In a thoughtful, analytical conference call with press just days prior to the premiere of Fox’s hotly anticipated series chronicling the dark years in Gotham City immediately after the murder of the young Bruce Wayne’s parents, McKenzie revealed a detailed sense of his personal take on his character, the young rookie cop who eventually becomes police commissioner and Batman’s loyal ally, at the beginning of his long struggle to clean up the gritty urban landscape’s crime-infested streets — and contain an emerging breed of colorful, psychopathic uber-criminals.
Based on his comments, it became clear that the actor has clearly put a great deal of thought into his approach and performance as Gordon. During the call, he unveiled significant new aspects of the young detective’s character arc and “Gotham’s” first season direction, as well as the character’s allies, both expected and unexpected. His clear intention to keep his version of Gordon as grounded and true-to-life as possible is apparent, even as the city the series is based in grows increasingly nightmarish.
On how he became a resident of “Gotham”:
Ben McKenzie: I worked with Bruno Heller on a pilot — when “Southland” was ending, we did a pilot for CBS that Warner Bros. produced, and it didn’t go to series, so Bruno called me in January or February of this year and said, “I have a script that I’ve written and I’d like to send it to you. I’ve written the part of Jim Gordon with you in mind, and I’d like you to take a look.” So it kind of started from that.
As far as the attraction, the opportunity to work with Bruno again was top of the list. We had a very good time on the pilot, and we see eye to eye on a lot of things. Our sensibilities are similar. It’s always exciting to be a part of this mythology that’s been around for 75 years, but it’s also a bit daunting, so I would say it was both an attraction and a cause for a series of meetings to talk about how, exactly, this would work and how we wouldn’t screw it up and how I wouldn’t embarrass myself completely and all those sorts of things — which Bruno and Danny Cannon more or less assured me that, worst case, it would only mildly fail; it wouldn’t be a huge disaster, so that was pretty much how it all came to be. I’m a fan of Batman, but not a hardcore fan.
On the differences and similarities about being a law officer in the dark city of Gotham and Los Angeles’ mean streets of “Southland”:
The overall similarity is probably in the mentality of law enforcement officers. The sense of wanting to really uphold a sense of morality and make sure that the laws are enforced, to the letter, whenever possible. I just got an email from the guy who did some of our tactical training on “Southland,” who’s a cop in LAPD, just congratulating me on “Gotham,” and they captured a serial killer recently who was on the run and blowing people away with shotguns. There’s bad stuff that happens in real life.
In “Gotham,” we want to keep a sense of realism, but at the same time it’s fantastical and it is meant to be a little bit more approachable, in the sense that it’s not so starkly drawn. In “Southland,” it was so real that I think at times it could be quite frightening. We don’t want to acknowledge that people do terrible, terrible things to each other. In “Gotham,” I think we want to have a little more fun with it. We want to feel free to take a certain amount of liberty with tactical stuff, and give it kind of a throwback to an old school, gumshoe show, a noir kind of conceit with a little bit of cop tactics in it.
On working opposite of “Gotham’s” primary Season One villain from the Bat-pantheon, Robin Lord Taylor‘s Penguin:
He’s a phenomenally talented guy and an incredibly nice person. One story that would illustrate that is the scene where I’m walking him to the end of a pier and I’m almost putting a bullet in his head, but instead I’m pushing him off. It took take after take to get it exactly right, and I kept grabbing him by the shirt collar roughly, to make it look real. After four hours of this he very, very politely said, “Um, could you possibly get the collar a little bit more?” And he opened up his shirt and his chest was just bright red from scratches everywhere. He’s the sweetest villain I think I’ve ever possibly worked with, and I think that comes alive on screen. Obviously, he’s playing more of a demented guy, but — I don’t really know how to describe it — his charm comes through on screen and you end up loving this little, weasely henchman, and almost rooting for him. I think it’s a brilliant turn, and it’s largely unlike anything you’ve seen from Penguin before. And that’s exactly what we’d like to do with all of the villains on this, is give them latitude to make it their own and not feel as if they’re doing some imitation of some other actor who’s played a villain before.
On Gordon’s signature mustache, and McKenzie’s lack thereof:
I had lengthy conversations with Bruno and Danny about everything else — lengthy, lengthy conversations about all sorts of things, and then as soon as it hit the Internet that I was doing it — [Laughs] all anyone wanted to talk about was whether I had a mustache or not. I thought about ringing Bruno and saying, “Uh, one last thing…” We just literally never talked about it. And then I brought it up and he was like, “No — that would look ridiculous on you. We’re not doing that.” You know, it’s 20 years before he can grow into the maturity and wisdom that it takes to sport a mustache — and that’s the line we’re sticking to! Maybe 20 years from now, a mustache will feel, y’know, earned.
I can grow it, for the record. If you think that I can’t, you should watch “Junebug.” I’m not afraid of the mustache; I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for the age.
On how his previous stint in Gotham City, voicing the young Batman in the animated “Batman: Year One,” informed him in his new role:
I’ve always been a fan of “Year One,” even before I did the voice of Bruce/Batman for it, and so it was an opportunity to re-read it as an adult and to look more closely at it in terms of how to interpret it on screen, albeit with just my voice, not my body. I would say it certainly pulled me in a little bit closer, and then, when “Gotham” came about, [DC Entertainment chief creative officer] Geoff Johns sent me a bunch of literature, including “Gotham Central” and “The Long Halloween” and the like.
I think it certainly helps to understand what this is all coming out of, and what this is all coming out of, of course, is the comics that have evolved, wildly, over 75 years. I think you pick certain reference points, at least stylistically, to go out and do what we do on any other job, which is to work on the script, work with the director and your fellow actors to bring those scenes to life — playing your beats and playing your objective and not really doing anything different than you would do in any other job, except that you know there’s a certain heightened style to it.
On his role in the show’s stuntwork — and yes, he’s okay after his recently reported on-set head injury:
I try to handle as much as I can, as much as I feel comfortable with. We have a great stunt team, led by Norman Douglas, our stunt coordinator. I do as much as I can — stunts or action is a big part of the show. That being said, it’s coming from a central conceit for the world we’re showing to be more swift and brutal than operatic and grandiose. If Jim is in a fight, he wants to get it over as quickly as possible, and take out whoever he has to take out as swiftly and efficiently as possible. So it’s more in the kind of brutal, military fashion than it is in a more kung fu-style, sort of acrobatic stuff. There hasn’t been a lot of wirework and things like that yet. We may get to that point, but I would prefer that this guy is portrayed for what Danny and Bruno and I think he is, which is an old school hero — just a man who can’t jump over buildings or fly through the air. He has to use what he’s got, and he has to occasionally lose. I think that grounds him in more of a sense of reality, so that’s what we’re aiming for. But that being said, each episode, the fight scenes get more and more complicated, so we may up there anyway. We’ll see.
On his personal taste in Bat-villains, and the possibility of more fantastical foes like Killer Croc and Clayface eventually surfacing on the show:
Because he’s front and center in the pilot, I’m really excited for people to see what Robin is doing with the Penguin. I have a weird soft spot in my heart for Nygma. I’ve always liked The Riddler — I know that’s an unorthodox choice, and a lot of people hate the Riddler, but I find the Riddler fascinating. Scarecrow, I think is really cool. There has been no talk thus far that I’m aware of — and I’m not in the writers’ room, obviously — of the non-human Batman villains. I think we’ll start with the humans and we’ll branch out from there. But again, it’s early days. We’re only eight episodes into shooting, so we hopefully — knock on wood — have a long way to go, and we can bring those people — or non-people — in if need be.
On the big moment ahead that he’s excited to watch himself:
We come to a place around the seventh episode where certain things come to a head and Jim is put into a place where he has to take action, and I’m pretty fond of it. I haven’t seen it cut together — we just shot it — but I’m pretty fond of it. Bruno wrote the pilot and the first episode, and then the seventh episode, so I’m a big fan of whenever he writes the episodes directly. We have a great team of writers, but it all kind of comes out of his demented mind, so I’m very excited about that.
I think the episodes that I’ve seen — I’ve only seen the first three — are really strong, and they have different things going for them. What’s nice is that in the pilot alone, we’ve laid the groundwork for an enormous number of characters to spring out, and we’ve hopefully laid the foundation for a world where you can walk down any alley in Gotham and encounter some bizarre human being who might become a villain or a hero, or who might get killed, you know, immediately, and that’s an exciting maze to walk through. I think that presents us with — I don’t want to say unlimited opportunities, but bountiful opportunities for characters as we go forward.
On finding the right rapport with his “Gotham” co-stars:
Donal [Logue] and I had never met before, but there were a lot of sort of two degrees of connection between us, and I’d always heard great things about him. I’d worked with his sister on “Southland” for an episode. She played a hooker — I had her by the throat in an alley in Downtown L.A., and she was fantastic.
The reputation that Donal has, deservedly so, is of a real gamer, a guy who comes in and does the work, and is a team player and brings an enormous amount of life to every character. He brings humor and pathos, and so that was a really easy kind of connection, and I think we realized very early on — from the moment we were announced, we just reached out to each other and said, “We’ve got to make this as good as we can, because it’s going to live or die — at least in the pilot — in large measure on whether we like these two guys, individually and together, whether we like this partnership. At the end of the day, we are relying a little bit on that old cop conceit, you know? A mismatched pair of cops. And we have to find a way of doing that that feels authentic and is endearing, in a way, is interesting to watch. With him, it was easy. We have a great cast, up and down the line. I would probably lie to you and tell that even if we didn’t, but we do actually! Everyone is coming in and working, and working hard, and as long as it stays that way, we should have a great show and a great environment to work in. Donal and I will make sure that happens, and it’s all going to be great.
On working with David Mazouz, who plays the young Bruce Wayne.
David is amazing, he really is. He listens, which is an incredibly hard thing to teach anyone, and is something that I struggle with now — any actor struggles with. It’s the hardest thing to do on camera, I think, with all the chaos of a film set, to just listen to what the other actor is saying to you and how they’re saying it in that moment, from take to take, and he does. He’s terrific, and he couldn’t be a nicer young man. He was raised correctly, and he’s perfect for Bruce. Yeah, that was easy, too. He’s more calm than I am. I’m kind of blown away, sometimes.
On the central acting challenges of portraying Jim Gordon:
The initial challenge is to not let the mythology, to the degree that Batman and all of his mythology has permeated all aspects of pop culture, overwhelm what is, at the end of the day, just an acting gig. A great acting gig — it’s a little more public than others, but at the end of the day, it’s just a part that you play on, in this case, a TV show, and you have to treat it like any other. You have to look at the script.
My school of acting is that there is no character. No such thing as the character. There is no Jim Gordon or Bruce Wayne or Batman, for that matter. There’s only the script and the actor that’s playing the part. If you cast a thousand different actors as Jim Gordon, you get a thousand different Jim Gordons. And as long as I was able to sort of breathe in that, that was helpful. When it comes to understanding him and playing him, it was conversations with Bruno about “Well, who is he?” There are plot mechanics — a lot of plot mechanics — in the pilot alone that have to get ironed out in order to tell the story and the world that we’re setting up. It has to happen awfully fast. But if we don’t understand his point of view coming into it, and we don’t believe his point of view, we’re going to have trouble. So a lot of what I was talking about with Bruno was that he can’t come in completely naive and completely blown away by the corruption in Gotham. He can be idealistic, but he has to understand that people are capable of terrible, terrible things, because he’s a war hero, he’s served overseas, he’s seen terrible things himself. So long as he understands how bad people can be to each other, and yet he rejects that and still believes in such a bizarre concept as right and wrong, then his whole point of view is framed and it can all proceed from there. As we go forward in this season, and in the show in general, he can become more and more surrounded by the powers-that-be in Gotham and his own moral compass can be thrown off. He will have to make deals with the devil in order to get along in Gotham and to make progress, and so that journey, I think, is kind of fascinating. But we start him with a real sense of morality and a real sense of experience.
On “Gotham’s” powerful, authoritative women:
You’re right — there are a lot of powerful [female] characters in “Gotham,” and what I think is kind of great about “Gotham” is that we can portray a society that is similar to ours, perhaps, but in which there is no even understanding of racism or sexism. It’s all just kind of whoever is battling for power in a city that’s completely fallen, and Fish Mooney is really good at it. She’s an enforcer for Carmine, and she’s really tough, she’s really smart, and she uses her sex appeal to get what she wants. Jada [Pinkett-Smith], she just kills it. She’s really, really, really strong and powerful and interesting — and funny, at times.
And then Capt. Essen, played by Zabryna [Guevara], is kind of stuck in a hard place because as captain of the GCPD, she has to answer to a number of different bosses: not just her superiors in her department, but effectively, in some senses, the Mob themselves, because they have such deep ties to the police department and the mayor’s office that sometimes her hands are tied. That being said, she wants to catch whatever criminal we’re chasing that particular week, and she wants to support her detectives, so over time, Gordon earns her respect and her trust and her support. And eventually, as you’ll see down the line, she’ll put herself out on a limb for him. Some of the first season is Jim figuring out which cops in the department he can trust and which ones he can’t, and there are surprising twists and turns in those relationships. Some people that you’d think would be his enemies are actually kindred spirits. He needs to assemble a team going forward the he can actually use to bring justice.
On the increasing popularity of comic book characters and stories as the source material for high profile film and television projects:
I would say at this point, 75 years into Batman, comics have become American folklore. They’re what we have, as a younger country, to pass down from generation to generation, and to evolve from generation to generation to fit the society in which we live. Batman is a really interesting example of that, in that he is a vigilante, fighting for justice in an unjust world. I think there’s an awful lot of cynicism around us, and so we can all kind of relate to the idea of having this caped crusader out there fighting for us and fighting for justice.
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