If you watched Season One of Fox’s Gotham, and you didn’t know anything about the Batman series, you might make an argument that this world is based on a comic book called Penguin. The season hinges on the obsequious, cunning, and incredibly sympathetic Oswald Cobblepot, played with nuance and devotion by the remarkable Robin Lord Taylor. His characterization of The Penguin is a fascinating portrayal of an iconic bad guy: Taylor has created a powerfully human and relatable evildoer. And at the end of Season One, the Gotham City in upheaval, we’re rooting for Penguin.
Taylor worked hard to earn the sympathy of his audience by drawing on his own personal experiences. “In our world of Gotham City, he’s a first-generation immigrant. He’s been shunned from the way he looks and the way he speaks and the fact that he has no money. That thing about wanting to disappear, feeling that no one will really accept you if they knew who you really are, no one will love you, no one will want to be with you… These are things I felt very intensely when I was in high school,” he explains.
Born and raised in a small, rural town outside of the small, rural town of Shueyville, Iowa, he has deep ties to his modest beginnings. “It was very rural, very small. I didn’t even go to high school in Shueyville. It was too small to have a high school. I went to high school in a neighboring town of Solan. That was also a very small town.” His Midwestern high school life embodied the Friday Night Lights stereotype: popular kids versus the nerds in a conservative and god-fearing town where football is king.
In high school, Taylor was overweight and gay. “I always tried to make myself disappear. I was so afraid of getting bullied that I would hide in big clothes and I never wanted to draw attention to my appearance. I didn’t want people to really look at me.” Theater, however, became a place of solace and comfort for him, and led him down a path towards confidence and self-expression.
“It’s ironic because then I discovered theater and it was the only time where I was accepted being in the limelight, being out in front of people.” Playing a character made him feel safe. “I felt like I could hide behind the convention of theater, hide behind the convention of character. It was the first time I could really express myself even though I was doing it through someone else’s words and through a different character. It actually saved me in that way. It unlocked something inside of me.”
Theater also allowed him to access and explore emphatic and controversial emotions for the first time in his life. “I remember reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. I think it was in Spanish class. I couldn’t put it down.” He took it home and read George’s violent, anguished monologues out loud to himself. “The power of the words,” he exclaims. “The emotions are so palpable in that play. My mind was blown. I knew this was something I wanted to do.”
In a town where he felt he couldn’t express his own emotions, this impassioned play appealed to him. “People expressing themselves and shouting and screaming and having thoughts and ideas,” he says, awe resonant in his voice. What surprised him the most was that all of this vividly expressed, raw emotion was meant to be performed in front of an audience: emotion as public spectacle. “It was an amazing, eye-opening experience.”
The role that changed everything for him and started him down the path that would eventually lead to his breakout, award-worthy role of Penguin on Fox’s Gotham was that of Peter in a high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank. “No one in the play was Jewish doing the play in small-town Iowa,” he explains, but he still found a way to connect with the character emotionally. “It was the first time I felt like I really got it, where I felt like I understood what I was doing and I knew what buttons to push. I knew how to get an audience to an emotional place.”
He went on to study theater at Northwestern University in Chicago but doubts lingered. “Part of my reticence was because I was going from a town of 2,500 people with a graduating class of 75 to Northwestern in Chicago where kids from New York City private schools, kids from L.A. private schools, all over the country from much better theater programs were coming to Northwestern. I didn’t know if I had the chops,” he confesses.
In one of his first classes, a performance art requirement, he was challenged to choose a random item and build a scene around it. He opted for his CD player remote control. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what the scene was,” he says, laughing, but the feedback from his performance was overwhelmingly positive and gave him the confidence to continue with theater. “Oh my god,” he says, explaining his thought process at the time, “I actually do think I can stand alongside these other kids. I can excel here.”
The second defining moment in his performance life came during his sophomore year when he was cast as Bobby in Northwestern’s large student theater production of Love! Valour! Compassion! “It’s about a bunch of gay men over the course of the summer,” he explains. “It was a big moment for me. I was completely out of the closet at that point, doing a play all about it.” The play ends with the cast taking off their clothes on stage and it became a seminal, cathartic moment for Taylor both personally and professionally. “The way people responded to how I played that character was so overwhelming and so amazingly positive. At that point I was fully locked in,” he says. “I’m going all the way through with this. I’m going to go to New York when I graduate. I’m going to make it happen.” And he did.
Interestingly, the character he played, Bobby, is blind, starting what would become a recurrent theme in his acting career of taking on physically challenging roles. “I think it’s a coincidence that I have played these physical characters but I really love it. It’s something that’s very attractive to me. In a way, it’s easier to be immersed in a character who has a sort of defining physical trait,” he explains. He believes that understanding the physical limitations of a character gives him passage into his emotional state.
At Northwestern, he took several quarters of mime training, which helped him further refine his talent for physical performance. “I think I always start from the outside in. I like to start with the physical and I feel like once I start understanding how this person moves, then it allows me to channel the emotion through the physical.”
He has honed that skill of creating sympathy and accessing the emotional core of a character through the physicality with Oswald Cobblepot. “When I walk like Oswald, I am emotionally invested in the character. It’s effortless. When I do his walk, I feel fully immersed.” He also finds a therapeutic release in the ritualistic “putting on” and “taking off” of character. “When we’re done shooting, the nose comes off, the makeup goes away. I brush out my hair and I put on my black t-shirt and jeans and I’m back to myself and it’s really nice. I’m able to at the end, you know, put him back on the shelf for when we need to work again. I’m never worried that I’m not going to be able to get there emotionally. I’ll be able to access that easily and I don’t have to worry about bringing that home with me.”
Coming from such a deep theater background, it is poetic that he was cast in a show that is so theatrical. Starting with the costuming. “These costumes are so beautiful and so unique. They inform so much about who this person is,” Taylor says. His commitment to his character is apparent in the way that he mentally engages in the elaborate costuming. “The fact that he chose this tie,” he says, describing the process. “And he wears these impeccable, beautiful suits even though for most of the show he doesn’t have a pot to piss in. Yet, he stills makes this choice to look this way, to be distinctive in this way. It says so much to me about how he approaches the world, what he’s thinking.”
Taylor impresses one immediately as a profoundly empathetic person. It is apparent in everything he does and says; from his manner when discussing his awkward childhood years to the way he approaches the character of Penguin. “He is written beautifully and written with so much nuance. What I wanted to bring to him was sympathy. I always saw him as very sympathetic even though he is ruthless and he is ambitious.”
Comic book adaptations are often criticized for being rife with one-dimensional characterizations and hokey, slapdash dialogue. Two episodes into Gotham one realizes that this is something new. All of the characters contain elements of light and darkness and fall into some area of gray. Taylor even transfers this extraordinary subtlety into how Penguin relates to James Gordon. “He sees something in Gordon that goes beyond power or influence. He’s constantly trying to get Gorgon to understand that in order to achieve what he wants to achieve, he can’t be the white knight. He needs to embrace the darker aspects if he wants to get anything done. He wants that connection and that friendship.”
TV allows for a more symbiotic relationship between the writers and the actors as they develop and refine the show episode after episode throughout a season, and Taylor is grateful for that dynamic. “Bruno Heller is such an intelligent, visionary person. There was a point when he said early on in the show, ‘There’s going to come a point where you are going to know the character better than I ever will, or better than any of our writers ever will. If there’s ever anything that rings false or doesn’t make sense or you have an idea, please let us know. We want to collaborate.’”
Taylor’s success story, however, took years of dedication and dogged perseverance, and he did not reach this place of prominence easily. “There were some really disheartening moments,” he says, “and there was a year or two when I didn’t book anything. I had no job. It was finally getting to the point where I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’” His career path had many fits and starts and was, at times, harrowing.
After a particularly long dry spell, he considered graduate school and a new career in academia, but stuck with acting instead and it eventually paid off for him. “I was finally in the right room at the right time,” he says about Gotham. “The fact that you have to be approved by so many people is astounding. I’m always amazed if I get anything.”
Though, at 37, he feels late to the game, he is thankful that it took him awhile to reach this level of success. “You’re always freaked out about your age in this business. Now, with time and age and life happening and being married, it’s really kept me from going absolutely insane. It’s kept me from being self-destructive or any of those other things, which happen to a lot to people in this kind of situation.”
Taylor brings a wealth of real life experience to his acting, which adds authenticity to his characters. “I am such a better actor now than when I was starting out,” he says. “As you get older, you make stronger choices and you’re not scared.” With maturity comes confidence and conviction. “You care about the things that are important to you, about your career and your art and your life and your love. You give all of the fucks for those things. You’re just less concerned about looking foolish.”
He and his husband married in 2011 in Iowa, and he is happy and secure in his relationship. “That was another moment where I thought, how could I legally publicly marry the love of my life and then turn around and be false and not be open about in my career?” We no longer live in an era where gay actors feel they have to pretend to be straight and hide behind show relationships. Taylor credits other openly gay actors like Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer for helping to lead the way. “If I lose some roles because of it, I don’t want those fucking roles anyway. That’s not something that I want to support or condone. It’s fucking acting. If you can’t get over the fact that I’m gay and you can’t see me playing anything else but that, then fuck you. I don’t want to work with you anyway.”
His confidence is now inspiring younger generations who see what he has accomplished and feel galvanized by it. He describes a moment at Comicon China last year as one of the most rewarding of his career when a young Chinese Gotham fan thanked him. “He was so effusive. He was like, ‘You have no idea how much it means to me and to so many of my friends here in Shanghai to know that you’re open and you’re public about being out of the closet.’”
The shy, overweight kid from a small town outside of Shueyville, Iowa has grown into a talented actor and impressive man, and his confidence and fortitude will no doubt continue to inspire us.
Story by Brooke Nasser
Photography by Phillip Aufort
Styled by Jonzu Jones
Grooming by Megan Lenoux