One of this fall's most highly-anticipated shows is the Fox series Gotham, which gives DC Comics fans a look inside the Batman universe like they've never seen before. The show is set years before Bruce Wayne ever puts on the cape and cowl as Gotham City's defender of justice, although we do get to see some of the city's iconic villains in their formative years. Gotham centers on a young James Gordon, played by Ben McKenzie, a rookie cop with the Gotham City Police Department, who is investigating the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents with his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). While fans will have to wait a few more months to see how James' journey begins, Ben McKenzie revealed new details from the series in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, where he explains how Bruno Heller wrote the role specifically for him, how he is bringing some of his skills learned on Southland to Gotham, and how James is one of the only honest men in the entire city.
Although Gotham takes place in an entirely different time frame than previous Batman movies, the city of Gotham doesn't seem to have changed that much, filled with corrupt politicians and cops. Ben McKenzie described James Gordon as the last honest man in Gotham City.
"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."
When asked if James will be able to maintain his morality throughout the series, Ben McKenzie said that this is not your typical Batman series, where clear lines are drawn between good and evil.
"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?"
Bruno Heller, best known for creating Rome and The Mentalist, wrote the Gotham pilot script and is executive producing the series. Ben McKenzie revealed that he previously worked with Bruno Heller on a failed CBS pilot, and that the James Gordon role was written specifically for him.
"I did a pilot with [Gotham creator Bruno Heller] last year. 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. 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."
The actor is no stranger to the police genre, having played LAPD officer Ben Sherman on the hit drama series Southland. When asked if any of his experiences from Southland will carry over to Gotham, Ben McKenzie had this to say.
"I'm trying to bring whatever I picked up on Southland: some semblance of tactical reality of whatever he's doing. 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."
While Ben McKenzie didn't read a lot of comic books during his childhood, the actor is a big Batman fan, explaining why he thinks the character is so relatable.
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 relatable 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 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."
"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."
The pilot episode was shot on location in New York, which brought its own set of challenges, particularly the inclimate weather.
"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."
When asked if he was jealous of the other characters in the series, who have their own iconic nicknames and costumes to wear, Ben McKenzie had this to say.
"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."