In Fox’s GOTHAM, adapted by executive producer Bruno Heller from D.C. Comics BATMAN series, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is part of the story, but he’s a young teen just beginning to learn how to defend himself. The center of the series, in its first season Mondays at 9 PM and renewed for a second, is Gotham City Police Department homicide detective Jim Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie. Gordon has to deal with trying to protect Bruce and the city from crazy rogue criminals, organized crime and a corrupt police department. This corruption includes Gordon’s partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), a decent man but a sometimes bent cop.
However, Gordon’s most frustration association is arguably with Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, played by Robin Lord Taylor. Gordon would like to maintain his integrity, but he saved Oswald’s life, Oswald over-returned the favor and now Gordon owes him. This is a source of unending dismay to Gordon and of great joy to Cobblepot, an up-and-coming power in Gotham’s complex underworld.
Speaking by phone from New York, actor Taylor talks all things Penguin.
ASSIGNMENT X: Were you a comic book fan before all of this?
ROBIN LORD TAYLOR: I followed some of the comics when I was a kid. I wasn’t a huge comic book fan like some of my friends, but I was a huge fan of the original series and of the Tim Burton films and of the [Joel] Schumacher films. All of the BATMAN films, basically, were my entire childhood.
AX: The Penguin isn’t in them, but did you see the Christopher Nolan BATMAN films?
TAYLOR: Yes, of course, I loved them. I think he really brought it to a different level. And he brought a real gravity to this fantastic world, which I think just adds so much to the comic book experience.
AX: GOTHAM is based on D.C. Comics. Do you think there are big differences between the D.C.-verse and the Marvel Comics-verse?
TAYLOR: I think there’s a lot of playing up of this rivalry, where at least amongst the actors and the performers and I think even among the comic book writers and illustrators, I think there’s camaraderie there, there isn’t rivalry.
AX: Not rivalry, but people both at Marvel and D.C. have talked about philosophical differences, that Marvel is maybe a little more earthbound and D.C. is really people who can fly.
TAYLOR: Exactly. And you can split hairs about that, but I had in my mind that there was going to be some major rivalry between the two, but I haven’t found that to be true at all. Even among the fans. They enjoy the whole thing. And they appreciate those subtle differences between the two worlds.
AX: You’re originally from Iowa. Did you go to New York to do stage?
TAYLOR: I went to New York to do anything, really. I was part of the showcase through Northwestern [University] right when I graduated, and I got my agent directly out of there, so right after that, I moved right to New York, all my friends moved to New York and I’ve been here ever since. I just wanted to work, and New York City was one of my favorite places in the world ever since I was a small child, so I just knew I had to live here at some point, and that time seemed like the right time.
I did theatre and then I found myself also just working a lot in film and television, which was really exciting. When I moved here, they had the soaps, and then there was LAW & ORDER, and that was pretty much it [laughs]. But since I’ve been here, it’s amazing to see the scene explode in New York City.
AX: How do you feel about playing a very different Penguin than any of the ones we’ve seen onscreen before?
TAYLOR: It’s incredibly gratifying, and I give all credit to Bruno Heller. The way he has envisioned the character, it’s such a different way than it’s been done in the past. The character firstly is somewhat under-represented in the Batman canon in films that everybody knows. Also, in previous characterizations, he’s been somewhat cartoonish in certain respects. Which is not to take away from performances [of other actors who’ve played the role]. But to be able to show the human side of the character and to show him in a place that we’ve never seen him before, low, low on the totem pole, the Gotham organized crime syndicate, it’s just been amazing to see him really trying to find his way through.
AX: Is your Penguin appreciably smarter than he is in the comics? He certainly seems smarter than the ones we’ve seen on film and TV before.
TAYLOR: I don’t know so much if he’s smarter. I think it seems as though he’s smarter because every other incarnation of the Penguin, he’s already the Penguin. He’s already been on the scene for years and has been manipulating things in Gotham City. What we’re seeing in this incarnation is, we’re seeing him figure out and then make his first moves. We’re watching the gears turn in his head and so in a way I think it makes him appear that he is smarter, but it’s just him coming upon these things for the first time and realizing how he needs to work the system to get what he wants in Gotham City.
AX: You were in the horror film WOULD YOU RATHER, playing Julian, the rich, sadistic son of the even richer, more sadistic Jeffrey Combs character. Even though they are very different projects, like Oswald, the WOULD YOU RATHER character was of in a secret world where the normal rules did not apply. Did you take anything you thought of for that character Oswald?
TAYLOR: Yes, to a certain extent, I guess. Not consciously, but there’s a similarity between the characters. They both sort of exist outside of the norms of society and because of that, there’s a maliciousness there that the character is able to explore, because there just don’t seem to be the same sort of consequences that we have in our regular lives. So definitely they have that in common. But I would say the difference between the two is that Julian never had to work for anything in his life. It was all handed to him; everything was given to him. And so therefore he is much less of an ambitious person in that way.
Whereas Oswald, being from an immigrant family, being basically discounted over and over throughout his entire life because of the way he looks and because of his personal interests, being a bullied kid, he really had to scrap and fight for everything that he has. And so that’s the major difference between the two of them, I would say.
And I really do feel like if he could have his way – he sees the killing of people as a necessary evil to get what he wants in Gotham City. I think he would much rather deep down not have to get his hands dirty and not have to participate in that aspect of the world, but because of his position in Gotham City and what he wants to accomplish, it’s just part and parcel for the job. It’s just what you have to do.
In “The Red Hood” episode [of GOTHAM], it was a full WOULD YOU RATHER crossover, because the amazing Jeffrey Combs, who played the doctor at the hospital, and also Destro, who is one of the Red Hood gang, was played by the amazing Jonny Coyne, who played Bevans the butler in WOULD YOU RATHER. So it was this amazing crossover, and Danny is a fan of WOULD YOU RATHER and he’s also a huge fan of Jeffrey and Jonny and had worked with them individually on other projects. So it was just this amazing kismet, where we all got to be together on the same show. It was really awesome. Unfortunately, I didn’t see Jeffrey, because those days they were shooting up in Yonkers. But Jonny, we had dinner together on set and road in the van together.
AX: You mentioned Oswald’s interests. Apart from just getting ahead in the world, what are his interests?
TAYLOR: His ambition is so immense that it’s hard for him to think about most other things. But I would say, from the research that I’ve done of his character in the comic books, one of the stories in which they really explored why he was bullied so hard, he came to school one day dressed as one of his favorite characters from ROMEO AND JULIET – I think he came as Mercutio. And of course he was basically tortured for it. So [that] and the fact that he runs a nightclub, I think that he does really have an appreciation and interest in the artistic side of things and performance and creating, just playing in that world, I think that’s something that definitely interests him.
AX: Is the nightclub going to get better at some point?
TAYLOR: [laughs] He needs a publicist. I mean, this club thing is not working out too well for him. But I think that’s because he’s learning how to make that work and what people like to see and what really will entice people to come to his club. He’s learning as he goes, and because he has lived the life of an outsider, he doesn’t have any friends, he was very sheltered by his mother, all of these things don’t come very easily to him and so that’s one of the things I really like, actually, is just the fact in general that he’s finding his way. He’s not a fully-formed super-villain yet. He’s still learning how to make things work, which is, again, so much more fun to play than if we started the show with him being a big man on the scene. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
AX: Were there any other things in the comics that you found helpful and were there any things that you felt like you had to jettison?
TAYLOR: I didn’t find anything that I had to discount. Primarily, I studied the origin stories that were out there in the comics. I focused on the comics where they talked about where Penguin came from and what his life was like as a child, and all of that just rang so true to where we were going with the show. I mean, of course, when you read the Penguin comics when he’s already fifty-something years old and is a big player in Gotham City, and some of those scenes are just so intense and out of this world that that’s for the future. I’m like, “Oh, I can do that when we get to that point.” But mainly about his childhood, it was incredibly helpful [regarding] where he comes from in terms of being an immigrant.
AX: Where are Oswald and his mother ostensibly from?
TAYLOR: It’s unnamed at this point. I mean, It’s some sort of unnamed Eastern European country, I feel. They did come from some sort of aristocratic background, but then all of that was lost when they made the move to the United States, to Gotham City, and so there was fall from grace in a way. And you can see that in Carol’s character. She’s very grand and she seems as though she comes from money, even though they have none. They have very little in Gotham City. So a lot was lost in their lives at an early point. In my own head, I’ve invented this story where they came from – when the Wall fell in East Berlin, that maybe had something to do with it, but that could just be because I’ve watched HEDWIG [AND THE ANGRY INCH] too many times, I don’t know [laughs].
AX: Do you want to play Hedwig at some point?
TAYLOR: Oh, my God, are you kidding? I don’t know if I have the vocal chops for it, but that would be an absolute dream. It’s one of my favorite musicals ever written.
AX: When you were cast, did they tell you that Carol Kane was going to play Oswald’s mother?
TAYLOR: I had an idea that this season was going to focus a lot on the Penguin, that he was going to be the first traditional villain that they were really going to explore and talk about, but the funny story about Carol – I didn’t know I was going to have a mom, and then I read the scripts for it. It happens in the second episode. I get the script for the second episode, and I just randomly texted my agent, “Oh, my gosh, I have a mom. And it would be so amazing” – I don’t know where it came from – I was like, “It would be so amazing if they got Carol Kane.” It’s a hundred percent true, I can show you the text. This really happened, And then two days later, Danny Cannon, the executive producer, texted me, “Carol Kane is playing your mother.” And I was like, “I did it. I’ll take that credit.” It was incredible. She’s an amazing actress.
AX: Have you shared that story with Carol Kane?
TAYLOR: I told her the whole story. She was like [does Carol Kane as Oswald’s mom voice], “Thank you so much for making this happen.” “Carol, anything for you.”
AX: They have an interesting mother/son dynamic. Do the characters see that dynamic in the same way, or is Oswald ambivalent about Mom?
TAYLOR: He’s not ambivalent. Again, for his entire life, she was all he had, and he was all she had. Their intense bond and their intense closeness – in a certain way, almost uncomfortably close – is directly related to that. I think that it’s because they don’t have the same sort of awareness of it that you and I would have, because they just aren’t socialized in the same way. But she is constantly accusing him of running off with some other woman and he finds that to be very irritating. He’s in the middle of establishing himself as a human being in the world, as a man, and so you’re sort of seeing that push away against that, but at the same time, he can’t go too far, because, again, she’s the only person in his life that he loves. The only time that he experiences love is through his mother, so …
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Article: GOTHAM star Robin Lord Taylor on Season 1 and playing Penguin – exclusive interview