A theater star and Broadway standout now making waves in Hollywood, Smith takes on the role of Edward Nygma in a Gotham City just after the vicious murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne. A forensic scientist of under-appreciated brilliance — or so he believes — Nygma has plenty of questions but hasn’t yet given himself over to his future self’s criminal compulsions to test his smarts against Gotham’s law enforcers.
Smith displays a keen intelligence and curiosity, especially when it comes to decrypting his own specific take on the role, and in talking with Comic Book Resources, he opens up about his process in portraying the Prince of Puzzlers. And he’s not kidding around — after the interview, he even took notes on our recommendations of key Riddler stories to research later!
CBR News: What got you most excited about the chance to perform a brand-new iteration of this classic Batman villain?
Cory Michael Smith: As an actor, the most interesting part of telling a story about somebody’s evolution as a villain is what happens to a good person to make them do terrible things, and that’s the story we get to tell in terms of the life and times of Edward Nygma. That’s the part I get to investigate. That’s the most exciting thing as an actor/artist, but also, you have source material that can inspire what you do, and yet I can create my own rules. In terms of constructing [the character], for me, is understanding that this is a guy that operates in numbers and facts, questions and answers, riddles, puzzles. That’s where he feels comfortable. He lacks social awareness, lacks interpersonal skills, and so I get to play this guy, someone that I’ve never played before, who’s not an evil person. In all the comics, he doesn’t harm people. He’s under-appreciated, and so he tries to show people how smart he is, and that he’s smarter than people. And so he says, “Something horrible will happen if you don’t figure this out. Go figure it out.” To get there, what we’re doing is setting him up in a situation where people don’t understand him, don’t appreciate him, mistreat him, slightly abuse him. And when someone is in that circumstance, you can either say, “All right, I’m leaving, and I’m going to go where someone does appreciate me,” or what’s maybe more interesting and what we’re doing is, “I’m going to make you appreciate me.’
There’s been a great evolution of what was a gimmicky character in the ’40s through the ’60s, and then somewhere in the ’70s and ’80s, writers began figuring out an extra psychological insight into him. Is there something in the source material that you really responded to, or you are going mostly with what’s on the page in the scripts?
Well, I’m certainly following the page because Bruno [Heller, “Gotham’s” executive producer] has a very specific idea that matches very well with mine about how to tell the story of Edward Nygma from a perspective of today, knowing things about social disorders and letting that kind of influence the way that Edward interacts with people. Different rules in terms of how I’m operating in a room and how I’m communicating with people. But my favorite comic — I mean, I have a couple! The height of his narcissism, I think, at least that I’ve found thus far, has been the comic “The Riddle Factory” [in 1995’s “Batman: Riddler” special]. He starts putting on these shows where they’re very dangerous, and he’s actually gotten to a height where even the puzzles don’t entertain him anymore, that he actually starts harming people, targeting people. He doesn’t kill them, but he puts them in situations where he makes them kill themselves, makes them commit suicide because it’s so humiliating. That’s the most dangerous that I found him, and also the most narcissistic, and also the most performative — which that’s what I kind of love about him. He’s always kind of telling jokes. He’s a showman. There’s an origin story comic for him that’s kind of brilliant, because they keep asking him questions, and he keeps answering contradictory answers. So you don’t actually know anything about his past, and the guys that are interviewing him leave going, “What? What just happened?” Those are my two favorites right now, that I can glean the most from.
How homicidal is this version of Nygma going to get, do you think? Because the Riddler’s been more about committing crimes than killing, but sometimes the take is that he kills as well — do you get a sense of where this guy’s going to be?
I don’t know what Bruno’s intention is. That’s not necessarily the Riddler as I understand him. Horrible things certainly happen because of him, but when I find him most interesting, I guess, is when the focus is on challenging people to match his intelligence, his wit. That is like something that the Riddler has that other people don’t, because he is the smartest guy around. And I love showing that off. I’m sure things will get a little dangerous and violent, but perhaps not — they did hire a long, skinny guy to play the Riddler, you know what I mean? I’m not exactly the most physically imposing dude that they could have found. [Laughs]
If you do actually make it into a costume, do you think it’s going to be the question mark unitard or the green suit and fedora?
I think the latter is way more likely. We have an insanely talented costume designer, Lisa Padovani, and the suits that I’ve had custom-made thus far are really, really stellar. I think they’re going to go more along the lines of that, keeping me in the same vein of these really fitted suits with short legs, short sleeves. I get my own ties made. I have this really awesome tie clip that’s a typewriter key with a question mark on it. She’s really keen on this suit look, which I personally love, so I’m hoping that it kind of sweeps into that and I perhaps just get a bit more flair — as I grow in confidence, perhaps my clothes do as well. I don’t foresee a unitard jumping on this body. I don’t think America wants to see that.
Put it in your contract! You’re a big Jim Carrey fan, but I understand you have not seen “Batman Forever.”
I love Jim Carrey — as a kid, he was easily one of my favorite actors. We didn’t have a ton of money. My brother and I had maybe 20 movies between my parents and my grandparents that we would watch over and over and over, and 1989 “Batman” was one of them with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, but I’ve never seen “Batman Forever.” I knew that it’s hyper-stylized, in a way that’s not at all complementary to what we’re doing. I used to impersonate Jim Carrey as a kid all the time, so I’m not even going to touch “Batman Forever” at this point because I just feel like that’s just crossing wires! You’re going to see him doing something —
Once you feel like you own the role, then take a look at it because it’s not a bad performance, per se. It’s kind of a fun performance, in a wonky movie.
Oh, I’m sure. The man is brilliant. He is an actor, comedian, clown — and I mean that in the most complimentary way.
You’ve seen a little bit of Frank Gorshin’s take on the role.
I’ve seen clips of Frank Gorshin, not from research, but through the years. I certainly clued back into that and, I pulled up a few examples]. But watching his evolution on that show was not something that I’m going to invest in. I know that it’s celebrated, and he won an Emmy, didn’t he? He was at least nominated, for sure. I know that his performance is certainly beloved. But it was also a very different kind of show.
What’s interesting about Gorshin’s performance is that you can almost take him out of that show’s camp context and put him in a modern context, and it would still be an interesting, dangerous villain.
I feel you. From the clips that I’ve seen, he’s very menacing. I should maybe watch some more Frank Gorshin, because what I was interested in, in the clips I saw, he seems a bit maniacal and menacing, but always present and aware in a way that I don’t know that my Edward would be. Certainly present and stable, but not operating on a frequency that matches other people in the room. And Frank always seems to have this kind of grounded thing. This dark, kind of grounded — where Edward, I kind of always want to have a slight film where people never know like exactly —
A little bit of an Asperger-y kind of thing?
From your mouth. I won’t say that, though.
What does it mean, in the 75th year of Batman’s existence, to be a part of that grand tapestry that’s been going on since 1939?
I’m the luckiest boy ever! It’s really cool. I mean, it’s an honor. It’s an honor to be able to participate in it and add to it in a way that hasn’t been done yet. I feel very, very fortunate. I’m confident, and I hope that we can do it justice in a way that the fanboys and the admirers can be proud of our contribution.
What was your personal Batman entry point?
1989 “Batman,” the Tim Burton/Keaton/Nicholson [movie]. My brother and I wore out that VHS tape — not actually, because I just watched it again when I went home in April. But we watched over and over and over again. My brother and I had figurines. My mother just pulled out my Batmobile when I got back. But comics, I didn’t read comics as a kid. I don’t know how or why, but none of my friends were comics nerds. I was born the year that Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” came out, which was, I think, a turning point for comics and perhaps maybe a quiet time. And he was trying to revive them — I think Frank Miller’s intention was to bring comics into the world that TV, film and novels that were already in. And listen, our heroes are not infallible. We can’t keep telling ourselves that these are people are gold. Everyone has flaws. That kind of honest look at heroes, leaders, any protagonist, you have to look at them like a real person. I just didn’t read comics. Now, it’s kind of cool because I have all of these Batman comic books in my apartment. I’m living out my teenage comic book nerdom. It’s really sweet.