‘Gotham’: Penguin actor Robin Lord Taylor cites Tim Burton influence

Sept. 22, 2014 | 4:34 p.m.
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Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), left, and Det. James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), in a scene from "Gotham." (Jessica Miglio/Fox)

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Actor Robin Lord Taylor arrives at the "Gotham" series premiere event in New York. (Evan Agostini / Invision/AP)

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"Gotham," created by executive producer/ writer Bruno Heller, traces the rise of the DC Comics supervillains and vigilantes of Batman lore. Pictured are, left, Ben McKenzie as James Gordon and Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock. (Jessica Miglio/Fox)

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Ben McKenzie, left, as James Gordon and Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock in the new series "Gotham." (Jessica Miglio/Fox)

Among the many villains in the new Fox series “Gotham,” actor Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot might stand out as one of the more unhinged personalities Det. James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) encounters as he finds his feet on a new beat in the corrupt city. One pointed scene in the premiere episode, which arrives Monday night, plays up Cobblepot’s rather robust enthusiasm for enhanced interrogation methods in the service of ruthless crime boss Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith).

But Oswald isn’t just some deranged lunatic, the actor points out — as “Gotham” unfolds, he promises, viewers will learn more about what motivates the character, and possibly even find some ways to sympathize with him. “The MO of the show,” he said, is “taking the fantastic and making it real.”

In an interview with Hero Complex late last week, Taylor, whose earlier television credits include appearances on such series as “Law & Order,” “The Good Wife,” “Person of Interest” and “The Walking Dead,” explained his take on the character, his affection for Tim Burton’s “Batman” films and how it feels to look into the mirror and see an iconic comic-book personality staring back at you.

Hero Complex: How does it feel to inhabit a role like this, a villain that’s so well-known in terms of Batman lore?

Robin Lord Taylor: It’s all there on the page, written so clearly and succinctly. Just where we’re going with the show, in terms of bringing a realistic aspect to this fantastic character, it’s something that is really exciting for me as an actor. The fact that it’s an origin story and you get an understanding of where these people are coming from, especially Oswald, it’s been amazing. On top of it, I’ve been in contact with [DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer] Geoff Johns, who’s been so supportive. He’s sent me comics that outline some origin stuff, where Penguin comes from as a kid that sort of explains that he was bullied. That’s been another way of me getting into the mind-set of this guy. On top of it, the look that they’ve created for the character … once the suit comes on, the nose goes on, the hair gets crazed, all these pieces come together and I feel like I’m stepping into his skin.

HC: That’s interesting. I had wanted to ask you how it felt the first time you saw yourself in the costume with the hair and makeup.

RLT: It’s a little of out of body. First of all, I’m a blond. I’ve never had black hair. I had a week or two to get used to that. I never played a character with such an intense look. When I sat there the first time and it all came together, it’s cheesy but I felt like I was looking down at myself and seeing all the work that I’ve put toward being an actor. I never thought I’d be able to do something like this. It was very emotional and rewarding. Having such a crazy look and having all these pieces come together, I don’t want to sell myself short, but it really makes my job so much easier. The physical transformation informs the emotional transformation. It’s almost effortless to go into this world.

HC: Did you read comic books growing up? Did you have a particular interest in Batman and the world of Gotham?

RLT: I had a few comics but I was by no means a huge aficionado. I was more of a Mad Magazine, “Calvin & Hobbes” sort of nerd. I thought I was Calvin for a little bit, but the real thing that solidified my love for the world was when I saw “Batman” opening night in the theater, the one with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. That experience I’ll never forget. I grew up in Eastern Iowa. We go to the movie theater and there was a line around the block to go in, and I had never seen that for a film before. It was an eye-opening experience. The world that Tim Burton created, just the world of Batman in general, blew my young mind open into a million pieces. And then all of the subsequent movies, I became pretty much obsessed about. I think I was maybe 7 or 8, I was young.

HC: I’m going to assume, then, that you were quite familiar with Danny DeVito’s performance as the Penguin in “Batman Returns”?

RLT: I saw “Batman Returns” in the movie theater and that was also just an amazing experience. But also that was the age when my parents got a satellite dish and we got HBO just around that time; they played that movie several times a day. That was the age where you could just watch the same movie over and over and over again — that was definitely one of those. I have seen it so many times. I was so blown away by Danny DeVito’s work — not to mention Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman — it stays with me to this day. The second I got the job, I came home and turned on the Google Chrome and watched scene after scene after scene. It was like my childhood flooding back to me.

 HC: How did you prepare for the role? Did you go back and read a lot of books? Did you have a lot of conversations with Bruno Heller about what he was looking for in this particular take on the character?

RLT: It was both. The writing itself is just so clear, I didn’t have a lot of questions. I knew exactly where he was coming from in terms of what he wanted the character to be. It made sense. I didn’t feel like I needed a lot of explanation — it was one of the best pilot scripts I’d ever read. I understood it immediately. In terms of other research, I was at an event where I got to meet Geoff Johns, I said to him, “If you know of anything I should read or familiarize myself with, send me the titles and I’ll go find them.” He was like, “No, no. Just give me your address.” Two weeks later, I get two comics from Geoff Johns — one in particular, “Penguin: Pain and Prejudice,” which really goes into his childhood and what he went through as a bullied kid. It brought the character to a realistic place as opposed to just a black-and-white evil guy who does things for the sake of being bad.  That was invaluable information to get, and to get it from Geoff Johns, I was completely nerding out in a way I’ve never done before. I kept the envelope. I kept it all — it’s all going in the proverbial scrapbook. I’ll have to get a storage locker at some point. I live in a small apartment. There’s only so much Batman memorabilia a guy can hang on to in New York City.

Actor Robin Lord Taylor arrives at the "Gotham" series premiere event in New York. (Evan Agostiniti/Invision/AP)

Actor Robin Lord Taylor arrives at the “Gotham” series premiere event in New York. (Evan Agostini / Invision/AP)

HC: What can you say about Oswald’s arc this season? Can viewers expect to learn more about his origins?

RLT: Definitely. The fact that I’ve shot a couple of scenes with my mom, who is played by the amazing Carol Kane… Their relationship is as strange [as you might expect] — it makes the character come alive. Those scenes stand out to me — she’s the only person he trusts in Gotham City, so [he is] able to let his guard down to a certain extent. It’s still a mother-son relationship. You only tell your parents 90% of the stuff you do — you’re not going to tell them everything because you don’t want them to worry. But the fact that he is able to let his guard down for a minute brings out this new side of him that people have never seen before. Also, working with Carol is amazing. I’ve been a fan of hers for forever. “Princess Bride,” “Scrooged,” was a huge film for me when I was a kid. It’s just those moments where we’re sitting down, holding hands, and she’s looking at me with those crazy big blue eyes, it’s like, is this really happening? Nothing about this experience gets old.

— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex


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9 Responses to ‘Gotham’: Penguin actor Robin Lord Taylor cites Tim Burton influence

  1. Breanna says:

    I've watched a few episodes of Gotham. I don't think the could have found a better 'Penguin' than RLT. You can see that he has alot of hurt inside when people call him Penguin. There is also a humanity within him that just needs the proper venue to be exposed. There's a back story there and I will look forward to seeing what that is. I have never watched a Batman movie before, being a woman, so my husband fills me in on the character profiles. Seems like a good cast.

    • Laura says:

      I agree with you on all counts, except for the phrase, "being a woman." Whoever told you that Batman movies are for guys is being as sexist as kids' commercials, and is robbing you of an enriching experience. There are plenty of fellow women willing to welcome you with open arms into the Batman fandom, and you are just as likely to find a female Batman fan as you are to find a male Batman fan. You definitely seem to appreciate good characters, and I would personally like to recommend which Batman movies to start watching with your husband ^.^

  2. sandra slaven says:

    I think robin lord taylor is the most perfect choice for the character penguin. he is a born actor and aces the role. I don't know how old he is but he is my new favorite actor now. I cant miss an episode of this new show. I like all the actors by the way. the were all chosen carefully and correctly. my complements to the casting people. I hope gotham stays on tv for 20 years or more.

  3. John Rotten says:

    Sorry… but I disagree. I'm not loving RLT. I hope he escapes to the sewers soon. His acting just feels silly in the midst of such a cool show concept.

  4. Neil Voorhees says:

    This is a fantastic show and RLT's transformation has been amazing. What a great actor!

  5. SID says:

    He is the best actor in the show and plays the part to perfection.

  6. deb says:

    HOOKED!! Both myself and my 83yr old mother. And she ws never a comic book/ sci-fi fan. The Penguin is lovingly devious and wickedly fun! Ben as Jim Gordon is the perfect counter character for him.

  7. Nancy says:

    So far….GREAT….love the show, LOVE Penquin!!!!!!!!!
    I just wish it was on every day!!
    Has that comic book feel, I am a FAN forever !

  8. Gotham Fan says:

    This kid is good, he's like a creepier Michael Madsen.

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