During his first day on the set of Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham, star Ben McKenzie sat in a 1970s-era Chrysler and had a moment of doubt.
This was his first scene for the production playing Det. Jim Gordon, and it was a very simple one – McKenzie merely had to drive the car up to Wayne Manor. But suddenly, the former Southland star felt overwhelmed. “I’m sitting behind the wheel, and I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy, this is crazy. What am I doing? This is nuts. I’m never going to be able to pull this off,’” he recalled. Thankfully, the moment passed, “and it all went great.”
Below McKenzie talks about diving into the Batman universe and shooting the fall’s most highly anticipated new series, which follows a superpower and gadget-free cop responsible for stopping Gotham’s increasingly theatrical array of villains. In this prequel world, Bruce Wayne is still just a kid, and Gordon’s first assignment is investigating the mysterious murder of his parents.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how did you get involved with this show?
Ben McKenzie: I did a pilot with [Gotham creator Bruno Heller] last year…
The legal one ?
Yeah — well, it was about victims’ advocates. We had a really good time, and obviously the show didn’t get picked up, but we were really proud of it. It was for CBS and they picked up like maybe two dramas.
CBS has so few slots in their schedule.
It was one of those things. And I had heard this was coming down the pipe, and Bruno sent me the script early and said he wrote this part with me in mind — which is incredibly flattering. We just started the discussions from there, and it has all come together in an amazing way. To be written for by a fantastic writer and to start from a place of knowing and liking each other — it’s a beautiful way of jumping off.
What excites you about the character?
He’s a truly honest man. The last honest man in a city full of crooked people. It’s very tricky nowadays to play a true, honest-to-goodness hero. Everybody is so cynical of people’s intentions. What’s interesting about him is he comes into this city that he hasn’t lived in for two decades, since he was a kid, and has fresh eyes to a world he doesn’t actually know. He thinks he knows it, and his journey will be to figure out how to make it better both for Gotham and himself without completely [losing] the moral standing that he has. He’s not an anti-hero, he’s a true hero — but he will have to compromise.
From reading the pilot script, it seems like, given the tightrope he has to walk in just the first episode of the show, it’s hard to see how Gordon could maintain his ideals throughout the series.
He won’t. And that’s one of the things we talked about very early on. This is not a Batman-from-the-’50s kind of show, with moral duality in black and white. In this world, everybody lives in the grey. Everybody is on the take. Everybody is compromised. There is no way he’ll emerge unscathed from that. How does he hold onto the thread of his mortality while getting things done?
How are you making this character unique from your last law enforcement character, on Southland?
I’m trying to bring whatever I picked up on Southland: some semblance of tactical reality of whatever he’s doing.
That training must be helpful.
To some degree I’m trying to bring that. It’s clearly a different show, it’s clearly not reality. But I learned so much on that job over the years. The thing I run into here is that — there’s nothing wrong with having a moral center, and it sets [Gordon] apart for the rest of the people in this world. And that’s an incredibly compelling concept. At the same time, for audiences, that moral centeredness can come across as naivete unless the character is written to be as smart as everybody else in the room, if not smarter. It’s sort of that noir-ish thing — Phillip Marlow is going to stumble, and he’s not going to know what the criminals know. But he’s as smart as they are, if not smarter, and so he’s going to figure it out as he goes along. So you have to juggle those balls without having the character go, “I can’t believe everybody is corrupt! What are the odds?” So that’s been an ongoing conversation. The good news is Bruno and [director Danny Cannon] are fully on board with that take on the character.
How familiar were you with the Batman universe before this?
I’m a big fan of Batman. I can’t claim I grew up reading a lot of comics — weirdly the one I remember is Iron Man. I would watch repeats of the cheesy biff-pow-bang show, the Adam West version, in the afternoons in Texas. As I grew older, [the depictions of Batman] grew more sophisticated, and I loved the [Christopher] Nolan films. The thing that I think is universally relateable about Batman is he’s not a superhero. He has no special powers. He’s simply a man who’s experienced this extreme trauma, and has access to all sort of gadgets and weaponry that a wealthy person could have, and has an emotional need for justice. As an actor, I’m much more interested in people. When they have superpowers, it’s not that I don’t find them enjoyable, it’s just that….
You feel detached.
I feel a little detached. Not to rag on a completely unrelated topic, but to me it’s like musicals. I’m like, “Oh, I’m with this story,” and then they start singing and that seems strange. I probably shouldn’t say that in New York City! Long story short: Gordon couldn’t be more human. In a DC universe where all of these characters are human, he is Exhibit A in being a simple, flawed human being. He’s strong and smart and tough, but he’s going to make wrong decisions and trust the wrong people. And he has no out — he can’t put on a cape and fly off.
How have you prepared for the role?
I went to lunch with [DC Comics chief creative officer] Geoff Johns and asked, “What do I need to know? I’m familiar with Batman and Gordon, but what’s my responsibility here?” He gave me Gotham Central … and said two things: The origin story of Gordon hasn’t been fully explored before. As central as he is, Gordon has never been the focus. And second, you can’t worry about that. “We hired you to play you and to make this character fresh.” And he said it without provocation. That coming from the guy who’s so well versed in this, saying to make it your own, it was a real pat on the shoulder. There’s a tendency with such a familiar world that it can be intimidating. But you got to relax and do it. It ought to be bigger and grander and — frankly — cooler than most, but you have to treat it like a job.
What’s been uniquely challenging in terms of shooting the pilot?
To me, this show has to be shot in New York. New York is Gotham and Gotham is New York. It’s been incredible to be here. This is my first time shooting here. It’s exactly the look and feel and energy that you just cannot fake in a backlot. But it’s been 20 degrees and windy. Plus, there’s the more practical challenge of creating a new world. If a Toyota Corolla drives by in the background, it doesn’t make any difference what you’re doing performance-wise — it’s not usable.
You have to be envious sometimes when the other actors have cool nicknames and outfits and wicked traits, and you have to put on your tie.
Yes! You don’t want him to be the straight man to everybody else, the rube who’s kind of boring. You have to trust the fact that we’re telling Jim’s story. Why are we telling his story? We’re telling it because in a world that’s about to fall apart due to all of these people, when there is no reason to be good, he’s the one man standing up and saying, “No, that’s not right.” And there’s inherent power to that. Besides, I don’t want to be hippest guy. I don’t want to sit around in a fedora and skinny jeans.