Only two episodes into Fox’s Batman origins drama “Gotham,” if one had to pick a breakout character from the series it’d likely be Robin Lord Taylor‘s Oswald Cobblepot. The future Penguin has been a volatile piece of the DC Comics adaptation, oscillating between mannered gentleman and bloodthirsty killer. And to hear the actor tell it, the black comedy that results from those polar opposites will continue as the series unfolds in the weeks ahead.
“When I look at past Penguin performances like Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito, the thing I walk away with is the sheer glee and fun that they bring to this sadistic person,” the actor said in a press call ahead of Monday’s new episode. “This is a very dark show that deals with dark themes, but I still love those moments where he missteps. You watch him grow and develop in front of you. It would be a disservice to the character if you started out and he knew exactly what he was doing.”
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This ‘character before the character’ concept permeates “Gotham,” though Taylor didn’t even realize he was trying out to portray the famed supervillain at first. “The roll, I auditioned for blindly. It was a fake scene they wrote with fake character names. I wasn’t told the name of the project,” he recalled. “It wasn’t until I was going in — the night before — when my agent called me and said, ‘Oh by the way, this is a young Penguin and the origin story of Batman.’ I was like ‘Okay!’ But I’d already prepared, so I just went in and did my thing, and it worked out for once. And when I read the script, it all came together in such a brilliant way. The pilot script was one of the best ones I ever read.
Taylor said he responded to this particular take on Cobblepot because “what was brought to the page was this humanity — the fact that we’re trying to bring some real human pathos to this fantastic character and this fantastic world.” For both the performer and show runner Bruno Heller, the goal was to avoid a “two-dimensional, Snidely Whiplash character.”
“I’m in excellent company. Everyone across the board from Bruno to every guest star we get is just a dream. It’s amazing.”
Looking beyond the show’s creative goals, the actor said he drew inspiration from Penguin performances both concrete and theoretical in building the part. “I was definitely inspired by both Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito. To be next to them in any way — I’m still trying to wrap my brain around them,” he said. “Briefly, they were considering in the Chris Nolan series — and this was probably all rumor and conjecture — but the thought was bringing in a Penguin character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is one of my idols as an actor. He’s just such an inspiration for me in everything that I’ve done.”
In the episodes ahead, however, the character will start to add some elements not shared with past iterations — primarily Oswald’s mother, played by longtime character actressÂ Carol Kane. “I’ve been a fan of hers for years and years, and the connection we have personally as well as professionally is very near and dear to my heart,” Taylor said. “Those scenes stand out to me because it is a moment where Penguin doesn’t have to be plotting so much. I mean, he is constantly, but he can let his guard down a little bit. It’s so gratifying to show another side of him, and she’s such a brilliant actress. You just lose yourself in her eyes as you’re sitting across from her.”
The actor explained Mrs. Cobblepot will help explain much of how the future Penguin is portrayed on the show, including his mannered affectation. “Oswald was raised — though they didn’t have much money — from a sort of aristocratic background. They came from Europe, and there’s a sense that they had a lot of money there and then fled so it went away,” he said. “But the traditions keep through. Carol Kane is bringing that to her character, and when you see more of her, you’ll understand why he speaks the way he speaks and where he’s coming from as a person. Again, it’s something relatable in this fantastic character. I love the sort of heightened way that he speaks because it sets him apart from everybody else. It shows where he comes from and what it is about him that’s different and just sort of off about him.”
Speaking of off, viewers can expect a very different kind of mother/son relationship when the pair meet up on screen. “They have a remarkably close relationship. Looking at the comic book history, he was a bullied kid who didn’t have any friends. He was alone and didn’t have peers he could rely upon. So he found a lot of that in his mother. I feel like their connection and closeness — it’s not so much creepy as it is an insular connection that they have.”
Taylor is also excited to continue his on screen connection to other cast members as “Gotham’s” first season rolls along. “Every chance I get to work with Jada [Pinkett Smith as Fish Mooney] is an unbelievable experience. I’ve never worked so intimately with a star of her caliber and her talent. Like on the pilot, when we first were interacting, I was so nervous. Everyone has misconceptions about people before you meet them, but she was so open and giving and so committed to the work. There was no ego and just open arms. She was there and ready to play. That’s an actors dream. You want to be with someone who is as committed to and excited about the project as you are.”
Overall, the actor praised the efforts of the producers and cast in delivering a high rating for “Gotham’s” debut. “The script itself? Everything was there. I didn’t feel like I needed very much guidance because what was on the page was so clear. We had a mutual understanding of where we wanted the character to go — it was just a matter of keeping it going in that direction. One of the validating things for me was that people seem to be picking up on that.”
As for how quickly Oswald will embrace the Penguin name he loathes, Taylor said that’s the trick to mapping out the character’s inner journey. “As he discovers his own power inside of himself, I think he starts to embrace that. It’s always been a name he’s been called, that’s tortured him his whole life, but he reaches a point where he thinks, ‘If you’re going to call me this, I’m going to embrace it and run with it and use it. I’m not going to be a cowardly person anymore.’ I think that’s Penguin’s trajectory.”
And will that include getting to murder someone in grisly fashion with one of the villains signature umbrellas? “I hope so!” he said with a laugh. “I have to imagine that he befriends someone like Q from James Bond who invents him all these fun, funky umbrella gadgets. But who knows what’s coming down the pike?”
In the end, the goal of “Gotham” is to build that recognizable Batman world with new layers and depth. “It’s such a new twist on this whole world that’s been around for 75 years,” Taylor said. “I would be a robot if I didn’t feel some pressure, and this is above and beyond anything I’ve done before in my career. My goal was just to have health insurance, and anything beyond that would be great. Then you find yourself in this role, with an amazingly smart and devoted audience, so of course I want to fulfill everyone’s expectations and hopefully exceed them. But with Bruno Heller and [director] Danny Cannon, I just trust them and feel so comfortable in their hands. They’re so smart and know exactly where this world is going that I don’t feel a fear that people will be disappointed. I’m excited for people to start seeing new things about these characters that have been a part of popular culture for 75 years.”
A new episode of “Gotham” debuts Monday night at 8:00 p.m. E/P on Fox.
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