Cory Michael Smith Talks Edward Nygma And Gotham Season 3
Gotham Season 2 is now out on Blu-ray / DVD in the U.K. and will be available on August 16th in the states. To go with the series release, I got the chance to talk with some of the cast including Cory Michael Smith and Robin Lord Taylor. Here is the interview with Smith about playing Edward Nygma / The Riddler.
DAN WICKLINE: I'm curious how you got the role. I know you had done a lot of theater work prior to Gotham and maybe a TV show and a movie before that. How did you get on the producers' radar?
CORY MICHAEL SMITH: When I auditioned for the show, you're right I had done a lot of theater. But the casting directors hadn't seen any of that. I had shot one film with Kristen Stewart and a mini-series called Olive Kitridge but neither of those two things had come out. I had one short film I had done with Amanda Seyfried that they had looked at, but there wasn't much content they could look at for the character.
I started with a pre-screen with an assistant to Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas (Walking Dead, Breaking Bad). I started at the very bottom but I had a very specific idea of how I saw Edward. The assistant really liked it and showed the tape to Sherry and Sharon and they moved me to a producer session with Danny Cannon and Bruno Heller. I did one take of the audition and they let me go. I went back in, they had one note for me, so I remade the tape. From there Warner Bros and Fox were in agreement on me being Edward so I didn't have to go through the horrors of the testing and meeting all of the executives. It was a pretty painless experience for me.
DW: How familiar were you with The Riddler and the Batman Universe as a whole going into it?
CMS: The thing I was most familiar with was the 1986 Batman film by Tim Burton with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. My brother and I watched the VHS tape all the time. But in terms of comics, I wasn't someone who read comics as a kid, nor was my brother or my parents. It was quite a joy once I got the role, and worked through the terror and the fear of taking on such an iconic role, I went straight to the comics. Geoff Johns was really helpful in supplying us with pertinent comics to get started with.
The thing I realized very quickly was the diversity of the depictions of Nygma. Anytime a new artist or new writer came on, the look of Edward changed, his costume changed, his hair color changed. You look at Earth-One right now Edward is 'jacked' with a question mark tattoo around his eye. There is always a reinterpretation happening and the thing that is so exciting is that the mythology allows it and celebrates it. The foundation of the story is so strong and sturdy that you are allowed to have some artistic license. As long as you are honoring the spirit of the character and the spirit of the mythology you can let your artistry range. And as long as you're doing it well then it's a worthy contribution.
I've got a lot of freedom to do my own thing with the guidance of Danny Cannon and Bruno Heller. Trying to make an origin story as far away from villainy as possible and inching toward it. That's been the goal here. All I can do in this incarnation of Edward is to respond to the events that are happening to me and how that changes me. There are qualities about the Riddler that I was so invested in and delighted by. Like his utter glee, the narcissism, the showman ship in some of the comics – these are things that make up the bare qualities, if you strip away the villainy, those qualities still exist. As things change the temperature on those things go up and down accordingly. That's how I developed him.
DW: So you see Nygma as a narcissistic personality?
CMS: I absolutely see him as a narcissist. I think it's his Achilles heel. I think, in our story telling, this was someone who was pure and innocent in intention. As he was trying to make friends with Jim Gordon, he failed. As he tried to say riddles and jokes to Harvey Bullock, he would be shut down. He tried to flirt with Kristen and got nowhere. It wasn't until he started lying and cheating and offing people that he started getting exactly what he wanted. The only time he had positive reinforcement was when he was doing terrible things. He tells Gordon, "this is who I am, this is who I'm meant to be". And he genuinely believes that. I, as Cory, don't believe that. It's just his circumstances. But he's become confident, he feels good and it's only happened because he's doing terrible things. He has convinced himself that that is his destiny, that is his fate. That kind of delusion is born out of the narcissism. That's just taking care of himself.
DW: How much of this had you worked out during the early episodes, with the writers, and how much of this growth has been on the fly as the series progressed?
CMS: A lot of it's on the fly. With 44 hours of television, we get them as they write them. Were this a film or a play, you can look at that and see the canvas you have to work with and know where you are starting at and where you are ending. With this we have a vague idea of where we end, but we don't know how we get there and that is the exciting part. The authentic thing is that as I read events as they occur to Edward, it's just like real life. Edward doesn't know these things are coming either and he responds accordingly. And it changes him accordingly.
So a lot of it is on the fly, but there is so much planning from the writers and producers. They chart where everything is going, but it's still quite malleable. They see something like Robin as Penguin and Cory as Nygma have great chemistry and the work is very interesting, then those stories will be integrated more because the audience responded to it, the actors responded to it. Things like that move and shift.
The thing that I've been able to create, as I said earlier… those qualities that are in the Riddler are in Edward in the beginning. We wanted the transformation to be from boy to man. He's a 28-year old boy who is a virgin, is remarkable socially inept, flirts with a girl as if he's in grade school and it's not until he kills someone for what he thinks is love, that all of his innocents just flies out the window. But what I was able to do was inhabit a boyish kind of smile and a higher pitched voice, keep him tense and hold in his emotions. Then in season two there is a second Edward and he thinks this person is outside of himself. Because he's so closed off to this second Edward who is confident, has a swagger and is aggressive. Edward thinks that's not him and it's not until the seventh episode when he embraces this person because it is him. It's all of these things about himself that he's been intimidated by.
For me it was to not allow those things to be present in his behavior until we got there in the story.
DW: We've seen a lot of growth from Edward from season one through season two. Since you don't know what will be in the scripts, where would you like to see Nygma go in season three?
CMS: What I think was very important that happened was he taught a lesson to Penguin. Which is, if you are free from love, if you are free from attachment to another human being, then you're free from vulnerability. You're free from weakness. The only person you have to deal with is yourself. And you are strong, a free man. A free man is strong. I think that is such a beautiful, clear idea of how to be an unstoppable villain. But I don't think Edward or Oswald have the capacity to just be alone.
There is an endearment between the two of them. Edward is quite fond of Oswald, and though he doesn't realize Oswald is back to his old self, but when he finds out that same sort of adoration and respect will still be there. While he pulled Oswald out of the reverie he was in, I think it's quite interesting that the two are rather fond of each other.
What I'd like to see is that their reliance on each other and their friendship build. Because it's antithetical to the very thing that the two of them are now using as their constitution. So I want to see that. I think as we move closer to Edward claiming the identity of Riddler, we've seen him try to frame Jim Gordon and set up this great puzzle and do the art heist, I loved all of that so much. I'm excited for when he realizes "this is my craft, this is my skill. And the Question Mark will be my symbol to taunt and terrorize." Once he claims that, from there it's just more confidence and there can be a flamboyance. That's what I'm looking forward to.
But we're going to be seeing a lot more of Edward and Oswald next season and I'm really interested in seeing their relationship becoming more complex.