For the most part, Batman‘s future foes find themselves in the beginning stages of their villainous careers on Fox’s series “Gotham.” Selina Kyle is still a petty street thief, Edward Nygma’s riddles are more cute than caper clues, and Ivy Pepper’s obsession for plants hasn’t yet blossomed.
And then, there’s Oswald Cobblepot, who already goes by the monicker of The Penguin — whether he likes it or not. A former lackey of Fish Mooney, Cobblepot manipulated, snitched and murdered his way into jumpstarting his own criminal empire, and while he may not have solidified his hold over Gotham City quite yet, those who ruffle his feathers don’t live long enough to regret it.
Ahead of tonight’s episode, “Everyone Has A Cobblepot,” Robin Lord Taylor spoke with CBR News about “Gotham’s” grounded take on the iconic villain. We discuss Det. Jim Gordon’s uneasy alliance with the future crime boss, Fish Mooney’s lasting impression on her once-upon-a-time protege, and the potential impact the death of his mother might have on the breaking bad mama’s boy.
CBR News: In the episode “Red Hood,” Oswald notes, “Perhaps it’s our enemies who define us.” How has Fish Mooney shaped him into the man he is and will eventually become?
Robin Lord Taylor: She is the one who taught him everything there is to know about this underbelly of Gotham City. He learned about the Falcone family, the Maroni family, how they work and how they operate, from Fish. There’s a great moment in the pilot, where her bat was handed off to Penguin. He learned about that hard edge you need to have to be taken seriously in Gotham City. I think he really feels indebted to her in that way. Even though he does go behind her back, and even though they are somewhat arch-enemies, there is a strange kind of motherly connection that he has with her.
He really does miss her. There have been times in previous episodes, like when he comes back to the club for the first time and says to her, “I know you’re still grumpy with me, but I really hope we can work through this.” I do feel he would rather have her accept this as part of the game. This is part of Gotham City, and he needs to be taken seriously, but he also wanted to have a relationship with her, to a certain extent. It’s a bit of a power play, too, because he knows she hates him with every fiber of her being, and her downfall is a direct result of his actions. He knows that and is toying with her, to an extent. Ultimately, deep down, he feels indebted to her.
Everyone always asks what traits or qualities actors draw from the source material or previous incarnations of a character. In your case, there have been some over-the-top versions of the Penguin. Were there certain attributes or mannerisms you were thankful the writers steered away from? After all, Oswald hasn’t squawked yet.
Yeah, totally. There were certain obvious things that previous incarnations of the Penguin embraced. I’m just happy they are focusing more on him being a fleshed-out, real person, or as real as you can be in this world. I liked the fact that he’s three-dimensional. Yes, there are over-the-top aspects of his personality, but he’s not a cartoon. Everything he does is motivated from a real place. His personality is so well fleshed-out, it doesn’t feel two-dimensional or cartoony at all.
I do try and incorporate the classic characteristics of the Penguin, which both Danny DeVito and Burgess Meredith did so well. There’s that strange sense of fun that he has. There’s a certain amount of charisma and glee in his life that he finds. Even though it’s often dark, there’s still some light moments, which I definitely also try to incorporate in the character.
As he continues to vie for power, in your mind, what are Oswald’s strengths and weaknesses?
His greatest strength is the ability to read people and appeal to them on their level and then use them to his advantage. There is that charisma about him. It’s something he’s learned over the years. Because he was a bullied kid and because of the way he looks, nobody ever took him seriously. It was always about ingratiating himself to people and then using that to his advantage. If he had a super power, that’s what it would be.
Basically, I feel his weakness is somewhat tied to that. His own ambition is so strong that he is unable to fully connect with people and fully empathize with them. It gets in the way of his ability to work with them in certain situations.
How would you describe Oswald’s relationship with Jim Gordon?
It’s one of my favorite relationships, because it’s very complex in the sense that, on paper, they are enemies. Jim is on one side of the fence, and Oswald is on the other. However, what’s interesting about it is, Oswald understands, and Jim as we go along understands this more, that in Gotham City, there is no black and white. Sometimes, to achieve your goals, you have to work with the other side to maneuver things for you and help you ultimately get what you want. There’s this push and pull between the two of them that is so fascinating.
I really do believe Penguin thinks of Jim as one of his only friends. He only trusts two people in Gotham City: The first is his mother and the second is Jim Gordon. He sees in Jim a strength of character, and he’s consistent in his beliefs. There’s something there that is very attractive to Penguin. He respects that. Of course, being a manipulative person, Oswald does want to exploit that. At the same time, Jim saved his life, and he is indebted to him for that. It’s this really fun dynamic to play, especially with Jim not wanting to be on board with Oswald, but then realizing he needs to. The dynamic is more complex than people think.
Oswald briefly encountered Edward Nygma in police headquarters. Does that have you curious about how Oswald’s first meetings with Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, the Joker or the Scarecrow might play out?
That’s one of the things I’m most excited about as we go on. When we got the official pick-up for the second season, I was like, “Yes!” because that means that as these other characters develop, or in Edward’s case, becomes more and more of a darker person, it means he and Penguin are going to have to interact again at some point — and it’s going to be a new power dynamic. Edward will be another person Oswald has to deal with, either to embrace and try and be friends with, or he’s going to be another adversary he has to look out for.
That was one of my favorite scenes to shoot. It was the first other classic villain from the Batman canon that I got to interact with. We all know what happens in the future, but the first meeting is so exciting. It sets the tone for how the two of us are going to interact in the future. I can’t wait. Just from an actor’s standpoint, we have such amazing actors on the show. The first season is a lot about the Penguin’s rise. I’m just waiting for everybody to have their moment so I get to play with them. It’s going to be amazing.
This week’s episode is called “Everyone Has a Cobblepot.” What does that title refer to?
What I can tease is, you are going to see more interaction between Oswald and Jim. When everyone has a Cobblepot, it’s a reference to Jim as if to say that everyone has something in their life they have to reconcile with that ideally wouldn’t be there. But, because Jim saved my life, he’s set in motion all these things and let Oswald make his move to become a big player on the scene. You’ll see Gordon actually have to come to Penguin and find a way to work with him to achieve his goals in the episode.
What else can you tease about Oswald’s journey in the remainder of the season and the finale?
As far as Oswald goes, he has a club now, and he’s slowly learning how to make that work. We know it was a huge failure. He hasn’t been doing well. It was really funny because initially, when he first gets the club, that opening night in one of the early drafts was supposed to be this blowout, amazing success. “Oswald has arrived on the scene.” We were going to have a ton of background extras. The whole club was going to be packed. Then, in the rewrite, they went in the other direction where it was actually a big failure, which I was actually super happy about. What I love about the character is he’s still failing, he’s still finding his footing in the city. It gives him somewhere to go. That’s what we’re going to be seeing with him.
He’s establishing his club and establishing himself as a player in Gotham City. However, to do that, he’s made so many enemies along the way that he has to deal with. Ultimately, Oswald answers to Falcone, but, in his ideal world, he wouldn’t have to answer to anybody. You are going to see him maneuver his way through that with these major players who have been in the scene in Gotham City for years and years. Now, there’s this little punk who thinks he is Mr. Fancy Pants big shot, which he is not — yet. And they definitely make him know that.
We’re reminded during the club re-opening that Oswald has a soft spot for his mother. Do you feel her death, especially at the hands of an enemy, might push him right over the edge?
I do feel that, and it’s worrisome. She really is Oswald’s only vulnerable spot. He’s been through so much this season. For a while, every episode, he got the crap kicked out of him and only escaped by the skin of his teeth. That’s all in his control. The one thing he can’t control is what happens to his mom. It is a vulnerability on his part. I feel that’s definitely a possibility. I know nothing specifically about it, but if someone was going to get to Oswald, it would be through his mother. She’s the only person he has in his life that he loves and would do anything for.
I get so worried, because working with Carole Kane has been a dream. She brings this whole other element, not just to the show, but to Oswald’s personality and character. To lose her would be an incredible shame. If there’s anything that could take Oswald into an insane psychosis, that would be it.
What’s on your wish list for “Gotham’s” second season?
I would like them to explore more personal things about Oswald. What Carole brings to the show illuminates so much about where Penguin comes from and who he is outside of his actions and aspirations. She informs us of who he is as a person. I’d like to see more of that, and more of that for everybody in the show. Where do these people eat? Where do they sleep at night? We get that from Jim, but I’d like them to get into more personal stuff with Oswald and Bullock and Edward Nygma. How do these people actually exist in the “real world?” That’s what I would love to see.
Are you hoping the writers tackle Oswald’s fascination with umbrellas sometime soon?
That would be so exciting, because that’s also going to be part of his descent into madness. We’re getting there as the show goes along. That requires incredible ingenuity. How do you make an umbrella that shoots bullets, or, if you get really fantastical like Tim Burton, an umbrella that flies? Who does Oswald find to make that stuff for him? It would be amazing to really explore that.