Ben Aldridge | Twisted Elegance
Over the past decade, Ben Aldridge has found a home both on the small and silver screen. Leaving drama school early and being deep-ended into finding his feet in a string of period dramas, he’s worked consistently for the BBC among many other major networks. From Our Girl’s war hunk Captain James to Fleabag’s Arsehole Guy, Aldridge is no stranger to donning wigs, riding horses, or wearing uniforms as he often finds himself locked into specific and niche moments in history or literature, finding his way into our conscience and hearts as we’ve been touched by the “genuine earnest” (as well as a myriad of other zesty qualities) Phoebe Waller-Bridge refers to in her hit series pilot. Now, his portrayal in the dark and twisted realm of Pennyworth has Aldridge’s familiar face painted on billboards across every major city.
The actor discusses starring as Thomas Wayne, a whip-smart billionaire, in Epix’s new Batman prequel series, Pennyworth, which explores the DC characters in depth, as Alfred and Thomas meet and sniff each other out—long before Bruce Wayne’s conception—in an unpredictably twisted 1960’s London.
After their shoot in the hidden Los Angeles gems, The Kimpton La Peer Hotel and Viale Dei Romani, David-Simon Dayan and Ben Aldridge sat down to chat about Aldridge’s childhood, being a bullied stage kid, guilt and shame, and the ever-evolving roll of an actor.
The exceptionally charming Ben Aldridge. First off, how are you?
Well I’m charmed, thank you [laughter].
So, where are you from?
I grew up in the Southwest of England in a county called Devon, which is the little foot on the map of the UK. Little foot makes it sound awful. It’s not, it’s beautiful. It has coast on both sides and lots of lush countryside.
Devon, the foot of England. You make it sound like quite the destination. What was it like growing up there?
We lived in a city, but also spent a lot of time outdoors as my uncles both had farms; hiking, surfing, milking the occasional cow. That could all make it sound a little bit Oklahoma, it wasn't. On paper, an ideal childhood, in reality, it was complicated, but whose isn't. I was raised in the born again Christian church, which is always very interesting to look back on. It feels very far away in some respects as there isn't a religious aspect to my life now.
Born again Christian, huh? Wow.
Yeah, I think I often underestimate the impact of that upbringing and further underestimate the transition into a life without that faith. The belief in predestination and also the swathes of guilt have been the hardest elements to shake. But there are other parts of it that I am extremely grateful for; morality, community, love. Do you know what I mean?
Completely. Despite the many criticisms I hold about monotheistic religions and the cultural practices born by them, there’s a lot to be said about the power of love itself as a religion. By extracting the lessons from the stories and switching out a loaded word like “God” with “Love,” we can begin to understand the powerful ideas that don’t necessarily take form as a bearded man in the sky with some agenda.
Agreed. Though, I’d love to ride a cloud.
Was creativity a part of your household?
My family didn't make money form creative pursuits, but it was certainly a part of our childhood—there was always music, always dancing—my parents were drawn to the bohemian in their own way. Like Christian hippies; big parties, campfires.
So there was singing and dancing, but how did you find your way into acting?
My parents made a bargain with me. I was learning the piano at the age of eight and they said that if my sister and I auditioned for this new stage school, Stage by Stage, that was opening up in my home town, I could quit the piano. I got in. No more piano. Which I now regret and am desperate to learn. My first role was Fizzy in Bugsy Malone, which I think, to this day, miiiight be my finest work. I might have peaked at age eight. Also, my mum reports she would often lose me in supermarkets and find me befriending and entertaining old ladies; singing and dancing or showing them my jar of snails, so I think she was just attempting to channel that performative instinct, and to stop losing me!
I’m sorry, you had a jar full of snails?
I did. All with names beginning with ‘S’. Reportedly, the jar came to its end (and the snails) when I left it in a supermarket freezer. There’s a supermarket theme here.
So after peaking as Fizzy, did you know from that moment on that you were destined for the stage? Or did you have other plans?
No. Around age 14 I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I think this was mostly because, at the time, I was being badly bullied at school for my involvement with dance and thought that a total rejection of anything creative would reestablish my masculinity or make me cool again. Not even cool, make me 'okay'. I was desperate to be what I saw as “normal” or to have “normal” interests. I forced myself to play rugby when I truly had no interest. All dictated by heaps of shame. It's kind of shocking to look back on. Anyway, thankfully what was inside prevailed and danced it’s way to the surface again, couldn't stifle it, try though I might.
We hear exactly that far too often. Why was being “normal” such a coveted idea? Feels the exact opposite nowadays; searching for what makes each of us unique and nurturing it, supporting it, allowing it space to flourish. And the notion of masculinity isn’t nearly sacred. In fact, it’s utterly stale. My father forced me into soccer, and I remember one day, after a match, I ran to him screaming with joy because my white socks were still perfectly clean. He had to explain that was a bad thing because it meant I wasn’t really participating in the game, but I still see my point. It was an accomplishment.
Stop! I spent a lot of time running around pretending to look busy on the football pitch, but that was all I was doing, running around, looking busy.
Fake it till you make it. At the start of your career, had you any clue you might be where you are today?
I was always involved in theatre and theatre making. And my training at LAMDA was similar, making work. So I thought, given my dance training as well that I would end up in some kind of Physical Theatre company like DV8. I mean, I dreamt of acting on screen, I had that ambition, but it was the unknown path to me, so this isn't necessarily where I thought I would be no.
What do you think draws you to it as a profession?
I think my love of it all comes partly from the doing of it, the actual expressing of it all and then also from the feeling of being part of a team of like-minds, where you're all making this thing together, whatever that might be, and the subsequent community feel that comes from that, whether it be friendship, care, gossip, scandal, drama.
So Dame Aldridge, stepping into this role in Pennyworth, had you a frame of reference in the world of Batman?
Ha! Catwoman. My introduction to Batman was Tim Burton's Batman Returns... and although I'm a huge fan of Christopher Nolan's franchise, I have very fond memories of those films. More specifically, Michelle's Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. I was probably around nine and remember watching the scene where she turns into Catwoman - her, unconscious, the cats nibbling at her fingers, getting home, trashing her house with black spray paint, drinking a pint of milk and then sewing the costume. From this timid kitten to a femme fatale. On conclusion of the film, I remember jumping from couch to couch, going to the kitchen fridge, downing a pint of milk, throwing on all black and taking to the streets to pounce about. I was convinced the world needed Catman.
[Laughter] Aw, Catman. Sorry to hear you didn’t get to step into Michelle Pfeiffer’s latex suit.
We're all sorry, David-Simon.
But in a way, playing Thomas Wayne is a full circle moment then?
Kiiiiiind of. I was definitely always drawn to having super human powers and loved superheroes for that element. I often fantasied about having telekinesis or flying out of the school bus window to everyone's shock and amazement—a desire to transcend out of my surroundings I guess, or a deep desire for special attention.—oh dear, such a stage kid. Anyway ,it’s kind of gutting that Thomas doesn't have any of those abilities, just a healthy mustache, a lot of money and some charm, that said I absolutely love playing him.
Actors needing special attention? Oy.
Many people recognize you from BBC’s Our Girl where you played Captain James. Tell us about Captain James, he was a bit of a posh boy, right? Yet clearly likable...
They wanted him to feel like Mr Darcy, this cold, noble, unknowable exterior but with hidden humor and romance. He was this war-hardened alpha army captain—very stern, very responsible—who goes on this complex journey with his unit of men in Afghanistan and falls in love with his female medic. That roll was a huge moment of growth for me. I'd never seen myself playing that type of character and had just finished the musical of American Psycho when I found myself in a brutal bootcamp preparing for it so it was all very unexpected and a bit of a shock. I was obsessed with Band of Brothers at Drama School, though, so I was excited to inhabit a similar world.
From an abstract Off West End musical to a bootcamp on location immediately after. He can do it all! And Our Girl took you around the world, didn’t it? Any places that really resonated?
Those were some of the highlights of that experience. For four seasons; South Africa, Malaysia, Nepal. I remember waking up on location in Dolakha, and looking out at the misted mountains and prayer flags and having one of those moments that you want to be able to bottle and hold onto. I've been lucky to travel a lot with work.
What more could you really ask for? And from there you went on to play Arsehole Guy in Fleabag, which, as a series now has, what was it, eleven Emmy nominations?
I believe so. I have Phoebe to thank for that IMBD credit, 'Arsehole Guy'.
Thanks, Phoebe. Kind of feels like the year of Phoebe.
It does. 2000 and Phoebe.
[Laughter] And how did you get involved in that project? It’s a pretty pivotal moment in TV.
We'd met socially a few times I think. And I'm told by Sian Clifford, who plays Claire, that Phoebe saw me in American Psycho and thought of me for it. I know she put a call into Sian, to vet me before asking me, though I've never asked Phoebe about this. I should! I presume Sian said good things, maybe she just said I was an Arsehole. Oh dear.
You should clarify that. Were you aware of the impact it might make while you were filming? Or just how well executed it was going to be? I guess you never really can tell as an actor, since so much of the process occurs after you’re on set.
I knew as soon as I read the scripts that I loved it. I was so excited to work on something like it and knew it was special. But as you said, you never know. As an actor, your input is limited to the interpretation of the character you are playing. Beyond that, you just don't know, and that's often enough to focus on—you’re silently screaming inside that it all turns out well and that you're good in it. But I think that's why so many actors and other people are becoming multi-hyphenates. I think the skill set of an actor is often applicable beyond just the acting. We want to contribute to the look and feel of the production. Making TV can be an opaque process for an actor, a lot is kept hush-hush and secreted away from us as if we're these fragile beings who can't handle seeing under the creative curtain. Partially, that's a good thing, we're not subjected to the sometimes chaos it takes to make something, but often I think actors want to be more involved in that way. Phoebe is the finest example of that.
I remember seeing a bit of Fleabag—the one woman theatre show—workshopped by a young actress here in Los Angeles and instantly feeling dumbfounded and curious about the genius behind it. This was a while ago, before it really picked up in the states. And then, months later, finally got to see you two taking a bath on screen.
Ha! A luke warm bath and a beige cocksock, desperately trying not to laugh at Phoebe nailing her asides.
You know that scene flashes in my mind now every time I eat pineapple.
Oh god. I'm immensely proud to be a part of it as you can tell, but I sometimes sweat at the thought, all the obscene and ridiculous things Arsehole says and does.
Not sure if you're sweating but is that a blush I see?
No, its a tan [laughs].
And now with Pennyworth, you’re playing Thomas Wayne in a deliciously dark depiction of London in the 1960’s before Bruce Wayne (Batman) was even conceived. Pretty big shoes to fill, right, Batdaddy?
An average size ten. In a way, they're big shoes, if you think about the expectant fanbase a DC show has and then focus on that pressure. But at the same time, we have a pretty clean slate to create and invent because not much is known about the characters, and that is what Bruno Heller (show runner) is brilliant at. It's a totally unique, unpredictable, bizarre, twisted world. With characters and stories to match. They wanted Thomas to feel like an old school Hollywood movie star, and sighted Cary Grant as their inspiration for the character, so that was a brilliant jumping off point. Have you seen North by Northwest?
I haven’t, but I feel like I should be pretending otherwise. Don’t let that stop you from making your point, though.
Well now my point is watch it.
[Laughter] I will. Does the lack of previously complete stories around Thomas feel like a gift? As you mentioned, you get to really be the first complete iteration of the young American billionaire, as opposed to, say, playing Bruce after a long ancestry of acting icons.
Exactly, the pressure was off in that regard. I know where he ends up, I know that he becomes very moral, philanthropic and a little cold, but we're telling the story of how he gets there, and that's the exciting bit. A lot of us know who our parents are now, but we don't know them before we were alive. It’s often quite a revelation. Actually, I found an amazing collection of my parents photos recently and it was incredible to see them as these young sexy kids; crazy 70's fashions, my Dad in bell-bottoms and a crop top that had tulip sleeves. I thought “YES DAD!" You can't get him out of a polo now. And my mum was this Bohemian stunner.
Don’t you wish he’d kept all that? My dad had the wildest jew-fro. Weird to imagine our parents as real live human beings. I thought the same about my schoolteachers, that they just got turned off and stored in the classroom until the next morning, because they weren’t people, they were teachers.
Or like 'The Faculty'. You haven't seen that film either have you? 90's heaven.
Should I add that to my list?
Nah, you can skip that one.
Got it. Since we get to meet her in the series, could you share a bit about Martha, Bruce’s mother, played by Emma Paetz?
Bruno has written a brilliant character; flawed, troubled, neurotic, tough, dark, headstrong, idealistic, and for the time period—the 1960’s,—she is this incredibly progressive woman doing a very dangerous job. I know he wanted her to feel like a Hemingway character with a touch of Kathryn Hepburn and Emma—who plays her—is an extraordinary actress who has managed to pull all of that off. I love their scenes together, often sparring and debating, often intense and dramatic. Emma and I corpse too often though.
Why is it called corpsing, again?
I thiiink it might be because you die laughing...I actually don't know.
What has it been like getting injected into the super hero universe, working with Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, creators of both Pennyworth and the very popular Gotham.
I've worked on a lot of historical projects or played real people so its been exciting to work with Danny and Bruno who build these elaborate fictional worlds. They're world builders. Pennyworth has its own political system, justice system, entertainment world, we have real-life British villains and villains from literature, so its this genre-bending hybrid of things. I'm alway is awe of Bruno's originality, and he and Danny have created something so visually unique.
I have to say, I was really pleasantly surprised with Pennyworth from the moment I saw the trailer. Tonally, it’s captivating, and undeniably geared towards an adult audience with it’s secret societies, violence, and drama. A trifecta.
Ooooh trifecta. Say it again.
Trifecta. Like you, a triple threat. Let’s hope Pennyworth gets five seasons too.
I'd be curious to see where it goes. It could truly go anywhere. Its all in Bruno's head. And I don't think anyone knows what happens there. He's an actual wizard. A cigarette smoking on-set wizard who throws out these nuggets of gold about your character...I'm always pleased to see him on set because I know he'll whisper some brilliant input, but also, I'm always concerned whether I'm delivering the Thomas he wants as I know he has such a clear idea of who these characters are.
Well, isn’t it often interpretive in that sense—creating a character together. Have you read or seen anything that touched/inspired you recently?
I think everyone is saying this...but Euphoria. I am pretty in awe of Sam Levinson (creator, director) and took a deep dive on him after watching the first episode. I actually don't know how so much of that show is achieved, its often perfect in its execution. It's a long standing ambition of mine to direct and if I get anywhere near that show in its form and storytelling I would be veeeerrry happy or unbearably self satisfied. Other than that, Chernobyl and Succession. And I'm reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and Lie With Me by Phillipe Breson, which I'm loving.
Wait, I need to stop you there. First off, Euphoria. The cinematography blows me away. The performances he was able to create with Zendaya and Hunter carried that perfectly synchronized dance, balancing vulnerability and confidence, naivety and a sense of jadedness. Chernobyl, with its visual storytelling in place of heavy dialogue. That shot of the cement filling over the coffins. Funny enough, I just picked up a copy of Lie With Me. It’s next on my list.
Well, I'm feeling incredibly original now aren't I!
[Laughter] Pleading the fifth. Anyway, being mindful of time, I just have a few last questions for you. If you could meet and speak to anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?
My Auntie Brenda, she took herself from us too soon and there's a lot I'd like to talk to her about.
I’m sorry to hear that, Ben. If you could speak to your younger self, what would you say?
Ooooft, there's a lot. I'm kind of wincing. I think I'd say “The very things you hate about yourself—that you're trying to change—will actually be your biggest gifts. Learn to love them and cultivate them a lot sooner than you did. Also, don’t leave your snails in the freezer.”
And lastly, do you have any advice for young actors?
Not actors per se but anyone pursuing something creative. The pursuit is everything, the doing of it, the expressing, not the outcome, but the creation of it. And also drink loads of water. That’s always good.