Robin Lord Taylor, the third actor to play famous Batman villain The Penguin, talks to us about finding his confidence as an artist, his creative family in Gotham, his independent film work out of it, plus waddling in the footsteps of Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito.
It's the first morning of this year's Heroes & Villains Fan Fest at Olympia London, and with press access I am able to take in the calm before the impending storm. Not the storm that will rock the city later that evening, but the imminent opening of the floodgates through which thousands of genre TV fans will pour.
Fans that have been drawn, in no small part, to the attendance of Robin Lord Taylor, who stars as The Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot, in TV hit Gotham. The character is one of Batman's most iconic enemies, played previously as a sneering caricature by Burgess Meredith in the 60s Batman TV show, then physically grotesque and almost inhuman by Danny DeVito in 1992's Batman Returns. It is Taylor's very human and nuanced portrayal of the character that has seen him become one of the series most stand out turns.
As such, crowds lined up early to meet the star, many dressed up in full Oswald regalia and some of whom he has time to greet before he's torn away to chat to me (sorry everyone). He arrives in the press room buoyed by the morning's reception and I ask what it was like landing the role of such a well-known character.
"The role of "The Penguin" has just been such an amazing experience in so many ways, but mostly because the range of emotion that he goes through, it's the entire spectrum. I just feel confident now and not afraid. I feel like the best work I've ever done is coming up. It's really exciting. From the way they had already cast Gotham, I just knew it would always be me [chuckles]. I've never really felt that way at auditions, but I knew after the Gotham audition, I was like, "I think it's mine." [chuckles]. I had that feeling. Then talking to the executive producers, they were like, "The second you walked in the room, we were like, 'It's you'. It's incredible." My life has changed completely."
Far from a mere foil to pit against Gotham's caped crusader - albeit a teenage one - this Penguin, like many of the villains in the show, is often seen to be a victim of tragedy and injustice that goes on to form the famous alter-ego. One story-line in particular [SPOILER ALERT}, involving an unrequited love between Penguin and The Riddler, confirmed the shows willingness to give these characters a unique, fresh and modern take. Is this something he knew was planned from the beginning?
"I had no idea, I really didn't know. I don't know if they knew. I feel so fortunate in so many ways. Bringing the human experience to these larger than life characters has just been incredible. To find that common thread in these characters that have been around for 70-80 years, it's just been so great. Again, to be able to show certain aspects to these characters that people haven't really seen or thought about before has been probably my favourite thing about the experience. When you're an actor, that's the good stuff. I'm only the third "Penguin" on screen, which is great because I don't have the pressure of trying to live up to anything that's happened before. Not just that I'm the third one, it's such a departure from what Danny DeVito did, and then also what Burgess Meredith did, and so, I don't feel like I have to live up to what they did. Those guys are geniuses. That was nice and not having that pressure was great. Also, just to be one of the first major villains that launched from the pilot episode is just an amazing feeling. I'm just so grateful to be able to colour with all the crayons in the crayon box.
There is a pitch perfect cast that makes up the entire roster of Gotham's main characters, each bringing their own uniqueness to some well-worn roles. One of those is Ben Mackenzie, playing James Gordon, who has also directed episodes of the show. Taylor has nothing but good things to say about his experience of a cast-mate slipping into the director's chair.
"It was fantastic. Again, because he's an actor, he's so much more direct with us in a way. It's so much easier for him to get the kind of performance that he wants out of us because he knows us all so well. We're like a family. We all love each other. To have him behind the camera, he'd give this look at me and say maybe two words and I know exactly where he's going and what he wants. It's a really fantastic experience. [With guest directors] the great thing is that they really encourage us to make these characters ours and to just own it. Also, because I've been playing the character and it's been 88 episodes now or something, every once in a while, as the years go along, there'll be something in a scene and I'll have to remind the director, "Two years ago in season two, I did this thing, so that's not going to work because of that." I'm able to remind everybody where the character has been and all of the directors have come through really appreciate that. Because again, I know it better than anyone else does in some ways."
Where that familiarity with his role and working with the team on Gotham gets tested, is during the hiatus between series when Taylor has had the opportunity to sign on to independent feature film projects.
"It's daunting at first, but then at the same time I really look forward to any sort of opportunity to play a different character. I get afraid sometimes that I'll lose my job. "Oh, my God. Am I only ever going to do this? Do I know how to get through this?" Then going to these other films, especially because they're low budget, it just feels very creatively fulfilling in so many ways. I've been really lucky in the sense that I've been able to nail down a couple of independent features over the hiatus, which was really nice. I love it so much because it's the antithesis of Gotham. Gotham is a machine in the best way, but it's like multi-cameras, and it's very specific about the angles and the lighting, and everything is just super-designed to the moment. To be able to go on to an independent set where things are more freeing and open, it's amazing."
"I did The Long Home first and that was directed by James Franco. We shot in Ohio, and it was a really, really crazy set. I really had no idea what to expect when I walked on to that set. At one point, I didn't even know where the camera was. He kept a very free-flowing, open environment on that set, which was, again, fun because it was so much different from Gotham.
After that was Full-Dress, which was an amazing experience because the director really attempted to shoot without any cuts so that it feels like a continual moment, which was really exciting because, again, it's so different from Gotham and it feels like a play in a way. We would do these scenes that just flow into one another, and so, you're doing the entire scene in one take without any coverage. It was a really fascinating experience because it's almost like choreography because as we talked, the camera had to find us, but we also had to find the camera, [all with] zero time and zero money. Everywhere we shot was basically a favor [chuckles]. It was really an amazing experience. I just talked to the director, Carlos Puga, and he says it's wrapping up, so it's almost out which is really fun and exciting.
Then, The Mandela Effect was directed and written by my good friend, David Guy Levy, who directed another independent film that I did some years ago called Would You Rather. It's a horror film. He wrote this. My other friend, Charlie Hofheimer, who is also the lead, was also in Would You Rather, so it was like coming-back-together-with-family moment."
One of the best things about these projects for Taylor is not always having to audition, and instead receiving straight offers. It's a testament to his work on Gotham and having the opportunity to display such a dynamic range, that these projects are now coming to him. But what about his own projects? In another interview earlier this year he talked about his desire to move in to producing. He already has a project in mind and credits his experience on Gotham for instilling in him the confidence to take it on.
"I'm working on producing. My sister is a novelist and I'm adapting one of her novels for screen. It's been with my good friend, Ashley Hudson, who I met through Gotham, actually. It's really exciting. I never thought of it as a possibility. Now and again, I just see all these opportunities now that I just want to take advantage of. It really is just confidence. It's just like being able to walk into a room and know that I belong there, and I deserve to be heard, and I have a voice. I have my own agency now. I found it within myself and that's been the best lesson ever. We're so fortunate with Gotham in the sense that the cast just really feels like a family. Going forward, I know that that's the vibe that I want to recreate on the set. I want to have that feeling where even though, for Gotham, it's a multi-million dollar budget thing, superheroes and stuff, but at the end of the day, it feels like a community theater [chuckles]. It still feels like we're a bunch of people coming together to play. I think that's why the show is just so vibrant and beautiful."
And with that, our whirlwind 13-minutes is up. He returns to the waiting fans at his table eager to meet the man who really has made the Penguin fly.
You can follow Robin Lord Taylor on Twitter: @RobinLordTaylor
You can follow Heroes & Villains Fan Fest on Twitter: @HeroesFanFest
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