13 Questions for Cory Michael Smith, Star of Gotham
These days, Cory Michael Smith spends most of his time playing Edward Nygma, future Riddler on Fox's Batman prequel, Gotham. But on Sunday, he takes on a much different role: In the second part of HBO's four-part miniseries Olive Kitteridge, which spans a quarter-century in a Maine community, Smith plays the grown up version of Kevin Coulson—and, like his costar John Gallagher, Jr., he didn’t have any scenes with Bill Murray. In fact, Smith didn't even get to meet Murray—which was particularly sad for the actor, who counts What About Bob? as one of his favorite movies ever. "The end is so weird! It’s so odd, but fantastic," Smith says. "I hope I get to meet him—I need to talk to Bill Murray about What About Bob's impact on my life.” We sat down with the actor a few days before Halloween to chat about acting with Frances McDormand, playing the future Riddler, and horrible Halloween costumes.
How did your role in Olive Kitteridge come about?
I found out about it in June 2013. They were casting here in New York, and I was initially sent sides for [another character], but my managers wanted me to be seen for Kevin. At that point, the only film thing I’d done was [the horror short] Dog Food, and that wasn’t out. I had nothing to show of me on camera. I read both of the sides, and I was like ‘I only want to go in for Kevin.’ I really fell in love with that role because he’s so tormented—he spent his whole childhood taking care of his [mentally ill] mother and then becomes her. There’s not a lot of light in his life, but he’s not violent to other people. I was just interested in someone who’s that much of a pacifist and has had that much damage to him, because people can respond to that stuff in different ways, and to not be abusive was interesting.
Did you read the book the miniseries is based on before you auditioned?
Not before I auditioned, but afterward, I read the whole thing. Kevin is the second chapter, and it’s only up to the point where he jumps into the water, so everything after that was created by Jane Anderson, who adapted it [for TV]. But reading it was actually very helpful, emotionally, because there’s a lot in the book that’s not voiced—how he drove overnight from New York, and just the idea that he hasn’t slept at all. I was like, ‘Please make me look sweaty and exhausted.’ I wanted to play him absolutely exhausted. So that information is always helpful, and that wasn’t really talked about [in the script]. If you have the time to read it, it’s really stunning.
Your character has mental health issues. Did you do any research into that?
I did, a lot—into the differentiation between hallucinations and schizophrenia, depression versus bipolarity, and trying to find the line of him not having control over himself, but having him not be dangerous for someone to be around. So understanding mental health to such a degree, and navigating his behavior to a certain degree, that that behavior made sense, which I thought was very delicate. I didn’t talk to any actual psychiatrists, but I looked at things online. And I have people in my life who are bipolar, and they’re at varying degrees. I wanted to stay in the depression and not really touch the bipolar thing because I didn’t want him to be aggressive to other people. So all the times that he starts to get agitated, I tried to tamp down and hold on to myself. There were two people in my life that I was paying attention to and trying to emulate in that performance—I find them to be slightly dangerous because they’re so quiet, and you can tell a lot is going on in their minds.
You appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Broadway, and I’m curious, what’s more intimidating: Working with incredible actors like Frances McDormand, or doing a show on Broadway?
The former. Yeah, I think so. Olive Kitteridge is the only thing that I’ve done on camera where we had a day of rehearsal before we shot, and I’m so glad that that happened, because I was so nervous. It felt like a dreamland because I was exactly where I dreamed of being, and I was trying to rehearse Kevin but I couldn’t because I couldn’t get out of having a Cory moment. Like, “This is real, this is happening. That’s Frances McDormand, and this is me, and we’re acting together!” I just couldn’t stop that, and so the first day of filming would have been super unproductive because I’m supposed to be incredibly depressed and I couldn’t stop smiling. And Frances is so incredible and naturally funny, and I kept laughing at stuff that she was doing. It was horrible! I was a totally unprofessional actor during that rehearsal. I just couldn’t contain myself and my excitement.
This is going to sound weird, but: I see you every day because our offices are near the Bryant Park subway, and Gotham posters are everywhere. Is it weird to see your face all over the place?
When it was first happening, of course it was strange. I started to get paranoid. The first time I saw it, I was coming from my friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side and I went into the subway to go downtown. I turned the corner and it was right there. This chihuahua-like yelp came out of my mouth, and I kind of tripped over myself. I wanted to take a picture of it! But there were people on the platform, so I slyly took my phone out, but this guy kept looking at me! [Laughs] That same poster was the first poster of my face that I saw vandalized. It was just a silver pen right over my forehead. I had no idea what it said—I couldn’t tell. I was kind of looking forward to it—once they were up, I was like, I want to see the best defacement. Not that I should be encouraging that.
The cool thing now is that people who are traveling will send me pictures from other countries. My old roommate sent me a picture—she was like, “My dad sent this to me, he’s in London,” and it was my face in a Tube station. A friend sent one from Paris. What’s weird is they change the font in certain countries. There has to be research that goes into it. When it plays in the UK, the lettering is more bubbly. It’s not dissimilar from our cars—here they’re sleek and long and sexy, and you go over there and everything is bubbly and round and happy. All the cars are so rounded and soft. Their horns are these friendly honks, just like, “coming through!”
I read somewhere that your Mom loves Batman. Does that mean she’s rooting against you in Gotham?
Yes! She’s always rooting against me! [Laughs] No, both of my parents love the ‘60s series, but especially my mom. They were little kids then, and that was a real family show, Batman. For her, she’s enraptured by the idea of how universal and international this project is, so she got really excited [when I got the part].
Forensic science is one of my favorite things—I watch a lot of Investigation Discovery and Forensic Files—and in Gotham, Edward Nygma is a forensic scientist. Is there an advisor on set to help you with that stuff?
Forensic Files in amazing! I love it! There were marathons happening all the time in college. That show, because it’s always on at night, was always better than any scary movie I could put on, because it was real. That stuff really happened. And sometimes things would happen on a college campus, and I’d be in my dorm room watching it…
Our police science world on Gotham is such that—it’s not CSI. We’re not spending an entire episode focusing on this thing in the body; we don't have to know all of the medical stuff. When [the writers] create something, I don’t know what they use, but that’s all investigated. It’s basically, this is the information that’s necessary to understand what’s happening, and then moving on.
I do look at Wikipedia. And if there’s ever anything specific, like, moments where I’m testing out explosive stuff, it’s like, OK, would I wear gloves, will I be wearing an apron? He’s supposed to be brilliant, so we have to be careful about those moments. We have people who oversee that and write that into the script for me.
You’re playing someone who is eventually going to become a villain. Which raises the question: Which superhero would you be?
I’m gonna go with—just as a props to my man Jim Carrey—I’m gonna call Ace Ventura a superhero. A real-life superhero. Does that count?
I think so—his powers of deduction are uncanny! Obviously, Halloween is coming up, which leads to my next question: What, in your opinion, is the best candy?
Two things that I don’t necessarily indulge in: Candy and Halloween. I grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, in the early ‘90s, and hospitals and doctor’s offices offered to x-ray candy. I was 7 or 8. The day after Halloween, my brother and I were sorting all of our candy, and my mom asked if she could have a piece of my gum. She put the gum in her mouth, bit down, and there was a shard of metal in it! And that was the end of Halloween for my brother and I. Our parents started bribing us to not go trick or treating. They said, "We’ll buy you candy, you tell us what you want." They bribed us with gifts if we would not go out and take candy from strangers. So I would dress up, but I would hand candy out.
I understand why people like Halloween, but what it is for other people is what I do on a daily basis. It’s like a worse version of high school theater, to me. So I’ve gone out on occasion, but I usually stay home.
Before that, did you have a Halloween costume you were very proud of?
I dressed up as Zorro, but no one knew I was Zorro. All these adults kept saying, “Are you Cary Grant?” I was so young and I had no idea who Cary Grant was! It must have been a horrible costume, because I don’t know that Cary Grant has ever looked like Zorro.
If you could switch places with one person for a day, who would it be?
There’s so many potentially fascinating people … I think I would be Bear Grylls. But not with my mentality or knowledge, with his. It’s not like I can just be in his body—I need to know all the things that he does. That would be amazing. Because when it comes to survival, I would die so quickly. I’d be such a goner—I grew up in the suburbs and now I live in New York City! You know what I mean?
Totally. I recently got a juicer, and I’m obsessed with it. What’s one thing you’re obsessed with right now?
Where I’m living right now, there’s a Steinway grand piano in my living room. I’m a pianist—I studied jazz piano in college. My great problem in New York is I haven’t had a good piano here. So now there’s a Steinway grand in my living room, and that’s my obsession right now. I have a baby grand at my parents' place in Ohio, but I’m not bringing it here until I have a permanent place.
I watched your horror short, Dog Food, which leads to my final question: Cats or dogs?
I have to say dogs, because every now and then I’ll have an allergic reaction to cats. I can’t find a pattern. When I was young, my cousin had Maine coon cats—which are like tiny lions—but those cats drove me and my brother insane. And then some dogs … it’s like copious amounts of hair or oils or whatever, I just can’t do it. Growing up, we had a bichon frise named Chip. And right now, I live with a cocker spaniel. He’s 12 years old, his name is Sammie, and actually, he’s contractually the Coppertone dog. So I live with a bigger star than myself! [Laughs] But personality-wise, I get along with cats more. I’m pretty independent. And in the winter, you don’t have to go outside to walk cats three or four times a day!
Olive Kitteridge airs Sunday, November 2 and Monday, November 3 on HBO.