Welcome to 'Gotham': Ben McKenzie Delves into a Dark New Fantasy World (INTERVIEW)

If you thought you’d seen it all from the Batman franchise, get ready for 'Gotham.' Tonight, Fox presents a new chapter in the DC Comics mythology: a prequel.
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If you thought you’d seen it all from the Batman franchise, get ready for 'Gotham.' Tonight, Fox presents a new chapter in the DC Comics mythology: a prequel.

We recently interviewed Gotham star Ben McKenzie at Soho House in West Hollywood, where we chatted about his hot new show, which premieres tonight on Fox.

McKenzie, 36, has gone from The O.C. (2003-2007) to Southland (2009-2013) to Gotham, a noir-ish origin story that traces the early years of Detective James Gordon (played by McKenzie) before he was Commissioner of the notoriously corrupt city. The series chronicles the “birth” of one of pop cultures most beloved superheroes, just as Batman celebrates his 75 anniversary this year.

Here’s the thing about Gotham: It’s not a show about Batman. The story takes place when Bruce Wayne is a young boy, before he becomes the Caped Crusader. The pilot opens as Gordon first meets Bruce, just after he witnesses the tragic murder of his wealthy parents and becomes an orphan. The pair, of course, will go on to form a lifelong bond and become future allies.

While they come at the story from a different angle – although the time period is never clearly defined (“it’s a kind of a timeless world, the kind of world that dreams live in”) – the producers promise they won’t break the rules of Batman.

Gotham Ben McKenzie Photo

Ben McKenzie plays Detective James Gordon. (Photo: ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Michael Lavine/FOX)

“It’s not a whole new mythology. What we won’t do is break the kind of canonical iron truths of the Batman story,” series producer Bruno Heller (Rome, The Mentalist) told a crowd of reporters in July in Los Angeles. “But issues of chronology and who was there, when and how, we will play with…in a fun way, not in a disrespectful way.”

Just because Batman doesn’t exist yet, it doesn’t mean the super-villains don’t. Gotham is bursting with baddies-in-the-making, and you can count on all the fan favorites turning up at some point. The series opens with a bang, featuring four legendary characters from the comics: You’ll meet Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin); Edward Nygma (aka The Riddler); Ivy Pepper (aka Poison Ivy); and even a preteen Selina Kyle (better known some day as Catwoman) as their younger selves. Also look for a new villain to enter the Batverse with the introduction of Jada Pinkett Smith as Lady Gangster Fish Mooney, while Donal Logue costars as Gordon’s partner, Detective Harvey Bullock.

While at TCA, we had the opportunity to chat with Gotham’s Ben McKenzie about his new project.

Gotham probably has the most buzz of any new show premiering this fall. That must be exciting.

“It’s really great. The most important thing to me is that I am proud of the show that I’m making, and I am. I’m very proud of the hard work everyone is putting in to this. It takes hundreds of people to make a show, particularly a show like this, which is big and bold and full of style. To be at the center of that is a real blessing.”

This series will cover new territory in the Batman universe by going backward in time as a prequel…

“It’s so cool. And I think it frees us up. We’ll obviously be respectful and reverential to the mythology as a whole, but it frees us up to really enjoy and re-imagine the story, [and] take satisfaction in the creation of elements that we can bring to it that people haven’t seen before because they haven’t seen these characters, at this point in their lives before, so we can really breathe life into them.”

Did you read the comics as a kid?

“I read some but I wasn’t, and still am not, an aficionado. I liked them, but I grew up with different stuff.”

Gotham Jada Pinkett Smith Photo

Jada Pinkett Smith as Lady Gangster Fish Mooney. (Photo: ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Jessica Miglio/FOX)

Like what?

“Well, I did watch the Adam West Batman in the afternoon with my brother…and all kinds of silly stuff. It was Texas in the ‘80s so it was watching The Dukes of Hazzard, things like that.”

Tell us the truth: Do you secretly want to play Batman?

“I kind of think Jim Gordon is a good fit for me; I mean, Batman seems like A LOT of pressure. [laughs] And what are you really going to do after what Christian Bale’s done?”

Is he [Christian Bale] your favorite Batman?

“He’s pretty great. But I’ll tell you what, I loved the old Tim Burton Batman films … I LOVED Michael Keaton as Batman. Growing up as a kid, that was so fun. To me, it was the trend that started doing these things in a really adult way, and it was still fun and interesting.”

You’ve been one of our favorites ever since you hit the privileged mean streets of Orange County and heard those infamous words, “Welcome to the O.C., b*tch.” Now, you must get a lot of “Welcome to Gotham, B*tch”?

“I only hear it every day. Forever. I’ll be hearing it forever.” [laughs]

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