When FOX’s Gotham debuted, many fans were caught a little off guard when Edward Nygma was working within the Gotham City Police Department. After all, Nygma has long been known to comic book fans as the iconic Riddler. Following a traumatic first year for Ed, Season 2 of the show saw his descent into darkness as he battled with his own insanity and his own identity. Now seemingly a full-on villain in the series, we caught up with the enigmatic Cory Michael Smith to discuss his and Gotham’s ever-developing take on this most famous of Batman rogues.
STARBURST: One of the main arcs in Gotham’s second season was the unravelling of Edward Nygma’s sanity. How much fun has that been to play?
Cory Michael Smith: Oh, it’s wonderful, are you kidding me?! Season 1 really tested my patience but Season 2 has been an absolute joy. But it all began in the first season with Tom Dougherty . To be fair, the first penetration was not his fault - Tom pulled the knife into him – but what came of that was this release. He just let go, he took Tom to task for harming the woman that he was obsessed with and for being rude to him, and a couple of extra stabs just to express his pain of being disregarded for his entire life. That really threw him into this psychosis in the finale where he lost his mind and was so confused by these two sides of him, the one that showed remorse and the other one that was just so happy that he had this ability in him to stand up for himself and to save the girl. Then it was a physical manifestation of these two parts of him fighting over each other until he realised that both of them are part of him and he needs to embrace them. So he did, and now he’s whole. From here on out, it’s him feeling like a real man and a human for the first time, experiencing confidence and experiencing the joy of life and the thrill of life, even if it came from murder and whatnot. It’s been so much, it’s been a very full experience and I’m having a great time.
You mentioned how you found Season 1 a little testing at times. In what way did you find it a struggle?
Well I think… what I’m very happy about in hindsight is we started as far away from villainy with Ed as possible. What happens in Season 2, which is that he embraces all of these colours about himself that he otherwise denied access to feeling… he was a closed off individual and he holds a glass of wine over Kristen’s body in the woods and say “Thanks to you, I am a whole”. In Season 1 he was frankly a two-dimensional human, not just a character but he was underdeveloped as a human being. So waiting for the events in his life that any of us experience that kind of expand us and grow us, it was just waiting for those was trying.
In that case, how happy were you when you started to get the scripts through for Season 2 and realizing that you were going to be playing two versions of Ed and talking to yourself?
It was awesome. My first thing was, like, “Err, Bruno , is he schizophrenic now? Are we adding this to his list of problems?” And he was, like, “No, we’re not gonna go down the schizophrenia road”. We started having this conversation, and essentially what it ended up being for me was I just created a character that kind of behaved in all the ways that Ed was too intimidated to behave. How we did it technically, I had to do both things – I would film the scene as one character and then as the other one. So I would have to chart that to see how I did it, and I would sometimes surprise myself. You would decide what one person’s objective is and how the other was responding, and then there’s how they conflict and how you react to something that’s not actually happening to you at the moment. But I would record my voice and use that while I was doing the scene of the other character. It was easier sometimes than others. I did always enjoy when I was actually in a mirror as at least I was looking at myself. Sometimes they would have a body double stand somewhere just so I had consistent eyeline, so it was very odd looking at some stranger’s face and hearing my disembodied voice. Very odd. Very, very odd.
When you first got the gig, was there any trepidation about taking on such a well-known pop culture character? The Riddler is a character who everybody knows.
You know, I decided to pursue the job and say yes to the job because I found that the audacity of building in a blank spot in the mythology was so appealing to me. And then once you say yes and hang up the phone, abject terror comes because you’re like “What have I done? Oh god, I could really mess this up and just ruin my career at 27!” But what I did was I ran to the comics. I have never seen the other live-action portrayals. I went to the comics and I found quick relief in seeing how diverse the portrayals are of The Riddler over the various decades. Different artists came in, different writers came in, and they kind of redefined the character, reinterpreted it. Some I find more interesting than others, and at a certain point as an actor… we all care what people think of us, but at a certain point you say “You know what? I pick the qualities of The Riddler that I want and I choose that as his DNA”. I start his path as far away as possible, then all I can do is organically respond to the events that the writers give me. If I’m doing it in an honest way then The Riddler that we end up with is The Riddler we end up with, and that will be the reality of my interpretation and I can’t apologise for it. If people don’t like it, that’s fine, and hopefully my career continues and I do other things. And if people love it, that’s wonderful and we get to spend however many years celebrating a new live-action interpretation of one of the greatest characters, I believe, in comic book history. Thus far, it’s been a good reception. It’s nice, it’s certainly given me more confidence to dig deeper and continue surprising myself.
Given how passionate fans are, we’re sure you’d have heard by now if they weren’t keen on your portrayal. In anything, it’s only positive feedback from most quarters. Now with Ed having embraced the darkness by the time Season 2 came to a close, is that it for him in terms of becoming a fully-fledged villain or is there any chance of redemption for the character before goes full-on “Riddler”?
Essentially, where I feel that we are is now that he’s been caught - I mean, he framed Jim Gordon. Though not without flaws, it was masterfully done. People now know that he has killed numerous people, so he can’t go back to the GCPD, he now has an identity. You know, anyone that’s a criminal in this world, you come out of jail and no matter what you have choices and you can try and evolve and become a different person. In a world like Gotham, though, when you come out of an insane asylum I don’t know if Edward’s ready to live his life trying to convince people that’s not him. He spent his entire life trying to convince people to like him and that never worked. At this point, if he’s gonna be a criminal then he’s gonna be the best damn criminal there is. Now it’s about what does that mean to him, who is he. He’s already delivered a Riddler moment in Episode 15 with the art heist and whatnot, so as soon as he realises “Oh, THIS is my thing! And the question mark is gonna be my tag!” and he starts donning the identity of The Riddler, that’s a moment when he becomes a player in Gotham. He becomes someone who has an identity, he has a purpose, and he gets to kind of refine it and work his way up. From there, it’s exuberance and becoming more flamboyant and proud. He’s always admired The Penguin, and he wants, perhaps, some semblance of admirers himself.
And has there been any talks of any time soon maybe seeing a take on the classic, iconic Riddler attire or do you think that’s maybe a step too far for a show like Gotham?
There have been conversations. I don’t know exactly the look we’re going for, but I hope and I trust that, as the show has done and I feel as if I have done, I want to have a fresh look for The Riddler that is complementary to the history but…
Fresh but respectful?
Yeah, fresh but respectful. And part of it is that I don’t care to be walking around in spandex. I’m very proud of what the producers, writers and myself have created here in Edward, and I would just like to have my own look.
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