Q & A: Gotham’s Ben McKenzie on Villains, Co-Stars and Not Being Afraid of Growing a Mustache

Ben McKenzie in Gotham

Ben McKenzie stars as James Gordon in FOX’s new hit drama, Gotham. The show is basically the origin story of a young Bruce Wayne and Batman’s greatest villains. Along the way, we get to follow Gordon’s rise to the man we will soon come to know as Batman’s most trusted ally.

The show also stars Robin Lord Taylor, Jada Pinkett Smith, Erin Richards, Zabryna Guevara and Donal Logue.

McKenzie recently participated in a conference call to promote the show (not that it needs any promotion, it’s doing great in the ratings), where he talked about being in the world of Gotham and working with his co-stars, doing his own stunts and what he strives for in his career.

Gotham airs on Mondays at 8pm on FOX

Can you talk about what it first was that kind of attracted you to the part? I mean, were you a fan of this kind of genre in the beginning?

Ben McKenzie: You know, in all honesty, I worked with Bruno Heller last year on a pilot. Southland was ending, we did a pilot for CBS that Warner Brothers produced and it didn’t go to series, and so Bruno called me this year, January or February of this year, and said, “I have a script that I’ve written. I’d like to send it to you, I’ve written the part of Jim Gordon with you in mind and I’d like you to take a look.” So it kind of started from that.

As far as the attraction, the opportunity to work with Bruno again was top of the list. We had a very good time on the pilot and we really see eye to eye on a lot of things, our sensibilities are similar. It’s both exciting to be a part of this kind of mythology that’s been around for 75 years, but it’s also a bit daunting. So, I would say it was both an attraction and a cause for a series of meetings to talk about how exactly this would work and how we wouldn’t screw it up and how I wouldn’t embarrass myself completely and all those sorts of things, which they more or less assured me, Bruno and Danny Cannon more or less assured me that worst case it would only mildly fail. It wouldn’t be a huge disaster, so that was pretty much how it all came to be. I’m a fan of Batman, but not a hardcore fan.

What are the differences or similarities in being a law officer in the city of Gotham and the LA hood of Southland.

Ben McKenzie: Well, that’s a good question. The overall similarity’s probably in the mentality of law enforcement officers. The sense of wanting to really uphold a sense of morality and make sure that the laws are enforced to the letter, whenever possible.

I just got an email from the guy that did some of our tactical training on Southland, he was a cop in LAPD, just congratulating me on Gotham. They captured a serial killer recently who was on the run in LA, blowing people away with shotguns. There’s bad stuff that happens in real life. In Gotham, it’s more, we want to keep the sense of realism, but at the same time it is fantastical and it is meant to be a little bit more approachable in the sense that it’s not so starkly drawn.

In Southland it was much more, it was so real, that I think at times it could be quite frightening. We don’t want to acknowledge that people do terrible, terrible things to each other. In Gotham, I think we want to have a little bit more fun with it. We want to feel free to take a certain amount of liberty with tactical stuff and just kind of give it more of a, sort of a, throwback to kind of an old school gumshoe show, noir kind of conceit, with a little bit of cop tactics in it, if that makes any sense.

Can you talk about working with Robin Taylor and his take on Penguin?

Ben McKenzie: Sure. He’s a phenomenally talented guy and an incredibly nice person. Let’s see, well one story that would sort of illustrate that is the scene where I’m walking him to the end of the pier and end up almost putting a bullet in his head, and instead pushing him off. We had to do take, after take, after take, to get it exactly right and I kept grabbing him by the shirt collar, roughly, to do this, to make it look real. And after four hours of this, he finally, very, very politely said, “Um, could you possibly not, could you possibly get the collar a little bit more?” And he opened up his shirt and his chest was just bright red from scratches everywhere. He’s the sweetest villain I think I’ve ever possibly worked with, and I think that comes alive on screen.

Obviously he’s playing more of a demented guy, but his charming, sort of, I don’t even know how to describe it. His charm comes through on screen, and you end up kind of loving this little weasley henchman and almost rooting for him. I think it’s a brilliant turn and it’s completely unlike, or largely unlike, anything you’ve seen from Penguin before. And that’s exactly what we’d like to do with all of the villains on this, is give them latitude to make it their own and to not feel as though they’re doing some imitation of some other actor who’s played a villain before.

Gordon is famous for, among other things, his mustache. Were there any conversations about making you grow out that facial hair in the first season or are you leaving that aside for now?

Ben McKenzie: I had lengthy conversations with Bruno and Danny about everything else. Lengthy, lengthy conversations about all sorts of things, meeting after meeting. And then as soon as it hit the internet that I was doing it, it felt like all anyone wanted to talk about was whether I would have a mustache or not, and I thought about ringing Bruno and being like, “Uh, one last thing I forgot to—” We just literally never talked about it. And then I brought it up to him and he goes, “No, that would look ridiculous on you. We’re not doing that.” You know, it’s 20 years before he can grow into the maturity and wisdom that it takes to sport a mustache, and that’s the line we’re sticking to. Maybe 20 years from now the mustache will feel, you know, earned.

I can grow it. For the record, I can grow the mustache. If you think that I can’t, you should watch Junebug. So it’s not, I’m not afraid of the mustache, I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for the image.

Do you feel that your work on Batman: Year One has offered you any additional insights into these characters, and if so has it translated at all to your work on Gotham?

Ben McKenzie: I don’t know, I’d like to think so. I’ve always been a fan of Year One, even before I did the voice of Bruce, Batman, for it. And so it was an opportunity to reread it as an adult and look more closely at it in terms of how to interpret it on screen, albeit just my voice, not my body. So I would say it certainly pulled me in a little bit closer, and then when Gotham came about, and Geoff Johns sent me a bunch of literature, including Gotham Central and Long Halloween and the like.

I think it certainly helps to understand what this is all coming out of, and what it’s all coming out of is, of course, the comics that have evolved wildly over 75 years. So, I think you pick certain reference points, at least stylistically, and then you need to go out and do what you would do on any other job, which is to work on the script and work with the directors and your fellow actors to breathe those scenes to life, playing your beats and playing your objective. Not really doing anything different than you would do on any other job except that you know that there’s a certain heightened style to it, if that makes any sense. So that’s basically what I do.

How much of your own stunt work do you actually handle, and are stunts a major part of the show?

Ben McKenzie: I try to handle as much as I can, as much as I feel comfortable with. We have a great stunt team lead by Norman Douglas, our stunt coordinator. I do as much as I can. Stunts are, or action is a big part of the show. That being said, it’s all coming from a, sort of a central conceit, aesthetic conceit of the world that we’re portraying being more swift and brutal than it is operatic and grandiose.

You know, if Jim is in a fight, he wants to get it over with as quickly as possible and take out whoever he has to take out as swiftly and efficiently as possible. So it’s more in the, kind of, brutal military fashion than it is, kind of, more kung-fu style acrobatic stuff. There hasn’t been a lot of wirework and things like that yet. We may get to that point, but I would prefer that this guy is portrayed for what I think Bruno, Danny, and I agree he is, which is an old school hero, which is just a man, completely fallible, who can’t jump over buildings or fly though the air. He has to use what he’s got and he has to occasionally lose. I think that grounds it in more of a sense of reality. So that’s kind of what we’re aiming for, but, that being said, each passing episode the fight scenes get more and more complicated, so we may end up there anyway, we’ll see.

Who is your favorite Batman villain, and then, also, has there been any talk of including some of these less human enemies into the show, like Killer Croc or Clayface?

Ben McKenzie: Because he’s front and center in the pilot, I’m really excited for people to see what Robin is doing with Penguin. I have a weird soft spot in my heart for Nigma, I’ve always liked The Riddler. I know that is a very unorthodox choice, a lot of people hate The Riddler, but I find The Riddler fascinating. Scarecrow, I think is really cool.

There has been no talk thus far, that I am aware of, and I’m not in the writer’s rooms, obviously, of the non-human Batman villains. I think we’ll start with the humans, and then we’ll branch out from there. But, again, it’s early days. We’re only eight episodes into shooting, so we’ve hopefully, knock on wood, got a long way to go and we can bring those people in, if need be, or non-people in, if need be.

Can you talk a little bit about any kind of interaction with your costars and how you developed a working relationship with them? You have really great chemistry with them.

Ben McKenzie: Thank you. Well, Donal and I had never met before, but there are a lot of, sort of, two degrees of connection between us, and I’d always heard great things about him. I worked with his sister on Southland for an episode. She played a hooker and I had her by the throat in a crappy alley in downtown LA, and she was just fantastic.

You know, the reputation that Donal has is a real gamer, a guy who comes in and does the work and is a team player and brings an enormous amount of life to every character that he brings, humor and pathos. So that was a real, kind of, easy connection, and I think we realized very early on. I think from the moment we were both, kind of, announced, we reached out to each other and just said, you know, we got to make this as good as we can because it’s going to live or die, at least the pilot, on, in large measure, whether we like these two guys individually and together, whether we like this partnership.

At the end of the day, we are relying a little bit on that old cop conceit, two, a mismatched pair of cops. And to find a way of doing that that feels authentic, and is endearing, in a way, is interesting to watch. So, with him it was easy. We have a great cast, I mean all the way up and down the line. I would lie to you, and probably tell you that even if we didn’t, but we do, actually. Everyone is coming and working, and working hard, and just focused on the work, and as long as that stays that way we should have a great show, and a great environment to work in, and Donal and I will make sure that happens, so it’s all going to be great.

And you have great chemistry with the kid that plays Bruce, too.

Ben McKenzie: David is amazing. David is a really terrific actor, he really is. He listens, which is an incredibly hard thing to teach anyone, and it’s something that I struggle with now, any actor struggles with. It’s the hardest thing to do on camera, I think. With all the chaos of the film set, TV set, is to just listen to what the other actor is saying to you, and how they’re saying it in that moment, from take to take, and he does. He’s terrific, and he couldn’t be a nicer young man. He was obviously raised correctly, and he’s perfect for Bruce, so that was easy, too. He’s more calm than I am, I’m kind of blown away sometimes.

What were some of the initial acting challenges you found stepping into this role and, sort of, becoming comfortable with the character?

Ben McKenzie: The initial challenge is to not let the mythology, the degree to which Batman and all of its mythology has permeated all aspects of pop culture and society, not let that overwhelm what is, at the end of the day, just an acting gig. It’s great acting gig. It’s a little more public than others, but at the end of the day, its just a part that you play on, in this case, a TV show, and you have to treat it like any other.

You have to look at the script. I mean, I believe, my school of acting is there is no character, no such thing as ‘the character.’ There is no Jim Gordon or Bruce Wayne or Batman, for that matter. There is only the script and there’s the actor that’s playing the part. If you cast 1000 different actors as Jim Gordon, you’d get 1000 different Jim Gordons, and as long as I was able to sort of breathe and that, that was helpful.

When it comes to understanding him, and playing him, it was conversations with Bruno about, well who is he? You know, there are a lot of plot mechanics in the pilot alone that have to get, sort of, ironed out in order to tell the story and to set up the world that we’re setting up, and it has to happen awfully fast, but if we don’t understand his point of view coming in to it, and we don’t believe his point of view, we’re going to have trouble.

So a lot of what I was talking about with Bruno is, he can’t come in completely naive and completely blown away by the corruption in Gotham. He can be idealistic, but he has to understand that people are capable of terrible, terrible things, because he’s a war hero. He served overseas, he’s seen terrible things himself.

So as long as he understands how bad people can be to each other, and yet he rejects that and still believes in such a bizarre concept as right and wrong, then his whole, sort of, point of view is framed and it can kind of all proceed from there. And then as we go forward in the season, and in the show in general, he can become more and more surrounded by the powers that be in Gotham, and his own moral compass can be thrown off. He will have to make deals with the devil in order to get along in Gotham and to make progress, and so that journey, I think, is kind of fascinating, but we started with a sense of morality and a real sense of experience.

What would you say makes a career in this industry rewarding for you, so far?

Ben McKenzie: I mean, I need to be proud of what I’m making and engaged in what I’m making. That was one of the things that I was concerned about with something this big, is that there can be so many cooks in the kitchen that we lose the through line of a guy trying to clean up a city, and a guy trying to bring some sort of justice to an unjust world. So what I hope for in a career is work that I’m proud of, and friendships, and working relationships with all sorts of people, and make a little bit of money, and provide for a family eventually, and that sort of stuff.

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