Ben McKenzie on Batman mythology, Gotham’s action, Gordon’s mustache, and lots more

Fox recently held a conference call with Ben McKenzie in which various media outlets were invited to question the star of the upcoming Gotham TV series.  While speaking with Mr. Mckenzie, and listening to his responses to other interviewers, I got the impression that he genuinely wants to put forth a performance that the fans will be happy with, and that he has a true respect for the mythology as a whole.  Ben shares stories of his fellow actors, his favorite villains, and the challenges he had to overcome in order to tackle a character like Gordon and the world of Gotham.  McKenzie played the voice of Batman in the animated movie Batman: Year One from 2011, so he is no stranger to world of the Dark Knight.  Now let us see how he handles one of Gotham’s other justice seekers.

Batman News: 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?

Hmm… 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 re-read it, as an adult, and look more closely at it in terms of how to interpret it on screen… just my voice, not my body.  So, I would say, it definitely 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 this is all coming out of, of course, is the comics, that have evolved wildly over 75 years.  I think you pick certain sort of reference points, at least stylistically, and then you need to go out and do what you would do on any other job, which is work on the script and work with the director and your fellow actors to bring the scenes to life, playing your beats, playing your objective, not really doing anything different than you would do in any other job except that you know there is a certain heightened style to it.

Batman News: Recently you received a head injury during the filming of a fight scene, first off, I hope you’re ok…

Thank you, I am, thank you!

Secondly, I was wondering how much of your own stunt work do you actually handle and are stunts a major part of the show?

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 coordinators.  I do as much as I can.  Stunts and action are a big part of the show.  That being said, it’s all coming from a central aesthetic, the world that we’re portraying as 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.  It’s more of a kind of brutal, military fashion than it is a kung fu style, or sort of acrobatic style.  There hasn’t been a lot of wire work or things like that.  We may get to that point, but I would prefer that this guy is portrayed for what Bruno, Danny and I agree he is, which is an old school hero, which is, you know: just a man!  Completely fallible, who can’t jump up a building or fly through the air; he has to use what he’s got and he has to occasionally lose.  I think that grounds him into more of a sense of reality and I think this is what we’re aiming for.  That being said, each episode, the fight scenes get more and more complicated, so we may end up there anyways.

You can listen to full audio of Ben McKenzie’s answers to Batman News’ questions in the player below:

Other highlights from the conference call:

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

I had lengthy conversations with Bruno and Danny about everything else; lengthy, lengthy conversations about all sorts of things!  And then, as soon as it hit the Internet that I was doing it, -chuckle- it seems like all anyone wanted to talk about was whether I had a mustache or not.  And I thought about ringing Bruno and being like “Hmmm… One last thing…”, we just literally NEVER talked about it.  And then I brought it up to him and he was like “No, that would look ridiculous on you!  We’re not doing that!”. 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!  -chuckle- I can grow it, for the record, I can grow the mustache!  If you think that I can’t, you should watch Junebug.  I’m not afraid of the mustache, I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for the age.

I’m doing a profile on Robin Taylor and I was wondering if you could talk about working with him and maybe his take on Penguin and if you had any fun stories about shooting with him?

He’s a phenomenally talented guy and an incredibly nice person.  One story that would sort of illustrate that, is a scene where I’m walking him to the end of the pier and end up almost putting a bullet in his head, 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 4 hours of this, he finally very very politely said: “hmmm, could you possibly get the collar a little bit more…hmm” and he opened his shirt and his chest was bright red from scratches everywhere… he’s the sweetest villain I think I’ve ever possibly worked with and I think that comes out a lot on screen.  Obviously, he’s playing more of a demented guy but his charm comes through on screen and you end up loving this little weasley henchmen and you’re almost rooting for him.  It’s a brilliant turn and it’s completely unlike what we’ve seen from Penguin before.  And that’s exactly what we’d like to do with all the villains on this: give them latitude to make it their own and to not feel as they’re doing some imitation of some other actor who’s played that villain before.

A lot of people are so excited about villains on the show and I know Penguin is going to be in a huge ark this season; who is your favorite Batman villain? And then, also, has there been any talks of including some of the less human enemies into the show, like Killer Croc or ClayFace?

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 Nygma, I’ve always liked the Riddler, I know it’s a very unorthodox choice, I know a lot of people hate The Riddler!  But I find him really fascinating!  Scarecrow, I think he’s really cool!

There has been no talks, thus far, that I’m aware of, and I’m not in the writer room (obviously), to include non-human 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 8 episodes into shooting, so we, hopefully, knock on wood, have a long way to go!  And we can bring these people in, or non-people in if need be.

Can you talk about any interaction with your co-stars, how you developed a working relationship with them? You have great chemistry with the kid who plays Bruce.

Oh yeah!  David Mazouz is amazing.  He is a terrific actor.  He really is!  He listens…!  Which is an incredibly hard thing to teach anyone and is something that I struggle with; any actor struggles with.  It’s the hardest thing to do on camera, I think!  With all the chaos on a film set or TV set, is to just listen to what the other actor is saying to you, and how they’re saying it, in that moment, and from take to take.  And, he does!  And he’s terrific and he could not be a nicer young man.  He was obviously raised correctly and he’s perfect for Bruce.  He’s more calm than I am.  I’m kind of blown away sometimes!

Gotham has a lot of excellent female character in positions of power. Can you tell us more about his relationship with his boss?

Overtime Gordon earns her respect and her trust and her support and eventually, you’ll see, down the line, she’ll put herself on a limb for him.  The first season is Jim figuring out which cops in the department he can trust and which ones he can’t and there are some surprising twists and turns in these relationships.  Some people that you would think are his enemies are actually kindred spirits and he needs to assemble a team, going forward, that he can actually use to bring justice.

Some other fun anecdotes that came up:

  • McKenzie mentioned that he and Bruno Heller, the executive producer, worked last year on a pilot that didn’t get picked up and that when Bruno was presented with doing “Gotham”, he wrote the part of Gordon with Ben in mind.
  • Comparing Gotham to Southland, he said that they share the same sense of realism, while, at the same time, Gotham is a fantastical reality so it is somewhat more approachable and they tried to have a little bit more fun with it.  The show takes liberties with some of the tactical stuff, casting it in the light of more old-school police work or noir with only a little bit of cop tactics in it.
  • Ben said he really liked episode 7, written by Bruno Heller.  Heller also wrote episode 1 and while they do have a great team of writers, Ben particularly enjoys whenever Heller writes the episodes directly.
  • McKenzie on overcoming challenges: “One of the initial challenges is to not let the mythology overwhelm what is, at the end of the day, just an acting gig. It’s a great acting gig, a little bit more public than others, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a part that you play and you have to treat it like any others.”

Gotham is an origin story of the great DC Comics Super-Villains and vigilantes, revealing an entirely new chapter that has never been told. Catch the premiere tomorrow night on FOX.