With last night’s episode, “What the Little Bird Told Him”, Gotham finally paid some a major threads laid out in the first half of the series’ inaugural season , ratcheting the conflict between Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Carmine Falcone (John Doman) up to the breaking point, and letting Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) have a moment of triumph. Taylor’s performance as Oswald Cobblepott, a.k.a. The Penguin. has been an undeniable highlight of Gotham’s first season, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him cement his status as the show’s breakout star week after week.
While at the Fox portion of the TCA winter press tour, I had the opportunity to sit down with Robin Lord Taylor for an exclusive interview. He talked about what’s coming up in the back half of season one, Penguin’s rise to power, exploring more of Penguin’s violent side in the back half of the season, where Oswald fits into the power plays of Gotham, and more. Check out what he had to say after the jump and be aware there are some spoilers.
I just watched “What the Little Bird Told Him” and that episode pays off a lot of what’s set up in the first half of the season, so without spoiling anything, what can you say about what’s coming up next for Oswald?
ROBIN LORD TAYLOR: As you see in this episode Penguin has been working for one crime family, but ultimately he is a mole for the other crime family – for the Falcone family, so you see him torn between both without trying to reveal his identity to one and his allegiance to the other and yet also trying to preserve himself. Because ultimately it’s just about him. He’s really in it just for himself. You’re going to see him basically making those decisions between the two and also, ultimately just becoming a player in Gotham city. But it’s not smooth. He makes mistakes. That’s what I love most about him. He’s not perfect. He’s not this supervillain who has it all figured out. He has a lot figured out but he still makes mistakes and oversteps his boundaries.
Yeah, he’s been knocked down a few times this year.
TAYLOR: Yeah, he’s the Chumbawamba song. That’s his anthem right there.
[Laughs] Absolutely. So far this this season we’ve seen a lot of his machinations and the plotting side of him, but we’ve only occasionally seen his potential for extremely violent outbursts. How much more are we going to see that side of his personality come out over the back half of the season?
TAYLOR: I think a lot more, because as he gets more powerful there are more people in his way. You’re going to see him – as with every character in Gotham city – you see it with Jim Gordon, with all of them, the more established they become as powerful people in the city, the more people are out for them and out for blood. Penguin has to stay ahead of those people, so you’re going to see him make those decisions.
That’s great news, because one of my favorite scenes of the entire season so far is the hitchhiking moment from those first few episodes.
TAYLOR: [Laughs] That was really brutal.
Do you enjoy filming those moments? What is it like to film those really vicious scenes?
TAYLOR: Yeah, it was our second episode and we were in an onion field in upstate New York. It was incredibly violent, but at the same time, not to sound like a complete psychopath, but Oswald has been teased his entire life and bullied, and for him to finally almost get back at the bullies in the way – and that’s who the frat boys sort of represent to him – it was weirdly fun, I don’t know [laughs].
Oh, I can definitely see why that would be fun, especially if that behavior’s not in your nature. I mean, I just met you, but you don’t strike me as a particularly violent or aggressive person.
TAYLOR: I avoid conflict – like, any conflict – at all costs. I hate it. Even at a restaurant, if I get the wrong order I’ll just eat it anyway because I don’t want to make an issue. Yeah, it’s just such an interesting thing to be on the other side of it, even though it’s all pretend, and to have to make it believable and realistic to a certain extent. It’s a really fun acting challenge. It’s the kind of stuff you want to play.
Everything in Gotham City is a power play and it’s constantly changing chess board. How much power to you think Oswald thinks he has and how much do you think he actually has?
TAYLOR: I think he’s somewhat realistic, because I think he has to be. He has to be ahead of the game, and to be ahead of the game you have to know the stakes and you have to know where everybody else is. I think he’s very realistic about where he is, but at the same time he’s constantly testing that edge. Like, in one of the previous episodes he decides to raise the taxes on the fishermen and he gets punished for it. He’s constantly testing the borders of how far he can take things, how many decisions he can make himself. It’s a fine line that he’s walking. I think sometimes he’s a little further ahead than he actually is, but that’s what makes him more human. It makes him more of a realistic person in that he doesn’t have it all figured out.
And a lot of the crime bosses in Gotham, their power comes from what’s already there, the existing infrastructure and history of the city, where do you think Oswald’s power comes from?
TAYLOR: His power comes from his own boundless ambition. That’s, I think, rooted in the fact that he was a bullied kid, and because he was treated poorly for the way he looked, and he was treated like he was nothing. I think he has incredible ambition fueled by that because he doesn’t ever want to be that powerless person again. I think that’s where he finds his power. That’s what gives him the impetus to be so scheming and playing every scenario out, to be so many steps ahead of everybody else. That’s what gives him that reason, his ambition.
I read that because they kept the audition process secretive you didn’t know what character you were creating when you auditioned. What remains of that initial character you created in your head and what changed once you realized you were playing this iconic Batman super villain?
TAYLOR: I mean, not that much different, because I didn’t really have a character, I was just given a name and – there wasn’t really a description – I was just given a name, and of course it wasn’t Oswald or The Penguin, it was some other random name because they wrote this fake scene. And I was given this fake scene out of nowhere, no script. It was just like, whatever the circumstances were in the script, whatever the situation was, I just tried to make it realistic and it actually perfectly transitioned into what The Penguin is. It was amazing. It was weirdly – it was the biggest job I’ve ever had, the most important thing I’ve ever done, and yet it was weirdly one of the easiest casting experiences I’ve ever had, which is just really strange.
Man, that’s wild. And it’s good to hear, because I have a lot of friends who are doing the working actor bit, or writing from project to project, audition after audition and not landing the project or the role, or getting the smaller part.
TAYLOR: Yeah, that was me for so many years. What I had to hold on to, because I’ve been doing it for many years, and I worked, but there would be years where maybe I did one job. My health insurance would lapse, then I would get it back, then it would lapse again – it’s a crazy roller coaster – but you just have to remind yourself that you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know. This business is – you might have some random interaction with someone somewhere, or do some tiny reading somewhere that one person goes to and yet they remember you. You have no idea how it’s going to play out. I look back through my life and how I got to this point and it’ all just a series of randomness. So it may seem like at times that it’s completely hopeless, but you have all possibility ahead of you. That’s what kept me going through it.
Absolutely. Gotham hasn’t held back on introducing a lot of characters, and a lot of villains, pretty quickly, who have you worked with that you feel you have great onscreen chemistry with? Or is there somebody you haven’t had a chance to work with yet that you really want to?
TAYLOR: It’s coming up, it hasn’t aired yet and I’ve been given the OK to tease it out, you will see Oswald and Edward Nygma meet finally, and I have to say I am just so excited for that relationship to develop because – for a lot of reasons – first of all because I am a huge, huge fan of Cory Michael Smith. I think he his absolutely brilliant and what he brings to Edward Nygma, and every other character that he’s played – He’s in Olive Kitteridge, have you seen that yet?
TAYLOR: He is so phenomenal in that. It’s so different than Edward Nygma, it’s just absolutely brilliant. Anyway, to be able to be able to play with him and have that scene and be able to play off of each other is such an exciting dynamic. Because Edward and Oswald are both such weirdos and to see them actually connect and to see what that turns into, I am so excited. That’s the one, definitely.
When you two play a scene together does either one of you have to sort of tone down the weirdness at all and kind of play the straight man, or are you both still off the wall?
TAYLOR: It’s interesting, because Nygma is such an off the wall guy, whereas Oswald is much more – I would say, much more aware of social graces and he’s really manipulative and he’s constantly aware of how others are perceiving him so that he can modify his behavior to get what he wants out of other people. So it’s a whole different approach to people than Edward has. It’s hard to say who’s the straight man and who’s off the wall, but The Riddler is just such a kook, it’s just such an interesting dynamic between them.
How would you describe that dynamic in a word.
TAYLOR: In one word…
Or two or three, if you need, no pressure [laughs].
TAYLOR: Man, what would I say? I would say quirky, first of all, but I would also say – it’s like a meeting between two incredibly intelligent people who have been sort of dismissed for their eccentricities, so I think to see that dynamic in play is really exciting.