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Ben McKenzie previews the 'swift and brutal' world of 'Gotham'

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In today’s world of comic-book remakes, it’s rare that an actor gets to portray multiple characters within any given universe. It’s even more rare that an actor gets to take part in a story that hasn’t been told before. But Ben McKenzie has done both.

In 2011, McKenzie got the chance to voice an animated Bruce Wayne in Batman: Year One, and three years later, he’s playing a young James Gordon in Fox’s upcoming series, Gotham. And despite the fact that Gotham is a prequel and therefore telling a new story, McKenzie is very aware of the “high bar” that exists for his character. But thankfully, McKenzie wasn’t asked to do what Gary Oldman did in Christopher Nolan’s films or what Bryan Cranston did in Year One. Instead, when McKenzie went to lunch with DC Comics chief creative officer Geoff Johns, they talked about McKenzie’s responsibility to the character, part of which was making Gordon “fresh.” So the next question was: How does one do that?

“The way that they talked about it with me is that Gotham is on this knife’s edge and it’s going to fall apart,” McKenzie tells EW. “It’s falling apart because society in general is falling apart. Society’s fallen so much that everybody feels as though they must participate in the morally collapsed society. All the cops are on the take; the judges are on the take; everybody is a part of this thing. And so James, who grew up in the city but then left when his father died, comes at it from the tried-and-true device but [with] fresh eyes. He served overseas; he was in a war. And he comes back and he’s got a real moral rigidity to him, which is tested immediately and tested deeply.”

But in playing a younger Gordon, McKenzie has had to find the balance between the smart cop fans will recognize and the rookie who isn’t necessarily ready to take on some of these super villains. So how did he balance being the strong hero and the struggling hero? “I think every hero ought to try to fit the age in which they live, and in this case, with a lot of people looking at a lot of the overt greed and corruption, and then the subtle greed and corruption that surrounds us, people want somebody who is both upright and morally firm but also not a dope,” he says. “[Someone who’s] able to see what’s going on. So to me, [Gordon] ought to be more like a classic noir detective, smart but still playing catch-up, always trying to understand what’s really going on, and what’s really going on is not what appears to be going on.”

Aside from the freedom that comes with knowing that this story has never been told before, McKenzie has talked about the additional freedom that comes with knowing his character’s ending. Well, more or less. “When we say we know the ending, what do we really know? We know that there’s this guy eventually there will be this thing called The Batman and there will be these villains that The Batman is fighting, and that’s why Bruce becomes The Batman, and there will be this Commissioner Gordon who’s in charge of the police force, but outside of that, outside of some sort of a rudimentary fact, we don’t really know anything,” he says. “We definitely don’t know how they got there.”

And for James Gordon, getting there won’t be easy. “Conversations that I’ve always had with [showrunner] Bruno [Heller] and [executive producer] Danny [Cannon] are: This guy’s going to get really beat up by this town and not just physically but emotionally and psychologically. He’s going to be making a lot of decisions. He’s going to find himself in places very, very quickly from the pilot alone to where there is no morally correct answer. Either choice is bad, so he has to choose between two bad options and then he has to live with those consequences and then he has to keep going. He has to work through the system to try to change it, which inevitably takes a toll on his soul. So I hope he’ll be this great sort of conflicted hero.”

The very idea of a prequel will more than likely leave some viewers feeling a bit conflicted on their own, because, as McKenzie puts it, origin stories “innately humanize” those involved, particularly the villains fans know so well. By seeing how these villains found their way to the dark side, viewers might find themselves empathizing with the “bad guys.”

“Particularly for the really young cast—like Bruce, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy and more to come—they’re kids,” McKenzie says. “They’re genuinely kids, and I think that’s such a fascinating place to start a story because they could go either way, and you see, some of the kids will obviously choose the quote-unquote correct path and become heroes but will suffer burdens because of that, and some will choose to become villains and be burdened by that and also freed by that, so even which side you choose doesn’t necessarily mean your life is all champagne and roses.”

But in a world full of more and more superhero shows, how will Gotham compare to shows like Arrow when it comes to balancing the characters’ stories with action sequences? “I would say it’s much more character-driven,” McKenzie says. “There’s certainly quite a bit of action, and there will be week to week. Stylistically, it’s much more noir than action-adventure. The violence is real and shocking, as opposed to massively operatic and coordinated within an inch of its life. This is more swift and brutal and hopefully kind of shocking. We don’t dwell on it.

“At the same time,” he continues, “in the pilot alone, there’s a rooftop chase scene, which is a lot of fun. There’ll be definitely be some action, and I’ll be doing some of that.”

Just because Gordon is the brave man looking to save his city, however, doesn’t mean he’s capable of winning every fight. “I guess what I should say is he’s not a superhero like Arrow is or any of them—Flash, whoever—so he can’t just do whatever his power is. In a fight scene he can’t just pull out the magic whatever and use it. He’s a man, so he loses a lot. He gets his ass kicked a lot,” McKenzie says with a laugh, and adds, “which I can definitely play.”

Gotham premieres Monday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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