As Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham wraps its roller coaster first season, there are still plenty of twists to be had and a number of questions to be answered.
Shortly after the crime-thriller finished production on its season finale, we sat down to talk with breakout star Robin Lord Taylor about playing one of the year’s most fascinating villains, Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot; the pressure to live up to classic portrayals of the character; equality on television; and having his own unofficial emoji.
So you’ve had a pretty good year…
It’s like, “What the hell just happened?” Now that we’re done shooting, I’ve have more time for reflection and doing laundry and running errands. It makes you think about what can happen in a year. It’s crazy. It really is mind-blowing.
Going into this, did you think it could be your big break or were you nervous people might not give it a chance?
I had been really trying to make it for a while. Not quite struggling because I was a working actor but there was a lot of down time. [Laughs] There was just a lot of uncertainty. Once I got the job, there was a sense of relief because I knew we could at least have a short season order on a great show and it would be a little bit of stability until whatever the next move might be. I’d never been a series regular before, so that was already huge. And then when we started getting the positive buzz and reaction to my character, it’s crazy.
What were you doing before you got the role?
Pretty much, I was auditioning a lot. I had the small role on The Walking Dead. I did a small-ish role on Law & Order. I was reading for plays and trying to stay active, but it was challenging.
The cool thing about a prequel is we get to see Cobblepot before he becomes what Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito portrayed. No pressure, right?
It’s honestly a dream come true. I love prequels. And especially with something like Batman, everyone knows the story. It’s a part of American and international pop culture, so to be given these characters and these stories, it’s a huge challenge. And with Penguin, I think it was like 74 years ago when he first appeared in the comics. To be able to take a character like that and illuminate parts of him that hadn’t been seen before, it’s everything you’d want as an actor. The cool thing is that he’s not the super-villain we all know. He’s more of this proto-villain who’s still finding himself, which I think is great for us as fans because this is the stuff we could only sort of imagine before—the motives, the psychology.
Serialized TV gives us a chance to sympathize with villains in a way a 120-minute film can’t. Is that something you realized might happen?
The thing is, Oswald makes bad decisions and has a horrible disrespect for human life; however, you come to understand why he’s the way he is. And when you know where someone comes from, it can sometimes explain their actions. You look at this guy who is so tortured and yeah, there’s part of you that might pause and give him an ounce of sympathy because you see the bigger picture. I wanted to make him a three-dimensional person. Even though Gotham City is totally not the world we live in, I still hoped there were parts of him that made viewers believe he could be a real person in this world.
Some critics have called you the key player, saying you kind of steal the show.
Yeah, I can’t really read too much into the reviews. I’ve tried to do my best keeping a clear head and tuning out the noise, because it gets in the way of the actual show and the character. I think the scene-stealer is the representation of Gotham City; the incredible vision of this place that we haven’t seen like this before.
You said in a recent interview the landscape for gay actors on television is changing. Do you think that’s because we’re seeing more gay actors on screen or more gay characters?
I think more diversity is always best, no matter how you break it down, especially when you’re portraying a place like Gotham City, which is an exaggeration of New York. I think it’s incredibly important that we see so many people of color and in various degrees of power, as well as the relationship between Barbara (Erin Richards) and Montoya (Victoria Cartagena). I think that’s important so see this on a Monday night at 8 o’clock. The landscape is changing and not to show that on television would be a huge disservice to viewers. We live in a world where this is the reality, where people of different backgrounds and orientations and ethnicities are all around us and should be represented in pop culture as well.
The interesting thing is that we see the changes on television, which suggests society is coming around. But then we have states like Indiana pushing back on that progress. Do you think we’re seeing a shift or has the entertainment world just progressed much faster?
I think there are definitely people—and a lot of them—who want to slow things down, but if you look at the polling in the past 10 years, we’ve gone from about 35% of Americans supporting gay marriage to like 61%. And I was watching CNN recently where the Republican Arkansas governor (Asa Hutchinson) was talking about his state’s own ‘religious freedom’ bill that’s similar to Indiana’s and he said his son Seth asked him not to sign it, so he’s not going to. I’m not saying he’s decided to support gay marriage, but it shows he’s listening. It shows that the younger generation can change hearts and minds on equality.
According to Miley Cyrus, now that the older generations “are dinosaurs and they are dying off,” that will allow the younger ones to create more positive change.
I agree with that only to an extent because of my personal experience. My father is 92 years old and he was a huge Reagan supporter and a Republican for many years, and watching him be confronted with the reality that acceptance of one person’s sexuality or lifestyle won’t mean the denial of your own, seeing him come around on that has been eyeopening for me. I wouldn’t want to discount the people who are older than you or I or Miley Cyrus and write them off, because people change and they learn. I believe that change is possible. I’ve seen it with my dad, an old, white guy in Iowa. Look at the leaders and politicians—the President. The fact is, most of the younger generations don’t have the layers of junk to filter through like their parents and grandparents. But we need those parents and grandparents. The real change comes when we see their eyes and their hearts opened. And we should strive for that kind of change.
Speaking of change, but on a different note, these final episodes of Gotham have a lot of that. We’re seeing Oswald really step up his game. So what can we expect from him?
These are his moments to really assert himself. He’s been at the whim of other people for the rest of the season, so this is his time to take charge and become his own boss. It’s crazy how everything finally goes down. I wish I could say so much but it’s big. I mean, he’s a shit starter. [Laughs] That’s what he does; he’s there to see everything fall apart and then once it does, he picks up the pieces and puts them back the way he thinks they should be. But he’s going to face some bigger obstacles too.
So we should expect the penguin emoji to be pretty busy, right?
Oh, you don’t even know! [Laughs] Camren Bicondova (Selina “Cat” Kyle) and I actually went through all the characters one time and tried to figure out which emoji would go with which character. And surprisingly, almost everyone is covered. Even for younger Bruce Wayne, there’s that amazing emoji—oh, man!—the guy with blue shirt and dark hair and he has the points over his head. That’s totally Bruce, the little kid with all the stuff going on in his brain. There’s the cop for Jim, the fish for Fish, the Riddler is the question mark. But the penguin is the best emoji, am I right?
Do you know who to talk to about suggestions for new emoji, if someone were to hypothetically have a few selfish but incredible ideas?
If I shared that information, who knows what they might do to the penguin! And I just can’t risk that.
The first season finale of Gotham airs Monday at 8/7c on Fox.