TCA Interview: Ben McKenzie on ‘Gotham’

Today was the Television Critics Association panel for “Gotham” during Fox’s day of press tour. After the panel, we joined reporters on stage to ask Ben McKenzie some more questions.

McKenzie plays Jim Gordon, a detective for now investigating the murder of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz)’s parents. It unravels the rogues gallery of eventual villains in the Batman universe, including Oswald Cobblepot, Edward Nygma, Selina Kyle, Ivy Pepper and new character Fish Mooney. Coming off a five year run as an LAPD officer in “Southland,” McKenzie is now on track to become commissioner of Gotham City, but not for several years.


CraveOnline: This is the first time Jim Gordon has been front and center. He may have had his own issues of comics, but does that drastically change his role in the Batman universe?

Ben McKenzie: Well, as [series creator] Bruno [Heller] has been saying, over the 75 years that Batman has been around, this mythology has been interpreted and reinterpreted over and over and over again by countless artists, writers, illustrators, actors on screen. So I think we’re adding our twist on the mythology but we are just a part of it. We just sort of become subsumed by the greater Batman mythology as it exists already.

But even just as a main character versus a supporting character.

Yeah, it’s obviously unique to my knowledge in the canon. I don’t believe Jim has ever been, on screen anyway, as central a focus. I think if you were going on certain pieces of the literature, he’s been more of a central focus. What we’re telling is a noirish story where the world, the larger world around him is full of people with very little moral center, or you would say lacking in a moral compass and he does not lack that compass. He has a very firm, rigid idea, you might say, of what’s good and what’s wrong. That will be tested and it will be compromised as he goes forward. You see in the pilot alone, so he is the iconic hero in the fallen world.

Do you imagine as Bruce Wayne gets older, Gordon’s resistance to him getting physical and violent will wear down?

Well, their relationship will be very complicated. It is very complicated because obviously one of the beautiful things about the conceit that Bruno came up with is that Jim himself suffered a tragedy similar to Bruce. When he was a young man, he lost his father. Which is such an underlying thread of so much of the superhero mythology. Some young person, usually a young boy, suffers a horrible trauma and then deals with it in ways that are violent, at least in Batman. So in Bruce, Jim sees himself and so he is trying, from an older perspective, from a more seasoned perspective to give him guidance, to show him the error of his own ways and to try to push him onto a better path.

It’s not going to work.

Well, yeah. You see the ultimate result, but it’s fascinating to watch and the conversations that that can have can allude to the larger philosophical questions of what is right, what is wrong, in a world in which there are no easy answers and standing on your high horse and preaching from on high is not going to do the world a bit of good. You’ve got to get in the muck and get dirty.

Is filming “Gotham” more traditional than “Southland” which was guerilla?

It is.

Has that taken some getting reacquainted with?

It has. It’s shot, I think one of the things as [director] Danny [Cannon] mentioned, the references filmicly are towards a more composed palette, a ‘60s or ‘70s feel although it might even be, even that actually can sometimes feel different but it’s a very composed pilot where you have very big colors, big world, very tightly put together as you would in a heavily scored film. So the acting style is actually different and it’s taken some getting used to but I’m enjoying it. It feels like you’re creating this hopefully beautiful movie each week. It’s challenging to do on a schedule but it’s fun.

Is it more planned where “Southland” was improvised?

Much, much more so. “Southland” we would have three cameras rolling and we would just roll. The crew became so adept by the end of this filming that we did 12 pages by lunch one movie. That’s four practical location scenes with real bystanders on the street, driving real cars, getting in and out of the cars. It was an incredible creative experience. This is also an incredible creative experience. It’s just different. It’s playing pickup basketball with the best team you could possibly imagine and having a great time versus playing in the NBA and there’s a set offense and a set set of instructions. I just created that metaphor. It may be terrible.

This is the 75th anniversary of Batman and you played Batman in an animated film. What does it mean to be part of the grand tapestry of this character?

It’s an honor. I just pinch myself often, almost literally because it just feels so bizarre. And yet wonderful. To be able to add, again, just a little bit to the canon that already exists and the mythology that’s already so rich and so developed, is a true luxury. I hope that the deep fan base that exists will by and large appreciate it. Not only appreciate it but allow themselves to really indulge their love of this world through a serialized experience. As opposed to having one two hour movie that’s got to tide you over for three years, you can watch week after week after week and understand these characters in a deeper way than you may have been able to.

How does Jim balance being a hero cop with being a fiance?

With Barbara? It’s a balance. In some senses, again, since I think the nearest approximation genre-wise is a noir, when he’s on the job and he’s in the world of criminals, he obviously has to be incredibly tough and ruthless really. Still morally rigid at least initially, but we’ll see how long that lasts. Then when he’s back with Barbara, it’s an opportunity to really relax to some degree. He clearly finds some stability with her, some love. I could go into the psychoanalysis of why he is with her. I think she may remind him of his mother. That’s another conversation but I think he finds solace in her. She’s caring, she’s kind and she loves him completely.

Does she last in this version?

It’s hard to say at this point. We’ll see.

Seems like she has some secrets.

She has some secrets. She has secrets and then of course he has secrets almost immediately. As you see in the pilot, the moral decision that he has to make where there is no correct decision in regards to Oswald, secrets that he will be hiding from her will bubble to the surface very quickly, so they’ll both be lying to each other. This is not a great platform on which to base a relationship.

Is “Gotham” like “Scandal” where there are good corruptors and bad corruptors?

Well, the conversations I’ve had with Bruno revolve around the notion that, as is often the case in noir, the world around the main character is simply beyond being salvaged. It’s Chinatown, Jake. It is not a world in which our hero is ultimately going to succeed. However, along that broader, longer path, there are victories. There are defeats. He arises from the ashes time after time after time to advance up the ladder and become commissioner. So I think it would be unrealistic for him not to develop a morality that is specific to the circumstances.