Carrying the weight of the Man of Steel
Robin Lord Taylor can discuss any number of deeply psychological choices that go into his star-making turn as super-villainin-the-making Oswald Cobblepot on Fox’s Gotham.
But fans most often want to know about the walk.
In the gloomy, pre-Batman series, Cobblepot has yet to morph into someone fans would recognize as the Penguin. Reinvented as a deeply damaged but ambitious young villain, Oswald’s journey from bullied, sad-sack thug to criminal overlord has been portrayed by Taylor with concentrated creepiness and a dash of dark humour.
Still, when the actor is at fan gatherings, as he will be next week for Calgary Expo, he is most often asked how he came up with that limp-addled waddle. It’s one of the physical characteristics that helps earn poor Oswald the nickname he hates.
But while the character would likely resent the topic, Taylor addresses it with enthusiasm. Apparently, he developed the walk with method-actor intensity and plenty of research.
“We are trying to make this real and not a cartoon,” Taylor says in a phone interview with the Herald. “It was a specific injury he receives. So I was able to ask around and do a little research about it.
“I talked to our stunt coordinator about the injury and if it didn’t heal, what that would look like, and he was very helpful. I talked to our set medic and he was also helpful. I hobbled around my apartment for like a week, just to get it into my body.”
As fans know, the exaggerated limp comes from a nasty broken leg suffered the hands of gangster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) in the pilot, a moment that helps reinforce the idea that much of young Oswald’s neurosis derives from of a lifetime of being bullied.
Taylor introduced the waddle on set for the first time in front of Danny Cannon, an executive producer of Gotham who directed the pilot episode.
“I showed him what I had been working on, and he said, ‘10 per cent less,’ ” Taylor says with a laugh. “I did that and he said ‘Perfect, let’s shoot it.’ And from that moment on, that’s been the walk. At this point, it’s become second nature. Pardon the pun, but I really can step right into it.”
Like any ambitious young thespian, Taylor saw fully immersing himself in an already-iconic character as an exciting, rather than daunting, acting challenge. The Penguin has been played memorably, if somewhat cartoonishly, by Burgess Meredith in the campy 1960s Batman TV series and Danny DeVito in 1992’s Bat- man Returns. Aside from Oswald’s sadistic sense of humour, Taylor’s Penguin-to-be owes precious little to those incarnations.
By their nature, events like Calgary Expo tend to be filled with performers who are putting their stamp on iconic, larger-thanlife roles made famous by other actors. Karl Urban, who will be attending this year, probably didn’t have to worry too much about measuring up to Sylvester Stallone’s wooden performance in 1995’s universally booed Judge Dredd when he took on the role in the critically acclaimed 2012 film, Dredd.
But playing the beloved Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy in J.J. Abrams’ series of Star Trek reboots was another matter. His take on the ornery doc as a young man often seems to border on loving homage to original actor DeForest Kelley’s interpretation.
Jason Isaacs, another Expo attendee, has become so associated with the role of slithery villain Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series that it’s easy to forget his lengthy career included a take on the iconic Captain Hook in 2003’s Peter Pan. It puts him in good company, with Dustin Hoffman, Tim Curry and even Boris Karloff playing the role on screen or stage over the years.
Playing beloved, established characters is always tricky terrain for actors. The frequent baton-passing in the James Bond franchise has produced triumphs such as Daniel Craig and duds like George Lazenby. For every Heath-Ledger-as-the-joker that works, there’s a George-Clooney-as-Batman or Vince-Vaughn-as-Norman-Bates that doesn’t.
Brandon Routh had the unenviable task of taking on one of pop culture’s most recognizable characters in 2006’s Superman Returns, which was the first film version featuring the Man of Steel since the late Christopher Reeve hung up his cape in 1987.
Curiously, producers weren’t interested in a complete redo when it came to the actor’s take on Superman/Clark Kent. It was written and conceived, at least in part, to resemble Reeves’ performance, says Routh, who will be at Calgary Expo next week.
“Because we were doing a loose sequel it was important, and I would say asked of me, to bring a certain reverence and a certain energy that was similar to Chris,” he said. “That was a challenging task and people have different opinions. Whether they thought it was a direct ripoff or I was just a clone or a sheep or whatever they think, people are entitled to their own opinions.
“But there was a need … for me to transition the role. After 20 years of not seeing somebody as Superman, to have something completely different might have been too jarring for people.”
Over the past decade, Superman Returns has become regarded as a failure, even though critics overwhelmingly praised the film and it earned nearly $400 million at the box office. But the expected sequel never materialized and by the time Hollywood decided on yet another reboot in 2013, the role was passed on to Henry Cavill who, as it turns out, had been one of hundreds of actors who auditioned for the 2006 film.
Routh says he is proud of the movie and, at least when filming was underway, didn’t allow the enormity of the responsibility he had taken on to overwhelm him. That said, he admits he was as surprised as anyone to return to comic-book adaptations twice since then. First, there was his titular character in a film based on the obscure Italian horror series Dylan Dog in 2011. His stock is currently on the rise again in fan-expo circles thanks to his role as Ray Palmer, a.k.a. The Atom, in the TV series Arrow and its spinoff, Legends of Tomorrow.
Unlike Clark Kent and Superman, The Atom was a role he was able to create from the ground up.
“With Ray Palmer, I wasn’t too worried,” Routh says. “Because he has been in comic-book and cartoon form only, I thought it was a unique opportunity for me to make my mark and say ‘This is who I think he is.’ Thankfully, people have accepted it.”
Still, while Routh may be in superhero garb once more, he says he was never particularly concerned about typecasting after playing the Man of Steel.
Taylor isn’t overly concerned either. Yes, his Oswald is one of those creepy inventions that is likely to stick. On the other hand, that limp, the dark greasy hair, prosthetic nose and sickly pale complexion all conspire to give him a look that is — thankfully — quite different than the actor’s natural state. When the time comes, he’s pretty sure he can shed young Oswald.
“When I take all that off, I really do feel like I’m putting the character away,” Taylor says. “The reaction when I’m at the conventions, though, is like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so nice and so much cuter than you are on the show.’ I’m like, ‘ You think?’
“God, I would hope so. My teeth are green and I look like I crawled out of the sewer half the time on the show.
“Yeah, I hope I look different.”