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Northwestern grad brings enthusiasm to Penguin role on ‘Gotham’

By Gary Levin/Gannett News Service

NEW YORK — It’s pretty clear that Oswald Cobblepot, aka the future Penguin, is the breakout role in Fox’s hit “Gotham” (7 p.m. Mondays on WFLD-Channel 32), the origin story of Batman, his villains and police commissioner Gordon. But fans’ eager reception is thanks to the work of Robin Lord Taylor, a once-struggling actor who now has the role of a lifetime.

Oswald escaped death in the show’s premiere, as Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), who was ordered to kill him, instead spared his life. Viewers later learned he’s a master manipulator in the Gotham City war between the embattled police force and crime-boss rivals Falcone and Maroni. He plotted the deaths of two threats and secretly backs Falcone while working for Maroni and keeping Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) in check.

Taylor — slight, his naturally blond hair dyed, and sharing Oswald’s nervous laugh — came from nowhere to land the role: His roommate at Northwestern was comedian Billy Eichner, and after both moved to New York, Taylor manned the camera for Eichner’s early ambush street interviews and appeared in sketches on “Creation Nation,” his Web series.

But later work proved elusive. He had small guest roles on “Law & Order,” “The Good Wife” and a few independent films, and he made two brief appearances on “The Walking Dead,” where he was killed in this season’s premiere. But he failed to land the big jobs and says he narrowly lost out to Jesse Plemons for the role of “creepy” Todd in the final season of “Breaking Bad.”

“It was extremely frustrating,” he says. “I would audition for big things and get very, very close to them and they wouldn’t happen. I was just succeeding enough to not be able to quit. To throw it all away would be ridiculous. But at the same time, it was not enough to be fulfilling or lucrative.”

He went into “Gotham’s” audition learning which role he was vying for only the night before. When he won it, “I screamed and cried,” first spilling the news to a room-service waitress. “When I got the job, the biggest criticism was I was too tall and too skinny,” he says. “These were things that were never said about me.”

Executive producer Danny Cannon says there was “a confidence” in Taylor’s audition, “and it was a person you wanted to know more about. It was very important getting the right guy, because the first season was always going to be the rise of the Penguin.”

Now, Taylor looks to Burgess Meredith and Danny DeVito’s Penguin portrayals, in ABC’s campy 1960s series and 1992’s “Batman Returns,” respectively, for the charisma and “sense of fun” each brought to the role.

“I want to approach this material with the same sort of enthusiasm that the hardcore comic-book fans have,” he says. And there’s plenty of room to maneuver: “Even in the canon of Batman there aren’t too many origin stories of Penguin; for the most part he is already the portly gentleman who has established himself as a major player in the underworld of Gotham City. So there’s still freedom to create this character.”

One useful guide was “Penguin: Pain and Prejudice,” a comics series that established Oswald’s bullied childhood, which Taylor says he identified with growing up in small-town Iowa. “I was a small kid and didn’t play sports and was overweight; I totally understood a lot of what he went through.”

Oswald’s only trusted friends are his mother (Carol Kane) and Gordon, an unlikely ally he has vowed to protect. “He really sees Jim as his friend and owes him his life,” he says. “Oswald recognizes in Jim a parallel. They’re both new to Gotham City to a certain extent, and both are making their moves to establish themselves in the city. Gordon is on one side of the fence and he’s on another.” Both relationships add dimension to the role, allowing him to move beyond the “shifty-eyed distrust of everybody around him.”

The show is fall’s No. 2 new hit among young adults and has been extended from a planned 16 episodes to 22. But Taylor’s career epiphany came during filming of a waterfront scene in the pilot, shot in the rain last March, in which Oswald pleads with Gordon to spare his life. “I had an out-of-body experience where I could see my own life changing in that moment. I’ll never forget it.”