Gotham season 3: Cory Michael Smith interview

We spoke to Cory Michael Smith about Gotham season 3, the rise of the Riddler, and the chances of him donning spandex...

Warning: contains spoilers for Gotham season 2.

Back in June, after a long day of interviews, I sat down with Cory Michael Smith in a swanky London hotel to talk about all things Gotham, both the second season that had recently concluded its run on TV, and the third season which hadn’t yet begun filming. Mr Smith proved to be a very open interviewee, letting us in on a detailed account of how he ended up in the show in the first place. Here’s our our 15-minute chat…

Just to get it out of the way first: can I just ask, have they started trying to put you in hats and canes and spandex yet?

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I have not had spandex… I may or may not have tried on different hats. I’m not exactly sure what our look is going to be, but there will be one. And I’m most interested in the spirit of the show. I’m really proud of what the writers have come up, with Edward, and I’m really proud of, together, the portrayal we’ve created.

I would like to have my own contribution to a Riddler look, you know? So that when people cosplay, it’s like, ‘oh, that’s Cory’s Riddler.’ You know? That’s a dream, so, we’re gonna come up with something that’s unique to the show.

Are you surprised that, two seasons in, it already feels like we’re quite close to that? Whereas, some of the other characters are quite far away from where they end up…

Yeah, I mean, we all started at different points in our trajectory. I started very far away from villainy. And the descent has been quite maddening. And intense. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I still think we have a ways to go. Even though in [season 2 episode] 15 he really kind of went ‘full Riddler’ for a moment, and even used the question mark as an emblem to taunt, he has no idea that, like, that’s his thing. And that’s his trademark. 

If and when he gets out of Arkham, and it’s like, “okay, everyone knows I’m a mass murderer. Everyone thinks I’m crazy…. Might as well be the best fucking criminal I can be!” You know? So, once he does that, and he starts the journey of finding his identity and claiming it, and realising, “oh, this is what I do. This is my thing. The question mark’s gonna be my thing”, then it’s like, claiming that identity and having that confidence and really choosing to be a career criminal.

And then, we’re finding that the scale changes. Penguin is someone who is from the organised crime world. So he understands hierarchy. That’s not been my world at all, so as soon as that becomes a thing, villains are competitive. Like, I want people to admire my skills and my brilliance and the things that I come up with… so, you know, then it’s about outsmarting and out-bad-ing the baddies. So there’s still so much. There’s so far that we can go with him still.

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Yeah. And for a while you were playing it as he’s a schizophrenic. There was the two sides of him, glasses-on, glasses-off. The glasses-on version… does he still exist?

My first question when I read the first script of season 2, I was like, “Bruno, is he schizophrenic now, too? Because we’re making a list of behavioural disorders now. It’s getting crowded.” And, essentially, for me, it wasn’t schizophrenia. What it was is… after he killed Tom Dougherty… which was an accident, he had the knife for self defence but Tom pulls him up into it. What else are you supposed to do? And also, damn you for hurting this girl that I think I love, and damn everyone else. Whoever’s dismissed me and hurt me, and laughed at me.

And so in that very moment is horror and thrill and shame and terror and fear. After that, in the finale [of season 1], he’s confronted with all of this and he’s having a conversation with himself and part of him is like, “you know what? Good for you. You manned up, you took care of the situation. He deserved it. You’ve saved Kristen.” And part of him was like, “oh my gosh, this is horrible.”

So those two things physically manifest within himself as two people, because he saw this other version of himself as outside of himself, and he didn’t want it. So it’s just, it’s an embodiment of all of his traits, that he doesn’t think is him. He doesn’t think that’s him, and he doesn’t see himself as a sexual person. He’s not someone that, like, uses aggression or is incredibly sarcastic. And so, he was battling this person, until learning to embrace himself. So, it was essentially just our kind of comic book way of showing this person.

You know, we all have qualities that we think we don’t possess, but in fact, if we embrace those things, we have the capacity to be many things. And he finally is aware of that, and somehow becomes a man in the process. And has sex for the first time.

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That scene with Dougherty, the audience very much feels that he had it coming. But when Ed killed Kristen, it was tragic. Is that where you think he lost the last shred of that nicer version of himself, that life that could’ve been? If you get I mean?

Yeah, I think through that whole process he’s fighting this other version of himself. He’s like, “I actually don’t want you. I don’t want you. I got the very thing that I wanted. I have this girl that, for some reason, likes me? And we’re going on double dates with Jim Gordon and Leslie Thompkins? I have a friend? This is what I wanted, this is so great.” And it’s not until… you know… I love Kristen, I trust her, and I want her to know what I did for her. And I want her to know the truth. It’s a very human thing. So I misgauge the situation, and I tell her. And then, you know, I mess it all up. So that’s devastating for him.

And then, in the penultimate episode of season 2, you’ve got him being very Riddler-y over the Tannoy… how did you get into that?

It was very funny. The director [Rob Bailey] was wanting me to be bigger. He was like, “we want the game show! This is your game show,” and I was like, “I hear you, and that is very Riddler, but I want it to be toned down. I don’t want him to be brilliant at it yet”. You know? He’s figuring out who he is. He’s figuring out that, like, this is kind of fun. But he’s not like the master of ceremonies yet, so, I wanted there to be, like, a little bit of squeakiness in his ability to really go for it. Because, eventually, that showmanship is something that I love in the Riddler, that Jim Carrey shot steroids into. I’ll never go that far. But that is a version of the Riddler that I really love, but I wanted it to be tamped down a little bit, or else it just doesn’t make sense.

He’s still figuring out who he is and how best to taunt people. He’s gonna get so good at it.

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Do you often feel like you have to hold a bit of him back? Like, if Gotham runs for ten years…

Yeah, that is part of it. We all wanna just get there and deliver that astonishing performance. But if I did that, I don’t think it’s appropriate. I want to, but it’s not appropriate. That’s not his journey. His journey is that he’s still figuring stuff out. And he’s young. If he was just brilliant at it, it would be like, well… it doesn’t make sense.

And there’d be no Batman to stop him.

Yeah, he has to figure it out. He’s in training.

Back in the day, how did you end up auditioning for this? I’ve spoken to Sean Pertwee and Robin Lord Taylor and they were both saying they didn’t know what they were going up for.

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Yeah, that was their experience, but I actually knew what it was. I knew exactly what it was and I knew who the character was. When I find out that they were doing this and that there was going to be the character of the Riddler, I called my managers and agents and I was like, “I wanna audition for this. Get me an appointment.”

And at that point I had done a lot of theatre and I had done a full-length film with Kristen Stewart [Camp X-Ray] and I did a miniseries on HBO called Olive Kitteridge, but neither of those had come out yet. I did have a short film with Amanda Seyfried – that you should watch on YouTube, it’s called Dog Food, it’s a short horror film, it’s really fun, and just 18 minutes of your time – they could watch that, but it wasn’t really complementary to this… maybe… but anyway, so no one had really seen me in anything.

So, I was at the very lowest level they had. An assistant pre-screened me. And then I had a really specifific idea of who this person was. And they sent me directly to meet with Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon for a producer session. And then they had like one note, on a tape. One note, and I redid the tape, and then, Fox and Warner Brothers unanimously… I think they sent three actors… and everyone unanimously agreed that I should be Edward. So I didn’t have to go through all the horrible testing that you usually go through with the studio and then network, so I was really happy that I got to skip all of that horror.

What was the one note, if you don’t mind me asking?

Having more fun.

Oh, okay.

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To not lean into the creepiness, because the creepiness will be in the content. Because the monologue that they gave me, it’s not in the show, but it was… he was looking at this hair, obsessing about this hair. You know, forensics, and talking about the quality of the hair and whatever. And he was talking to a really beautiful female cop. Um, and so he’s like flirting with her by talking about the science of the hair follicle. And so it’s like, they were like, “just don’t worry about being creepy, because the situation is weird. So just have fun. Let it be completely genuine, like you actually think this is actually a good idea.” And so that was the thing.

And so, going into season 3, you’re pretty much the only person who hasn’t escaped from Arkham.

Yeah, I know!

So do you have any clue about what’s coming?

Yeah, I read it like, “err, are you writing me out of the show? Are you not letting me be in season 3, because I’m stuck in a cell?” I don’t know how long I’ll be there, but I don’t think I’ll be there very long. I don’t know how I get out or exactly when.

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They probably haven’t put you in a room with another vent in it…

Yeah, I told the set-dressers, “we should probably, like, chain the vent or something.” Um, I will not be there long, for sure. And I know that Oswald and I will be running into each other shortly into season 3. And our relationship will be one of the centrepieces of the season.

Like a bromance kind of thing, or…

We shall see. Where we left off, Ed kind of tossed him out, kind of rebuked him, so… the ball’s in his court, whether he is understanding, or whether he seeks retribution as he is wont to do. So, we shall see how much our alliance and bromance, if it overrides his instinct for retaliation.

Okay, I look forward to finding out!

Yeah, me too.

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Cory Michael Smith, thank you very much!

Gotham Season 2 came out on Blu-ray and DVD on the 1st of August.