'Gotham' star Cory Michael Smith on the Riddler's impending rise to villainy

For The Baltimore Sun
"Gotham's Cory Michael Smith on the Riddler: "Finding himself in this underworld is a difficult thing."

It’s no riddle wrapped in an enigma: Ed Nygma has made the most drastic transformation in this season of Fox's "Gotham: Rise of the Villains."

He has gone from misunderstood outcast to bloodthirsty sociopath, sometimes in the same scene. We asked the versatile actor Cory Michael Smith, 29, what it’s like inside one of the most twisted minds of the "Gotham," which airs its Season 2 fall finale on Nov. 20. Smith, who also stars in the upcoming film, "Carol," answered our most puzzling questions, from when we’ll see the Riddler debut to how his friendship with Oswald will impact his rise as a supervillain.

How did you prepare for the roles where Ed would argue with himself?

When there were two characters to play, it was very important for us to not make it so that this other character is the Riddler or necessarily an alter ego. The other role is just encapsulating all of the qualities and traits that Edward possesses that he's afraid of or is intimidated by and sees outside of himself.

These things all manifest themselves in another version of him. It's kind of this war with himself. He doesn't think he is this person who can do these other things. He has this sexual prowess, and he's kind of hedonistic and violent. As he's mentored and coached and kind of encouraged by this other seemingly other person, it's really just him listening to the darker parts of himself. When they finally converge, it's really him accepting all of these parts about himself that he didn't think were him.

So preparing for all of that was just looking at all of the behavior Ed hasn't really displayed thus far, and putting him in a whole other character. The voice is different, the body is different, the way he communicates is completely different. It's just creating the evil twin of Edward.

So do you think we'll see the Riddler sometime soon?

Yeah, Edward Nygma is the Riddler. The Riddler is the title he dons when he decides to become a supervillain, when he decides to terrorize people and riddles are his trademark. [But] we're not there yet. The Riddler is an identity that he has to claim himself. The Riddler isn't a person – he is the Riddler – but he doesn't know that's what he is yet. When he accepted this other person to himself he's now a human being living a full capacity that is like, we're now charging forward on a path to become the Riddler.

Does Ed feel a sense of freedom because he now embraces this bad side and he acknowledges it's there rather than repressing it?

Yeah, I think we're all capable of horrible things and we try to keep ourselves from behaving that way. Ed is embracing this other part of himself, where he finds he has more power and he's braver. It's really that part of himself that got him the girl and having sex for the first time. You know, all these things that he wanted, he got because he was trusting this other part of himself. So embracing that, it's certainly liberating for him.

Do you think he’ll miss his old life when he does transform into the Riddler?

Yeah, definitely. I think at a certain point there's no turning back. But I think the tragedy is that his intention the whole time was just to be a normal guy, be friends with Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), be in love with this beautiful woman and live kind of a normal life where he moves past the fact that he actually definitely killed someone. I think that certainly would have been the ideal life.

[When] he talks about fate with Oswald, it just seems like the world is pushing for him to be something else. He can't catch a break. He accidentally kills Kristen [Kringle], he can't have friends and he ruins the best thing he had. The world seems to be deciding a different fate for him than he wants.

We saw Ed leave a riddle for himself to find Miss Kringle’s body at the police station. Who do you think will be his first target to solve one of his riddles once he does become the Riddler?

Oh, that's a great question. I certainly don't know. I wouldn't be surprised if it's related to Jim Gordon, but I have no idea. That's a really great question for the writers [laughs]. I don't know, I think it'd be interesting if it were Jim Gordon, but Jim already knows that Ed has a fondness for wordplay, so perhaps it would be someone who wouldn't be as suspecting. You never know. It may end up being the Penguin [laughs]!

Have you personally been stumped by one of Ed’s riddles?

Oh gosh, there was one recently where I didn't know the answer to the riddle [laughs]. It's so funny, last season there was one where I was talking about crossing the river with three things, one being a goat, and [Harvey] Bullock cuts me off, and I don't actually finish it [laughs]. I personally am not great with riddles. I can sit there for minutes upon minutes trying to figure one out.

Just as Ed’s character has been transforming into the Riddler, so have his clothes. Lately he’s always wearing something green, from ties to sweaters and the picnic blanket he brought to bury Miss Kringle. When will he debut his costume?

That won't happen until the moment when he claims his identity. You know, he's already used riddles to torment someone, that person being himself. He doesn't realize that's the thing he can use on other people. He just kind of has that scar tissue from doing it to himself. But when he realizes that he has his brains to outwit other people and that can very well become the thing he uses to terrorize people, then he will start to claim that identity. At which point, his behavior and his presentation may need the definitive choice that the title requires and begs for.

So who knows? I don't know exactly how long it will take for him to realize that this is the thing, this is his tool and this is his trademark. Perhaps it will be at the end of this season or next season. But if and when we do have a costume, I look forward to seeing what our great costume designers come up with, because I'm sure it will be unique and original to our show.

Yeah, your costume designers are great. Do you think it'll have question marks? Or will it just be all green?

Oh, sure! Yeah, yeah, yeah, no I think that's such an important part of his identity. So I think definitely we will embrace the question mark emblem. I think that's totally iconic to him, and certainly it will be green. But you know, exactly what it will be, we do not know. But yes, definitely question marks will be involved. I'll make sure of it [laughs].

You and Oswald have sparked a serious bromance. What will Ed learn from being friends with him? Will Penguin mentor Ed [in the crime world]?

I think he will mentor him. Ed needs – you know, what we were talking about – help trying to find an identity. Finding himself in this underworld is a difficult thing, and Penguin has somehow succeeded. Everyone has to have their trademark, and I think Penguin is probably the best person to guide Ed toward realizing that he already possesses a trademark and to embrace it. I think that could very well be their relationship is going. I think it would be a very organic way to move forward.

How do you think Ed's style of crime will change with Oswald at his side? Do you think he'll solely commit murders with riddles to be solved or will he orchestrate large-scale mafia crimes with Oswald?

I don't know, that's a great question for our creators. The Riddler isn't always the most deadly villain. He's not necessarily someone that just kills people to kill them. It's usually about the game, a challenge. And so I think once he realizes that he can have fun that way by challenging people and testing people's intelligence and wit, it becomes demented and terrifying because he's having so much fun.

It can always be about a giant puzzle and a game and figure something out. So they'll never just be killing for power. It's cat-and-mouse, and quite childlike. It's kind of like making him a little underdeveloped and immature, stuck in this place where he just wants to play games.

Do you think we'll see any conflict or backstabbing between Ed and Oswald, like we did between Fish and Oswald?

Oh, gosh, I hope not! I hope they can be best buddies for a very long time. It feels almost inevitable. It's inevitable that at some point there's going to be a rift of conflict, but I hope that they don't become adversaries anytime soon [laughs].

You’ve previously said that you didn’t draw inspiration from previous TV or movie Riddlers. That said, do you still have a favorite on-screen portrayal?

I've never seen "Batman Forever," so I haven't seen Jim Carey's performance, and I didn't watch the show from the '60s. Once I was cast, I made sure to stay far away from it. So I can't really report on their performances at all.

You’ve also said instead of drawing inspiration from [the on-screen characters], you’ve drawn inspiration from the "Riddle Factory" to create your own version of the Riddler. In this cartoon, the Riddler humiliates people. Should we expect the same from your Riddler in “Gotham”?

Yeah, I think that the Riddler that fits into the world of "Gotham" and fits into a modern society is less like the fun-and-games Riddler of the earlier comics and closer to the Riddle Factory. I find that to be one of the most terrifying versions, because it's this really exciting denomination of showman and psychopath, like relentless killer, and incredibly intelligent.

Those are all of the things we love about him, and they're all balanced in such a way that it's fun, it's funny, it's horrifying and it's really quite demented. I just like it so much. He sets up this huge club thing where people don't know where it's going to be until right before. Everyone shows up to this giant warehouse that's loaded with all of these antique games, and it makes it look like a weird amusement park. Then he gives this giant presentation as this wicked funny showman to humiliate one person, and that one person commits suicide because his life is ruined, and then the Riddler moves on to the next one. It's really intense, but he doesn't actually hurt anyone.

So the other person ends up committing suicide and the thing is all he's done is reveal secrets about someone in Gotham that really is a bad person. He's kind of doing this cleanse, so it's kind of justified, almost in a Batman sort of way. I just like it so much. It's morally and ethically cloudy in a really cool way. Also Query and Echo are involved, which is really quite fun, those relationships.

You said that he targets someone and humiliates them. Are there any specific characters who should watch their back? I know you said Jim would probably recognize the wordplay, but is there anyone in particular who should be worried?

I think that Ed is getting to a point where he's going to protect his own interest because he has to, and he can't be found out to be a murderer. So I think we're going to be seeing in this season that if people cross him, that he will have to take matters into his own hands. And as people get close to finding out his secret, then he has to do something.

What should we expect from Ed for the rest of the season?

People are going to be confronting him about where Kristen is and why she's gone. He's going to have to start covering up and figuring out how to deal with this missing person or missing persons now. People at the GCPD, particularly Dr. [Lee] Thompkins and Jim, are going to start to be a little concerned why she's not around, and this is the beginning of perhaps a contentious relationship between Ed, Lee and Jim.

Do you think that this will cause him to leave the police department or do you think he'll be able to stay on and continue as the Riddler?

I think he wants to stay there. He will stay there until he has to go. Because it's a good job and it's a convenient place to be for what he wants to do. He's privy to so much information. Once he feels he must go and can't be around those people anymore, he will leave.

How do you think he'll cover up his tracks for the two most recent murders, Kris Kringle and the man in the woods [when he was burying Kris]?

Well, he'll start with trying to tell a cohesive lie that would make sense, and it's just not going to go as easily as he plans. She does have a life outside of things, and it's difficult to cover all the tracks of a missing person, so his story is not going to suffice. Ed is about to get a real lesson [laughs] in how to cover up murders very quickly.

How do you think his covering up these murders will help him evolve into the Riddler?

I think at this point he's made a choice to pursue this new life. At this point he's a student, so everything is a learning opportunity. I think he's going to find himself in a bit of a storm, and he's going to have to play catch up and cover up [where] he's not in control of the situation.

And he's someone who likes being in control of the situation.


"Gotham" airs 8 p.m. Mondays on Fox. Karmen Fox recaps the season on our blog TV Lust, baltimoresun.com/tvlust.

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