It was about nine months ago when the pilot episode of Gotham premiered to an excited and enthusiastic crowd at San Diego Comic Con. Since then, the Fox series has become one of the network’s most consistently watched shows, with an average of 6.4 million viewers tuning in weekly to follow Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) in the early days of his career. A rookie detective whose sense of morality and justice is constantly at odds with the city’s true nature, Gordon struggles not to succumb to the temptation and corruption that plagues his fellow officers.
But while Gordon may be Gotham’s primary protagonist, fans of the series will tell you that the true star of the show is Robin Lord Taylor, who portrays Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin) as he begins his ascent from low-level thug to master criminal. Taylor’s scene-stealing performance has quickly turned him into one of the most captivating characters in Gotham, a manipulative and calculating figure who is never what he seems to be.
We managed to catch up with McKenzie and Taylor, as well as surprise guest Cory Michael Smith (Edward Nygma) just before the cast took the stage at WonderCon 2015 to discuss the final four episodes of Gotham’s first season. Keep reading below for video footage, and highlights from each interview.
Robin Lord Taylor (Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin)
Can you talk about the physicality of the character, such as developing the limp?
The best thing about it is that you see the injury happen in the pilot. It’s an injury that he receives from Fish, and that makes it so much more authentic to play. And I was able to talk to people about, you know, what exactly would that look like, if someone broke your ankle and it never set right? He’s a criminal, he can’t go to the hospital – and who knows what the health care situation is like in Gotham City, anyway? As far as we’ve seen, it’s not good.
In terms of incorporating that into my performance, I use an old actor’s trick where I put a bottle cap in my shoe. It’s not painful, but it’s an actual physical reminder of the pain that Oswald feels with every step that he takes. And it also anchors him back to Fish Mooney, because she’s the one that gave it to him. As an actor, it kind of creates this link between the pretend and the real, which is really helpful when you want to make something believable, as opposed to just cartoonish.
Penguin has survived this long by getting people to underestimate him. As the series progresses, will we start to see his confidence manifest outwardly?
Yes, definitely, and particularly in these final four episodes. It’s a culmination of everything that has led up to this point. When we start in the pilot, that’s his first baby step toward being his own man, when he goes behind Fish’s back and rats her out to the police. Then he aligns with Maroni, and then goes behind Maroni’s back and now he’s with Falcone, and he’s playing all these different sides. With all of that, the end game is to be his own boss, to not be the meek one anymore, the be the one in charge.
So in these last four episodes, he sets certain events into action that affect everyone in Gotham City, and it’s his final push toward being the head Penguin in charge. [laughs] So you’ll see him finally starting to own his own power, which is really exciting – it’s a really nice progression, and a really amazing gift that I’ve been given, as an actor.
Can you tell us what we should expect from the final four episodes of the first season?
There’s a lot of action, there’s a lot of blood. A lot of what the show is about is how these people come to be because of Gotham City, how Gotham City itself has formed these people. And what you’ll see in these final episodes are the hard choices that each character has had to make to survive, and to not be swept under.
Did you spend any time researching the comic books to help find the character?
I definitely went back and read [the comics], and it was amazingly helpful. Geoff Johns is such an amazing guy, and he’s been behind our how from the beginning. We were at San Diego last year, and I asked him if there were any titles that talked about where Penguin was from, and he was like “What’s your address?”
Two days later, I get a hand-selected bunch of comics from Geoff that really delved into where the Penguin came from, and really explored his origin. It was incredibly helpful – that’s how I learned he was bullied as a kid, that he was treated horribly because of how he looked, ad really how that formed him as a human being. And that was my link to the humanity of the character. My goal – and I think all of our goals on the show – is to make these characters as human and three-dimensional as possible. So it was incredibly helpful to go back through the comics.
How do you look with a monocle?
I haven’t tried one on yet. But I’m excited for certain accessories to start coming in, in the second season. And it’ll be interesting too, because as with the limp, so much of it is established as a major plot point. So part of me is like “What the heck happens to his eye?” [laughs] So we’ll see.
Ben McKenzie (Detective James Gordon)
Does Gordon have any sense of self-preservation at all?
I think he has that kind of thing that these old school heroes have, which is a willful disregard for his own safety. He’s only concerned with not getting killed, after he’s put himself in a situation where he might get killed. You have to have that bravado about you as a character in this kind of universe, in order to do the kind of crazy things that he does.
How is that for you, as an actor, to walk that line of whether he’s being heroic, or…
Being stupid? Basically, you have Harvey Bullock to tell him. Harvey is there to go “You’re an idiot,” and to have the audience go “yeah, he’s right.” That’s one of the points of having a partner like that, to be the eyes and the ears of the audience at times, and say “why are you doing this?” But of course, he’s never going to be able to not do that – what he will learn to do is to better at it, to be smarter about it. To approach it from a different angle, and to make certain compromises morally, in order to get the things done that he wants to get done.
The relationship with Barbara seems like a ticking time bomb. Is there any hope for them to figure stuff out, or if it going to implode in these final episodes?
You’re gonna have to watch to find out, but it’s in a really bad place. She’s really at her wit’s end, and comes back believing that Jim could be her salvation yet again, only to find him with another woman. This can’t be good for her mental health.
Jim takes on this case at the end of the season, of the Ogre, which is a serial killer who seduces, tortures, and kills women. And he makes sure he stays free by killing the loves ones of any cops that come after him. Jim takes on this case knowing that a loved one of his is going to be targeted, so the relationship he has with both Thompkins and Barbara will probably be tested.
There seems to be some speculation that the Ogre may be another precursor toward seeing the Joker. Can you talk about that at all?
I probably shouldn’t. What I’ll say is overall, throughout the series, I think Bruno [Heller] has done kind of an ingenious thing. We will always be unspooling possible Jokers, there will always be different people who could possibly take on that persona. And the audience is left trying to figure out who the actual Joker is.
I don’t think you want to bring in the actual evolved persona of the Joker right now – I think it’s too early. There are so many other things we’re trying to set up, from Bruce’s storyline to Gordon’s, obviously, and then Nygma, Penguin, all of these other villains. As soon as you bring the full-force Joker to the front, no one’s going to care about anything else, so we’ve gotta be very judicious about that. It’s an ongoing process, and it will hopefully run the entire span of the series.
Gordon’s relationship with Dr. Thompkins seems very warm – how is that for you to have some diversity in your material like that?
It’s great. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air. Not that I mind playing the darker notes, but if it’s always just gloom and doom, eventually the audience gets tired of it. And I get a little tired of playing the growly, gruff guy [for whom] everything is always going wrong. You need some brightness to it, and the way to get that is to have Jim meet his equal – and that’s who he has, in the form of Dr. Thompkins. He has a kindred spirit, and a confident, positive force in his life. That’s where it’s starting – but of course, it’s Gotham, so it’ll take some twists and turns.
Has the show evolved in ways that you didn’t expect?
In the conversations I had with Danny and Bruno before signing onto this series, they gave me an overall logline that was very similar to what we’ve followed. It’s Jim’s ascension in the police force, from rookie detective to eventual commissioner, marked by the descent of Gotham into chaos. And his ascendance also comes with a price, and that price is that he has to fall from his sort of lofty moral perch into the muck, and get his hands dirty. A hero that becomes sort of an anti-hero is just a great conception, and I think we’ve roughly hewed to that.
Cory Michael Smith (Edward Nygma)
Nygma has so many unique mannerisms and eccentricities. Were those part of the script, or did you come up with those?
Those are choices that I made. Starting early on, we all knew that Edward was going to start as a good guy. You’re going to meet him as a good guy, and he’s going to be working in Gotham City Police Department as a good guy. That’s not very exciting dramatically, so I had to tell a story physically that was appropriate. I had to create someone that is not liked, not understood, not appreciated, kind of odd. I had to create a physical story, which is tha this person is not someone that everyone is going to easily identify with, or perhaps want to engage with. And a lot of that was about the way that he presents himself physically.
Also, when you have that active of a mind, what does that do to your body? When you’re spending most of your time [in our head] and not on other people, what makes someone’s brain tick? When you’re moving that fast, what do you do? And also, I’m kind of a long, lanky guy, and with the costume designers, we designed his clothes, all of his sleeves kind of short, all his pants are short. What does that do to someone’s behavior, when they’re bigger than their clothes, and their brain is bigger than the room? So that was all really helpful in creating his little tics.
We see Edward getting essentially getting bullied onscreen. Do you feel any sense of responsibility toward younger viewers who may relate to this, because they’re getting bullied themselves?
No, because the reality is that Edward’s response to being bullied is not great – he becomes a terror to an entire city. So I hope that people who do not have an easy time would respond differently. If you’re bullied, you do not have to hurt other people.
How much will we see Ed in the final four episodes?
So much! We spend a lot of time with Ed. It’s been very fun. I think the perception of him as a person, how his brain works, and the kind of man that he can be will completely change when you see how he responds to circumstances that get super heated.
He’s met with his first real crisis. Getting fired and framing the medical examiner, on a scale of one to ten, let’s put that around a four. You see him have to deal with a major crisis, and that is very revealing for him.
You said that playing Ed as a good guy wasn’t very exciting from a dramatic standpoint. Are you looking forward to exploring more of his dark side?
Yeah, but dark is only exciting when there’s light. It’s been important, exciting, and imperative for us to show him that way, because the tragedy of his story is that maybe thing could’ve been different. And also, the good guys aren’t always good. If someone would’ve appreciated him, would things have been different? Probably. There’s a responsibility to take care of other people, and when you don’t, you lose them.
Has there been any indication when you might put on the classic green suit?
I don’t know. He has to claim the identity of The Riddler. There has to be a decision eventually that’s like “I’m going to use my talents to hurt people, and haunt people, and taunt them.” And we’re not there yet. At this point, he’s reacting to things and responding to them. The moment when he decides to be on the offense, is perhaps the time when he’ll don the identity and the clothing. And we’re not there yet.
How challenging is it to put your own spin on such an iconic character?
There’s certainly a responsibility to not mess it up. I genuinely feel more confident now than I did at the beginning of the season, and that’s just from having spent 12 months thinking about this person, being this person. Spending a year with the writers and producers, getting on the same page and sharing ideas for plots and experiencing what’s happened to him. I think we’ve set up a pretty complex person that can respond to events in a way that I feel like he’s actually a whole human being, and not just me being this character. So I feel good. I feel like what we’re doing is unique, and I’m really happy about it.
Gotham returns for its final four episodes beginning April 13, exclusively on Fox.