In Fox’s GOTHAM, Mondays at 8 PM, we are in the DC Comics-originated world of Batman before Batman exists as a superhero. Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is still a youth, just beginning to think about how he’d like to fight crime in this corrupt city; James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is not yet the police commissioner, but possibly the only honest homicide detective on the Gotham police force; Selena Kyle (Camren Bicondova) is a homeless teen who loves cats and is great at climbing, but she’s not yet Catwoman.
Of Batman’s eventual foes, only Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) – who has been through hell and back, albeit partly by his own doing – has adopted a new identity, that of the Penguin. However, audiences may guess that Edward Nygma, the puzzle-loving forensics expert played by Cory Michael Smith, is destined to become the Riddler.
Smith is a stage actor who has recently begun working in film and television. He appeared in the feature drama CAMP X-RAY with Kristen Stewart earlier this year, costarred in the HBO miniseries OLIVE KITTERIDGE starring Frances McDormand and is in next year’s film CAROL opposite Cate Blanchett, Sara Paulson, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler, directed by Todd Haynes.
Unlike his GOTHAM alter ego, Smith is happy to give straight answers to questions posed about his gig as a budding legendary super-villain.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did you get involved in GOTHAM?
CORY MICHAEL SMITH: My manager set me up with an appointment and they were trying to be really hush-hush and secretive about who the characters were and what the project was, but I went into it knowing what the project was, and I had heard about it, so I was like, “Hey, I would like to audition for the Riddler.”
AX: How far away do you think Edward Nygma is from becoming the Riddler?
SMITH: Significantly. And I’m very happy about that. [The producers have suggested] that every season is going to focus on a villain, and presumably in the order in which we’re introduced, and the significance with which we’re introduced in the pilot. So right now, as an actor, I want to start as far away from the Riddler as possible. That’s the most exciting to me.
Right now, I am a forensic scientist with the Gotham City police department, with full, honest, pure, positive intentions of contributing in a productive way, being a good citizen. I have a mathematical, scientific mind. So this is the perfect job for me. I love my job, I’m passionate about it, I’m an enthusiastic guy, I love my work. And so I’m starting in the most genuine, happy way. I’m sharing riddles and puzzles and I communicate in answers and questions because that is my home base, that’s my comfortable spot to be in. And what you’re seeing in the very beginning are the seeds of mistreatment from the people I communicate with, aka Harvey Bullock [played by Donal Logue], and you’re seeing James Gordon as someone who answers my riddle in the pilot. So there’s this instantaneous connection of, I pinpoint him as someone that interests me. Because he solved my riddle, which is awesome, but Harvey Bullock is going to continue to mistreat me, Captain Sarah Essen [played by Zabrina Guevara], similarly. And that’s going to start to grate. But it’s going to be a very slow, slow burn.
AX: So at this point, is the riddling just Edward being playful because he really likes puns?
SMITH: Yeah. What [series developer/executive producer] Bruno Heller and I are trying to do is create a person whose comfort zone is science, math, numbers, puzzles, riddles, question/answer, a bit socially inept. He’s socially unconventional. When he’s in a room, he’s not necessarily aware of what’s going on, of people’s emotions, of what is normal.
AX: Would you say Edward is somewhere on the Asperger’s scale?
SMITH: From your mouth. I will not say that, but that is certainly comparable. That’s where we’re coming from. When you have someone who operates in that way on a day to day basis, that’s his normal place, you have to recognize that that is a special individual. I don’t mean “special” in a pejorative way, I mean a unique entity. And so his obsession with riddles, which will be delved into more later, that’s his place of comfort. That is his home base. So that’s just how he communicates. That’s fun for him, that’s how he likes to play with people, it’s how he shows his intelligence. There’s a bit of narcissism there – he thinks he knows he’s the most intelligent person in the room. So he’s also testing other people. “Who can get this? Who can get this? Anybody? Anybody?” It’s like, “Ed, we’re trying to actually solve something here, this fun and games, there’s no time for this.” That’s how Harvey treats him.
AX: Did you do any research into forensics or being in a morgue?
SMITH: I’m not really spending time focusing on forensics and morgue so much as I am actually doing puzzles, wordplay. Science is certainly a part of it, but it’s not necessarily helpful for me. I would love that if we did [spend more time in the morgue], because to see him around impaled bodies or damaged bodies and seeing how he exists in that environment would be really helpful for storytelling. What’s more important to me is establishing his unconventional social behavior. That’s where my focus has been.
AX: Has Bruno Heller as show runner been helpful with that?
SMITH: Bruno was amazing to me. [At the beginning], I asked for him to reach out to me so we could have a conversation. He spent fifteen minutes on the phone just telling me his opinions of my character, where he’s coming from, how he interprets him, how it may differ from or compliment the comics, whatever. And I just sat on the end of the phone and took notes. And it was the most helpful thing that’s ever been done for me. He’s incredibly generous. And so that little session we had on the phone has been my genesis for creating the character.
AX: How about pilot director Danny Cannon?
SMITH: Danny’s awesome. The unfortunate thing is, [in the pilot], my participation has been so minimal that I haven’t really been able to work with him. But what I think is so amazing that he has accomplished is, I believe that there is a very distinct, unique style that they’ve created that separates it from other contemporary iterations of the BATMAN story, which I’m really excited about.
AX: How about playing opposite Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue?
SMITH: Donal and Ben are two guys that have so much experience working. And I’m a pretty young actor – I’ve only been doing TV and film for the last year. And to be on a set with them, I’m learning stuff very, very quickly. Donal’s just a champ. He’s a guy who’s incredibly intelligent and is so comfortable in his work and on the set. He exists on a set in a very special way that I hope to emulate eventually in my future, which is, he knows when to joke, he knows how to have fun, he knows when to get serious. He’s very intense, he’s focused on the work and he has fun. He’s always talking about other shows and other art in the work. And Ben McKenzie is a sweetheart. That’s the best word that I can put to it. He’s such a leader. He’s playing the role of the patriarch, he’s making sure everyone’s taken care of and happy, and everyone is being positive, cooperating, collaborating, promoting the show, being positive on set. He takes no bullsh*t, he wants no attitude – it’s fantastic. It’s a really good environment to work in.
AX: Were you a comics fan as a kid?
SMITH: I did not grow up being a comics kid. I was born the year that Frank Miller published THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. I didn’t grow up with any of my friends reading comics. My brother and I didn’t read them. My brother grew up watching the 1989 BATMAN – Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Tim Burton’s BATMAN. So that was my in to BATMAN. We had the figurines and we had a Batmobile, which my mother pulled out in April when I went home to visit. But we weren’t comic book guys; we were G.I. Joe guys. We played with G.I. Joes, that whole thing. So comic books weren’t necessarily my thing. But certainly I was aware of that then. So I’m having this kind of mid-twenties indulgence and comic nerd guy. It’s fantastic. I love it.
AX: Did you see the Christopher Nolan BATMAN films?
SMITH: I have seen the first one. As somebody said earlier, I think our show is complimentary. Frank Miller opened the door, not just for comics, but for the interpretation of comics in modern day, to really look at the superhero as an infallible person who has flaws. Looking at the protagonist without looking at him like a god. So everyone has pursued telling superhero stories in a complimentary fashion. So it’s easy to compare us to Nolan or anybody that’s come after Frank, even compare us to SIN CITY from him. But I’m pretty confident and excited about our production value being a unique visual experience.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say about GOTHAM right now?
SMITH: There’s plenty I can say about it. I feel really fortunate to be a part of adding to the legend of BATMAN in a way that hasn’t been done before. I feel very honored and it’s a privilege to do that. And I’m really hopeful and confident that we’re going to do it in a way that has the integrity that people can be proud of it, BATMAN fans can be proud of it.
This interview was conducted at Fox Network’s party for the Television Critics Association.
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Article:Exclusive Interview with GOTHAM star Cory Michael Smith