LOS ANGELES – Riddle me this: What does a “Gotham” villain do after that series ends?
Cory Michael Smith, who plays Edward Nygma, the Riddler, became a film producer during the series’ run and recently was cast in “Utopia,” a new series.
Ultimately? “The end goal is to go back to live theater,” he says. “But the theater scene is changing. There are a lot of short runs that are stocked with names that will sell well. It’s just what theater producers have been inclined to do in recent years. I don’t begrudge them of that. It’s the reality and I’m living in the reality.”
To get a higher profile, Smith has capitalized on his “Gotham” experience, appearing in the Emmy-winning miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” and the Oscar-nominated film “First Man.”
“My career has not been repetitive or limiting,” he says with a smile.
When he began “Gotham” five seasons ago, Smith had limited knowledge of comic books. Now, he’s a big supporter of a producer who started his own comics company.
“Early on, I looked at the comics more intensely to glean the DNA of the character and distill it into what I thought was most important,” he says. “But the scripts were the Bible.”
Like other actors who played villains on “Gotham,” Smith got a chance to craft a younger, less-formed version. Initially, Edward Nygma helped officials solve crimes. Gradually, he became disillusioned combatant and evolved into The Riddler.
To avoid typecasting, Smith, now 32, says he openly sought outside roles that weren’t similar.
When he was told he looked a bit like astronaut Roger Chaffee, he pursued the role in “First Man.”
“I watched his interviews, studied his mannerisms and his voice and made an audition tape that was word-for-word his interviews.”
Director Damien Chazelle liked what he saw and cast Smith. For someone who grew up longing to go to Space Camp, it was a dream come true.
“We did a lot of pre-production in Houston and Cape Canaveral,” he says. “We hung out with astronauts, which was very, very cool.”
In eighth grade, Smith was eager to attend the junior astronaut program. “My family didn’t have a lot of money, so my parents said I had to make a choice – Space Camp or piano lessons. Well, piano lessons trumped Space Camp. I never went then, but I got to go as an adult.”
Like other television newcomers, Smith learned plenty while appearing on “Gotham.” “I got to work with all these incredible people – production designers, art directors, actors – and I learned what it takes to put on a significant production. I’ve grown as an artist, too, and I’ve learned how to calibrate material. It’s been an education.”
Putting that knowledge to work, Smith served as executive producer on “1985,” a film about a closeted gay man dying of AIDS. Also playing the lead role, he got positive notices and a chance to extend his reach in another arena.
Now, Smith says, he’s ready for another stage in his career.
“The great relief and joy for me, personally, was the experience of having five years to build a character on such a grand, operatic scale,” he says of “Gotham.” “It just felt like we were constantly reinventing and kind of rebuilding ourselves. I felt like I got to play like five different characters almost.
“It was really cool.”