‘Gotham’ (Fox) Interview: Robin Lord Taylor On What Makes The Penguin Tick

The Fall 2014 season’s clear breakout star is Robin Lord Taylor whose multifaceted portrayal of Oswald Cobblepot, the man who will be The Penguin, in Gotham has TV fans and critics buzzing. Embodying both Oswald’s fury and delight in his growing sense of power as well as the bullied boy whose only real relationship is with his mother, Taylor’s performance is masterful and reinvigorating a character that has been part of the Batman franchise since 1941. TV Equals joined in a conference call with Taylor recently where the actor discussed how he gets inside Oswald’s head, his influences and when we might finally see The Penguin’s famed umbrella. Read on for highlights from the interview.

New episodes of Gotham air Mondays at 8PM ET/PT on Fox.

The Humanity of a Villain

The best villains have just enough humanity to keep them real. Throughout pop culture history, The Penguin has been portrayed either as broken man who was driven to villainy or as an over-the-top umbrella twirling big bad. Finding balance in the origins of such an audacious character must be a challenge, but Taylor makes it look simple. Although the actor is quick to demure that he takes all of his cues from the script.

“When I read the script, it all just came together in such a brilliant way,” Taylor revealed. “The pilot script was one of the best ones that I’ve ever read. In terms of what I really responded to was the fact that this character, though, from all I’d ever seen, these larger than life, incredible performances of the character by Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito, but what was brought to the page was just this humanity and the fact that we’re actually trying to bring some real human pathos to this fantastic character.”

Taylor cites both Meredith and DeVito as inspirations, along with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, Gotham‘s interpretation of The Penguin is grounded in a need to establish what makes Oswald the man tick. During the call, Taylor discussed the importance of Oswald’s mother in his life and how bullying pushed Oswald into isolation, but also how despite the moments designed to make the audience empathize with the character, Oswald is clearly a dangerous man who delights in causing pain to others.

Explaining his approach to playing Oswald, Taylor said, “We all understand what it means to be different and what it means to be treated like you’re less than another person just based on whatever it may be; the way you look or whatever it is, and that fear of being powerless and just being at the whim of everyone else. The only difference though is that Oswald has very little empathy. He just refuses to go back to that place of powerlessness. It is not even a conversation. There’s no conflict in his mind about that, so in terms of becoming powerful and not being walked upon any more, that’s the fuel that drives him to make these terrible decisions, and I think that is somewhat the human aspect of him. I think once you understand where someone has come from and their situation and their life and it does not excuse their horrible, horrible behavior, but it does humanize them and I think that’s definitely what I’m keying into.”

Giving Voice to Oswald

There is a touch of method to Taylor’s performance, particularly in the way Oswald speaks. His upper class, stiff manner of talking only adds to Oswald’s uniqueness. While Oswald is not wealthy, Taylor likes to think the accent is a byproduct of Oswald’s family lineage. “For Oswald, though they didn’t have much money, he comes from a somewhat aristocrat background,” Taylor explained. “His family came from Europe and there’s the sense that they had a lot of money there, but then when they fled, all of that sort of went away, but the tradition still remains.”

Taylor also cited the accent as yet another reason why the character comes across as realistic. His accent sets him apart in the world of Gotham, but it is a humanizing difference that is easy to relate to. At the same time, Oswald’s unique sound is another signifier that “there’s a thing that’s just sort of off about him.”

The Evolution of The Penguin

Like all of the characters in Gotham, Oswald is at the beginning of his story and has not yet embraced his alter ego, The Penguin, fully. This gives Taylor the chance to delve into the evolution of Oswald from a small time criminal to the supervillain he is destined to become. As the series progresses viewers will begin to see Oswald embrace his infamous moniker.

“It’s always been a name that he’s been called that has somewhat tortured him his whole life, and then I think he reaches a point where he’s like, “Okay, well if you’re going to call me this, I’m going to embrace it and I’m going to run with it and I’m going to use that and I’m not going to be a powerless person anymore.” It’s almost like facing your fears and embracing the worst thing that’s said about you, and when you do that, that gives you the power,” Taylor elaborated. “You then own that. I think that’s definitely Penguin’s trajectory.”

As for when we will see The Penguin’s iconic umbrella fully integrated into the character, Taylor is not sure, but he is looking forward to the moment it appears. “I hope it’s soon,” Taylor said. “As we go, we develop his relationship with the umbrella, and in my head, I imagine that he befriends someone like Q from James Bond who makes him all the really fun funky umbrella gadgets, but who knows what they have coming down the pipe.”

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