Features

Knight Moves

With its impressive slate of new series, EPIX intends to catapult into television’s top rung. The network has cast no less than a British knight — Sir Ben Kingsley — to lead one of its dramas and a dashing unknown, Jack Bannon, to reveal the Dark Knight’s backstory in another.

Mara Reinstein
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield
  • Steve Schofield

There comes a point in every person's career when he or she must do a little soul–searching and wonder if the struggle is worth it.

For British actor Jack Bannon, that moment arrived last year, right before he decided to audition for a new television series.

"I hadn't landed a job in a couple months and didn't want to send in the tape because I was so disheartened by the industry," he recalls. "But I figured I might as well learn the lines and do it…. You have to keep plugging away and keep knocking on the door and eventually, hopefully, something will work."

Roughly seven callbacks later, something did work. Bannon is now the lead in Pennyworth, which premieres on EPIX on July 28. If the title doesn't ring a bell, his character's first name might: Alfred.

The gothic drama explores the early years of Bruce Wayne's trusted butler, back when he was a sensible 20-something just out of a special forces unit of the British Army. While running his own security firm in 1960s London, he meets an ultra-wealthy young American named Thomas Wayne (Bruce's future father) in a nightclub and begins working for him as an adviser.

Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, who previously cocreated Fox's Gotham, masterminded the series.

"They made something wholly distinctive and instinctive with their vision," EPIX president Michael Wright says of Pennyworth. "The interplay between familiarity and surprise is an affirmation of what I believe in, which is why I like this so much."

In other words, this is more than your typically glossy, pedigreed enterprise amid the new golden era of television. It's a new look at an important element of Batman's famed backstory. Pennyworth is also the high-profile centerpiece of a burgeoning premium cable network that's now available in approximately 120 million homes.

Vying to keep up with competitors such as HBO, Showtime and Starz, EPIX is offering more than 100 hours of original storytelling this year. That means not only is the door open for Bannon, there's a welcome mat for anyone willing to step up with a bold, adventurous and unique idea.

Before Wright talks strategy, he reminisces about the time, back when he was a baby executive at CBS, that he worked up the nerve to ask former NBC honcho Brandon Tartikoff to lunch. The goal was to pick his brain about how to run a network. You know, just in case.

"In my very earnest way," Wright recalls, "I asked him, 'What's the one thing you needed to be successful?'" Tartikoff, then running King World Productions, replied without hesitation: create an environment where the best talent comes to you first. "I thought the advice was so simple," Wright says, "and yet it's so easily ignored."

He took the advice to heart as he rose through the ranks, becoming president of TBS, TNT and TCM; and then CEO of Amblin Entertainment. It was also his M.O. when he started at EPIX in November 2017. He arrived at a crucial period in the network's history; it was seven years old and MGM had just paid $1 billion to its partners at Viacom and Lionsgate to purchase it outright.

"MGM and the board said to me, 'Look, we have this network and we'd like to grow it, and here's sufficient money to go program it; tell us what you want to do in terms of the brand and the positioning,'" Wright says. "It was a marvelous opportunity. And we've been going a thousand miles an hour ever since, hiring good people, building the brand and reimagining the marketing and the look."

With an off-kilter adaptation of Get Shorty (starring Ray Romano and Chris O'Dowd) and the dramas Berlin Station and Deep State already in the mix, Wright says he focused on furbishing the roster's quantity and quality. EPIX went from 20 hours of fresh programming in 2016 to 30 hours in 2017 to more than 100 in 2019.

On the creative side, he's made it a priority to develop more provocative scripted series — "cinematic television," as he puts it. "It's television for the grownup audience that might not go to the movies as often as they used to," he explains. "They're looking for sophisticated narrative, complex characters, relevance, elevated production values and diverse voices."

To check those boxes, Wright has turned to veteran showrunners and top-shelf talent.

He was a fan of Rome, which Heller created and ran for HBO from 2005 to 2007. Perpetual Grace, LTD, which premiered June 2, is a 10-episode series about a grifter (Jimmi Simpson of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Westworld) whose mark, an elderly pastor played by Sir Ben Kingsley, turns out to be far more dangerous than the con man could have imagined.

This fall, Wright will roll out the gritty mob drama Godfather of Harlem, created by Narcos's Chris Brancato and starring Forest Whitaker.

The period piece Belgravia, from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, is due in 2020.

"I'm not just trying to kiss ass here, but working with a company that's launching a new slate of shows has been an incredibly good experience," Brancato says. "Michael has excitement and passion, and he takes great pride in the fact that he just lets his filmmakers make their shows. I've found the whole creative experience working at EPIX to be as good as I've ever had."

The Pennyworth story began with Michael Caine — and he probably doesn't even realize it.

When the legendary thespian played Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred, in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, "He established that Alfred was an SAS army man, bless his heart," Heller recalls. "That makes for an exciting origin story — as opposed to the previous one, which was that he learned how to make tea extremely well."

Heller and Cannon took that nugget and ran with it. After expanding the young Bruce Wayne's story into a hit with Gotham for five seasons, "This was a chance for us to look at some of the old tropes of the DC universe and give it a whole new look," Heller says. They decided to place Alfred's origin tale in 1960s London, making it dark and scary but also glamorous and sexy.

Heller, who grew up in England at that time, points out, "London was never the 'Swinging '60s.' There were a couple of parties in Chelsea, but that's it!"

The producing team, along with Warner Bros. brass, conceived the series as an exclusive for British television. But nobody bit. "We were left with this brilliant idea and original script that was laying fallow," says Peter Roth, the veteran chief of Warner Bros. Television.

Enter Wright. The two had collaborated for years on hits such as The Closer and Rizzoli & Isles, back when Wright ran programming for Turner. "Michael read the script and responded in the way we expected, frankly, everyone to respond," Roth says. "He was very aggressive in wanting it and seeing it as what could become a signature series."

As Wright tells it, when he met with Roth and Warner Bros. TV executive vice-president Susan Rovner, he asked them to pitch him a show that seemed the most out of the realm of possibility. "I was so excited because I loved the thought of exploring themes of classism and the aristocracy in an alternative 1960s Britain," he says. "And I love Bruno's voice. He builds these complex characters."

As for the iconic man of the hour? Heller says casting an unknown was essential. "There's so much baggage there already, so from an artistic point of view, you don't want a big star," he says. "You needed a fresh, clean look for the guy, and Jack has that self-possessed cool charisma."

What Bannon may lack in familiarity (in 2014, he had small roles in Fury with Brad Pitt and The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch), he makes up for in scrappy determination.

A native of Norwich, England, he says he was too busy putting on shows in living rooms as a kid to pore over comic books. To prepare for Alfred, "It was hard to not go back and use other performances as a safety blanket. But this Alfred is unique because he's optimistic, cheeky and flirtatious. The world is his oyster."

Viewers will not only see Pennyworth meet Wayne, Heller promises, they'll also witness the early courtship between Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) and his future wife, Martha (Emma Paetz), as well as Easter eggs and foreshadowing of other characters from the future Batman universe.

Not to mention Jaguars and horsecarts and computers and 1960s clothing. "This is not a superhero show," Bannon says. "It's a character-driven drama and very stylized, and we're all excited by it. Every day when I went to the studio, I counted myself as the luckiest man in the world."

On the other end of the spectrum, Kingsley — friends call him Ben or Sir Ben, as he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2002 — admits he hasn't auditioned for a project in about 40 years. When his longtime agent first sent the Perpetual Grace, LTD pilot script, he passed. But after Steve Conrad (the creator of Patriot on Amazon Prime) reworked it, an instantly intrigued Kingsley said yes.

"The second version was quite different in the perception of the character," he explains. "There would be delightful blank spaces that the audience has to fill in for themselves rather than be overexplained. I was very taken." The man who won a Best Actor Oscar in 1983 for playing Mahatma Gandhi channels his dark side in the role.

He's a New Mexico–based pastor named Byron Brown who seems kindly on the surface but is in reality a violent con man who's swindling his disciples out of money. (Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver plays his partner in crime.) Kingsley kept his native British accent "to put as few veils as possible" between him and the audience, though he altered it slightly to a more Celtic brogue.

Perpetual Grace, LTD marks Kingsley's first foray into episodic American television — he also starred in the 2015 limited series Tut, on Spike TV. (Let's not count his memorable turn satirizing himself in a 2006 episode of The Sopranos.) For the actor, who's appeared in more than 90 movies, the timing is impeccable.

"It's a wonderful way to reintroduce myself, because television is a future with present authority, and the range that it offers is absolutely beautiful," he says. "There's diversity of opportunity and security."

When he makes little-seen, microbudgeted independent movies, he says, "There's nothing more debilitating than filming a great scene, and you know in the back of your head that nobody is going to see it. When you act on television now, you know you're not wasting your time. It will be seen and heard on people's screens."

Kingsley is certain that audiences will find and embrace Perpetual Grace, LTD. He points to Conrad's cutting scripts and nuanced characters, and the fact that it's filmed entirely on location in the orange-jeweled deserts of New Mexico. "There's a biblical and mythical sweep to it," he says, "along with the temptations, the betrayals, the violence, the longing and the reunification. What a glorious adventure!"

Indeed, while Wright calls the series "a fun, original, big creative swing," he's aware that landing the legendary Kingsley is a huge calling card for his upstart network. "Of course he's raising awareness, but the other value is that the audience will see that if actors of his caliber are doing this project, wow, this must be good," he says. "They know that [certain] actors are only drawn to superior material."

The same thinking applies to Godfather of Harlem. Whitaker, who won his own Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland in 2007, had long been trying to develop a project about the final years of a gangster named Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson in Harlem in the 1960s.

"He's a figure who had always been fascinating to me," Whitaker explains. "He was a man with many amazing qualities, as he spent decades running Harlem and partnered with the five mafia families in New York. And not only was he a strategist in his business dealings, he was a writer, a poet and master chess player."

Brancato was already well-versed in Johnson's life, having scripted the 1997 Johnson biopic Hoodlum. He signed on because he saw an opportunity to transcend familiar mob drama tropes.

"The show was about the collusion of the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement, in a prism we've never seen before," he says, noting that a good chunk of the series focuses on Johnson's tight friendship with civil rights leader Malcolm X. "Those cross-connections end up being much more interesting to explore."

He and his producing partner, Paul Epstein, wrote the pilot script, which prompted Whitaker to agree to go in front of the camera. "It elevated my interest to star, since the characters came alive authentically and the words on the pages were compelling," Whitaker says. "I felt confident that this is a show that I'd like to take on, not only as an executive producer but as its lead."

The three then shopped it to Wright and his team in January 2018, hoping Whitaker's presence would help sway the room. It did.

"Forest was a huge piece of it," Wright explains. "There's an audience that loves him, and they also love great urban crime dramas." From Brancato's perspective, "It's easy to say, 'Oh, it's a gangster show with Forest Whitaker, so it's a no-brainer.' But it's still a period piece and centers on a little-known historical figure. It took some vision for Michael to see what it could be.

"To his credit, 25 minutes into the pitch, he said, 'Let's make 10.'"

With Whitaker ruling the streets, Brancato was able to recruit an ensemble that includes Vincent D'Onofrio, Giancarlo Esposito and Paul Sorvino. "People want to work with him," he says of the star. "And he happens to be one of the greatest human beings I've ever met. He sets the tone on set with absolute professionalism and a sort of genteelness. He's worthy of headlining a show."

The result is a harrowing look at the fabric of the American dream — and the sacrifices people make to achieve it.

"We're examining something that is fundamentally very American, which is that when you're in a second-class citizen group, the ladder to success is often paved with crime, because there were barriers to entry into society," Brancato says. "So we're dealing with political, cultural and social powers at work. That sets the premise for this series apart."

Wright knows daunting challenges lie ahead. That's why he's giving himself five years to ensure that EPIX will be ubiquitous on every cable and streaming platform and will deliver on an upscale consumer brand promise.

Instead of premiering hundreds of new series a year, he's focused on greenlighting a solid slate of curated programs that matter. "I would never want us to grow past our ability to treat every show as important," he says. "But we want to offer something new to encourage people to either subscribe or renew."

In the meantime, he's confident his current stable of projects will catapult EPIX to greater awareness and relevance, the way The Handmaid's Tale did for Hulu and Outlander did for Starz.

"One show can change the game," he says. "As long as you have skill and the right talent, you have a fighting chance. That's the fun of it," Wright observes. "When a show pops, it's a reminder that even in this increasingly disjointed, disconnected and tribalized world, television is great."



Go behind the scenes of emmy's cover shoot with Sir Ben Kingsley and Jack Bannon at TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2019