One of the most highly anticipated new shows of the season is the Fox drama series Gotham. From executive producer/writer Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome) and with a beautifully cinematic pilot directed by Danny Cannon (the CSI franchise, Nikita), it is the origin story for a number of the characters in the Batman universe, including Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler and Poison Ivy, as it shows what made them the formidable adversaries that they eventually become. At its core, it is the story of Detective James Gordon’s (Ben McKenzie) rise through a dangerously corrupt city teetering on the edge of evil, and it chronicles the birth of one of the most popular superheroes of our time.
During this recent interview to promote the new show, actor Ben McKenzie talked about how he got involved with Gotham, how being a law officer in the city of Gotham compares to the L.A. ‘hood of Southland, why they opted not to go with the Jim Gordon moustache, how much of the stunt work he does himself, his favorite Batman villains, whether any of the non-human villains might appear, his favorite storyline so far, the show’s powerful female characters, the initial acting challenges with the role, and why comic book movies and TV shows are so popular. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: What attracted you to this? Were you a fan of this genre?
BEN McKENZIE: In all honesty, I worked with Bruno Heller, last year, on a pilot. Southland was ending, and we did a pilot for CBS that Warner Brothers produced, but it didn’t go to series. So, Bruno called me in January or February of this year, and said, “I have a script that I’ve written. I’d like to send it to you. I’ve written the part of Jim Gordon with you in mind, and I’d like you to take a look.” So, it started from that. As far as the attraction, the opportunity to work with Bruno again was on the top of the list. We had a very good time on the pilot, and we really see eye to eye on a lot of things. Our sensibilities are similar. It’s exciting to be a part of this kind of mythology, that’s been around for 75 years, but it’s also a bit daunting. So, I would say it was both an attraction and a cause for a series of meetings to talk about exactly how this would work and how we wouldn’t screw it up and how I wouldn’t embarrass myself completely, and all those sorts of things. Bruno and Danny Cannon more or less assured me that, worst case, it would only mildly fail and it wouldn’t be a huge disaster. So, that was pretty much how it all came to be. I’m a fan of Batman, but not a hardcore fan.
How does being a law officer in the city of Gotham compare to the L.A. ‘hood of Southland?
McKENZIE: Well, that’s a good question. The overall similarity is probably in the mentality of law enforcement officers. There’s a sense of wanting to really uphold a sense of morality and make sure that the laws are enforced to the letter, whenever possible. I just got an email from the guy that did some of our tactical training on Southland, who was a cop in the LAPD, just congratulating me on Gotham. They captured a serial killer recently who was on the run in L.A., blowing people away with shotguns. There’s bad stuff that happens in real life. In Gotham, it’s more that we want to keep a sense of realism, but at the same time, it is fantastical and it is meant to be a little bit more approachable, in the sense that it’s not so starkly drawn. In Southland it was so real that, at times, it could be quite frightening. We don’t want to acknowledge that people terrible things to each other. In Gotham, we want to have a little bit more fun with it. We want to feel free to take a certain amount of liberty with tactical stuff and just give it more of a throwback to an old school gumshoe, noir conceit, with a little bit of cop tactics in it, if that makes any sense.
Jim Gordon is famous for, among other things, his moustache. Were there any conversations about making you grow out that facial hair in the first season, or are you leaving that aside for now?
McKENZIE: I had lengthy conversations with Bruno and Danny about all sorts of things, in meeting after meeting. And then, as soon as it hit the internet that I was doing it, it felt like all anyone wanted to talk about was whether I would have a moustache or not. I thought about ringing Bruno and being like, “Uh, one last thing . . .” We just literally never talked about it. And then, I brought it up to him and he said, “No, that would look ridiculous on you. We’re not doing that.” It’s 20 years before he can grow into the maturity and wisdom that it takes to sport a moustache, and that’s the line we’re sticking to. Maybe 20 years from now, the moustache will feel earned. For the record, I can grow the moustache. If you think that I can’t, you should watch Junebug. I’m not afraid of the moustache. I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for the image.
Do you feel that your work on Batman: Year One has translated to your work on Gotham, or offered you any additional insights into these characters?
McKENZIE: I don’t know. I’d like to think so. I’ve always been a fan of Year One, even before I did the voice of Bruce and Batman, for it. It was an opportunity to re-read it, as an adult, and look more closely at it, in terms of how to interpret it on screen, albeit just with my voice and not my body. So, I would say that it certainly pulled me in a little bit closer. And then, when Gotham came about, Geoff Johns sent me a bunch of literature, including Gotham Central and Long Halloween. It certainly helps to understand what this is all coming out of, and what it’s all coming out of is the comics that have evolved wildly over 75 years. You pick certain reference points, at least stylistically, and then you need to go out and do what you would do on any other job, which is to work on the script, and work with the directors and your fellow actors, to breathe those scenes to life, playing your beats and playing your objective. I’m not really doing anything different than I would do on any other job, except that that there’s a certain heightened style to it.
You recently received a head injury during the filming of a fight scene, so I hope that you’re okay.
How much of your own stunt work do you actually do yourself, and are stunts a major part of the show?
McKENZIE: I try to handle as much as I can, and as much as I feel comfortable with. We have a great stunt team, lead by Norman Douglas, our stunt coordinator. Stunts, or action, is a big part of the show. That being said, it’s all coming from a central and aesthetic conceit of the world that we’re portraying being more swift and brutal than it is operatic and grandiose. If Jim is in a fight, he wants to get it over with, as quickly as possible, and take out whoever he has to take out, as swiftly and efficiently as possible. So, it’s more in brutal military fashion than it is kung-fu style acrobatic stuff. There hasn’t been a lot of wirework yet. We may get to that point, but I would prefer that this guy is portrayed for what Bruno, Danny, and I agree he is, which is an old school hero. He is just a man who is completely fallible, who can’t jump over buildings or fly though the air. He has to use what he’s got, and he has to occasionally lose. I think that grounds it in more of a sense of reality. But with each passing episode, the fight scenes get more and more complicated, so we may end up there anyway. We’ll see.
What’s it like to work with Robin Lord Taylor, with his take on the Penguin?
McKENZIE: He’s a phenomenally talented guy and an incredibly nice person. One story that would illustrate that is the scene where I’m walking him to the end of the pier, and I end up almost putting a bullet in his head, but instead push him off. We had to do take, after take, after take, to get it exactly right, and I kept grabbing him by the shirt collar, roughly, to make it look real. And after four hours of that, he finally very, very politely said, “Um, could you possibly get the collar a little bit more?” He opened up his shirt and his chest was just bright red from scratches everywhere. He’s the sweetest villain I’ve ever possibly worked with, and I think that comes alive on screen. Obviously, he’s playing more of a demented guy, but he’s charming. I don’t even know how to describe it. His charm comes through on screen, and you end up loving this little weasely henchman and almost root for him. I think it’s a brilliant turn and it’s largely unlike anything you’ve seen from the Penguin before. That’s exactly what we’d like to do with all of the villains in this, is give them latitude to make it their own and to not feel as though they’re doing some imitation of some other actor who’s played a villain before.
McKENZIE: Because he’s front and center in the pilot, I’m really excited for people to see what Robin is doing with the Penguin. I have a weird soft spot in my heart for Nygma. I’ve always liked The Riddler. I know that is a very unorthodox choice. A lot of people hate The Riddler, but I find The Riddler fascinating. And I think the Scarecrow is really cool.
Has there been any talk of including some of the less human enemies, like Killer Croc or Clayface?
McKENZIE: There has been no talk, thus far, that I am aware of, of the non-human Batman villains, but I’m not in the writers’ room, obviously. I think we’ll start with the humans, and then we’ll branch out from there. It’s early days. We’re only eight episodes into shooting, so we’ve hopefully – knock on wood – got a long way to go, and we can bring those people, or non-people, in, if need be.
Do you have a favorite episode or storyline, so far?
McKENZIE: I’m not sure how much I can spoil, but we come to a place, around the seventh episode, where certain things come to a head and Jim is put in a situation where he has to take action. I haven’t seen it cut together. We just shot it, but I’m pretty fond of that. Bruno wrote the pilot, the first episode back, and then the seventh episode, and I’m a big fan of whenever he writes the episodes directly. We have a great team of writers, but it all comes out of his demented mind, so I’m very excited about that. I’ve only seen the first three episodes, but they’re really strong and they have different things going for them. What’s nice is that, in the pilot, we’ve laid the groundwork for an enormous number of characters to spring out, and we’ve hopefully laid a foundation for a world in which you can walk down any alley in Gotham and encounter some bizarre human being who might become a villain or a hero, or might get killed immediately. That’s a very exciting maze to walk through, and I think that presents us with bountiful opportunities for characters, as we go forward.
What’s it like to work with David Mazouz, as Bruce Wayne?
McKENZIE: David is amazing. David is a really terrific actor. He listens, which is an incredibly hard thing to teach anyone, and it’s something that I struggle with now, and that any actor struggles with. It’s the hardest thing to do on camera. With all the chaos of a film set or TV set, it’s hard to just listen to what the other actor is saying to you, and how they’re saying it, in that moment, from take to take, and he does. He’s terrific, and he couldn’t be a nicer young man. He was obviously raised correctly. And he’s perfect for Bruce, so that was easy, too. He’s more calm than I am. I’m kind of blown away, sometimes.
Gotham has a lot of really excellent female characters in positions of power. What can you say about Gordon’s relationships with his boss, Captain Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara) and with Fish Mooney?
McKENZIE: You’re right, there are a lot of powerful characters in Gotham. What’s great about Gotham is that we can portray a society that is similar to ours, but in which there is no understanding of racism or sexism. It’s all just whoever is battling for power in a city that’s completely fallen, and Fish Mooney is really good at it. She’s an enforcer for Carmine. She’s really tough and really smart, and she uses her sex appeal to get what she wants. Jada just kills it. She’s just really, really strong and powerful and interesting and funny, at times. And then Captain Essen is stuck in a hard place because as captain of the GCPD, she has to answer to a number of different bosses, not just her superiors in the department, but in some senses, the mob themselves because they have such deep ties to the police department and to the mayor’s office. That being said, she wants to catch whatever criminal we’re chasing, in that particular week, and she wants to support her detectives. So, over time, Gordon earns her respect, her trust and her support. Eventually, you’ll see, down the line, that she’ll put herself out on a limb for him. Some of the first season is Jim figuring out which cops in the department he can trust and which ones he can’t, and there are some surprising twists and turns in those relationships. Some people that you would think would be his enemies are actually kindred spirits, and he needs to assemble a team, going forward, that he can actually use to bring justice.
What were some of the initial acting challenges that you found, stepping into this role?
McKENZIE: The initial challenge is to not let the mythology, and the degree to which Batman and all of its mythology has permeated all aspects of pop culture and society, to overwhelm what is, at the end of the day, just an acting gig. It’s a great acting gig. It’s a little more public than others, but at the end of the day, its just a part that you play, in this case, in a TV show, and you have to treat it like any other. You have to look at the script. There is no Jim Gordon or Bruce Wayne or Batman, for that matter. There is only the script, and the actor that’s playing the part. If you cast 1,000 different actors as Jim Gordon, you’d get 1,000 different Jim Gordons. As long as I was able to breathe, that was helpful. When it comes to understanding him and playing him, it was conversations with Bruno about who he is. There are a lot of plot mechanics in the pilot that have to get ironed out, in order to tell the story and to set up the world that we’re setting up, and it has to happen awfully fast. But if we don’t understand his point of view coming in to it, and we don’t believe his point of view, we’re going to have trouble.
So, a lot of what I was talking about with Bruno is that he can’t come in completely naive and completely blown away by the corruption in Gotham. He can be idealistic, but he has to understand that people are capable of terrible, terrible things, because he’s a war hero. He served overseas. He’s seen terrible things, himself. So, as long as he understands how bad people can be to each other, and yet he rejects that and still believes in such a bizarre concept as right and wrong, it can all proceed from there. And then, as we go forward in the season, and in the show, in general, he can become more and more surrounded by the powers that be in Gotham, and his own moral compass can be thrown off. He will have to make deals with the devil, in order to get along in Gotham and to make progress. I think that journey is fascinating. But, we started with a sense of morality and a real sense of experience.
Why do you think comic books have really taken off, over the last few years, on television and in film?
McKENZIE: I don’t know. I guess I would say, at this point, 75 years into Batman, comics have become American folklore. They’re what we have, as a newer country, to pass down from generation to generation, and to evolve from generation to generation, and to fit the society in which we live. Batman is a really interesting example of that, in the sense that he is a vigilante fighting for justice in an unjust world. I think there’s an awful lot of cynicism around us, so we can all relate to the idea of having this caped crusader out there, fighting for us and fighting for justice.
What makes this career rewarding for you?
McKENZIE: I need to be proud of what I’m making, and engaged in what I’m making. That was one of the things that I was concerned about, with something this big. There can be so many cooks in the kitchen that you can lose the throughline of a guy trying to clean up a city, and a guy trying to bring some sort of justice to an unjust world. So, what I hope for in my career is work that I’m proud of, friendships and working relationships with all sorts of people, and to make a little bit of money, so that I can provide for a family, eventually.
Gotham airs on Monday nights on Fox.