Set in Gotham City shortly after the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, “Gotham” consistently ranked in top 10 listings last season thanks to its gritty portrayals of the origin stories behind iconic characters from the Batman saga — including Catwoman, The Riddler, The Joker, James Gordon and more. In fact, it was so successful that FOX quickly extended its first season order, and we are all now eagerly awaiting the second half of season two, which premieres February 29th.
Although well-known actors such as Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue and Jada Pinkett Smith anchor the ensemble cast, it was relative newcomer Robin Lord Taylor who proved to be the breakout star. The depth and layers he brings to Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin, add a rich, empathetic humanity to the power-mad character played by Burgess Meredith in the 60s and Danny DeVito in the 90s. Rave reviews from Esquire and The Wall Street Journal have signaled Taylor as a rising star to watch.
We recently chatted with the 36-year-old actor about his 10-year rise to stardom, his insight into Cobblepot and how he’d like to see The Penguin’s
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How did you find out about “Gotham” and what was your initial reaction to
When I prepared for the audition, I didn’t know what it was. It was the “Untitled Warner Bros Project,” and it was a fake scene. The night before, my agent told me that it was the prequel to Batman, and that I was auditioning to play The Penguin. I thought, I’m just going to go in and do my thing and see what happens. When I got the callback, I went to L.A. and read the pilot script. It was one of the best pilots I've ever read.
What did you like about this particular take on the Batman saga?
What I liked most was the fact that we’re telling parts of the story that have not been told before. I also like that we’re seeing these iconic characters that we all know and grew up with, but we’re seeing them at a time in their life when they’re finding their way and discovering things about themselves and Gotham City that informs who they end up becoming. When I read the pilot script, I was so impressed with how they were going for the humanity in these characters. As an actor, that’s what you want to play.
Were you a fan of the Batman comics growing up?
I had read some of the comics, but not a lot of them. I was always into the movies and even the Adam West series. I watched it every day after school. I wanted to be part of that world — to be telling these stories that haven’t been told. When I got the job, I did some research into the comics. There are a couple of comics that explore Oswald’s childhood, and the fact that he was bullied was my hook into his humanity. It explained a lot about him and his crazy ambitions.
Tell me about your insight into Oswald’s character. How did you want to make your portrayal different?
I really responded to the character’s ambition, and his desire to be the smartest one in the room. He’s steps ahead of everyone else because he has this huge desire not to be a powerless person. I grew up in a small town in Iowa as an artistic kid, and it was like “Friday Night Lights.” The only thing that I wanted to make different than what we had seen before was to add a little bit more humanity — something that people could identify with in a deep way and understand his motivations and where he’s coming from.
Villains always think they're right. How do you get inside that mindset and away from the stereotype of being a villain?
I feel like no matter what character it is, the actor has to find something inside of that character that resonates on a human level. You can’t really judge them, you just have to understand them. Oswald views the world, and Gotham City in particular, as a place where there is no black and white, no good or bad. It’s all shades of gray. In order to succeed, you always have to look out for number one, stand up for yourself and not be afraid to make very difficult choices.
You've been a professional actor for 10 years, and this is obviously a big role. What was it like to read the early reviews of your performance?
It’s insane! There’s really nothing that prepared me for that. I never expected to be part of something this big, and to get such great responses from reviewers is just incredibly validating. You spend so much time trying to get to a certain place in your career that it becomes your identity: “I’m a struggling actor.” Then you get your big break, and then what happens now? This kind of thing doesn’t really happen to a lot of people. You don’t want to expect that it will, but you hope it will. It’s like, “Holy crap, here we go!” It’s a crazy ride.
Have you attended any of the big Comic-Cons since the show took off?
Yes, we did San Diego last year, when we screened the pilot before it premiered. After the show came out, we did New York Comic-Con. People were amazing in San Diego, but the show hadn’t proven itself yet. New York was a whole different story. People were so into it and had so many more questions about the world we’re creating. Fans of this genre are some of the smartest fans out there. They take ownership of these characters. They see things sometimes that we, as actors, don’t even see. The feedback is incredible, both good and bad. To be something that people are talking about is the dream, and people are definitely talking about it.
You came out publicly last year. How do you feel about people delving into your personal life?
It’s just part of the world. I’m comfortable with myself and my lifestyle. I’m married, and have been for almost four years. Big props to Iowa for getting that done: They were one of the first states to do so. The only thing that’s weird about it is that I consider myself a character actor. Most of the character actors that I appreciate, I don’t know anything about their personal lives. I feel like that takes away from the illusion that we’re trying to create. That being said, I have no problem talking about my life. I try to keep my marriage personal. But in terms of being an “out” actor, I don’t worry about it the way I used to.
With Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Academy Awards and “Empire” tackling homosexuality in the hip-hop community, do you feel like attitudes in Hollywood have changed since you started doing this?
Oh yeah, 100 percent. The people who run the studios and make the big decisions in terms of casting have evolved, just like the rest of the country. It’s really exciting to see. You hear about certain actors who don’t feel free to be their true selves. I don’t blame anyone for that, but I know I couldn't live that way. I’m just glad that I live in a time where the art can speak for itself rather than who someone goes to bed with. It’s a civil rights issue. It’s a human rights issue. And there’s been a lot of progress.
If you were calling the shots behind the scenes on “Gotham,” what would you like to see in the future for Oswald?
Obviously I’d like to see him become more and more powerful, but at the same time I like it when he fails. I like the struggle, and watching him figure things out. All I can say is that I hope the other villains get established, so that I have more fun folks to play off of.
Where would you like to go with your career from here?
My favorite mantra is “I just want to work.” But, to get specific, I would love to get back on stage at some point. It’s been a long time since I've done that, and my background is in theatre. I miss the live theatrical experience. I miss the audience being there. I also miss the process. I love rehearsal. I can’t wait until we have more than 15 minutes
Do you aspire to work behind the camera and be more of the creative process?
That’s something that I’m definitely open to. I am a collaborator: I need another person to bounce ideas off of. I definitely see myself on that side of things in some fashion. But, for the time being, I’m having a ball!