'Gotham's' Robin Lord Taylor Opens Up About Creating TV's Oswald Cobblepot

The Penguin

Oswald Cobblepot, better known as The Penguin, is played by The Walking Dead and Another Earth's Robin Lord Taylor. Oswald has the brains of a chess grandmaster and the morals of a jackal. A low-level psychopath for gangster Fish Mooney, he hides his sadistic lust for power behind an exquisitely polite demeanor.

While much of the prelaunch focus of Fox’s Gotham was on Benjamin McKenzie’s Jim Gordon, it quickly became clear to viewers that another character was becoming one of the season's most entertaining characters: Oswald Cobblepot, as played by Robin Lord Taylor.

Machiavellian, conniving and cowardly, Oswald has spent the series building a power base for himself under the noses of the power players in the city, and in the process, the character has won a fanbase among the audience thanks to Taylor’s performance as the eventual Penguin. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the actor to discuss auditioning for the role, working on the show and how he’d react if a certain green-haired clown rolled into town.

Were you a Batman fan as a kid?

I wasn’t as big a comic book aficionado as some of my friends, but I definitely had some Batman comics. I was a huge, huge fan of the movies, and also the Adam West series — they used to run re-runs every day after elementary school, so I watched that whole thing. Once the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie came out, I was there opening night and it was a huge moment for me. I’ve seen all the Batman movies in the theater, opening weekend. I was a big Batman fan, definitely.

So did you have a set idea of how to play the Penguin when you were auditioning? Did you have the Danny DeVito or Burgess Meredith take on the character in mind?

I didn’t even know what I was auditioning for; it was called “Untitled Warner Bros. Project” on the sides. They had written a fake scene with fake character names, and that was all the information I had going in. I prepared as best I could, I read the scene as I would do any scene without knowing who the character was, and then the night before, my agent told me, "Oh, by the way, this is the origin story of Batman and you’re auditioning for the Penguin." At that point, I’d already made my choices with the scene, and I didn’t want to let any of that affect me. I was coming from a place of, either it’s going to be a thing that they’re into and they respond to, or it’s not going to be. So I went in with my original plan in mind, and did it once, and they were like "OK, we’ll be in touch.’ Next day, they called and said they wanted to send me to Los Angeles to test for the part. It was a surprisingly simple process, it all fell into place smoothly and perfectly, I still can’t believe it went that easy.

And now you’re the breakout character of the show. It all revolves around Oswald.

I’m aware of the attention and it’s so positive and validating. As an actor, I just want to work, you know? When I’m part of something this big, and on top of that, to get such positive attention, it’s just amazing. I pinch myself, I knock on wood, I can’t believe it’s happening. It’s very, very surreal, but ultimately it’s so gratifying. I give so much credit to our amazing writers and the creator and showrunner of the show, Bruno Heller. His vision of the character is so much fun to execute, and he and I are so much on the same page. It almost seems easy, in a way, to run with such amazing material. It’s an actor’s dream.

You said you’re on the same page with Bruno about the character. So what’s your take on Oswald?

When I was doing research on the character, I was reading all of his origin stories in the comics. In one of those stories, he was a bullied kid — mercilessly bullied, because of the way he looks, and because of his interests. He was from an immigrant family, so he had that going against him; he felt like he was an outsider. Because of that, I see him as one of the most ambitious characters I’ve ever played. He absolutely refuses to go back to that place of powerlessness, and that’s what feeds his ambition and his drive to not just be two steps ahead of everybody, but to be five or six steps ahead of everybody. It’s forced him to analyze people, figure out what their weaknesses and motivations are, and then use that to further his own goals — to be the one in charge, and not be stepped on ever again.

On the show, there’s almost something about him where you want to root for him, despite everything he’s doing. He’s a villain you can almost sympathize with.

I have to see him as sympathetic, because that’s what makes him so three-dimensional, instead of your archetypal villain. “Sympathetic" is too nice of a word; he does terrible things, and his moral compass is definitely off in that way, but I understand why he’s doing these things, and in that understanding there is sympathy in that. Knowing what he’s gone through and where he wants to go, it makes him more a human being. I feel like people have been really responding to that, and that was my goal from the beginning, to see him be more than a cartoon.

He’s a very complex character, which makes sense. Even more than Jim Gordon or Bruce Wayne, he’s the character that the entire season revolves around — and it’s something that he’s made happen himself. Did you have an idea that he’d be quite so central going into the pilot?

Bruno had told me that, early on, as the show progresses, it would highlight certain characters and that Oswald was going to be the first one out of the gate. I had no idea to what extent. When I got the scripts for, I think it was episode seven, when it’s revealed that Oswald had been working for Falcone the whole time, I had no idea! There was this moment of, "Oh my God, he’s so much smarter than I thought he was!" It’s been such a great experience, watching the character evolve and experiencing it as he’s experiencing it. I don’t know what’s coming, I get the scripts before we start shooting.

Because Oswald has placed himself as the center of events, he gets scenes with almost everyone else in the show, which is unusual. Almost every other character is off in their own world, but Oswald is everywhere.

One of my favorite things has been able to work with so many people in the cast. Interacting with all of these different characters brings out different parts of Oswald and illuminates different parts of his psyche and his motivation, and that’s been very fun to play from my end. My relationship with Carol Kane is incredible; I’ve been a fan of hers forever, and we really do have a genuine affection for each other off-screen, and that’s been an amazing thing. To be able to call her my friend is just unreal. And then, to be able to work with someone like Ben — Jim Gordon’s relationship with Oswald is so multifaceted and interesting, it’s as if they’re enemies but they need other, and Jim is the only other person besides his mother than Oswald trusts in Gotham. It’s been incredibly fun to play. And then there’s Jada [Pinkett-Smith], who as Fish is the one who taught Oswald everything he knows about Gotham City, so there’s a motherly thing there, too. It’s so fun to play with everybody. It basically feels like a family.

I have to say, one of my favorite scenes so far is with Cory Michael Smith, who plays Edward Nigma. It was just so fun, I’m just so excited to have more moments like that.

Because he’s almost a different character depending on who he’s talking to, you have this amazing range to play with. He can be very intricate and subtle, but he can also go amazingly broad. That’s got to be fun.

To play someone so smart and so in tune with other people’s motivations, and to work off of their energies? That’s an actor’s dream, I mean, that’s exactly what you want when you’re playing a character. You get to play all colors of the spectrum, and it depends on the interactions with other characters to bring out these different colors. It’s so exciting. When I read the script and see I have a scene with Fish Mooney, I know it’s going to be so charged, and then I see have a scene with Jim and know it’s also going to be charged but in a totally different way.

Are there moments where you’re reading a script and Oswald almost goes too far?

There are certain things when I get the script and see what he’s going to be doing in the next episode, there are times when I’m just, "Oh my God, how do I make this believable and still have people invested in what he’s doing?" My goal is, I want him to be an anti-hero, I want him to people to root for people, no matter what he’s doing. I definitely get creeped out by him.

Are you protective of him? Are there moments where you think, "No, Oswald wouldn’t do that?"

That’s been the amazing thing about working with Bruno is that he’s been so open about us coming to him if something rings false in the script. He said that we, the actors, know more about the characters than the writers. There have been a couple of times, especially with Oswald’s relationship with Jim Gordon. I’m always trying to push back against Oswald making Jim feel uncomfortable in any way. I feel that, to Oswald, Jim is a friend; there is a tendency in some scenes where he comes on too hard to Gordon, and it’s something I’ve wanted to pull back a little bit. Oswald would never want to make Jim feel uncomfortable. They’ve been so amazing about letting us do that, you can’t say that about every show.

Unlike almost everything else on television, the characters on Gotham have endpoints. People know the Penguin, they know the Riddler and Catwoman. Does the "traditional" version of the Penguin come into your mind when you’re playing Oswald?

Yes, it is something I am aware of, but I feel like we have a lot of freedom to create these characters on our own terms. We’re illuminating parts of these characters that no-one’s really seen before, and with that, there’s a certain amount of freedom to reinterpret parts of things, and bring out different shades of their personality that haven’t been seen. Also, we’re so far in the past that there’s so much time before Oswald becomes the Penguin that everybody knows. I feel that I have space to create the character I want to play.

Do you ever have moments of "Wait, I’m playing the Penguin. The one who fights Batman"?

Every day! (Laughs.) And sometimes multiple times a day. Nothing can ever prepare you for scoring a job like this, and it’s been an insane roller coaster, but I’m so glad I’m on it. It’s crazy.

And now it looks like the Joker’s going to show up to ramp up the crazy. Can you imagine how Oswald would react to having to deal with the Joker showing up in the city and throwing everything into chaos?

Oh, man. I think Oswald will fully accept the challenge. I think having someone else on the scene trying to take over, it’ll be another thing he’ll have to navigate and figure out. If and when the Joker arrives, that’s a personality that’ll be so difficult for him to manipulate in the way he’s been doing with everyone else. That’d be so amazing to play, for Oswald to find himself on such shaking ground. I think it’ll be incredible fun.

Gotham airs Mondays on Fox.