Emily S. Whitten Interviews Gotham’s Penguin – Robin Lord Taylor
Fox’s Gotham TV series has been going strong for two seasons and is now renewed for a third. The show began with a focus on (future Commissioner) Jim Gordon’s early career in Gotham, but has quickly expanded to include the early days of many Batman villains as well. One of the most striking of these is The Penguin; a previously cartoonish character (in screen adaptations) who has been masterfully portrayed in Gotham by Robin Lord Taylor as a complex young man who rises from being a minor player in Fish Mooney’s entourage to becoming the self-proclaimed “King of Gotham.” Taylor’s nuanced portrayal of Oswald Cobblepot, The Penguin, has made him a compelling, horrifying, and yet somehow still sympathetic character – one I’m invested in even while I’m despising what he does.
After having had the opportunity to speak with Taylor by phone in the week leading up to Awesome Con in Washington, DC, and to meet him at the Con, I can see where The Penguin’s charm and disarming manner originate; but fortunately for us, and unlike The Penguin, Taylor himself strikes me as a delightful human being; and he has a lot to say about his role in Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery.
Read on below for a most enjoyable interview; or listen here for the audio version.
ESW: Robin, your current role on Gotham is a big part of your career, and The Penguin, as we all know by two seasons in, has been called a “breakout character.” I love the nuances that you bring to the Penguin, who is a mix of pathos and viciousness. Are there any parts of his character that come from you, or that you identify with?
RLT: Yeah; I mean, the thing that really got me into the human aspect of Oswald was, when I first got the job, I reached out to Geoff Johns, who’s the chief creative officer of DC Comics, and I was like, “Do you know any stories?” Because obviously I’d grown up with Batman, and Batman Returns was huge, and the Adam West series was also huge, but beyond that I really didn’t know very much about the character.
And he found some stories; he found one in particular which was Penguin: Pain and Prejudice; and in that story, they really went into detail about Oswald’s childhood, and how when he was young, he was horrifically bullied. Which is not something that I ever experienced, to that extent; but the fact that he had always felt like an outsider – you know, growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I definitely identified with that feeling. Like, just because you didn’t look like everybody else, or there was something different about you – like in my case, I was just not a “sporty” person, and I basically grew up in Friday Night Lights. So it’s just that feeling of outsider-ness, and also that feeling of being counted out just by things that are out of your control. So that was the first thing I really hooked in to. I was like, “Oh, I understand what this feels like,” and it just made him all the more human for me.
And on top of that, his ambition is something that – you know, obviously I don’t think I share quite the same amount of ambition, in the sense that I, you know, value human life! But out of all of the years of basically being rejected by everyone, and having that feed into his outsized ambition – that was another thing that I totally could identify with and understand.
ESW: I read somewhere that when you did the audition, they didn’t actually tell you it was the Penguin. Do you recall if there were any particular acting choices you made in that audition that still define the character or that rolled over into the actual on-screen character?
RLT: Yeah; the scene itself that they gave us to audition for was a fake scene – it was not in the pilot at all, and the names were all different. But the scene involved, I believe, the Penguin character was named Paul or something, and he’s having this meeting with a Mafia don, and trying to get this person to do some deal for him. Of course the don is not into it, and that’s when it’s revealed that Paul has had the Mafia don’s daughter kidnapped, and she’s about to be “taken care of” unless he does his bidding.
And in that scene, all of that is the epitome of Oswald, and that ability to sort of play – you know, in the first part of the scene before it’s revealed that he has the daughter kidnapped, he’s very obsequious, and kind of meek, and deferring to the Mafia don; being lower status. And then there’s that switch halfway through where it’s like, “Oh no no no, actually I’m driving the ship right now; I’m steering the ship.” You know, “You’re going to listen to me.” So going from that humble, almost meek, low status attitude that he had, and then immediately switching to be the guy on top; that was something that I think I definitely carried through to the show that we do now.
ESW: Generally, in previous characterizations of The Penguin on screen he’s portrayed in a more cartoonish style. Can you talk about what you did to make him more real in the Gotham show sense, and yet keep him defined as he is in the comics so that he’s still recognizable as the character?
RLT: First of all, I give so much, if not all credit, to Bruno Heller, and Danny Cannon, and our other producers and writers on the show. It started with Bruno and Danny, this vision and this treatment of the character. It starts with them, and then I step in and we collaborate. Again, going back to what I said before, learning how he was bullied – it was more about finding…you know this is a fantastic world. It’s being able to see this character as an actual person who could exist. Which is actually kind of the allure of Batman itself in the sense that of course it’s still a comic book, and crazy shit happens that would never happen in the real world, but it’s always rooted in the fact that Batman is not supernatural, that Batman is a human being.
And that even though it is this gothic, noir, colorful, crazy world that we inhabit in Gotham City, it’s still all rooted in reality, in the sense that, like, gravity exists, and these are human beings, and there is real pathos behind everyone.
And it’s about justifying every choice that this character makes so that every action he takes, there’s a reason behind it; it’s not just being evil for the sake of being evil. Also what I love about the character is that – at one point in the second season, Galavan is trying to get him to help him get some real estate deal going, and that would require tearing down a big chunk of Gotham City, and Oswald is not into it. He says, “Look, I’m a builder, I’m not a demolition person. I’m not interested in tearing everything down.” He’s interested in controlling everything, but also building alliances and making connections and using that to his advantage. So I guess it would be making sure that everything he does and says comes from a real place – a real desire for Oswald to be – I don’t know if it’s accepted, or feared, or both!
ESW: You mention that Oswald is a builder and has these particular goals. He’s a monster in many ways, but he seems to have his own moral code. How would you define his moral code?
RLT: I would say: Oswald is all about – do not come for him. If you do, you will pay. He remembers every single slight against him, every person who ever hurt him or tried to hurt him. All that, again, stemming from a childhood where he’s an outcast in so many ways, like being a first generation immigrant, for example, in our show. I guess his moral code is just: “Don’t tread on me.” But that’s the thing – with the exception of the poor fisherman in the pilot, and maybe the guy who delivered the flowers from Maroni – a couple of people who really didn’t deserve what they got – for the most part, everyone whom he attacks, it’s motivated by revenge, and it’s all strategy for Oswald. He is anti-chaos. Chaos is not interesting to him; that’s not a place where he can get the power that he needs to survive. He wants order.
ESW: Anti-chaos. It makes me think that perhaps we’re playing Dungeons & Dragons. He’s a lawful evil – not chaotic at all.
RLT: Yeah, totally!
ESW: Now in the second season, trying to rule Gotham, Penguin needs some worker-bee villains who will be loyal to him; and then we get Butch’s betrayal in that second season. It’s a very tricky proposition, getting those loyal worker-bees and knowing that he can rely on them. What traits about the character do you think would believably cement a henchman’s loyalty and how do you establish that?
RLT: In a way, I think even though, you know, he chopped off Butch’s hands, you know, big deal – but even those things have happened, I think that Penguin himself, and it goes back to his anti-chaos attitude, I think he is actually also interested in being loyal to people as well. I think he knows that if you treat people well, you get more from them. You get more loyalty; and ultimately, that can be exploited as well.
You see this very, very clearly in his relationship with Jim Gordon, in the sense that for all intents and purposes they should be arch-enemies. But for some reason, it’s this delicate dance and a push and a pull between the two of them that is important to Oswald. Because that keeps Jim in his world and again, that can be exploited in the future if need be. So I think he does reciprocate loyalty to the people that he is trusting and that’s ultimately how he can get people to join his side.
And also, this goes into – because his actions are justified, and because we understand why he does the things he does, there’s a sympathetic side to this character. And I think that comes through to the other characters as well; in the sense that there’s something enigmatic about him that draws people in.
If I had to root this in the character’s history, I would say that this is something he learned as a survival instinct, when he’s being bullied or when he was being basically tortured by his peers when he was younger. This is what you learn; you learn to ingratiate yourself to people. You make yourself seem more meek and sympathetic, and then eventually they come around, and that’s when you stick the knife in.
ESW: Speaking of that, he’s a pretty dark character, and you seem like a nice guy. Do you have difficulty getting into and out of that character?
RLT: I really don’t, actually! I know that sounds crazy, but… Look, I’ve never played a character that physically is so different from who I am in real life. And so with the hair, the makeup, the costume – all of those pieces coming together every day that I have to work, is – and this is generally how I work as an actor too – is I generally start from the outside and I go in. I let the physicality and the costuming help me get into character so I’m ready. And also, again, it goes to the sets that we shoot, and the locations that we use. With all of these things, it’s like I’m stepping into Oswald, I’m stepping into Gotham City. And at the end of the day, the nose comes off, and the hair is different, and I take these beautiful suits and I put them back in the closet and then I’m back to me. It’s great to have that physical transformation that gets you into character; and from that it’s generally pretty easy.
ESW: He does have some really cool suits!
RLT: God, they’re amazing. The sucky thing is they’re not quite my, Robin Lord Taylor’s, style, so it’s not like I could ever really wear them anywhere. But also – as you can probably tell, I’m one of the least confrontational people that ever lived. And so it’s actually therapeutic in a way. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s really fun to step onto the set and step into the character and then all of a sudden I’m the guy who’s pushing everybody’s buttons, and I’m the guy who’s messing with everybody and starting shit. And it’s liberating, and it’s fun in a way.
ESW: I can understand that. So Oswald has been through a huge journey in season 2 – he was on top; he lost his mother; he convinced Gordon to murder somebody; he was messed with by Hugo Strange; he met his father; fell back into murder; now he wants revenge and all of Strange’s monsters are out there, and Mooney is back… Can you talk about how you think season 2 changed him, or what you think he’ll be doing in season 3?
RLT: I think that in season 2 – it happened twice for him, with the loss of his mother and then the loss of his father – and there’s that lovely speech that Cory Michael Smith as Nygma gave Oswald. It was after his mother died, before he knew his father existed – Nygma says, “You’re free now.” The gist is – and this is a continuing theme throughout our entire show – to love is to be vulnerable. You see throughout the show, characters are falling in love, or they have love in their lives, and then they lose it; and then in a way they are liberated to do whatever the hell they want to do and not feel any pressure. Because what’s left to lose.
So I think that was hugely formative, and then that it happened twice – I think going into season 3, it’s all guns blazing. And also, he’s learned, having been at the top for the brief period. He learned now how much more difficult it is; and he severely overestimated his own abilities, and he didn’t take into account the fact that when you’re the “King of Gotham” you have a giant, giant target on your back in a way that you never did before. I think that’s the most valuable lesson that he learned this season; and then going forward, I think we’re watching his transformation from someone who’s finding their way in this world to someone who now has the wherewithal and the knowledge to basically, kick ass and take names. And not fear the repercussions because, again, having lost all the love in his life, going forward, he’s just going to be completely unhinged – which I’m really excited about!
ESW: So Gotham is obviously a very villain-heavy show, and we know many of Batman’s villains are way ahead of him in development – he’s still Bruce; he’s still young. How do you think this will affect the future seasons in the show, or how do you think you’d like to see that happen? Do you think it will shift to being a more heroic focus as Bruce matures?
RLT: I don’t know; I think our show is about how the city corrupts. Bruce Wayne – Batman – comes from one of the most corrupted acts that could ever happen, one of the most horrific acts; the execution of his parents in front of him. And I could see heroic moments coming through, because obviously you need a balance between the light and the dark, but at the same time, I just think it’s so much more interesting seeing even someone as virtuous and good-hearted as Bruce Wayne – seeing him get swept up into, or sucked down into, the morass of Gotham City and its questionable moral fiber as a city; I think that’s ultimately what’s really interesting to me. And I just think that the villains are where it’s at.
Also, going forward, what I find most interesting, as someone who is a fan of the Batman world, and what I think our show does very well, is show how all of these characters interact, and come in and out of each other’s lives. It’s like seeing how the Penguin’s and Gordon’s connection evolves over time, and also eventually, I’m sure, Bruce Wayne is going to come into Penguin’s life, and all of the other characters’ lives. I love that alliances are formed and then broken; and the re-formed with someone else; some other canon character. I just think that’s fascinating.
ESW: I’ve heard Gotham compared to a soap opera, and it’s not too far off!
RLT: Yeah, except we’ve got monsters and bazookas; it’s As The Gotham Turns.
ESW: So what experiences have you had working with the other Gotham actors? Do you have any fun stories, or any stories about having to work with actors that then the Penguin kills?
RLT: Yeah! Well we get along, as a cast, just smashingly. In fact, early on in the first season, Ben McKenzie had a barbeque; and all the cast members came, and we were all there having fun, dancing, and drinking, and at one point I said to Ben, because this is my first rodeo as it were, and he’s been doing this for longer than I have in a big way; I said to him, pointing at everyone having a ball, “Dude, is this normal? Do casts get along like this? Because I’ve guested on shows, and you can definitely feel the vibe, and it’s not this.” And he said immediately, “Nope. This is not normal. God willing, we can keep this going for the rest of our run,” because it just makes the environment more pleasant, and we all just truly have love for everyone, and it’s so nice. It’s all I’ve ever wanted in a job.
ESW: That seems to come through the social media where I’ve seen you and Cory and Ben and everyone interacting; seeing everyone talking to each other on Twitter and wherever else.
RLT: That’s so nice to hear. And the other thing too is that we’re from all over the place, and everyone’s had such different experiences growing up; and the fact that I can, you know, meet Sean Pertwee, who could not have been from a more different place than me, and have had a more different childhood than I did – and yet, he’s now one of my very best friends. And I just love it, that people can come together and find – in this show, we found a community, which is really great.
So then on the other hand, people have asked me, “What’s the hardest thing about Gotham?” and honestly, it is when a main character dies. And especially if I have to do it. It’s one thing if it’s a movie or a play, because that’s such a contained work. You know when someone’s going; you know the whole thing is going to be over in two-and-a-half hours anyway. It’s not as cathartic as when you’re on a television show. You really do feel that loss. Like when Carole Kane’s character is killed. It was honestly devastating for everybody. It was like, “Oh, God, she’s not going to be here.” Even though she wasn’t there all the time to begin with, it was the loss of that potential for her to be there. I can’t say enough amazing things about her.
And then of course also the same with Paul Reubens. With both of those characters, it really is devastating. You just keep thinking, “If they had written something different, we could have been working together for years now.” I think that’s the hardest part of the job.
ESW: So what’s been your experience with fans and conventions and this role; do fans ever blur the line and call you the Penguin; or what do you like and dislike about that? Have you had any crazy experiences?
RLT: I mean, the whole thing is generally pretty crazy. Even if you think just logically, what I do is, I’m an actor. So ideally I would just sort of disappear – Robin Lord Taylor would disappear – and the character would live in people’s imaginations and that would just be it. But you know that’s not how it works. You become public people; and that’s been probably one of the most challenging things about the job. Just going from relative obscurity to being in peoples’ minds and consciousness – that’s definitely been intense.
For the most part, everyone has been incredibly, incredibly nice, and kind. I’ve been doing conventions now for the last two years, and, like, I signed someone’s ankle, and she went and got a tattoo, and that’s kind of crazy. Honestly, the tattoos, I think, are the craziest thing! Someone also tweeted me a photo of their leg, and it’s my giant face on their leg. I find that so unsettling; I mean, compared to most other things. Like, “Oh God, you did that?” You defaced your body with my face.”
ESW: They will never forget you, ever ever!
RLT: I know. I know; that makes me really uncomfortable! But I will never be forgotten. There’s something to be said for that.
ESW: So are you looking forward to Awesome Con? And do you follow other comics? Do you have a favorite character or storyline, or something you want to see or pick up while you’re at the show?
RLT: I’m totally psyched. This is going to be super. I’ve never been to Washington for a con before; I’m really excited to see what the vibe is like at Awesome Con. From what I hear, it’s an amazing experience. For me it’s always very strange. Obviously I love all of the other DC Comics properties, especially the ones that are on television, in particular The Flash and Arrow, and Supergirl as well. Because we’re all the Warner Bros. family, and we run into each other at San Diego Comic Con and all these other things. So that’s always really exciting to see those folks.
But then at the same time, with the actors who played characters from my childhood – for example, I was at a convention and I was in the green room, and sitting across the table is Denise Crosby who played Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and when I was a kid, that was my jam; and it’s always so fun to feel the way that people feel when they come to my line or when they come up to say hello. Everyone’s so sweet and so excited to be there, and then some people are really excited and they can’t speak, and that was me talking to Denise. And that’s someone I grew up watching, and that show was so important to me at the time. So experiences like that – just seeing anyone from something I grew up watching – that’s where I really fan out, for sure.
ESW: I know that you recently made a foray into voice acting in Dishonored 2, and you just wrapped a movie, The Long Home; anything you’d like to share about those or other projects?
RLT: Well – Dishonored 2 – when they told me that I was going to come in and be part of it, and read, especially, that character, the Outsider, that was amazing. An amazing experience, and also reading all about what the game is going to be like; I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a video game in a long time. The only thing I’m a little worried about is when I get it and I start playing it, I have to hear my own voice… But yeah, that was a brilliant experience. And then The Long Home, I would just encourage everyone to look for it on the festival circuit and show it some love. It’s an independent film, directed by and starring James Franco, with Josh Hutcherson, and Courtney Love, and there are just amazing, amazing people in it. It’s a low-budget, independent movie; so we’re really hoping to get some momentum behind it and I’m just really excited to see what the final product is.
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So there you have it, folks. Thank you to Robin Lord Taylor for sharing his time and thoughts with us here at ComicMix!
And until next time, Servo Lectio!