It isn’t easy taking on the role of an iconic character but Robin Lord Taylor makes it look effortless. How does he do it?
Gotham’s Robin Lord Taylor was at Fan Expo Canada to talk about his iconic reimagining of DC Comics supervillain, Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin. During his Q&A with fans, he gushed about the character, talked about the inspiration behind the look and feel of young Penguin and how his castmates have improved his performances.
Here are some of the highlights from his talk.
On Playing Penguin
Taylor described being the Penguin as “surreal” and “incredibly validating” because he struggled for many years to get a regular acting gig. He added that portraying a character that has been in existence for over 70 years is an “incredible honour”.
Speaking of the actors who portrayed Penguin before him, Burgess Meredith in Batman 1966 and Danny Devito in Batman Returns, Taylor said he didn’t specifically draw on anything from the past but that those portrayals “are sort of always in there”. As Gotham wanted to tell its own story about the characters, they added more humour to Taylor’s Penguin, especially in season four. “We wanted to show new colours of him. He’s funny, he has a sharp mind and so he has a sharp sense of irony and sarcasm.”
The biggest challenge Taylor faced when taking on the Penguin was staying away from what he called “the hype and the noise” because it “gets in the way of creative expression”. As exciting as it was when Gotham began, Taylor also found it terrifying. “When I envisioned my career, I envisioned being, you know, ‘that guy in that thing’,” like a JK Simmons-type character-actor. Unsurprisingly, the initial pressure of playing Penguin gave him a lot of anxiety.
What Makes Penguin Tick
Taylor said of the Penguin in Gotham: “He’s a survivor and he’s been so close to death so many times.” He was quick to add that Oswald is not completely evil. “There is a human person underneath there, there is a beating heart, there’s compassion and empathy – but because of his circumstances, and where he’s from and where he lives, that is slowly, literally and figuratively, being beaten out of him.”
The show’s focus was always to give Penguin a believable character arc, of someone who “can start of as a human being, who cares and has feelings and empathy” but then becomes a supervillain because it is the only way to survive in Gotham.
Taylor did quickly add that, “if things had gone right from the beginning, he [Oswald] would be a kind person. He would still be, probably, cunning and manipulative, but it would be coming from a good place.” This elicited much laughter from him and the gathered crowd.
With regards to Penguin’s comic characterisation, when Taylor first got the role, comic creator and DC legend Geoff Johns sent him a copy of Penguin: Pain and Prejudice by Gregg Hurwitz and Jason Aaron. The book explores Oswald Cobblepot’s childhood as a victim of bullying and the “sense of depravity” within him that eventually leads him into a life of supervillainy. Compared to the events in the comic book, Taylor said his Penguin looked like Mary Poppins, but it definitely affected Taylor’s portrayal of the character. “Knowing that was where he was going informed these proto steps to becoming a supervillain.”
Creating the Penguin’s Look
The Penguin is undoubtedly a standout character on Gotham but fans at the Expo were curious whether the show would eventually emulate the look of the classic comic character.
Taylor confirmed that due to the time constraints of a curtailed final season, Gotham’s Penguin will not be developing the portly physical appearance fans associate with the character from the comics.
However, Taylor added that some of the Penguin’s familiar motifs would appear in the final season. “What you definitely will see this year is more of the iconography of the Penguin.”
Talking about the limp that Oswald Cobblepot has, Taylor emphatically exclaimed “the limp sucks!”. Walking with the limp is very painful and he is always relieved when he is done shooting his scenes.
On a more serious note, Taylor spoke of the importance of incorporating the limp into the character as it is a distinctive part of the Penguin and his motivations. Plus, the history of it – that Oswald has a limp from having been attacked by Fish Mooney’s goons – adds to the richness of the character. “I don’t think I could do the character without it.”
However, the limp is not the only physical characteristic of the character. Taylor mentioned that he worked very hard on Penguin’s physicality – his facial features and his body language – to show that Oswald is a man suffering from chronic pain. “Every step he takes, it hurts… That informs so much of the personality.”
The Penguin’s on-screen life also impacted Taylor. When asked by a fan about his favourite Gotham actors to act besides, he singled out Carol Kane, who portrayed Penguin’s mother, Gertrude Kapelput, and Paul Reubens, who played Penguin’s father, Elijah Van Dahl. Taylor grew up watching Pee Wee Herman and wanted to meet him, so he was delighted to be able to work with Reubens on Gotham. “He’s hilarious, he’s a good, gentle, tender person.” Unfortunately, Reubens had earlier cancelled his appearance at the Expo.
Speaking of Carol Kane, Taylor described her as “pure of spirit. She showed me what it means to be a true artist… She teaches me every day about that.”
Taylor also gushed about his fellow castmates, crediting them with enhancing his performance. “I become a better actor because of the amazing actors that I work with.”
From the tidbits we learned from Taylor, it appears that Penguin will have a large part to play in the season and may, in fact, face off against some of the other villains, if not Batman himself. Gotham has had its ups and downs but the Penguin has been consistently fascinating since the beginning of the show. Whatever happens in the final season, it is clear that Penguin will continue to shine.