One of the biggest break-out performances of the current Fall TV season is that of Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin, on the Fox drama series Gotham. He’s made the most of every moment that he’s been given, and he’s turned the character into someone unpredictable, dangerous, funny, sad and sympathetic.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Robin Lord Taylor talked about how this entire experience is so big that it’s hard to wrap his brain around it, finding the perfect balance of evil genius and batshit crazy, how long all of The Penguin’s manipulations can continue before it all blows up in his face, where things are at between The Penguin and Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), having the amazing Carol Kane play his mother, and how Oswald Cobblepot is embracing the slur and fully becoming The Penguin. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: When you signed on to do this, did you have any idea how much of a break-out performance this could or would be? Did you have a moment where you thought, “This is a dream role and I’m going to make the most of it”?
ROBIN LORD TAYLOR: Definitely, once I found out what it was, but there were a series of hurdles, first. Right before I auditioned, I found out what the project was, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is a lot bigger than I thought it would be.” And then, they called me to go test for it and I was like, “Okay, now I’m getting closer to this.” But I’ve been close on big things in the past, so I wanted to keep my cool. Whatever happened, it would be fine. And then, I went in and did incredibly well, and I found out that I got it. I was like, “This is really happening.” All you want, as an actor, is a part on any show. You want any pilot, or anything. I just couldn’t believe it was real. And then, once I read the script, I was just excited and like, “This is something that I really can do and sink my teeth into. This is a big break. This is actually happening.” It’s so big that it’s really hard to wrap my brain around it.
What’s it like to see so many people, including Patton Oswalt, talking about your performance on social media?
TAYLOR: I know! How insane is that?! Of all people, he played The Penguin in a College Humor online video. He has such an amazing critical eye, especially for comic book stuff, and he had such a positive response. I’m used to being a supporting player in the background. All I ever wanted, at the very most, was to have a small part in something where people were like, “Oh, right, that one guy, whoever he is, was pretty good in that.” That’s all I ever really strived for or expected. But then, to have this kind of reaction and to be on this kind of show, and to have people really appreciating my work, the humble Midwestern part of me refuses to believe it. It doesn’t feel real, in a way.
With all of the characters in Gotham, and the fact that they set up so many of them in the pilot, are you surprised how much it’s narrowed down and focused on the rise of The Penguin? Did you have any idea that that would be the Season 1 story arc?
TAYLOR: I knew pretty much from the beginning, when we were shooting the pilot. Danny Cannon and Bruno Heller both approached me to talk about the show, and they did that with all of us. They said that each season would focus on one villain, in particular, and that this first season would really focus on The Penguin. So, I knew, and the response has been insane. If we get a second season, knock on wood, I hope that The Penguin won’t have been established completely, by the end of the first season, so that I can come back and play with the other characters. All I want is to have some kind of interaction with Cory Michael Smith’s character, Edward Nygma, once he makes that break. To have a Rogues Gallery kind of thing would be really exciting. I love the fact that they’re both outcasts, but in different ways, and the way that they deal with that is obviously very different. They’re coming at it from different angles. The Penguin’s whole thing is to ingratiate himself to everybody, so that he can then have them on his side, and then use that to his advantage. Whereas Edward Nygma does his own thing. I would say that he’s more eccentric and isn’t as aware of how people feel about him. At the same time, that allows him to embrace that character’s quirkiness. To see them together would be really, really awesome. I’m just waiting for that. Cory is so good. He’s one of my favorite people on the show. I love everybody on the show, but he’s so awesome. So, I’m hoping for that opportunity.
Oswald Cobblepot is the perfect balance of evil genius and batshit crazy. Is that just inherently there in the character, or is it a constant balancing act?
TAYLOR: It comes just in the way that it’s written. The character is written so well. When I get the script, I never feel like it goes too far in one direction. The way he goes about getting what he wants from people and the way he ingratiates himself to people, he cow-tows to people, in order to gain the upper hand, later on. Because of that aspect of his personality, he’s not going to be doing crazy stuff just for the sake of doing crazy stuff. There’s a method to what he’s doing. He actually really does care about certain people. He really does care about Jim Gordon. He really does feel like there’s a friendship there. I just don’t think Jim feels the same way. Penguin even said, a couple episodes ago, that he is the only trustworthy man in Gotham City, and he really does believe that. He really wants to foster that, so that he can have an ally on the other side of the fence. He does evil, horrible things to people, but at the same time, it’s methodical and it’s not entirely unjustified. There is always a reason behind what he does. Because of that, I feel like it does come somewhat naturally. It makes sense to me.
We’ve learned that The Penguin has secretly been working with Carmine Falcone, so what can you say about what that means for the rest of the Gotham underworld? How long can he play everybody before it all blows up in his face?
TAYLOR: I don’t think he can do it very long because of the enemies that he’s made. Fish is not going to go down quietly. She is not letting go of the empire that she’s worked so hard to build, over her whole life. She’s not going to lay down and just let it happen. She won’t just be moving to Miami. Because of that, and because Penguin has put himself out there, he can’t keep these secrets for too long. It will come back and bite him in the butt, and I’m so looking forward to it, I have to say. The joke on set is that I come out of make-up and I have some new something on my face because, in every episode, I either get slapped or I get the crap beat out of me. Something happens to Penguin, in every episode, and I think it’s great because his trajectory isn’t a straight line. It’s a series of two steps forward and one step back. He’s finding his way, which makes him so much more complex. It gives the character so much further to go. If you watch Game of Thrones, I liken the Penguin to Theon Greyjoy of Gotham. Every physically bad thing that could happen to somebody is happening to Penguin, but it’s really fun.
Where are things at between The Penguin and Fish Mooney?
TAYLOR: Because he made this choice to go against Fish and be his own person in Gotham, I don’t think he has any jealousy about anyone that would take his place with Fish, but at the same time, there is an actual affection that he has for Fish. She has this motherly aspect to her, and they were very, very, very close. He actually enjoys her, and I think there is some sadness that it’s all breaking down this way and they can’t work together, in some ways. But at the same time, he’s entirely realistic. He’s learned that, with the exception of Jim Gordon and his mother, there is absolutely no one in Gotham that he can fully trust. But I do think that there is a part of him that misses that connection with Fish.
How would you describe the unusual dynamic between The Penguin and his mother?
TAYLOR: I think a lot of it stems from the fact that she was his only protector when he was growing up. He had it rough, being bullied and tormented because of the way he looks and his interests. The only person who was there to defend him was his mother, and the only person that she had to relate to was her son. It created this very intense bond, which drifts into a very intimate place. I don’t think it goes that far. I don’t think of it as something sexual, or anything. At the same time, there is a really intense closeness between the two of them that, from the outside, look a little strange to people. He’s definitely a momma’s boy.
My favorite scene, so far, was of Penguin in the bathtub, talking to his mother because it was just such an odd, creepy moment.
TAYLOR: Oh, yeah, that was one of my favorite ones to shoot, too. Any time I get to work with Carol Kane is a dream because she brings such an amazing energy to the character and in general. I’ve been a fan of hers forever, and she’s so kind and nice. She just made that scene so much more fun and filled with this very strange, intimate tension, which was super fun to play. We have a really great relationship off screen, and I think that comes through in the actual scenes, too. She’s awesome.
What was your reaction when you found out that Carol Kane would be playing your mother?
TAYLOR: This is the honest truth, it was the second episode where she was introduced, which was the first episode that we shot after the pilot, and I got the script and randomly, earlier that day, I was on some website online that listed everybody’s birthday that day. I was like, “Oh, it’s Carol Kane’s birthday today.” And then, I got the script and saw that I had a mom and I was like, “Oh, my god, they have to get Carol Kane! It would be amazing if they got Carol Kane!” So, I texted my agent right away and was like, “I have a mom! This is so exciting! I really wish they would cast Carol Kane!” And she was like, “That would be amazing! But I’m sure there are a lot of people who are in line for this role.” Two days later, Danny Cannon, the executive producer texted me and said, “Carol Kane is playing your mom.” So, I take full credit for it. I was the one to first put it out in the universe, and I honestly couldn’t believe it. I have texts that show this is actually how it went down. It’s so crazy! And she’s my neighbor, of all things. She lives about two blocks away from me.
When you play this character, do you think of him as Oswald Cobblepot, or do you think of him as The Penguin?
TAYLOR: I think of him as Oswald Cobblepot, who has taken the slur – and he’s always viewed being called The Penguin as a slur because it’s something that hurt him very deeply throughout his entire life – and embraced that. When you embrace the thing you hate the most, you take the power away from it. I see him being like, “Okay, I’m The Penguin, so I’m gonna be the motherfuckin’ Penguin. If that’s how you’re gonna label me, then let’s go.” He fully embraces that and uses it to empower himself. That’s how I approach it. It’s playing the hand that you’re dealt. The writers and Bruno and Danny understand that, for this character to have some sort of longevity and for him to last in Gotham, there has to be a three-dimensionality to him. He can’t just be evil for no reason. You have to understand all of the motivations behind him. It’s a dream character to play. It’s one thing to be bad for the sake of being bad, but to show all of the motivations and the origin for where those impulses come from makes it interesting.
Gotham airs on Monday nights on Fox.