Gotham (FOX, Mondays, 8/7C) was the most anticipated new show of the fall season – and the backstories of some of Batman’s most iconic foes was part of the reason for that.
One of the Dark Knight’s most iconic foes is The Penguin – Oswald Cobblepot, played in his embryonic state by Robin Lord Taylor – and the series has a genuinely unique on the future criminal mastermind. On Friday, Taylor spoke with a group of bloggers/journalists about the role – getting it; his sources of inspiration, what it’s like to work with some of his amazing co-stars.
Hi. Thanks so much for talking to us today.
Robin Lord Taylor: Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s why I’m [Indiscernible] here, totally.
I’m really enjoying the show and you’re really great in it. You steal the show in a lot of places.
Robin: Oh my gosh. Thanks so much. I’m in excellent, excellent company, everyone across the board from Bruno to every star, every guest star we get has just been just a dream. It’s amazing.
So, what was it, though, that first attracted to you either the part or the script when you found out about it?
Robin: The script, well the role I just auditioned for blindly. It was a fake scene that they wrote together with a fake character named— I wasn’t told the name of the project. It wasn’t until I was going in the night before where my agent sort of gave me the tipoff and was like, “Oh, by the way, it’s a young Penguin and this is the origin story of Batman.” I was like, “Okay.” I didn’t let that— I had already prepared and I just went in and did my thing and it just worked out for once.
It was amazing, and then when I read the script, it all just came together in such a brilliant way. The pilot script was one of the best ones that I’ve ever read. In terms of what I really responded to was the fact that this character, though, from all I’d ever seen, these larger than life, incredible performances of the character by Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito, but what was brought to the page was just this humanity 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 just keyed into.
Great. Was there anybody, other than watching the actors that have played Penguin before, was there anybody else that inspired your portrayal?
Robin: I’m inspired by—I was definitely inspired by both Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito. They’re just two just amazing characters and to be connected to them in anyway is just—I’m still wrapping my brain around that, but I would say definitely they’ve been an amazing influence on me and then also just I’d read briefly that when they were considering years ago about in the Chris Nolan series—This may have all been rumor and conjecture. It probably was, but the thought of bringing in a Penguin character and have it be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is one of my idols in terms of actors. I look at him and he’s just been such an inspiration for me in everything that I’ve done. I would say those guys.
I have to say I haven’t enjoyed a villain so much since Ben on Lost. You are just exceptional in this role.
Robin: Oh my gosh. You have no idea how much that means to be because Michael Emerson is such a great guy and Ben is another huge influence on me, and wow, that’s amazing. Thank you.
Really, you can see it because there’s something about your characterization of the villain that brings out a lot of humanity and is so horrible, but yet so memorable. I absolutely appreciate it. How was the presentation of Oswald developed? Were you given a lot of specific direction? Was Bruno Heller asking for emphasis on particular aspects? Anything like that?
Robin: It was—I said it before. The script itself was just—everything was there. I didn’t feel like I needed very much guidance because just what was on the page was just 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 in the script was present—There was sympathy there and there was humanity there. It was just sort of a matter of just keeping it going in that direction and that’s been one of the most validating things for me is that people are picking up on that.
You worry when you play a character like this, you worry about falling into just the trap of it being a two-dimensional, like a Snidely Whiplash-type character just doing bad things for the sake of doing bad things, but I’ve been so lucky in this script. People have really been responding to the sympathetic aspect of the character, which I think is just such a new twist on this whole world that we’ve known, that has been around for 75 years, the Batman universe.
Right. Also, as far as the presentation goes, you make Oswald’s very formal way of speaking sound very natural and almost kind of lyrical. Where does that come from for Oswald and for you as an actor?
Robin: Well, you see for Oswald, he was raised in—though they didn’t have much money, he comes from a somewhat aristocratic background. His family came from Europe and they still—there’s the sense that they had a lot of money there, but then when they fled, all of that sort of went away, but the tradition still remains and I think you’ll definitely see that. Carol Kane is bringing that in spades to her character, and once you see her and her characterization, you really understand why he speaks the way he speaks. It’s where he’s coming from as a person.
For me, it’s just, again, it’s finding the relatable in this fantastic character. You know what I mean? I love the way it’s written. I love the heightened sort of way that he speaks because it sets him apart from everybody else and it just illustrates, like I said before, where he came from and also what it is about him that is different and there’s a thing that’s just sort off about him.
You’re a part of social media. Are you enjoying that instant fan feedback you’ve been given when the episodes air?
Robin: I have been. It’s been like—it’s a rollercoaster. When we’re watching the show and I’m live Tweeting, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. I have two computers open, my phone. It’s an intense experience because you want to respond to everybody and you want to—you just want to absorb how people are reacting to your work. It’s just I never thought I would be part of something that would be so immediately—that people would have such an immediate response to and then also on top of that be able to respond in real time.
It’s a connection to the audience that you only really find—it’s almost like going back to theater. You know what I mean? Because when you’re doing a play and you’re on stage, you feel that energy from people and you can tell when things are landing and you can tell what people are responding to, and then having Twitter there, it’s a very similar experience in a way. Only, in this world I’m actually responding back as opposed to just doing the thing on stage or whatever.
Yes. It must be kind of surreal to have people flip out just because you favorited something that they tweeted you. Even that goes a long way on social media.
Robin: Yes. It really does and I don’t want it to be like—The thing I would hate most is to come off as cynical or anything. I really truly, truly appreciate the feedback. When the news was announced, forgive me if I’ve said this before, when the news was announced that I would be playing the character, there was some negative feedback, which I wasn’t really expecting, but the feedback was stuff like, “He’s too skinny,” and “He’s too tall.” I was like, oh my God, I’ve never heard these things said about me in my entire life.
If this is as bad as it gets, I’ll take it, whatever, but yes, I would say like 99.9% of the responses that I’ve been receiving have been so positive. It’s just so validating. You [indiscernible] that you love so much and then to have people responding to it in that way is just—It’s more than icing on the cake. It is the cake.
We’ve seen some amazing scenes so far in these few episodes and we’ve gotten to see you play so well against Jada Pinkett Smith. Can you talk about some of your favorite scenes to shoot?
Robin: I would say, well, every chance I get to work with Jada (Pinkett-Smith, Fish Mooney) is just an unbelievable experience. I’ve never worked so intimately with a star of her caliber and of her talent. When you come on set, everyone, like on the pilot when we first were interacting, I was really nervous and everyone has misconceptions about people before they meet them and then she was just so open and giving and so committed to the work and there was no ego and it was just open arms. She’s just there and ready to play and that’s an actor’s dream. You want to be with someone who is as committed and as excited about a project as you are.
So, yes, every scene with her, and then of course on top of that, the scenes that really, really speak to me personally are the scenes that I have with Carol. I’ve been a fan of Carol Kane, who plays my mom, I’ve been a fan of hers for years and years and years and the connection that we have personally as well as professionally is just really, really dear to my heart.
It’s also just 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 and it’s just so gratifying to show another side of him and she’s just a brilliant, brilliant actress. You just lose yourself in her eyes when you’re sitting there across the couch from her. It’s really fantastic.
Don’t call him Penguin.
Robin: Right. That’s right. Totally. Although, it’s a funny thing. I think like as the series goes along as he discovers his own power inside of himself I think he starts to embrace that as instead of being something that he’s been, well it’s always been a name that he’s been called that’s somewhat tortured him his whole life, and then I think he reaches a point where he’s like, “Okay, well if you’re going to call me this, I’m going to embrace it and I’m going to run with it and I’m going to use that and I’m not going to be a powerless person anymore.”
It’s almost like facing your fears and embracing the worst thing that’s said about you, and when you do that, that gives you the power. You then own that. You know what I mean? I think that’s definitely Penguin’s trajectory.
Listen, very quickly, I’ve got to echo everyone else’s response. You are doing an amazing job in this role. You’ve taken creepy to a new level, but again, as people pointed out, you bring a real humanity. You really feel bad for your character, so you’re doing a great balancing act. You really are.
Robin: Thanks. It’s just so great. I’m just so grateful to hear people saying that because that’s been my approach this whole time and it’s just so validating to know that people are responding to that. You have no idea. Thank you.
I wondered if maybe you could talk a little about, just in your eyes, how do you sort of see your character’s relationship with his mother and how has that maybe sort of developed, as far as you can speak, in the episodes you’ve worked on so far?
Robin: Well, I think they have a remarkably close relationship and I think that she’s been, I think because—I’m going to get into a little bit of the comic book history. He was a bullied kid and he didn’t have friends, really, and he was alone. He didn’t have peers that he could rely upon when he was young, so I think he found a lot of that in his mother. I feel like that definitely reads in their connection, just their closeness. It’s not so much creepy as it is a very insular, just very close connection that they have. I could end it there. I don’t know. I lost my train of thought, but yes, that’s sort of where that is.
Then, just as a followup, a general question for you, Robin. I wanted to find out did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?
Robin: My little sister is an opera singer and she’s been a singer for her entire life and so it was always very clear from the get go that she was the star of the family, and for myself, I always loved being part of school plays and everything and I kind of had it in my head, I didn’t know that this was something, like a reality really, and for a little bit, I was considering—I always wanted to be involved in something creative, so I thought, oh maybe I’ll be an architect and I went to architecture camp. I quickly learned that I did not want to be an architect.
At that point, that was when I was applying to schools and I had always known that Northwestern University was somewhere— I grew up in Iowa. It’s in Chicago. It’s close to where I was from, but it was 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 apply, you have to declare a major, and at that point, I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do.
I only knew that the only thing that I ever got any sort of real gratification from was theater, so I just put it down thinking I’ll just change it, I’ll find something else, this is just for application purposes, but it was the best random thing that I’ve ever done because once I found myself in that program it just was everything that I wanted and it really helped me grow not just as an actor, but as a person. It was the best decision I made.
One of the moments I think from the last episode that really stood out was at the end when Oswald is attempting to be a threatening kidnapper on the phone of that college bro and just failing to have the gravitas that makes it seem like he really is the monster he’s been behaving as. Do you see more, I guess, of that kind of black-comedy tone working its way into the character’s performance and into the show a little bit as we move forward?
Robin: I would hope so. That’s the thing. When I think about influences for me, like Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito, what I walk away from with their performance is just the sheer glee and fun that they bring to this sadistic person and the show itself is a dark show and it deals with very dark themes, but I love those moments where—Since we’re starting at the beginning of his life, I want to see him—I love those moments where he makes missteps and you watch him grow and develop in front of you.
It would be almost a disservice to the character if he just started off right away and knew exactly what he was doing. You know what I mean? It’s those little like hiccups and failures that make him I think sympathetic. Well, sympathetic is weird because he’s terrible, but that make him identifiable or that people can identify with and not just a two-dimensional, just bad guy.
We’ve had so many moments in the show so far where you’ve got to go at somebody with a knife or with a bottle. When do you think you’re going to get to kill somebody with an umbrella?
Robin: I don’t know, but I hope it’s soon. As we go, we develop his relationship with the umbrella, and in my head, I imagine that he befriends someone like Q from James Bond who makes him all the really fun funky umbrella gadgets, but who knows what they have coming down the pipe. I don’t know.
I really am enjoying your character and [indiscernible].
Robin: Thanks so much.
Here is what, you’re sort of joining a franchise that’s got a real rabid built-in fan base. Right? People on the show, really strict expectations. Are you feeling pressure or are you feeling like no, I can do whatever I want? How are you feeling about sort of joining an already established franchise like this?
Robin: I would be a robot if I didn’t feel some pressure. You know what I mean? This is above and beyond anything I ever expected for my own career. My goals were just to have health insurance. You know what I mean? And to not have to wait tables. Then, you find yourself in this world with this just 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 I have the best—Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon are just—I feel so, I just trust them and feel so comfortable in their hands and they’re just so smart and they know exactly where this world is going.
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 popular culture for 75 years. It’s just so exciting to be able to illuminate new parts of this personality.
You’re doing a really good job. I’m not disappointed, definitely. I’m not disappointed.
Robin: Good, good. Thank goodness.
There’s also chatter, good and bad, too, about the expanding universe. The part of Fish Mooney is supposedly sort of new to the show and stuff. How do you answer all that chatter? What do you say to folks?
Robin: I don’t know. I guess I can just say just trust that the people that are in charge of this, that the people who are driving this ship, have everyone’s best interest in mind. They want it to make sense to everyone and that’s their ultimate goal is that this is the Gotham City that forms Bruce Wayne and they want to do it in a way that just does so much good service to all of the other iterations that have come before. I’d just say trust in Bruno Heller and he’s a freaking genius.
You’ve talked a lot about humanizing the character and showing the origin story and the humane side of it and where he came from. One thing that I really appreciate about the show, though, is that you guys are not shying away from the sort of violent, cruel nature of him. He’s kind of a bad guy like in the first episode when his eyes light up when he’s beating that guy for the first time or the poor guy sitting there fishing. What did he ever do to you? And I appreciate that.
Now, how are you balancing, because that is an important of it, because he is a villain and a fairly bad villain, so how do you balance humanizing him and yet remembering, in a world now where we all think penguins are cute because of Disney, remembering that this is a very bad guy and you also have to portray that side?
Robin: I would say the way I personally approach it is the fact that, and this is where I identify with the character, not that I was ever bullied to the extent that he was, but we all understand what it means to be different and what it means to be treated like you’re less than another person just based on whatever it may be; the way you look or whatever it is, and that fear of being powerless and just being at the whim of everyone else.
The only difference though is that Oswald has very little empathy in terms of—He just refuses to go back to that place of powerlessness. It is not even a conversation that—There’s no conflict in his mind about that, so in terms of becoming powerful and not being walked upon any more, that’s the fuel that drives him to make these terrible decisions, and I think that is somewhat the human aspect of him.
I think once you understand where someone has come from and their situation and their life and it does not excuse their horrible, horrible behavior, but it does humanize them and I think that’s definitely what I’m keying into and that’s what we’re trying to portray on the show.
Also, I guess, but what you guys have done a good job of doing, though I think maybe when you look back at, I would say even the most terrifying criminals in the history of human beings, what terrifies us most I think is that lack of empathy—
—because most of us have that empathy, but if you can show, even just in your eyes, a little bit that you don’t quite have that empathy, I think that’s terrifying to the audience. Don’t you?
Robin: Absolutely. I do and I think that’s what keeps everyone from going ballistic on everyone else in the world. You know what I mean? It’s the fact that we have, the majority of us have that and to see someone who doesn’t is truly terrifying. But at the same time, where I approach the character, what I understand from reading the comics, the fact that he was bullied and that he was shown no mercy and no empathy when he was younger, that really forms a person. You know what I mean? And that’s sort of—I believe that’s where he’s coming from in those situations, but yes, he could definitely use a good psychiatrist. That’s for sure.
All right. That’s great. Thanks very much. Keep up the good work.
Robin: Thanks, man. I really appreciate it.
Photos by Justin Stephens and Jessica Miglio/Courtesy of FOXZ