Since his thespian beginnings in Shueyville, Iowa, and Northwestern University, Robin Lord Taylor’s stage career has been all but chequered. A self-confessed cinephile, he has graced our screens —both big and small— appearing in the most coveted series, from AMC’s hit The Walking Dead to CBS’ The Good Wife, and blockbuster films like Accepted. But it was his role as Oswald Cobblepot in the Emmy-Winning 2014 series Gotham that put him in the international spotlight.
Although the drama is not yet out of his system, Taylor admits to falling into the TV sphere rather serendipitously. “The reality of making a living as an actor [is that you’d] work for any medium that would happen,” he earnestly confides. “Once I moved to New York, I found myself working more [in TV] but I never ever expected [such huge success]. I grew up in a really small town and, to find myself working in television, and not just television but in the Batman universe still feels incredibly surreal.”
In the diversely dystopian background of Gotham City, Robin Lord Taylor offers a nuanced performance of the iconic malefactor, Oswald Cobblepot (a.k.a. The Penguin). The last time we saw him in the fall finale, things were pretty tense: now in Arkham Asylum and with a certain familiar laugh —courtesy of Cameron Monaghan— back in the picture. “His life is such a roller coaster from season to season of Gotham,” Taylor affirms. “He’s lost the most he’s ever lost. He’d built up an incredible courage, he was the most powerful he’s ever been —even more powerful than when he was mayor— [and now] he finds himself in Arkham Asylum and he’s not just stripped of his money, status and power [but he’s also] emotionally shut down. He’s lost everybody he’s ever trusted. I’m yet to know if this will make him stronger or weaker but he’s really at his best when he’s out —that’s when Oswald really shines. I think people will see some delicious come up.”
The Penguin’s unmistakably angular features, fishy bearings and opulent aspirations have been previously portrayed by Academy Award nominees Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito; yet, the highly acclaimed Gotham offers a unique insider’s perspective into the character’s eccentricities: presenting us, for the first time in prime TV or film, with Cobblepot’s backstory. “I don’t feel like I have to —Thank God because I don’t think I would be able to— live up to the people that have played Oswald before,” Taylor admits. “I’m telling a different aspect of his story and there are a lot of things that, unless people have really dug deep in the comic books, would have never been known before and that’s very surreal. The pressure is lenient in that way. There’s no such thing as a definitive backstory of every comic book ever.”
Deeply rooted in the “umbrella-wielding madman’s” idiosyncratic physicality, the sycophantically sly Penguin Taylor has gifted us with for the past 4 years has not only lived up to but exceeded the expectations. Most of us love comic books and their universes but there is an intrinsic toxic hyper-masculinity that, thankfully, hasn’t permeated into the Gotham writers’ room as last season Taylor’s Cobblepot was introduced as a clearly queer character —unarguably one of the only queer characters in mainstream comic film adaptations nowadays. “I feel very fortunate [to be playing a queer character] and I’m actually really glad that it’s me,” Taylor admits. “I’m an openly gay. I’ve been married for several years and I feel like I have the tools to address issues dealing with sexuality correctly; because I grew up with them.”
“It’s been interesting to see people’s responses to this storyline. Some people want to make it extremely exclusive, as to saying Oswald is gay now. But it’s much more complex. I knew right away that this [storyline] was serious. His experience is vastly different than mine —I always knew from a young age that I was gay but Oswald’s situation is different [although] it’s obvious that he is in the spectrum,” Taylor continues. “It’s a much bigger conversation than just oh, The Penguin is gay’ and I’m glad that I’ve been able to open up a larger discussion about sexuality [more so] within the frame of a series called Gotham. It not only raises a question but I have also been given an opportunity to confront [homophobe] attitudes dead on. [As I said before,] there are no definitive stories in comic book [yet] I got a lot of threats from this particular story and this character from people saying ‘hey, I’m not a homophobic but I just don’t like that he’s gay because that’s not how he is in the comic books’. That’s actually an incredible homophobic thing to say because they are all different characters. No one had a problem with a young Batman and Selina Kyle (Catwoman) growing up together…”
Despite Cobblepot being a social and otherwise psychopath, Taylor found a humane link to the character precisely in being bullied as a child. “I feel fortunate [to] move the conversation forward. Especially in this day and age with the political climate in America,” he says. “Someone opening up a social media account and spreading homophobia, it doesn’t hurt me personally but it hurts my heart that it’s out there and that there are kids who are bullied for it like I was. I just want to be a voice so that especially young queer kids aren’t afraid [to be themselves]. You are told your whole life that you are nothing [and] being able to take that and use it to fuel the ambition to fulfil your dreams, I see that in myself as well.”
Taylor plays The Penguin with such panaché that’s almost impossible not to feel sympathetic towards the “squanderer and emotionally manipulative character.” All qualities opposed to those Taylor himself bestows: outspoken, unafraid and devoted. Though the comic book non-canonical representation has affected the 39-year-old actor in more than his stagecraft. “I’m much more confident,” Taylor confides. [Landing this role] was such a validation. Gotham really broke through that wall and now I really feel like I have the most confidence in my talent. I feel confident about my experience as an actor. I feel more confident in my body —spiritually and emotionally. Everything is coming really naturally to me and I’ve never had that feeling before professionally. It all has to do with getting older [as well]. I’m less afraid. Of failing. Of making a fool of myself. Of how people are going to judge how I look like or what kind of person I am. I just feel more confident and brave. And I owe so much of that to Gotham.”
And although Taylor feels most confident whilst wearing The Penguin’s shoes, this year will see him taking part in some long-awaited and well-deserved projects for the big screen —with titles like The Mandela Effect, The Long Home and Full Dress already under his belt. “They’re still in production so you never know when or where we’ll be able to see these projects,” he teases. “But, that being said, I am so proud of these films because they are incredibly small, independent projects. They are really works of passion from the directors. I only had about 3 months in between shooting Gotham, [which] is such a huge machine and an incredible work to be a part of. But, the other half of it is to work on a really small set with just the director and a few other actors, which is also an incredible thing to say.” Taylor’s aplomb goes even further into his beloved backstage. “I do see myself in the future hopefully producing and directing but I really want to start in a smaller way,” he confesses. “I feel like someday I would really love to be able to say I directed something as incredibly and technically complex as Gotham but I’m definitely not there yet. I want to start small and then work my way up to Ben McKenzie [his co-star, who has directed multiple episodes of the primetime hit series] status”.
As for what else’s on hold for the virtuoso in the near future? “I’m excited to delve even deeper into this character and to go back to work with all the incredible people that I work with. I feel like I’m becoming a better communicator and actor in general. I’m looking forward to growing in my craft and see where it takes me,” he says. “As a person, I’m hopeful for more receptive humanity from everyone, in light of everything that’s happening in the world. We need to be kind to each other. I know I sound so idealistic but we need to start somewhere, especially now.”
This Schön! online exclusive was produced by
Words / Sara Delgado