Those who have seen the pilot of Gotham agree: TV fans are going to be tweeting about Robin Lord Taylor this fall. The young actor and relative newcomer nabbed the role of Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin) on the upcoming Fox series, which details the origins of iconic characters in the Batman universe. In the first episode, we meet Cobblepot as an abused but ambitious underling for gangster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith). Taylor brings a desperate, jittery energy to the role that’s far more compelling than his campy predecessors—and with a first name like “Robin,” the actor seems destined to play the avian-themed crime lord. We caught up with the enthusiastic Taylor on the Gotham set after watching the Penguin murder an innocent man for his sandwich. (It was tuna, of course.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you land this part?
Robin Lord Taylor: It’s pretty standard. It was pilot season, and I got the call, and I went in and did just one take. I got a call at some point, “You’re going to LA to test.” So it’s been this series of hurdles. And from where I’m coming from, it’s like a series of gold medals—just to test [for a pilot] is huge thing, at least for me. Then to have it be this project … it’s just amazing.
Were you a fan of the comics?
I wasn’t a big comic person. I was raised on the Tim Burton films. I think one of the first films I ever saw was the first Batman. Superman had happened before that, but this was a groundbreaking moment in terms of bringing superheroes back to something serious and legendary.
Is it weird to think that you were a kid watching Danny DeVito in Batman Returns, not knowing that someday, you’re going to play that character? That’s probably not one of those characters you hope to play, but in this version it’s a very cool role.
I know! Oh yeah, it’s amazing. It’s funny, too, because my name is Robin.
Every time people working on the show reference you, it throws me for a second. Your name is Robin, and you’re in a Batman show, yet you’re playing the Penguin.
People tweeted me the exact same thing. And my whole life I heard “jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg.” It’s all I heard throughout elementary school. But it’s funny what you were saying about this role, because when you’re a kid playing with your friends nobody wants to be the Penguin. But then you get older, and [when] you’re an actor, it’s—for me in particular—it’s the best character ever. Especially in the pilot his story is fascinating.
Have friends joked about your appearance tweaks?
That was the thing. I’m the blondest person alive. Dealing with that has been intense I’ve never dyed my hair before. My friends are going through post-traumatic stress looking at me.
What’s your version of the character like?
It’s before he’s realized his capacity for violence. In the pilot, his journey is so incredible. He starts in this place with very low status, and he tries to establish himself and fails. But all of that gives him everything he needs to become the criminal mastermind that he is. He discovers his full power and full disregard for human life. So when I got the job, I did a lot of research, and the Penguin as a child is bullied relentlessly by his peers for the way he looks and his interests. He’s a kid who reads Shakespeare. He’s an artistic kid and goes to a prep school, and he’s just tortured for it. And how relevant is that? Bullying is such an issue now. And it’s amazing to think Penguin has been around since 1942 and that these issues still carry through.
I read the script thinking this role is tricky to play. Because you don’t want be a parody or cartoonish, but you still want to suggest the Penguin’s bird-like affectations.
That’s the trap you don’t want to fall into. I have a prosthetic nose, and when I heard they were going that direction I got nervous because I want it to be as real as possible. But you’re finding that balance. They came up with the prosthetic. It’s very small and subtle, and more of a suggestion rather than—I’m not going to make an “on the nose” pun. So then I was totally at ease.
But no monocle.
Yet! I’m sure we’ll figure it out. The other thing too, in terms of his walk, we see why that happens. It gives me the impetus … at the start of the show I don’t think he has that penchant for violence, but then it’s hammered home—quite literally. You want it to be as physically accurate as possible.
Can you give us a sense of his ambitions?
He’s a very ambitious character. Interestingly, status-wise, by end of the pilot he’s even at a lower place than the beginning. But it’s a rebirth. He’s on a way to building himself back up. If you follow what happens to the Penguin, he runs everybody. He plays all sides. He has his hands in everything.
In the comics, he’s actually one of Batman’s informants.
Exactly. They have a relationship that goes all the way through that’s also fascinating. It’s not your traditional villain vs. hero. He needs me and I, in a way, need him.
At least you don’t have to worry about being killed off.
Which is the best thing ever. It’s not like The Walking Dead where I showed up to work and they’re all, “We hate to tell you but…”