Tucked away in South London after a busy weekend breathing in Christmas festivities at Borough Market, calmness finds Pennyworth's Jack Bannon settling in with a good book. Silently reading in a large armchair, Jack glances out onto the street to watch blurry figures rushing past. The last of the browning leaves begin to fall with a delicate crispness and the wind rattles through the streets. The small bay window is a cinema screen showcasing the beautifully mundane - where better to find delight?
Photographer Vicky Grout leads Jack through London to a remote park in Bermonds Locke, where she captures the actor in full glory of the city that hosts Epix’s Pennyworth series. Playing title character Alfred Pennyworth, Jack takes on the role of the ex-SAS butler from DC’s Batman universe in this wonderfully crafted prequel that explores the story of Alfred’s trials and triumphs in 1960s London. Whereas Alfred Pennyworth is largely seen in a suit, Luci Ellis styles Jack in a casual mix of layers for a modern London look. Groomer Rino Riccio combats the elements of a wintry day before Vicky begins snapping away at Jack.
Inhaling London life and fusing with the scene, Jack is an expert at adapting to the moment, having developed his skills on the job rather than the traditional route of drama school. Before landing the starring role in Pennyworth, the Norwich lad appeared in many large productions, including Medici, Endeavour, and The Imitation Game. After wrapping up his second season of filming, Jack sits down with us to discuss self-doubt, loneliness, what it means to be a man, his one-man lunch club, and, with last night's epic premier of Season 2, what else lies in store for Pennyworth.
Pennyworth Season 2 is now available to watch on Epix in the US, and will premier on StarzPlay in the UK on February 28 2021.
Who is Jack?
That’s a big question! Who is he? Well, I’m 29, I live in London, and I’m an actor. My mum is a nurse and my dad is an engineer, so neither of them really had anything to do with the film industry, but from a very early age, it’s what I wanted to do. It’s all I can ever really remember wanting to do. I’m the oldest of four children. I grew up in Norwich in Norfolk. I had a very happy childhood there, and then applied to drama school for a couple of years and didn’t get in. I managed to get an agent because I’d done some television as a kid and one of the producers put me in touch with the woman who is now my agent - that was about eight years ago. Then I moved to London and slowly, slowly we’ve got to where we are now.
How would others describe you?
My mum finds me funny - I’m quite similar to her. She would probably say I’m loud and always positive and energetic. My dad would say the same but being loud would be more of a negative for him! He’s a quiet man but I have a great relationship with both of them. My friends would probably say the same – the clown! It’s a vulgar trait but I like being the centre of attention! I hope they would say I’m a generous, kind, giving friend. Some of them would – maybe not some others!
What do you do in your free time?
I’m an expert in wasting time because I’m an actor so we have free time all the time. I play a lot of football but obviously, that’s been difficult with the pandemic – getting people together. I go fishing with my dad often which is a nice wholesome pastime. They live in Norwich, so we meet halfway or I go back there because Norfolk is good for fishing. I also go on my own around Kent and places closer to me. I like it because it’s a nice, solitary, calm, wholesome activity. I love pubs and dinners too – London’s got some fantastic restaurants. I set up a lunch club when I didn’t work for a few months in between seasons of Pennyworth. The lunch club only had one member... I took myself for lunch around London and had a list of places and rated them. It was good fun!
What is happiness to you?
I was reading about this the other day! There’s the linguistic sense of being happy and then there’s the notion that you are well in life. My recent successes are fantastic but actually, they pale into complete insignificance with the state of the world at the moment. Health, friends, human connection, and family are things that we’re all struggling for at the moment. They’re the base ingredients to a happy life rather than material possessions. When we were filming, we had to isolate away from friends and bubble up in a hotel. It’s an intense atmosphere shooting a job like that anyway because the hours are mad and you’re on it for months, and it’s doubly intense when you can’t see people outside of it. I would say happiness is human connection, conversation, warmth, and health of family, friends, and loved ones.
Do you have a happy place?
I don’t know if I do have a happy place. I would probably say my garden recently - it has been a nice place. We’re very lucky to have a big garden in London, which is rare. Certainly, in the first lockdown, we spent a lot of time there. I’ve got a nice armchair in my living room which is in this little bay window and I sit there and read, and watch TV, and watch people walking up and down the street outside. That tends to calm me.
What makes you sad?
I always get sad when I think of people going to start a new job or school or start something where they don’t know anyone. Loneliness makes me sad. Being an actor, you’re on your own a lot of the time. I never used to be very good at it, but I’ve become better at it and now I enjoy it, but the thought of other people feeling lonely makes me feel sad.
How do you deal with loneliness?
Finding joy in the mundane is important. I went to Lidl today and I had a really nice time. Things like fishing, reading, going for a walk. Exercise is key. Pick up the phone and talk to someone. We’re lucky enough to be able to Zoom or pick up the phone. I feel like the less honest you are about it with yourself or other people, the worse it will get. Say to someone, "I’m feeling a bit strange". I’ve certainly been surprised because even though I'd say friends would describe me as the happy-go-lucky one... Last week I was a bit depressed after finishing a job and entering into a lockdown, it’s all a bit strange. Several friends who I haven’t spoken to for months were there for me and very supportive. That was nice.
You star as Alfred Pennyworth in EPIX’s American crime series Pennyworth created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, alongside many talented actors including Ben Aldridge, Jason Flemyng, and Paloma Faith. Can you tell us about the story Pennyworth explores?
It’s the origin story of Alfred Pennyworth, set in 1960s London. It’s a DC version of 1960s London. There’s a civil war and it’s very fractured - left and right. Alfred is caught in the middle of it. In its basic form, it’s the story of a young man trying to become a man and work out what’s important. We all know where he ends up - as this old butler, and when push comes to shove, ‘Who do you want to be remembered as?’ is his thinking. There are all these moral dilemmas and various exciting action. It explores the relationship between three people: Alfred Pennyworth, Thomas Wayne, and Martha Kane - who are Batman’s parents and the three people who bring up Batman.
How did you find your own voice for the show?
The scripts had such a strong identity and obviously, we’re dealing with characters who have been played before by fantastic actors, but this was very much its own standalone version which was clear from reading the script. We wanted to nod to Michael Caine, because he’s the one that gave Alfred the SAS background that our series explores, but also he was the archetypal film star of the 60s and that era, so I watched a lot of his films as part of my preparation. We immersed ourselves in the popular culture of that time and place. I wanted to avoid too much research into previous depictions and avoid the comics because our story takes place before all of that. The research was the scripts - that was our starting point.
You grew up in Norwich, not far from Michael Caine’s hometown. How has growing up there shaped you?
I had a lovely time growing up. I grew up in a small village outside of Norwich and one of the best decisions I made was not to go to the local high school. I left all my friends and I went off on my own to this big high school in the centre of Norwich. It was fantastic because there was such an array of students from all over the county, from all different walks of life, rather than just from this one village. I feel that was the beginning of a range of experiences and people; there was a fantastic drama group on a Saturday morning which had some very inspirational teachers who helped shape me more as I got older, and gave me the belief that I could go and do this as a job. Norwich is a lovely little city and it’s got a good art scene - a better art scene now. But it wasn’t enough for me and I knew that I needed to get out. I had a burning desire to come to London from a fairly early age, not because of any negative feelings towards Norwich, but just knowing that London is where you have to be. It gave me a good foundation but also the impetus to get out and further myself elsewhere.
You didn’t attend drama school like you originally intended but have featured in many successful productions, including as Sam Thursday in Endeavour, Angelo Poliziano in Medici, and Christopher Morcom opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. How did this affect your journey into the industry?
I often ponder that. At the time I would’ve loved to have gone. All my friends went and I really enjoyed the audition process - as gruelling as it is. If you’re passionate about something, you’re excited to learn about it, so the prospect of doing another three years solely focused on acting after I’d done it for two years as a BTEC at college was very attractive. However, I’m now very pleased that I didn’t go - I don’t want to shit on drama schools because they’re fantastic - but in hindsight, I was going for the showcase and exposure and an agent at the end of it. By no means am I saying I know everything, but having done acting for so many years, technique-wise I’d come across a lot of it, so drama school would perhaps be repeating some things that I was lucky enough to have learnt already. I work a lot on instinct acting-wise, rather than technique and making it something technical and ‘Well if I do this, this, this, and apply this, this, this to this script’ - it never really works. For me, I’ll pick up the script and if I can hear the character and see the character, then I can work with it and if I can’t, I can’t. Maybe technique would enable me to be better at that, but actually, it’s given me an instinctual rawness rather than potentially getting bogged down in technique that’s very safe but not that exciting.
Have you ever had any doubts along the way?
Yeah, all the time! The worst thing you can do is compare - comparison is the thief of joy. As soon as you start looking at other people’s journeys, you go ‘Oh God, why am I not doing that?’. I always had a solid belief that I would be able to do it, and I don’t know where that really came from because it was completely unfounded; it’s very difficult. It’s very unpredictable, it’s very overpopulated, but I always knew that in some capacity, this is what I would do. Probably that belief helps you through and people can sense it. But I have doubts all the time. With great power comes great responsibility doesn’t it? Now I’m worried that the next job needs to be right and I can’t just repeat work. I’m reading scripts and looking for the next job at the moment - I’m doing auditions and going, ‘ah fucking hell, that’s Alfred! It’s just playing Alfred again!’. I doubt my abilities all the time, but I never doubted that it would work out.
I noticed a lot of productions you’ve featured in are period pieces, like Pennyworth, Medici, and The Imitation Game. Do you have a preference for productions set in the past?
No, that occurred to me the other day as well! It’s probably an aesthetics thing - how I look or suit those periods more so than the modern-day. There’s a romanticism in period pieces and a lot of work I’ve done is atmospheric and that’s easier for an actor. The minute you step onto the Pennyworth set, you go "Ah fucking hell, this is so cool! I know where we are!". The setting is almost the biggest character in the show - that’s the personality. From an acting point of view, it’s fantastic. I’d love to do something modern though!
The show is set in the 1960s, what’s your favourite thing about the 60s?
The cars are great! All of it! The fashion! The music! The great thing about the 60s was that there was so much hope and optimism from what it sounds like - though obviously I wasn’t there so it’s difficult to understand the collective feeling. The world at the moment has a collective feeling of 'everything’s a bit shit' - because it is, isn’t it? Whereas in the 60s, there was hope and optimism and a sexual revolution and all of these wonderful things. It would be nice if we could get a bit of that back at some point.
What are the main differences between the Raven Society and the No Name League in Pennyworth?
One is right-wing and one is left-wing. The Ravens are right-wing and the No Names are left-wing in its base sense. The Ravens are fascists really, and they have more money and more power. They have the uniforms and they’re militarised and mobilised. The No Names are probably artists and they’re much more cobbled together but in a great way. They stand morally for very different things, but they’re not as dangerous or as feared as the Ravens. Ultimately, it’s the right and the left.
What are Alfred Pennyworth’s strongest and weakest traits?
He has a very strong moral compass; he’s always trying to do what’s right. That kind of disappears a bit in Season 2… One of his most enviable traits is the way he is with everybody else - he puts everybody else before himself. If everybody did that, we’d probably be a bit better off. His weakest trait is his inability to say no. In a way, your strongest and your weakest traits are the same. He’s so focused on other people. He should focus on himself a bit more. His propensity for violence is also an issue even though he says he doesn’t like it. There are alternative ways to figure something out other than violence.
Are there any similarities between yourself and Alfred?
There are some. Last week when I finished playing him for nearly a year, there were lots of similarities. I didn’t quite know where he ended and I began. I like to think the charm and charisma is something that we share! Whenever you play a character, you’re always looking to find similarities. There’s a bit of you in all of them.
Alfred is ex-SAS and there are some impressive fight scenes. Do you perform your own stunts?
Yeah! We’ve got a brilliant stunt team and I do occasionally have a stunt double on set. In season 1 he was used once to fall down a 10-foot drop off a chair which I wasn’t allowed to do. Pretty much everything is me.
Have you ever considered joining the SAS or military?
No, no! I think I’d be utterly useless! There’s a romantic notion to it for the camaraderie, but no. The British military would be in a worse state if I was anywhere near it!
What does it mean to be a man in 2020?
It means vastly different things to what it meant in the 60s. As a I said, last week I felt like I was struggling a bit, and reaching out to friends is important. I text my mate and said, 'ah yeah, I’m alright, I feel a bit low’, and he said, "Oh mate me too, it happens all the time". This is someone that would never normally say it, but we’re going through a mental health crisis and a mental health revolution at the same time. To be a man now is much less like it was back then - stiff upper lip and keep going. Part of it now is about seeing if your mates are alright and sharing those things. I think the hunter/gatherer nature is gone. There will always be room for the archetypal dashing hero element of it, but it’s certainly different to what it was.
How would Alfred Pennyworth describe masculinity?
He’d say that it’s about being nice to your mum, looking after women in general, earning money to support your family, being honourable, and trying to find any way other than violence to solve a problem. His father is a big figure in his life. Alfred is very much the 60s and represents hope and optimism and his dad is probably the 50s or the 40s and post-war austerity: "Life is hard, son". He learnt a lot from his father. He might not tell him that’s where he learned it from, but he did learn a lot from him.
How do you think social media has changed notions of masculinity?
It’s changed a lot. With Me Too and people speaking out, men now have a responsibility. We always did but we weren’t held accountable enough. It’s fantastic now that we are, and social media means that people are visible. You have to be careful because it’s a version of that person that they want to be seen as - it is carefully cultivated so you can’t necessarily believe it too much. It can be a positive thing that people are visible, and if you’re visible you have to be decent. Being someone in a position with a growing following, you hope to be someone that perhaps younger men who watch the show might look up to, and you want to be visible and good.
Pennyworth is an American show set & filmed in London with British actors. How does this affect the dynamic of the show?
It’s great because Epix are fantastic. We have fantastic backing and feel very supported by them and by Warner Brothers. We’re also allowed to be left to our own devices almost, and dynamic-wise, it helps with the authenticity of it. We all love London and love England. It’s a real love letter to London. It’s written by Bruno Heller who is British but lives in LA and has done for 30 years, so he feels this nostalgia towards this version of London that he’s created. It’s really nice that we get the support from America and the fantastic audience over there. The fans are great. We’re allowed to do something very authentic and close to our hearts.
After a heart-wrenching and heroic Season 1 finale, are you able to hint at what we can look forward to in Season 2?
Season 2 takes place a year on from Season 1 and civil war has fully kicked off. Alfred is dealing with the fact that he’s killed his father and London is essentially burning. He wants to get out and get to America, so his main focus is to get some money together and take his mum, Bazza, and Dave Boy off to America. Obviously, that’s a bit of a moral dilemma because he loves England and it’s a shame to watch it in the state that it's in. We will see more of the relationship between him and Thomas Wayne. We’ll see him and his mum try to navigate what’s happened. We’ll see more loves. More losses.
Will Sandra be in Season 2?
Yeah, she’s great and she’s in it a lot! Harriet Slater is a fucking brilliant actress. She was only supposed to be in it a couple of episodes in Season 1 but she was so good they carried on writing her in. There’s a great scene in episode 9 of Season 1 where she comes to see me in the prison and once they saw that, they decided she’s got to be in it. Her and Alfred are together and she’s starting a pop career. Alfred’s got a nightclub in Soho, which is a neutral zone so it’s quite clever. Apparently, they have those neutral areas in civil wars, where there is no politics, no guns, no nothing. We all get along together, which is a clever dramatic tool because it means you can get the right and the left all under one roof with Alfred there. He’s got a new nightclub and she’s the singer in the club, so she’s around a lot. We have some great stuff.
How do you think the current political climate has influenced the making of the show?
Sometimes it’s actually quite scary at work. We’ve been saying to Bruno "Can’t you just write something that’s really nice where everyone gets on?", because the first season we had a fractured London and it was like Brexit, and season 2 is written with this civil war and it’s like he’s a prophet! Whatever he writes then happens in the real world! We say, "Just write us on a beach chilling out and the world is brilliant and everything will be fine!". People have asked, "Was that intentional?", and really there’s always conflict - you write something and people will attach meaning to it. They do that on their own. But yeah, the world is mad at the moment! Pennyworth is not quite dystopian but it’s not real, and you go to work and you’re on the set and it’s all blown up and it’s this fractured world and you’re sitting there thinking it actually isn’t that different to real life. Though real life is stranger than fiction. It’s weird.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the television industry?
It’s a question of supply and demand. Everyone’s watched everything because we’ve been in lockdown for months, so we need to keep going to work and making content. Listen, it’s television. We’re not saving lives like the NHS, so we’re very lucky in the sense that we’re able to afford testing and PPE and proper social distancing. We don’t take that for granted, but it is fantastic to be able to be back at work. There’s always a real sense of "we’re in this together" in TV and film - it’s long hours - but I have so much admiration and respect for our crew: wearing masks and having to have reduced numbers, which means everyone’s doing more work. As actors, we’re wrapped up in cotton wool and protected from it, but their jobs are hard enough anyway. They were fantastic. Hopefully, we’re at a stage where it’s safe to go back to work, everyone’s happy to go back to work, and hopefully there will be lots of new, great content on the way. Matthew Patnick, our executive producer, drew up a list of guidelines with the help of Cavendish Health. They’re a third-party company that were responsible for getting the Premier League up and running amongst various other things. They were brilliant and created certain rules. For example, if there was a scene where you were in close proximity with somebody - like fighting, kissing, or sex scenes, then a lot of those would be filmed on a Monday. You would be tested on Friday, then isolate in a hotel over the weekend, then they’d test you on Monday before you do it so they can really nip it in the bud. There were various little rules like that. Some people who live in one-bedroom flats can’t isolate from their partners at home, so they were in hotels for some time. Because of the testing, we had it so three days before you came into work, you had to isolate. I was in all the time and never had more than three days off at once, so I was always either in a hotel or at work. It worked very well and we made it through. We were the first production to go back at Leavesden Studios, and one of the first around the UK. We made it all the way through without being shut down once, so it’s a testament to the Covid teams and to Matthew.
How did you look after your mental health during the first lockdown?
Chris Hemsworth has got an app, and I downloaded that. I did some exercises - it’s quite good. It’s got some recipes and mindfulness. It was very easy then because it was really sunny and it was almost a novelty. In no way am I trivialising it, because it was very serious, but it was sort of a novelty the first time wasn’t it? It was like ‘Oh right, we need to get through this all together’ with a British stiff upper lip war mentality. This time around it feels utterly depressing. It gets dark around 3 o’clock, you’re trying to stay away from the wine for as long as possible, and trying to read books rather than watch shit television. The first time it was okay, I did a lot of reading, I did a lot of exercise - I did a lot of drinking wine as well but I tried to keep that to just the afternoons!
What are you hopeful about in 2021?
Biden! The possibility of a post-Covid world. That seems quite hard to envisage but that would be lovely. Seeing my family - I haven’t seen my family for a long time. Hopefully more Pennyworth. Hopefully another job as well - I’d love to do a film again - that would be nice. But really, I can feel a healing spring coming along for everyone which would be great because I think we’ve all been through enough.