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'Gotham's' Robin Lord Taylor talks character and career

Robin Lord Taylor, left, and Ben McKenzie in

Robin Lord Taylor, left, and Ben McKenzie in a scene from "Gotham." Credit: AP

The breakout star of the new TV season? No contest -- it's Robin Lord Taylor in "Gotham," giving a can't-take-your-eyes-off-him performance as the creepily charismatic Penguin. The native of Shueyville, Iowa (pop. 577) is a graduate of Northwestern University and has lived in New York since 2000. He's appeared on "Law & Order," "Person of Interest" and other TV shows -- and was gruesomely killed this season on "The Walking Dead" -- but nothing in his career prepared him for the instant acclaim he has gotten for his work on the Fox show, which returns from its hiatus Monday night at 8. Lewis Beale spoke with the very humble, and still dazed, actor during a break in production.

Four months ago, you were an unknown. Now, everyone wants to talk to you. What's that like?

Becoming famous so quickly -- it's surreal. It's a mix of many things. It's extremely validating because people have been so positive about the character and my work. After years of making it all happen, I wake up and can't believe this is real.

What's your take on the character of Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin?

Because of the way he grew up and his physical shortcomings, he spent the majority of his life being beaten down. And he's decided he's not going to be that person again, and it's what feeds his ambition and his goal to be five steps ahead of everybody. That feeds into his burning desire to be the person who makes the big calls.

Some people see the character as a psychopathic. Do you?

I see that in everything he does there is a distinct motivation, and that is grounded in self-preservation. The choices he makes are very deliberate. I sympathize with him. I don't think you can sympathize with a psychopath. I see him involved in a dark world that has forced him to make dark choices.

You've said that you watched previous actors who played the Penguin -- Burgess Meredith in the old "Batman" TV series, Danny DeVito in "Batman Returns." Were you worried that would influence your performance?

I wasn't worried about having that in my brain. It's like Batman, every generation gets their own Batman, and the characters that come along with it. I did want to bring something that they brought to their characterization. Despite how he looks, you empathize with him, and he's very charismatic. And both of those actors brought a sense of fun and charisma to that character, and I wanted to bring that along.

What influenced you to go into acting?

My mom was the first one to impress a love of theater on me. Whenever a touring production came through town, we saw that -- "A Chorus Line," "Evita," we were open to amazing possibilities. We would go to Chicago all the time, we'd go to Second City, so growing up I watched Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, and all these amazing people.

You've been in New York for a long time, working hard at being a successful actor. How tough was it?

I've been lucky, I haven't worked consistently like I am now, but I have worked consistently. I got my agents right out of school, and I booked my first commercial right away. It was always enough to not quit and do something else. There was a year when I had few auditions, but I felt it was stupid not to continue with this. That was the struggle, to keep the focus on the goal. And I never thought it would happen like this.

What kinds of offers are you getting these days, now that you're a hot property?

I haven't grilled my agent about that. There are some things coming along, and I did a horror film called "Would You Rather" that was bought by IFC, and they want a sequel. Otherwise, I just really want to get back onstage; it's been a long time for me. I miss the immediacy and energy.

So what can we expect from your character in the near future?

The Penguin is becoming his own man. Up until now, it's answering to other parties, and now he's making moves to become his own player, and his relationship with Police Commissioner Jim Gordon will become more twisted and complicated than it has been up to now.

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