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Interview: GOTHAM’s Robin Lord Taylor Brings the Penguin to Life

You know the waddle, the smudged eye makeup, and the tricky umbrella from the books and movies, but Oswald Cobblepot, a/k/a The Penguin, will still surprise you in Fox’s new show Gotham which premieres tonight. We had the chance to chat live with Robin Lord Taylor about bringing the iconic super villain to life on the small screen this week, his history with comic books, and working with the incredible Carol Kane who will play his mother in episode 2 of the new show. In case you were wondering, this might be one of those shows where you totally and completely root for the villain.

Nerdist: Were you a comic book reader as a kid? Did you read Batman?

Robin Taylor: I had a couple of Batman comics, but I wasn’t a fully committed comic book reader. I had a MAD Magazine subscription for 15 years, and I was a huge Calvin & Hobbes fan as well. I did have some of those Batman comics, but I wasn’t a huge aficionado. I was a huge fan of the movies though. That was more where my focus lied.

N: So did you go back to revisit those movies and do some preparation when you got this role?

RT: I did actually. I saw the first Batman film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in the movie theater on opening night. It was amazing. It changed my life. And then I saw Batman Returns in the theater. But right at that time was when my parents got a satellite dish and we got HBO for the first time, and that was when Batman Returns seven times a day. And I was at the age where you can watch a movie over and over and over again and never get tired of it. So I’ve seen that movie many times. But yeah, so when I got the job, I went back and watched Batman Returns again, and it was like my whole childhood came flooding back. It was a real full circle moment.

N: Do you have a great story about finding out that you got this iconic role…not just in books and film, but for you personally?

RT: I auditioned for it just like any other audition. It was pilot season. I was doing a fake scene, and I wasn’t given real scripts. The scene had fake names, and they wrote it just for the audition. So I didn’t really know what I was doing. I think it was “The Untitled Warner Brothers Project” or something. I think it was the night before I went in to do the audition, and my agent called me and gave me the tip off. She said, “Oh by the way it’s the Penguin, and it’s the origin story of Batman.” And I said, “Okay. Alright.” But you know at that point, I had completely prepared, and I thought, “I know what I’m going to do and I’ll just go in and do it.” And I did, and I did it once, and she turned off the camera – the casting director – and said, “Fantastic. That was great.” I got a call the next day, and they said, “We’re going to send you to LA to test for the show.”

I ended up going out Los Angeles. I read for Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, and Sherry Thomas, the casting director. There were a couple of other guys for the role. And you know they had me there for a week – just in case they wanted to have me come back and see me again, see me do it again. But they didn’t. So I was just pacing back and forth in my hotel room, just waiting for the news.

Finally, the last night I was there, my agents call me. They tell me I get it. I start screaming and crying and laughing and everything. And literally while I’m in the middle of it, I get a knock on my door, and my room service shows up. This poor woman is standing there, “Where shall I put this?” And all I can say is: “ahhh, on the desk is fine.” And I’m trying to figure out the tip on the bill. At that point, I’m freaking out, and trying to figure out what 20% of $19 is, and I couldn’t do math or anything. And then finally at that moment I had to tell this poor woman, “I JUST BOOKED A SHOW. I JUST BOOKED A SHOW!” And she said, “Oh my god that’s so great!” So the first person that I told was this lovely room service lady at the Sheraton Universal in Los Angeles. So, big shout out to her. I got to share that moment with her. It was really awesome. I think of her often.

N: What is your favorite part of Oswald?

RB: Well my favorite part of the character is his personal drive to not be a powerless person. His ambition to reclaim his power – he is a person who is picked on and generally powerless his entire life and then has it all solidify in the pilot. I think he makes that decision and fully realizes his ambition. That’s one of my favorite things about him.

The other thing about him is his insight into other people’s motivations and his ability to play people off of each other, I think is his greatest strength. It’s another thing that I’m totally fascinated by and am really excited about playing and showing. And he’s a guy with diminutive stature and he looks weird and all these things, but he still manages to ingratiate himself to people and find their weaknesses and exploit those. Again just all in the goal of not being powerless, of not being helpless ever again.


N: As comedy fans, we have to ask what it was like working with Carol Kane? She looks so amazing in the pictures – almost Miss Havisham-esque – and she’s such a legend.

RB: First I have to tell you, when I read the script and then I found out – and this is 100% true, I have the texts to prove it – when I found out that I was going to get a mom, immediately I said, “Oh my God I hope they get Carol Kane. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” And I texted my agent right then, and I told her, “Oh my god I’m going to have a mom.” And the next sentence, I said, “I really hope it’s Carol Kane.” And she wrote back, “Hahaha, we’ll see how it goes. Obviously a lot of people are going to want this part. We’ll see what happens.” A couple days later Danny Cannon texts me: “We got Carol Kane for your mom.” And I said, “What? Did I just manifest this? How is this happening?” It was amazing. I swear, she was the first person to pop into my head, and the fact that it became a reality was just so amazing.

On top of that working with her was just an absolute dream. I mean, she was so kind. We got really close really fast. We’re running lines in her hotel room, in her dressing room, and she lives two blocks away from me so we’re neighbors. It’s the best thing ever. I’ve been a fan of hers for as long as I’ve been a fan of movies. Not long ago I rewatched all of Scrooged. I watched The Princess Bride. And also what she brings to the character of Oswald: the fact that he has a vulnerable side, the fact that he can go to somebody, and sort of let down his guard a bit? It adds this whole other level to the character, and it’s really fun to play.

N: We read that someone sent you the comics so you could prepare.

RB: It was Geoff Johns, the Creative Director of DC Entertainment, that sent them to me.

N: And will you become a reader of the comics now? Or do you think you’ll stay away from it so it doesn’t influence you too much?

RB: Oh definitely, I mean I’m already hooked. I’m so lucky too. Like I said, I’m familiar with the comics but I’m not completely in that world. But I have people like Geoff in my life now, and he’s so supportive of the show, and he’s so excited to reach out and help and give me stuff that helps develop the character. And also my stand-in, Adam DeCarlo, is a huge comic book fan. He has all the insight, and he brings this stuff to set. I feel so lucky that I’m not just blindly going into a comic store and going, “Um do you have anything about Batman?”, only to have them roll their eyes. I have these amazing people who are so smart about the world giving me stuff which is such a blessing.


N: A couple of cast members have mentioned that there are some really fun easter eggs throughout the pilot, and we were wondering if you have a favorite kind of homage or easter egg that you’re excited about that you’re allowed to tell us about without it being too spoilery?

RB: In general, I love the relationship with the umbrella. I think it’s one of my favorite things. I just think that it’s so iconic and it’s a connection that Oswald has to it that…well I’m excited to see it develop. Someone asked me recently, “When do you get the gadgets? When does it do the trick things?” And I said, “Whenever they bring it on!” I’m so stoked about that.

Also, I don’t know if it’s an easter egg, but the penguin walk itself is such an incredible addition to the character. Also the fact that we establish how it happens in the pilot; the fact that it’s an injury – that it’s something that happened in real time, and it’s explained. It’s an actual physical thing. It’s not just some sort of exaggerated kind of Charlie Chaplin thing. It’s an actual painful experience that he has. I think it’s really exciting. You’ll see as we shoot, it just becomes more and more iconic. And more and more part of his character.

N: There’s a line in the preview where the mob boss says, “Gotham is on a knife’s edge.” And we know the players who are standing on the edge, but who do you think is holding the knife?

RB: I feel like, the deeper you get into the underbelly of Gotham City, the more questionable it becomes about who is holding that knife. And symbolically that is the control of the city, you know? We’re all just scrambling for it. It’s hard for me to answer because the power shifts that happen in the show are so varying, and they swing back and forth so it should be a question, you know? Who ever controls that controls Gotham City. And at the moment, I think…I don’t know, I can’t really answer. I hope one day it’s Penguin. And it goes back and forth between the mob bosses, and then there’s Maloney, and there’s Fish, there’s the GCPD itself. And they’re not the stereotypical good guys. It’s not good cops. They’re also using it to their own personal advantage too. But I hope it’s Penguin, because I’m selfish, and I want to run the town.

Here’s a tease Nerdist readers: If you live in New York City, we hear there may be a penguins running amok in midtown on premiere day. Send us pictures if you happen upon one.

Gotham premieres Monday, September 22nd at 8pm ET on Fox.

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