They may be the bane of every crime-fighters’ existence, but without archenemies, our beloved superheroes would have quite a bit of spare time on his or her hands. In the Batman universe, the caped crusader has battled a host of curious and cunning villains, including The Joker, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, The Riddler and, of course, The Penguin. As one of Batman’s oldest and well-known adversaries, this tuxedo-wearing criminal with a penchant for umbrellas was first seen by Batman fans in the pages of DC Comics. He was eventually brought to life by Burgess Meredith in the 1960s Batman TV series and then again by Danny DeVito in the 1992 feature film Batman Returns. The Penguin has also been featured in a number of animated Batman adventures.
In the hit new Batman prequel, FOX TV’s Gotham, viewers have been introduced to a young Penguin, a.k.a. Oswald Cobblepot, a small-time hood working for mobstress Fish Mooney. When he snitches on Fish to the police, she arranges to have him disposed of, but Oswald manages to cheat death and sets out to make a name for himself in the criminal world. This interpretation of the well-known character is played to creepy perfection by actor Robin Lord Taylor. Having previously appeared in such series as The Walking Dead, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Good Wife and Person of Interest, he is perhaps best known as Abernathy Darwin Dunlap in the cult movie comedy Accepted, starring opposite Jonah Hill and Justin Long. Taylor’s other big screen credits include Would You Rather, Cold Comes the Night and Another Earth.
The talented, congenial and decidedly humble Taylor recently chatted with me and other journalists about his work on Gotham and the challenges as well as joys of taking on such an iconic fictional persona. The following is an edited version of that Q&A. Enjoy!
What was it that first attracted to you either the part or the script when you first found out about it?
Robin Lord Taylor: Well, as far as the role, I just auditioned for it blindly. It was a fake scene that they wrote together with a fake character name. I didn’t even know the name of the project until the night before my audition when my agent sort of gave me the tipoff and was like, “Oh, by the way, it (the role) is that of a young Penguin and the series (Gotham) is the origin story of Batman.” I was like, “OK.” I didn’t let that “throw” me. I’d already prepared, so I just went in, did my thing and it worked out for once.
So it was amazing, and then when I read the script, it all just came together in such a brilliant way. The Gotham pilot was one of the best scripts I’d ever read. In terms of what I really responded to was the fact that with this Penguin character, all I’d ever seen previously were these larger than life, incredible performances by Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito. In this instance, though, what was brought to the page was just the sheer humanity of the part and the fact that we’re actually trying to bring some real human pathos to this fantastic character and this fantastic world. That was immediately what I keyed into.
Other than watching the actors that have played Penguin before, was there anybody else that inspired your portrayal?
RLT: Again, I was definitely inspired by both Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito. They’re two amazing actors and to be connected to them in any way is flattering. I’m still wrapping my brain around that, so they have been an amazing influence on me. I’d also read briefly that years ago what they were considering with the Chris Nolan series. This may have all been rumor as well as conjecture, and probably was, but they thought of bringing in a Penguin character and have him played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s one of my idols in terms of actors, and another huge inspiration for me in everything I’ve done.
How was the Oswald character developed? Were you given a lot of specific direction? Was Bruno Heller (series creator/executive producer) asking for emphasis on particular aspects of the character?
RLT: I’ve said it before – everything was already right there in the script. I didn’t feel like I needed very much guidance because what was on the page was so clear, and I think we just had a mutual understanding of where we wanted the character to go and the fact that the character was so present in the script. There was sympathy as well as humanity there. It was sort of a matter of just keeping it going in that direction, and one of the most validating things for me is that people are picking up on that.
When you play a character like this, you worry about falling into the trap of it being a two-dimensional, Snidely Whiplash-type character who is doing bad things just for the sake of it. However, I’ve been so lucky with our scripts, and viewers have really been responding to the sympathetic aspect of the character, which I just think is such a wonderful new twist on this whole Batman universe that we all know so well and that has been around for 75 years.
You make Oswald’s very formal way of speaking sound quite natural and almost kind of lyrical. Where does that come from for Oswald as well as you as an actor?
RLT: Well, you see, the way Oswald was raised, although his family didn’t have much money, he comes from a somewhat aristocrat background. His family came from Europe and there’s the sense that they had a lot of money there, but then when they fled, all of that sort of went away. The tradition still remains, though, and I think you’ll definitely see that. Carol Kane is bringing that in spades to her character (of Gertrude Kapelput, Oswald’s mother), and once you see her portrayal, you really understand why Oswald speaks the way he speaks. It’s where he’s coming from as a person.
For me it’s just, again, finding the relatable in this fantastic character, do you know what I mean? I love the way Oswald is written as well as the heightened sort of way that he speaks because it sets him apart from everyone else. As I’ve said before, it illustrates where he comes from and also what it is about him that makes him different and what’s “off” about him.
We’ve seen some amazing scenes so far involving your character, including those with Jada Pinkett Smith (who plays mobstress Fish Mooney). Can you talk about some of your favorite scenes to shoot?
RLT: I would say that every chance I get to work with Jada is just an unbelievable experience. I’ve never worked so intimately with a star of her caliber and talent. When we first began working together on the pilot, I was really nervous because we all have misconceptions about people before you meet them, but Jada is so open, giving and committed to the work. There is no ego and it's just very much a case of open arms with her. She’s just there in the moment and ready to play, which is an actor’s dream. You want to work with someone who is as committed and as excited about a project as you are.
So yes, every scene with her has been amazing, and then of course on top of that, the scenes that really speak to me personally are the ones that I have with Carol Kane. I’ve been a fan of hers for years and years and the connection that we have personally as well as professionally is just really dear to my heart. Those scenes really stand out for me because they are moments where the Penguin doesn’t have to be plotting so much. I mean, yes, he constantly is plotting, but he can let his guard down a little bit. It’s just so gratifying to show another side of him, and because Carol is such a brilliant actress, you tend to lose yourself in her eyes when you’re sitting there across the couch from her. It’s really fantastic.
What about the whole aspect of him not liking people to call him Penguin or mock him in that way?
RLT: It’s funny, I think as the series goes along as he discovers his own power inside of himself, and he starts to embrace that rather than just a “name” that he has always been called and that has somewhat tortured him his entire life. I think he reaches a point where he’s like, “OK, well if you’re going to call me this, I’m going to embrace it, run with it, use it and not be a powerless person anymore.” It’s almost like facing your fears and embracing the worst thing that has ever been said about you. When you do that, it gives you power, and you then own that power, you know? So I think that’s definitely Penguin’s trajectory.
How have you seen Oswald’s relationship with his mother develop in the episodes you’ve shot so far?
RLT: Well, I think they have a remarkably close relationship. I’m going to get into a little bit of the comic book history now; Oswald was a bullied kid and he didn’t have friends really and was alone. He didn’t have peers that he could rely upon when he was young, so I think he found a great deal of that in his mother. I feel like that definitely reads in their connection and their closeness. It’s not so much creepy as it is a very insular, very close connection that they have.
Did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?
RLT: My little sister is an opera singer. She’s been a singer for her entire life and it was always very clear from the get-go that she was the star of the family. As for me, I always loved being part of school plays and things of that nature, but back then I wasn’t really aware of it (acting) being an actual profession that I could pursue. I always wanted to be involved in something creative, though, so I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll become an architect,” and I went to architecture camp, but in doing so, I quickly learned that I did not want to be an architect.
Eventually I began applying to colleges. I grew up in Iowa, and Northwestern University in Chicago is close to where I was from. It’s such an amazing school and I always knew that I wanted to go there. So when I applied, I applied early decision and when you do that, you have to declare a major, but at that point, I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do. However, I knew that the only thing that I ever got any sort of real gratification from was theater, so I just put that down as a major while thinking that I’d eventually just change it and choose something else. After all, this was just for application purposes, right, but it was the best random thing I’ve ever done. Once I found myself in that program, it was everything I wanted and it really helped me grow, not only as an actor, but as a person, too. It was the best decision I’d ever made.
We’ve had so many moments in the show so far where your character has had a go at somebody with a knife or with a bottle. When do you think he’s going to get to kill somebody with an umbrella?
RLT: I don’t know, but I hope it’s soon. As we go along and develop his relationship with the umbrella, in my head, I imagine that Oswald befriends someone like Q from James Bond, who makes him all these really fun, funky umbrella gadgets, but again, who knows what they have coming down the pipe.
How are you feeling about sort of joining an already established franchise like the Batman franchise?
RLT: I would be a robot if I didn’t feel some pressure. This is above and beyond anything I ever expected for my own career. My goals were just to have health insurance and not have to wait tables. Then, one day I found myself sharing a world with an amazingly smart, devoted audience. Of course, I want to fulfill everyone’s expectations and hopefully exceed them, but I’m not nervous only in the sense that we have the very best people in charge in Bruno Heller and (executive producer) Danny Cannon. I trust them totally and feel so comfortable in their hands. They’re just so smart and know exactly where this world is going.
So I don’t feel fear that people will be disappointed. I’m just excited because I really do believe that people will start seeing new things about these characters that have been a part of pop culture for 75 years. It’s just tremendously exciting to be able to illuminate new parts of the Penguin’s personality.
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