolve moving forward?
Again, I think Bruno, our showrunner, is really clever, in that he hasn't made them friends straight away, so like a Starsky and Hutch buddy situation where they join a team and then start solving crime. So they kind of circle each other like two tigers or two sharks. They're drawn to each other. They're suspicious of each other.
Thomas actually needs Alfred and sees him as an asset, because Thomas, as an American, this fish out of water in this dark, twisted London, didn't quite know how to navigate his way through. And Alfred is incredibly street smart and savvy. So Thomas is trying to recruit him into his line of work, but Alfred is quite resistant because, as an ex-SAS soldier, he's trying to leave that life of violence behind. So I think Alfred's very wary of Thomas and doesn't feel that he can trust him and Thomas kind of needs Alfred, so that's how that dynamic continues.
In the pilot episode, Thomas doesn't really get in on the action. How does that change as the series continues?
Well, I think Thomas is not a man of violence. As I said, he is quite principled. He ultimately believes in the greater good, and I don't think he wants to get his hands dirty. Obviously, he's come from the Wayne dynasty, so he's this East Coast, whip-smart billionaire and, as a billionaire, you wouldn't carry out any businesses such as violence yourself. That coupled with the fact that I just don't think he knows how and his principles are against that. So yeah, Alfred is the one who goes in there and kicks ass and Thomas is slightly on the outside of that, watching. Later, as the series develops, he gets thrown some massive curve balls and situations where he has to kind of make some decisions, and without spoiling it, he can no longer stay on the sidelines in those instances.
Can you tease a moment or scene you can't wait for fans to see?
Yeah, there are a few. I'll tell you what: I won't, because I probably will give you too much. I'll probably end up giving it away, but there's some really exciting [stuff]. I know this is said about lots of TV programs, but I really believe it with this, is that you can expect the unexpected. Just as you think you're settling into this familiar world, something very unpredictable will happen, even if it's just visually or musically. You feel like you're getting to know it, and then you're like, "Oh! It's all shifted." So I think that's what I'm excited for the fans to engage in.
What is your dream story arc for this character?
I kind of semi-pitched this to Bruno. There's a strand of DC lore, the comic called Flashpoint. And in Flashpoint, Thomas actually becomes Batman before Bruce does. So he becomes this vigilante himself. And I would love that to happen, because I personally love that journey in that arc and see some of the action.
But if not, I like the idea of us maybe taking a few episodes back to Gotham, in 1960s Gotham, with Thomas and Martha, so that we're on both sides of the Atlantic. So yeah, I guess there's two ideas.
You were at Comic-Con just last weekend. Was that your first one?
Yes. It was. Yeah, it was Paloma [Faith], myself and Jack [Bannon] went, and it was all of our first times there. I've had friends that've been there for other things, so I kind of knew what to expect a little bit, but I have to say I was surprised, a little bit overwhelmed, just by the sheer number of people that are there, that descend upon San Diego because they're fans these shows. It was really exciting for us to take the show there, I think for the first time. A bit strange, because people don't yet know the show completely.
There's been a little bit of buzz about it, but people hadn't seen it yet. So they did a little screening on Wednesday evening, I think. Then our panel on Friday, there was a much bigger turnout than we anticipated, which was really encouraging and I think there's been an overall really good press reaction as well. So I think we were a little bit apprehensive to take it there, but also excited.
Viewing television is often such a private experience. What was it like to be in the room when everyone saw Pennyworth footage for the first time?
Yeah, I've never had that before. I've been to screenings, but I've never been in a massive room like that, where we teased it in front of people that would be interested to watch it, so that was kind of a first for me. I think we were all a little bit nervous to get up on the panel and answer questions in front of people who probably hold some of these character quite dear. It was just a great experience. It's very exciting. It could be a bit intimidating, but I think you've just got to think of it as a great opportunity for a great spinoff, if you can call it a spinoff.
How is Pennyworth different from your past acting experiences?
I've never done anything -- I've wanted to for a very long time -- I've never done anything set in the 60s. So I've done quite a few different periods over the years, which have all been really fun. But nothing, nothing specifically the 60s, which is a really exciting time. It was such an exciting time for fashion and music and also a really great period to look at in terms of research with the references, especially for what they were saying about Cary Grant and the character. I've played a few Americans, but this is the first time they wanted him to have a period-specific accent to sound like he was from like the old talkies. They had a different rhythm of speaking, I thinkm so that was different and a new territory for me, and I had to kind of research and study that a little bit. So yeah, that was new.
You're a British actor, filming a series set in London. Was it difficult to maintain an American accent during filming?
No. I don't think it was, no. I think I felt confident enough, having done it a few times before in different things. But also Emma Paetz, who plays Martha, is Canadian. She doesn't sound Canadian; she sounds totally American. So she was always there if ever I needed clarity on a certain word, and I was like, "How do you guys say this?" I think I had to say the word advertisement, which we say differently in the U.K. Think things like tomato, tomato, those classic ones. But she would always listen out for things and give me a little bit of backup support. So yeah, I felt confident. For the first episode, we had a dialect coach for a couple days. He then decided he didn't need to be there because he thought that it was great, so that was a nice boost of confidence.
Developed by former Gotham collaborators Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, Pennyworth stars Jack Bannon as Alfred Pennyworth, Ben Aldridge as Thomas Wayne, Jason Flemyng as Lord Harwood, Paloma Faith as Bet Sykes, Ryan Fletcher as Dave Boy, Hainsley Lloyd Bennett as Bazza and Jessica Ellerby as the Queen. The series debuts July 28 at 9 pm ET/PT on EPIX.