It’s a clear, crisp autumn day in New York City, the type of early fall afternoon where the streets of Manhattan bear little resemblance to their dreary DC Comics counterpart Gotham City, and yet Robin Lord Taylor has an unshakeable case of nerves. The reason? Just a few days from now, Gotham is set to introduce a storyline that throws an unprecedented monkey wrench into the backstories of two longstanding Batman rogues: Oswald Cobblepot (a.k.a. Penguin), the hook-nosed villain played for three seasons now by Taylor, is about to fall head over umbrella in love with Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nygma (a.k.a. The Riddler).
“I’m sort of bracing myself for the onslaught,” Taylor says, his voice, raised to beat out the din of the Upper West Side vegan joint Peacefood, caught somewhere between the jitters and genuine, gleeful excitement. To be fair, that’s the 38-year-old’s personality in a nutshell. Any audience who was first introduced to the actor in 2006’s Accepted, in which he played the motor-mouthed, ADD-afflicted Abernathy Darwin Dunlap, was only seeing him toned down a few notches in Gotham. Anyone who says penguins can’t fly has never seen Taylor enter a room, all boisterous enthusiasm and eager, charming grin.
But there’s no denying that on this particular afternoon, Taylor’s hyperkinesis is curdling into anxiety. The actor is dressed to spite his demeanor, his hair dyed a Gotham-mandated black from his natural blond, his jeans the twin of his dark hoodie, the sleeves with which he fidgets as he speaks. Make no mistake, though, the actor’s hesitance goes far beyond upsetting some comic fans and unnamed Twitter accounts who cling too tightly to the established canon; for Robin Lord Taylor, who grew up “fat and gay and doing theater in Iowa,” as he puts it, the issue runs deeper than a few pissed-off 140-character rants.
“The fact that [Oswald] is having romantic feelings for another man…it still feels a little bit like coming out again. Only on a much, much, much bigger scale.”
“Part of it is just that residual fear of homophobia that I’ve experienced my entire life,” he says. “And granted, I don’t think Oswald is gay, per se. But the fact that he’s having romantic feelings for another man, however anyone wants to label that, it still feels a little bit like coming out again. Only on a much, much, much bigger scale.”
Gotham bills itself as a Batman prequel, taking place during Bruce Wayne’s formative years. After receiving the first ever full-season, sight-unseen purchase from Netflix, it premiered on Fox in the fall of 2014. The show—for all its ridiculousness, bazooka-shell bombast and the occasional, endearing incoherence that comes with any comic book storytelling—is surprisingly not shy about taking on social issues. And Taylor, as the series’ beating, unhinged heart, more often than not finds himself at the center. Case in point: In a perverse mirror of the 2016 presidential election, Season 3 finds Oswald Cobblepot running for Gotham City’s mayor, garnering votes through a combination of fear-mongering, the demonization of society’s “monsters,” and a healthy application of orange bronzer.
It was, Taylor tells me, an attempt to satirize a social climate that is “almost satire-proof,” an idea Gotham’s writers room was all too keen on. “When we were talking about it initially, it was kind of like, ‘Aha! Yes! We’re gonna get him!’ But now it’s sort of like…” the actor trails off, uncharacteristically sober. After a moment, he calls to mind a specific memory, a rain-drenched night in June after a pop-culture convention in Blackpool, England, spent alone in a hotel room, turning on the news to discover that, thousands of miles and an ocean away, 49 people were killed in a shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“I worked myself into a frenzy. I didn’t sleep all night. I was so furious, especially by Donald Trump’s response,” Taylor recalls. “In my fury, I fired off a text to [Gotham executive producer] Danny Cannon, like, ‘Make Penguin the worst possible incarnation of the character you can imagine. I want him to be horrific. I want him to be disgusting.’ ”
Cannon’s response was measured and simple. “He said, ‘Our Penguin could never be that,’ ” Taylor remembers. “ ‘Because that would mean we’d lose those intricacies of the character we’ve worked to build. Then he’d be unforgivable.’”
And, for what it’s worth, Cannon is right. Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot, for all his crimes, is more anti-hero than monster; he’s Walter White only inked, colored and lettered in comic book pastels. The definitive image of this Penguin is not behind a podium or pulpit but in the Season 1 finale, standing on a rooftop and screaming at the New York skyline, “I am the king of Gotham!”
At this memory, the Cheshire grin returns. “After 14 years of auditioning for roles, working here and there with no real prospects,” he says, “I can’t say I didn’t really feel like that in the moment.”
Those 14 years he mentions are important—key, really, to what makes Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot inherently a character we root for. Because whether you’re a small-time criminal in Gotham City who would one day be king, or an out-of-work actor from Iowa who would one day be a New York television star, you start at the same place. You start at the bottom.
It’s the early 2000s in New York City, and Robin Lord Taylor is a little bit lost. Recently graduated from Northwestern University and settled on the East Coast for the first time, Taylor experiences more than a decade peppered with countless audition callbacks to nowhere and the odd commercial or Law and Order appearance, all to the unemployed actor’s well-worn tune of self-doubt. “It was like this cloud hanging over everything, this low vibration of stress, constantly, for 14 years,” he remembers. “It’s like that game where you try and keep a balloon from hitting the floor. Just trying to tap it up as well as you can to keep it off the floor.”
Luckily, during what he refers to as his “lean years,” Taylor had three things going for him: an undeniable talent, two parents offering support both emotional and financial, and a roommate named Billy Eichner. Eichner—who you’d probably recognize these days screaming into a microphone in his Billy on the Street, or as the louder half of Hulu’s Difficult People, alongside Julie Klausner—first met Taylor as a fellow student at Northwestern. “He was friends with all of my roommates, and I was like, ‘Who is this little blond kid from Iowa?’ ” Eichner tells me by phone. But fate—and Eichner’s extra-large college apartment that needed one more roommate—brought the two together. By the time graduation came and went and New York called Queens-native Eichner home, he and Taylor had formed a bond over a shared ambition and lifelong love of daytime talk shows.
The leap to creative partners, while sharing an apartment in New York, came naturally. “At one point I just turned to Robin and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to write something,’ ” Eichner says. “ ‘We can figure this out. We’re smart, and we’re talented. We shouldn’t be struggling.’”
The result was Creation Nation, an oddball, Off-Off-Broadway sketch comedy series in the form of a late-night talk show with the “sexual tension of Regis and Kelly” that starred Eichner as the out-gay Billy Willing and Taylor as his in-the-closet sidekick Robin Lord. Audiences, small as they were at the outset, saw the first precursors to what became Billy on the Street. Go back and watch the earliest, grainiest Creation Nation videos the internet has to offer, and you’ll most likely catch a young Robin Lord Taylor running around with Billy Eichner; if you don’t see him, Eichner tells me, Taylor is most likely manning the camera.
More than that, though, the steadily increasing audience members at Creation Nation’s sporadic events were treated to a group of highly ambitious creators this close to the notoriety they dreamed of, just on the cusp of being on the cusp. The show eventually landed at Ars Nova in Midtown, home to, among others, a pre-In the Heights (and very pre-Hamilton) Lin Manuel Miranda; Elizabeth Meriwether before she created New Girl; and Beau Willimon before he brought House of Cards to Netflix. Actors, writers, artists, future stars all, still doing their best to keep the balloon from hitting the floor.
“I wanted a career like Harry Dean Stanton, JK Simmons, Richard Kind. I wanted to be the guy in the thing” Taylor says. “You’re like, ‘Oh it’s that guy.’ You never know their names, but they’re just these wonderful character actors.”
And yet, time still passed. After mutually shelving Creation Nation in 2008, Taylor spent years appearing mostly in bit parts and one-offs, popping up in series like Person of Interest and The Good Wife, sending many a TV viewer to IMDB to confirm that was, in fact, that one guy from Accepted. “My goal for a long time, I wanted a career like Harry Dean Stanton, JK Simmons, Richard Kind. I wanted to be the guy in the thing,” Taylor says. “You’re like, ‘Oh it’s that guy.’ You never know their names, but they’re just these wonderful character actors.”
Funny enough, it took a trip to the end of the world for Taylor to realize having someone remember your name may not be the worst thing possible. “The first episode I did on The Walking Dead [in 2013] was with Andrew Lincoln and Melissa McBride,” Taylor remembers. “They couldn’t have been more welcoming. It felt like a family there. That’s when I just went, ‘I want this.’
“The thing about doing guest spots here and there on big TV shows is, you sort of roll in and you feel like an outsider. I liken it to being invited to your friend’s family reunion.” He continues, “I’d look at the other series regulars, and how they interacted with each other, and I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I just want co-workers. I want people to collaborate with, to be close to.’”
Taylor’s Walking Dead stint lasted just two episodes and exactly one swift, bloody swipe of a butcher’s knife, but those two appearances suddenly breathed new life into his career.
Sherry Thomas and Sharon Bialy, who cast Taylor on The Walking Dead, found themselves returning often to this quirky young actor’s audition tape. When the pair were looking to fill the role of the psychotic Todd Alquist in Breaking Bad, a series that was quietly (and then not-so-quietly) changing television over on AMC, the decision came down to Taylor and Jesse Plemons (the role, as most know, eventually went to Plemons). As it turned out, the third time was the charm: Fox and Bruno Heller, creator of HBO’s Rome and CBS’ The Mentalist, put out the call. They were casting, on the absolutely down low, a Batman prequel, an eclectic comic book ensemble show looking for an Oswald Cobblepot somewhere between the grotesquerie of Danny DeVito and the scenery chewing of Burgess Meredith.
Thomas and Bialy, as they did before, went back to Taylor’s tape. Suddenly, the actor found himself shooting a pilot, an actual pilot; former O.C. heartthrob Ben McKenzie as a young Jim Gordon was leading Taylor down a New York City dock by gunpoint in the premiere’s climactic scene. “It’s this very charged moment between me and Ben. And not to brag,” Taylor says with a laugh, “but it felt like when I used to do play readings for like 20 people but knew I had the audience in the palm of my hand. We were killing it. I had this sort of out-of-body experience. I looked down at the water and the boats and the city in the background, and I felt my life change in that moment.”
Ever since Gotham’s premiere, Taylor has been Oswald Cobblepot and everything that comes with the title, not just as the series’ resident scene stealer but also a constant presence at conventions and press events, the life of many a Comic Con panel. And often right there, be it randomly at an industry party or as the witness at Taylor’s wedding on his farm in Iowa, is Billy Eichner; the two opposites from Northwestern, the tall loud-mouth from New York and the skinny blonde Iowan, Billy Willing and Robin Lord, are both, for now, keeping their balloons from hitting the floor.
“The odds that it would happen for anyone much less the two of us within the same couple of years is really, I would imagine, like a billion to one,” Eichner says. “But it makes sense. Robin is such a good actor. I just hope he gets the chance to go back to being blonde at some point. I think he prefers being blonde, is the only issue here.”
It’s a wet, rain-drenched October day in New York City, four days after Gotham revealed its Eddie and Oswald storyline in an episode titled “Anything For You,” and the relief in Robin Lord Taylor’s voice is palpable. “I really didn’t get any direct negative feedback at all, which is nice,” the actor tells me by phone. “I actually have a lot of people on Twitter like, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t you just kiss?’ Like the shippers, you know? ‘Ugh, it’s so frustrating, I just want them to get it on.’ So that’s fun.”
Of course, because this is the internet, and this is 2016, and this is the world we live in, the reaction isn’t all positive; though Taylor tries to avoid directly reading reviews, word still filters in. “Some of our devoted fans were having conversations about how they were shocked, people they were friends with who had the typical fragile male heterosexual response. Saying, ‘I’m not watching the show anymore because it’s too gay.’ Of course they have no problem when there’s sexual tension between Barbara (Erin Richards) and Tabitha (Jessica Lucas). That’s not ‘too gay.’
“But it’s important that people have these reactions,” he continues. “Frankly, if people don’t like it maybe that illuminates something about them, that they would get so upset about this storyline. It’s the beautiful thing that comic books do, in a sort of fantasy way, illuminating people’s true thoughts and prejudices. In that way, I’m proud of what we’re doing.”
From my view across the Hudson, the mist-shrouded Manhattan is indistinguishable from Gotham, home to Batman, to Jim Gordon, to Oswald Cobblepot. The voice of Robin Lord Taylor, the king of Gotham, comes through the phone cool and clear. “I, and the show, are taking ownership of these characters,” Taylor says, any trace of nerves gone. “It’s our turn to tell the story of these characters. I am the Penguin. This, right now, is my Penguin.”