As long as there is a Batman, there will be an Alfred. And as the caped crusader transformed from Watusi-dancing crimefighter into a frightening vigilante, so did the caretaker of the cape and cowl. The first rotund, bowler-hatted Alfred introduced in the 1943 comic "Batman No. 16" would no doubt be terrified by the modern-day "Batman v Superman" hero, whose voice sounds like a monster and marks his criminal conquests with a red-hot bat brand.
This may explain why Jeremy Irons' portrayal of Alfred Pennyworth in the Zack Snyder movie conveys more of a bodyguard and less of a doting, dottering Jiminy Cricket voice in Batman's ear. Gone is the red phone and house tuxedo, replaced with engineering know-how and tactical military training. New Alfred doesn't sit out when Ben Affleck's Batman goes hunting at night; he monitors from afar, guiding the hero, fixing busted batarangs and even patching up Wayne's fancy new Superman-fighting suit of Bat armor.
"[Snyder] was developing a character quite different from the Alfred that Michael [Caine] had played … either Michael had played," Irons said, correcting himself to pay homage to actor Michael Gough, who was Alfred for four films, from Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman" through Joel Schumacher's 1996 "Batman & Robin." "Getting away from the English butler. … We created an Alfred who has not only the mechanical abilities to look after the equipment — which of course with every Batman gets more and more advanced — but who can look after himself and look after Bruce."
As if to demonstrate his own agility, Irons whips out a handsome case of loose tobacco and starts hand-rolling a cigarette. Because when you're a 67-year-old veteran of the stage and one "G" away from the Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony holy grail of awards achievement, you can roll your own smokes.
It's an impossibly cheery California afternoon in January. The day before, Irons had spent a 12-hour flight from Britain trying to master his lines for his next production, an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the Bristol Old Vic. It didn't go well. "Nothing would go in," Irons lamented. "Very strange. I don't know whether it's the lack of oxygen, or whatever it is they put in the air on those airplanes. … Very strange."
But today, just for the day, he's in Los Angeles dressed in a many-buttoned waistcoat and a popped collar, standing on the balcony of his suite at the Chateau Marmont — and if there's ever an actor who looks like he belongs in a place called a "chateau," it's Irons. He's discussing the similarities between acting in a George Bernard Shaw play and a comic-book franchise (both mediums have a heightened style that the actor must be consciously aware of in order to ground it in reality). It's a rarity that Superman, Batman and Shaw are mentioned in the same sentence, but this is Irons' world, a melding of the old and the new. And he doesn't treat the subjects any differently.
"A comic book and a straight drama all have the same elements," Irons said. "If you're playing tragedy, you have to be aware of the comedy; if you're playing comedy, you have to be aware of the tragedy. If you're playing comic book, you have to be aware of the reality. Because as you read a comic, they are obviously drawn figures with bubbles coming out of their mouth with the words, but when you get inside, it becomes real to you."
If the fact that there are over a dozen different versions of Alfred in the world worried Irons, he doesn't show it. The actor shakes it off, comparing the obstacle back to his stage work.
"You approach it as a new role," he said. "You allow the writer and the director to make the decision about how faithful one is to echoes of the past, past productions. For me, it's like if I was going to play 'Richard II the III.' I would be aware that many other people made great performances. It's like 'Long Day's Journey.' I saw [Laurence] Olivier play James Tyrone as a young actor. And many great actors — Ralph Richardson, Jack Lemmon — have played it. You put all that aside and think, 'This is my guy. I have to get inside him.' "
And the way in for Irons was finding the real-life version of an impossibly wealthy Bruce Wayne.
"The only person I know as rich as the Wayne family, I suppose, is Paul Getty," Irons said with odd familiarity, as in, you know, Paul Getty. "His security men, the people that he had around, were people that could do anything. They could break your neck in half a second if they had to."
The film, which also stars Henry Cavill as Superman, is being marketed with prize-fight-type bravado. Warner Bros. is laying a $250-million wager that fans will want to see who'll emerge triumphant. So in a movie with Batman punching Superman and Wonder Woman making her big-screen debut, who really cares about a butler?
As Irons discovered, he actually has more importance than you would think — the actor was shocked to learn that he survived the editorial process that brought Snyder's director's cut of "Batman v Superman" down to the 151-minute running time.
"I know the original cut they had was something like three hours long. … I said to Zack, 'Have you cut me out? You've cut so much.' He said, 'No, I can't cut you out.' I said, 'Why is that?' He said, 'Because you're the only one who talks to Bruce.'
"He still needs a friend, a confidant, a supporter. In some ways, a protector. Someone on the other end of the radio," Irons said. He paused. "Someone who can fly the Batmobile."