As Fox Network’s Thursday-night GOTHAM heads towards its Season 4 finale, the title city is descending into chaos, courtesy of the mad followers of proto-Joker Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan). This doesn’t sit well with the more organized criminal mastermind Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, who is played by Robin Lord Taylor.
In an exclusive phone interview, Taylor gives his thoughts on Season 4 and the state of Oswald’s relationships with the other GOTHAM characters.
ASSIGNMENT X: GOTHAM executive producer/show runner John Stephens said that you just brought such sympathy to the character of Oswald that we wound up rooting for him, almost no matter what he was doing …
ROBIN LORD TAYLOR: Well, good. [Stephens] and I are doing it together. [laughs]
AX: Was that always your intention with Oswald, to make him that sympathetic from the start, or did the writers/producers see that in your performance and you played into it once they started writing it more clearly that way?
TAYLOR: [laughs] Yes. I didn’t really know where they were taking it, but in the pilot episode, there was a scene on the pier with Jim Gordon [Ben McKenzie]. It’s a very vulnerable scene, where Oswald is making a case to Jim about keeping him alive. And there was something very human and almost pathetic in that scene. I really wanted that to read. And yeah, I always try to find the antihero, or the villain that has a sympathetic side. I always find that more interesting than pure evil, of course. Then there’s somewhere to go with it. It’s the Severus Snape of it all, if you will [laughs]. You want to care about them.
AX: This season, there’s a moment where we think that Oswald may have killed Martin, played by Christopher Convery, a little boy he’s befriended. Then we learn it’s a fake-out and Penguin has arranged for the child’s safety. Did you have a moment of reading the script where he blows up the car, and think, “Oh, my God, did I really kill a kid?”
TAYLOR: [laughs] Yeah. They don’t tell me very much, and I don’t really want to know, I like it to be somewhat organic when I look at these scripts, that’s when I find out what’s happening with Oswald and then it feels more like real life, if it possibly could, in the sense that it’s happening to Oswald. I might try and keep it that way. But yeah, when I read it, I was, “Oh, where are we going with this? Oh, no!” And it’s okay. There were so many times when I’d read the script, there’d be a bunch of things coming up in the rest of the season where I really had no idea where certain things were going to happen, or – as is the case with Oswald, he’s five or six steps ahead [laughs]. I’m always surprised by his moves, just like everybody else is, I hope.
AX: What are Oswald’s feelings these days towards Ed Nygma/the Riddler, played by Cory Michael Smith? They were friends, partners, Oswald was in love with Ed, got rejected, they’ve tried to kill each other, they’ve rescued each other, they’ve tricked each other. That seems like a very complicated set of emotions.
TAYLOR: Yeah. I actually think he’s in the best place he’s ever been, in a way [laughs]. Last season, when Oswald and Ed were going through their [conflict], and Oswald consistently refused to acknowledge the Riddler side of Ed’s persona, he wouldn’t even call him by the name. And then when Oswald in Arkham [Asylum] and he realizes [the persona that’s trying to save him] is not Ed Nygma, that is the Riddler, I think with Oswald accepting that side of Riddler’s personality, I would decide that he was actually honoring his friend’s boundaries, realizing that they can accomplish so much together if they are true partners and friends who respect each other, and I think Oswald learned, again, such a valuable lesson, after everything that Nygma went through last year and also into this year. He just learns about himself, and I just love that it’s with the Riddler. I think it’s such a specific, great dynamic between the two, because Oswald is an emotional, reactive person, whereas Nygma is an intellectual person, and I think together, they’re basically unstoppable. And I think that’s where they are right now. Obviously, it’s not like sunshine and lollipops – this is GOTHAM, after all – but I think the fact that they can work together is a real boon to both of their characters.
AX: What do you think Oswald’s feelings were for the late Sofia Falcone, played by Crystal Reed? He turned out to be right about her manipulating him, but did he have romantic yearning for her at all, or was it just that he wanted a friend?
TAYLOR: Yeah. “Romantic” is always such a complicated issue, because I don’t think that Oswald really sees or understands romance the way that you and I would, but I think there was something extremely intriguing there, that he was very intrigued by her, he loved the connection to [Sofia’s mob boss father] Don Falcone [played by John Dornan], who was one of his mentors. He learned almost everything about the Gotham underworld from Don Falcone. And so there was human intrigue, I guess I could say. I think maybe along the way to envisioning the two of them taking on the town together, and whether or not that’s in a romantic way – I almost found it somewhat like a Victorian kind of flirtation [laughs].
AX: What are Oswald’s current sentiments towards police captain Jim Gordon?
TAYLOR: These days, I think Oswald is seeing what’s happening with Jerome and now Jeremiah [Jerome’s twin brother, also played by Monaghan], and the Legion of Horribles, as they are called. Oswald sees immediately that this is not going anywhere good, and if Oswald is going to obtain any sort of control, there needs to be a city to control. And in the episode [where] you saw that, while Oswald is in the blimp [laughs], sailing above Gotham City, Gordon reminds him that there if is no city left, there is no power, there’s nothing. And so going forward, I think Oswald is desperate to appeal to Gordon’s sensibilities. And in a way, it’s really, for Oswald, the two of them that are left to keep the power structure intact in Gotham City. Again, Oswald and Jim, even though they are both opposites, they one thing that they share, they have the same goal, and that’s control and power, and they will do anything to get it. And together, I think, that’s Oswald’s whole goal is to bring everyone together to fight the menace that is Jerome and Jeremiah.
AX: For awhile, the GOTHAM Powers That Be were saying, “Jerome Valeska is absolutely not the Joker,” I thought, ‘Well, how can they not reward Cameron Monaghan’s performance?’ And then the twin Jeremiah came on, and it was, well, they didn’t say anything about Jeremiah not being the Joker. Were you thinking that, too, or did you know all along that one way or another, Cameron Monaghan was going to be playing the Joker?
TAYLOR: We’ve always speculated. To be honest, I still don’t know exactly where it’s going, if it is the Joker, or is it again another influence of whomever the Joker may be? I really think it’s a testament to Cameron’s immense talent, and the fact that he gets to bring two very, very different types of personalities to life I think is really exciting. And again, it’s somewhat unexpected, and, “Oh! That makes sense, in its GOTHAM way.” [laughs]
AX: And is Bruce Wayne, played by David Mazouz, even pinging on Oswald’s radar right now, or is that just, “Okay, he’s got money and he’s in Gotham, and maybe I can rob him at some point”?
TAYLOR: Oswald is very aware of Bruce, and also, the Wayne Foundation, and the Wayne Foundation’s connection to Indian Hill, where Hugo Strange used to work, even though Penguin and Bruce haven’t had very direct much interaction. Also, Bruce’s connection to James Gordon is of extreme interest to Penguin. And I think the way he sees things at the end of Season 4, new alliances need to be made in order for anyone to survive Gotham, where we’re going with it, and so I’m hoping it becomes more obvious that Penguin is interested in what Bruce has to offer Gotham City. Hopefully, in Season 5, we’ll see more of that.
AX: What have been some of the bigger things that have surprised you over the course of GOTHAM, either for your character, or just as a general arc?
TAYLOR: Man. Well, for my character, I’m continually surprised by him all the time. The fact that Oswald – and I appreciate it, too – no matter how much it gets him in trouble, there’s still a part of him that cares for certain people. His emotional center is still there, even though it’s continually attempted to be beaten out of him [laughs] in every episode. The fact that he hasn’t absolutely shut down and become a complete monster is surprising to me, and also ultimately really rewarding. Because it’s on my mind, I think the pleasant surprise is the evolution of Erin Richards’s character, Barbara Kean. [When] this character that started, her connection with the story was just a connection to Jim Gordon, and now, to see that she is powerful because she’s serving herself, she’s not powerful because she’s serving a man, I think is such an amazingly awesome storyline to have in a comic book show. empowering our female characters to be their own bosses in Gotham City I think is a really amazing storyline, and I really applaud what they’ve done.
AX: And lately, Morena Baccarin’s character Lee Thompkins has also stepped up into her own …
TAYLOR: Yes, absolutely. The same with Lee Thompkins. She’s her own woman, and I think that’s really great to see.
AX: And Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman played by Camren Bicondova, has pretty much always been her own cat.
TAYLOR: Yes, that’s right. [One of the things] I love about our show is that we reflect things that are actually in the word that, for example, in Season 3, when Oswald became mayor, the character and the whole race for mayor was influenced by the current political climate in the United States.
AX: Were you pleased that the show was echoing what was happening in the world in Season 3, or was it so depressing what was happening that it was like, “Well, yeah, we are reflecting it, but I’d rather it wasn’t there to reflect”?
TAYLOR: Absolutely. It was interesting, because as Oswald was running for mayor, the [U.S.] presidential election was happening, and we thought there were so many parallels to Oswald’s campaign methods and the methods of Donald Trump, and so we were really inspired by that, and we ran with it. And then, immediately after the election – I’m not talking about all of us, but myself – I was despondent after the entire fiasco. And suddenly, everything looked a lot more [real], and a lot more depressing. And I often make the joke, when GOTHAM starts to resemble the real world, we’re all really f***ed. [laughs] It really, really was upsetting. Often, at Comic-Con, I get the question, who do you think would be a better president, Donald Trump or Oswald Cobblepot? Absolutely, Oswald Cobblepot. He is proving to have a shred of empathy, and he’s a f***ing supervillain. [laughs] It’s amazing.
AX: Speaking of Comic-Con, have you been surprised or just gratified by the fan reaction?
TAYLOR: Well, not really surprised. Yes, it’s been incredibly gratifying. I didn’t know what to expect when this whole roller-coaster started, and it’s just been so amazing to see the way people react to this character that’s been around for so long. I just was so excited to be able to show a different side of the Penguin that we haven’t seen yet, and to be honest, I was also relieved that I’m not recreating a character that’s been played by many, many different actors. I follow Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito, who are two incredibly talented, amazing performers, and yet, to be able to not have to recreate their magic and just bringing new things to it, that’s very exciting. And also, again, just to find the real emotional center of this character. Even though he’s a supervillain, and he’s larger than life, and he has a caustic shell, the fact that you’re able to find a human inside of all of there, I’m very proud of that, and proud of the writers and creators of our amazing show.
AX: Because of the rise of things like fan conventions and social media, I’m guessing this is the most you have ever discussed a character you are playing with people who are not involved in the show?
AX: Is that aspect of it enlightening for you, or did you have to wrap your brain around, “How do I deal with all of this input from an area that they don’t teach you about in acting school?”
TAYLOR: Yes, exactly. I listen to the feedback and I love the questions, and every once in awhile, there’s a really good question that makes me reevaluate where the show, or where Oswald, is through the eyes of other people. That can be valuable. But ultimately, I know that the character begins and ends with our amazing writers and our directors, and I know that I’m in good hands with John Stephens, and he and I together, along with [executive producer/director] Danny Cannon and [series creator] Bruno [Heller] and everyone else, we will be [creating Oswald]. Ultimately, the character begins and ends with us. And so it’s just learning to [absorb] the useful information, and also just not get too in my head about it. I also have to make sure that this is my turn, and again, I don’t have to stick to what came before, I don’t have to justify myself, I don’t really explain myself. To really take ownership of a character – I don’t think I’ve ever really had that experience before, in all of my years acting, and I protect it with my life. And so when people have ideas about what should happen, I’m very grateful, and I just love that it’s creating a dialogue, but at the same time, at the end of the day, it begins and ends with us. I keep my focus on that.
AX: There’s a fair amount of CGI augmentation to the sets. Were you ever surprised seeing what something – like the blimp – ultimately looked like on screen?
TAYLOR: It’s never surprising in the sense that I know that the visuals they create are so spectacular. And then walking it back, for instance, the blimp, I’m just so amazed – I also think like, “God, if only that were real, I think I would have had a much better day on set!” [laughs] Actually looking out at some buildings, flying out over Manhattan Bridge, that would be a big thrill. But it’s really seamless, and the fact is, when you make a forty-two-minute high-octane action movie that comes out once a week, with these production values, I’m stunned. I just can’t believe that I’m part of this incredible machine. It’s humbling, to say the least.
AX: Drew Powell, who plays Butch, has put together a rock band of GOTHAM cast mates that performs at conventions. Are you part of that?
TAYLOR: No, I am not. Although the lovely Michael Cerveris, who played Professor Pyg at the beginning of our season, he’s a Tony-winning musical theatre star, and he’s just a goldmine, he has his own country band, and Ben McKenzie and I performed at their Christmas concert. That was a big bucket list moment, when Michael said, “Would you sing with my band?” Literally, any other time in my life, I would say “no,” but for some reason, I said, “You know what? Yes.” It was pretty amazing. Drew’s band is just awesome, too. It really keeps the energy going at a convention when you’ve got some amazing musicians playing for you.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
TAYLOR: I don’t. There’s stuff that’s out there floating around. I shot a film last [unint.] called THE MANDELA EFFECT, with a dear friend of mine, so I’m telling people to keep an eye out for that. It’s a really smart, sort of sci-fi personal drama that I got to be part of.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about Season 4 of GOTHAM?
TAYLOR: I would just want people to know that, and I will speak for the rest of my cast mates, all of us have never felt closer to the characters that we play. And so when people watch the show, you’re not just seeing actors stepping on set in a sort of robotic way after four years, you’re actually seeing actors more passionate about these characters than actors I’ve ever seen in any project that I’ve been a part of. The commitment is still there, and the emotional connection that we have to our characters is just unstoppable. And I really hope people know that when they watch the show.
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