NEW YORK — Although filmed in the real Gotham City, Fox’s “Gotham” inhabits a New York all its own. What resides here is part reverential mythmaking (it recounts Batman’s genesis), part free-floating film noir (whose 1940s manners coexist with ’60s-vintage cars and circa-’90s cellphones). It’s a hybrid dreamscape in meticulous limbo.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” says Robin Lord Taylor.
But he is, looming large as a shrimpy, gimpy psycho with oversize plans and the cunning to execute them. He is Oswald Cobblepot, better known as emergent arch-criminal the Penguin, and since last fall’s premiere of “Gotham” (airing at 8 p.m. Mondays), Taylor has stolen every scene in reach, certifying himself as the greater-among-equals in a splendid cast that also includes Ben McKenzie, Jada Pinkett Smith, John Doman, Donal Logue and many more.
As the Penguin, he is highly stylized, with fashionable downtown duds, inky hair and a leering smile. But Taylor delivers more than broad comic-book strokes. Even infused with a toadying creepiness, Oswald flourishes as a sympathetic chap, the guy you can’t help rooting for. He’s the show’s most vulnerable, winsome figure, even more so than Bruce Wayne, the orphaned future Batman played by young David Mazouz.
Portraying the Penguin in his inchoate stage, Taylor has been free to bring the role a fresh approach. This began with the audition.
“They wrote a fake scene with fake names that put the character in a sort of organized-crime situation, but it wasn’t identified,” Taylor explains. “My agent only told me the night before that I was up for the Penguin in a show called ‘Gotham.’ But by then I had already made my choices for the character. I knew what I was going to do at the audition and I did it. I guess that was what they were looking for.”
What Taylor delivers is a striver, schemer and survivor who had been bullied his whole life. His shimmying gait — said to look like a penguin’s — resulted when his then-boss, crime queen Fish Mooney (Pinkett Smith), flew into a rage and bashed his right knee with a wooden rod.
That became a turning point. No more victimhood for Oswald!
“Now,” says Taylor, “he’s finally decided that his ambition won’t let him be that person ever again.”
In a far more benign way, Taylor’s childhood in Shueyville, Iowa, prepared him for the Penguin’s plight of bitter otherness.
“It was a good place to grow up,” says Taylor, “but a public school in a small town is very much ‘Friday Night Lights.’ Football was primary, and I wasn’t into that. So I totally understand being different and having ambitions different from what people expect of you.”
Drawn instead to acting, he attended Northwestern University’s drama school, then 15 years ago came to New York, where he has since appeared in such shows as “The Good Wife,” “Person of Interest” and the “Law & Order” portfolio. He also played a short-lived character on “The Walking Dead.”
“The majority of my roles have been darker characters. I don’t know why,” he says, at that moment the picture of boyish charm. “But it’s a lot of fun.”
The slithery defiance he exhibits as the Penguin is an especially fun way to play his mirror-opposite.
“I avoid conflict in my real life at all times,” he says. “My acting teacher called me ‘a fixer’: ‘You want to fix everything and make it OK. You don’t know that you can’t.’ ”
But however comfortable he felt becoming the Penguin, a couple of things took getting used to. One was the Penguin’s signature limp.
Taylor’s by-now-famous secret: “In every pair of shoes I wear, the wardrobe department puts a bottle cap taped in the heel of my right shoe. It’s not painful, just a reminder to put me in that mind-state — a direct physical connection between me and the character.”
The other adjustment: a dye job every two weeks. “I had never dyed my hair before,” says Taylor, noting with a laugh that once his “blond, blond, blond roots” start growing out, it looks like his ebony thatch is “levitating off my head.”
The next moment, he is interrupted by an admirer. Even with his hair less punkishly coiffed than Oswald’s ’do, Taylor can hardly escape notice in this midtown restaurant. A fellow diner has stepped up to praise his work.
“I can’t believe any of this is happening,” Taylor marvels once the fan has gone. But he hastens to add, “It’s the good kind of overwhelming, the good kind of daunting, the good kind of scary.”
Kind of like his performance.