The first season of Fox’s ambitious new comic-book drama Gotham is all about the Penguin’s rise to power, but there’s another would-be villain lurking in the shadows. Cory Michael Smith plays Ed Nygma, the man who will become Gotham City’s quiz-happy Riddler… eventually.
For now, Ed’s a forensic scientist working with Gotham PD, which adds a twist of intrigue to his inevitable transformation into villainy. On the show’s Brooklyn set, EW sat down with Smith to get a hint of what we can expect from his Riddler.
EW: How do other Riddlers come into play for your interpretation?
CORY MICHAEL SMITH: Well, there’s Frank Gorshin, of course, whose performance was lauded. I’ve seen clips of him and his work, and I have great respect for his contribution to that show and how celebrated it is, but I certainly haven’t watched enough that it would actually impact the choices I make. And I never watched Batman Forever so I haven’t seen Jim Carrey’s performance.
No way. You never saw Carrey as the Riddler?
The thing is, he’s one of my idols! I love him, I think he’s brilliant, and as a kid he was a huge reason why I wanted to be an actor. But I’ve never seen Batman Forever. And I think it was really just the universe telling me not to watch it because this is my fate. [Laughs] I’m essentially paying most attention to the comics.
Are all the actors on Gotham frequently turning back to the comics?
I think a lot of people are. I certainly am. I’m not obsessing over them, but I’m letting them inform my work. But the thing is, this is a unique way of telling Batman and I’m trusting Bruno [Heller] and our producers and everybody in the cast. Our writers have a trajectory for us. They’re going to make choices that might contradict someone’s idea of the mythology of the Riddler, but this is the show that I’m doing and this is the person that I’m creating. The thing about the comics, too, is they span such a vast period of time that they kind of contradict each other a lot. You see a comic and you’re like, “Oh wow, the Riddler has been drawn this way and he’s been drawn that way.” There are tons of looks and his personality changes based on who’s writing them. So to me, some people might have a favorite version of the Riddler—this is just the Riddler that I’m doing.
What are Ed’s ambitions? What’s his trajectory?
I think you’re dealing with someone that knows that he’s the smartest person in the room and knows he’s brilliant and has great contributions, and feels that he could just run the f–king show. Sometimes it’s very frustrating when he’s not allowed to do things, and we’ll see him start to get more leeway and his superiors will start to recognize his genius in giving him other responsibilities. I think Ed just wants to be a part of stuff. He wants to show off his knowledge. He wants to help. He has answers. And he has answers before everyone else, so that’s why he asks questions—he challenges other people, like, ‘Figure this out.’
You definitely seem to have a “Riddler voice,” if you will. What’s the approach there?
As he gains power and as he gets a little bit older and more secure and adventurous, it’ll change, as it does with every human. The more comfortable and powerful you are, your voice starts to drop. I want to make sure that Ed is starting far away from where he’s going to go. So it’s a very playful voice. It’s in my tenor.
The first season reflects the Penguin’s rise to villainy, but how much of the Riddler’s evolution will we see?
I’m going to be in the police department for a while. These crazy crimes are happening in Gotham—slightly theatrical and awesome and very much honoring the adventurousness of the comic books. Everyone else is taking it so seriously because they’re the police and they want to solve the crime, but Ed’s kind of getting caught up in how cool this s–t is. I mean, some of these crimes are just fascinating. Just fascinating. And that’s what Ed loves.
So his trajectory seems to be this combination of nobody recognizing his genius and a fascination with the macabre. So it’s the story of an undervalued employee…
Yeah. An underappreciated, mistreated, misunderstood guy. And adding in to all that mix, here’s a guy with some social disorder. He’s not necessarily equipped with the interpersonal skills that would lead to calm workplace environment interaction.
What about his family life?
I hope he’s not married or else this fool doesn’t wear a ring and she’d be pissed. [Laughs] The thing about origin stories is that family is actually very important, and I think we’re going to see everyone’s family, or lack thereof. I don’t know what’s a bigger influence on anyone’s life. So I think we’re going to check in with everybody—where they come from, who is around them, their influences. In the comics, they do reflect back on Ed’s relationship with his father in particular, so I hope that that’s honored in the series.
Are there questions you’ve asked about the Riddler that only you and Bruno know?
I certainly haven’t made definitive requests. I have a vague idea of where they want to go, and I know certain things that help me. But not a lot of specifics. It’s kind of fun not knowing. This, for me, is the difference between doing theatre/film and doing television. You work on a play or movie, you have the whole script, so you’re constructing a performance based on the bible that you have. In TV, you don’t, so to actually invest in that and let that be the exciting part is terrifying, and certainly leaves room for mistakes, looking back. “Oh, f–k, I wish I would have known that!”
The Penguin has his iconic style. Is the Riddler’s green going to make an appearance?
Yes. Slightly. You can see, I’m pretty muted, my colors right now. I have a lot of maroons. [He gestures to his tie, and then to his Ed Nygma ID card.] My birth date, April Fool’s, 1988. Making me younger than I am, I totally appreciate it. But yeah, I have some really sweet custom-made suits, and they’re a lot of these dirty greens, golds, grays. It’s very muted gray-green-gold. And then I’ll have shots of color. And then my socks are purple polka dots. Always.
What’s your favorite riddle you’ve told so far?
I haven’t told that many riddles yet. I’ve been trying to, every now and then, come up with a riddle and put it on my Twitter. That’s actually been fun, because some people guess it. And I’ve been coming up with them! I’ve been making Cory originals.
Where do you think we’ll be with the Riddler by the end of the season?
I don’t know exactly. I’m going to be in the police department for a while, and I’m stoked about that because in terms of story, that leaves so many possibilities. It’s very Dexter of me to be potentially playing both sides. Learning the police department to such a degree that I know how to manipulate the system. So there’s a lot of potential.
What do you make of these fan theories about other villains coming on, like the Joker or Mr. Freeze?
I hope people continue to ask those questions. Anyone could be anyone. The city is littered with dangerous people, and so anybody could potentially be a major player eventually.
Gotham premieres Monday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. on Fox.