Empire is undoubtedly the hottest new show of this TV season. But Gotham, which is set in Gotham City shortly after the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, has consistently ranked in the Top 10 thanks to its gritty origin stories behind iconic characters from the Batman franchise (Catwoman, The Riddler, James Gordon, etc.).
In fact, it’s been so successful that FOX quickly extended its first-season order from 16 to 22 episodes, and soon renewed the show (which was created by Rome’s Bruno Heller) for a second season.
Although well-known actors such as Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue and Jada Pinkett Smith anchor the expansive ensemble cast, it’s relative newcomer Robin Lord Taylor who has proven its breakout star. The depth of layers he brings to Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a The Penguin, adds a rich, empathetic humanity to the slimy, power-mad character (who was played by Burgess Meredith in the ‘60s and Danny DeVito in the ‘90s).
Rave reviews from Esquire and the Wall Street Journal have signaled Taylor as a rising star to watch. We recently chatted with the 36-year-old actor about his 10-year rise to stardom, his insight into the Cobblepot character, and how he’d like to see The Penguin’s storyline develop going forward.
How did you find out about Gotham, and what was your initial reaction to the project?
When I prepared for the audition, I didn’t know what it was. It was the “Untitled Warner Bros Project,” and it was a fake scene. The night before, my agent told me that it was the prequel to Batman, and that I was auditioning to play the Penguin. I thought, I’m just going to go in and do my thing and see what happens. When I got the callback I went to L.A. and read the pilot script, and it was one of the best pilots I’ve ever read.
What did you like about this particular take on the Batman saga?
What I liked most was the fact that we’re telling parts of the story that have not been told before. I also like that we’re seeing these iconic characters that we all know and grew up with, but we’re seeing them at a time in their life when they’re finding their way and discovering things about themselves and Gotham City that informs who they end up becoming. When I read the pilot script, I was so impressed with how they were going for the humanity in these characters. As an actor, that’s what you want to play.
Were you a fan of the Batman comics growing up?
I had read some of the comics, but not a lot of them. I was always into the Tim Burton movies, and even the Adam West TV series. I watched it every day after school. I wanted to be part of that world– to be telling these stories that haven’t been told. When I got the job, I did some research into the comics. There are a couple of comics that explore Oswald’s childhood, and the fact that he was bullied was my hook into his humanity. It explained a lot about him and his crazy ambitions.
Tell me about your insight into Oswald’s character. How did you want to make yours different from previous portrayals?
I really responded to the character’s ambition, and his desire to be the smartest one in the room. He’s steps ahead of everyone else because he has this huge desire not to be a powerless person. I grew up in a small town in Iowa as an artistic kid, and it was like Friday Night Lights. The only thing that I wanted to make different than what we had seen before was to add a little bit more humanity– something that people could identify with in a deep way and understand his motivations and where he’s coming from.
Villains always think they’re the good guys. How do you get inside that mindset and away from the stereotype of being a villain?
I feel like no matter what character it is, the actor has to find something inside of that character that resonates on a human level. You can’t really judge them, you just have to understand them. Oswald views the world, and Gotham City in particular, as a place where there is no black and white, no good or bad. It’s all shades of gray. In order to succeed, you always have to look out for number one, stand up for yourself and not be afraid to make very difficult choices.
You’ve been a professional actor for 10 years, and this is obviously a big role. What was it like to read the Esquire and the Wall Street Journal reviews of your performance?
It’s insane! There’s really nothing that prepared me for that. I never expected to be part of something this big, and to get such great responses from reviewers is just incredibly validating. You spend so much time trying to get to a certain place in your career that it becomes your identity: “I’m a struggling actor.” Then you get your big break, and then what happens now? This kind of thing doesn’t really happen to a lot of people. You don’t want to expect that it will, but you hope it will. It’s like, “Holy crap, here we go!” It’s a crazy ride.
Have you done any of the big Comic Cons yet?
Yes, we did San Diego last year, when we screened the pilot before it premiered. After the show came out, we did New York Comic Con. People were amazing in San Diego, but the show hadn’t proven itself yet. New York was a whole different story. People were so into it. and had so many more questions about the world we’re creating. Fans of this genre are some of the smartest fans out there. They take ownership of these characters. They see things sometimes that we, as actors, don’t even see. The feedback is incredible, both good and bad. To be something that people are talking about is the dream, and people are definitely talking about it.
If you were calling the shots behind the scenes on Gotham, what would you like to see in the future for Oswald?
Obviously I’d like to see him become more and more powerful, but at the same time I like it when he fails. I like the struggle, and watching him figure things out. All I can say is that I hope the other villains get established, so that I have more fun folks to play off of.
Do you aspire to work behind the camera and be part of the creative process?
That’s something that I’m definitely open to. I am a collaborator: I need another person to bounce ideas off of. I definitely see myself on that side of things in some fashion. But, for the time being, I’m having a ball! –Bret Love; photos provided by Anderson Group and FOX
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