Cory Michael Smith
I had the pleasure to meet with Columbus, Ohio native Cory Michael Smith at The Norwood Club on 14th Street in New York City, “a home for the curious” according to its online vision statement. That could mean so many different things, but for me, “curiosity” centered on this young, up-and-coming actor who seems to be on the fast track to fame. With the same nerdy manic energy of Edward Nygma, his character he plays on Fox’s Gotham, he rushed in wearing a gray jacket, a buttoned-up striped shirt, and matching gray slacks short enough to show that he wasn’t wearing socks with his brown dress shoes.
As he sat down, he apologized for being overdressed and explained that he was going to a business meeting with a couple of buddies who were presenting an app that they had created. While he had nothing to do with the app, he was going to support his friends, as they’re shy and he’s —well, he’s an actor. An actor, who, in just the past couple years, has worked with some of film’s big names including Frances McDormand, Cate Blanchett, and Rooney Mara.
It was easy to fall into a conversation with this chill guy, who like me is from the Midwest, shares a love of theater, and studied both acting and music. This actor’s actor is enjoying a career with divergent roles that range from the “good intentioned,” comic book character turned murderer in Gotham to playing the tortured, suicidal Kevin in last year’s Emmy nominated miniseries Olive Kitteridge.
John: Last fall, you appeared in both the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge—which was great—and the TV series Gotham. It seems like you’re on a fast-track trajectory to fame and success.
Cory: Really? It doesn’t feel that way to me.
Did you also shoot the feature film Carol during Olive Kitteridge and Gotham?
We did Olive before and then I was filming Carol—which come out in December this year—around the same time I was filming the pilot for Gotham. After I finished Olive Kitteridge, I came back to NYC for a little bit. It was winter and I was running out of money. So, I figured out a way to have someone live in my apartment here and pay all my bills. I was just gonna go and live for free in L.A. on people’s couches. I was fucking determined to not get another day job. Because the toughest part of getting started in this business, I think—unless you are independently wealthy—is to do a creative project and the second it ends, you don’t have income. Then you have to get another day job, and you have to go to that job without telling them that if something happens tomorrow, you’re going to leave in a second. So you start something and then in two months you have to quit. It just pisses people off.
That’s the problem for so many struggling actors. Were your parents in theater?
No, my mom is a nurse, my dad was a manual labor guy, and now he manages manual labor. [We are] very blue collar. It’s wonderful. But, I went to L.A. and I was like I have to get a job to pay my bills and then I booked Gotham six weeks later.
Jesus, that’s really lucky. You’re very fortunate.
Yeah, it’s very fortunate. But it’s been interesting. The first season for me was not so exciting character wise until the end. So for a while, the new challenge has been managing my creative life while having a job where I am essentially on call every day but I’m not actually needed every day. So my thing now is how to be a creative person in this new scenario—which is a lovely scenario.
So how do you do it?
I’m trying my hand a writing some stuff. It’s really hard. Most of what I write goes into the trash can.
In the second season, your character [Nygma] takes a massive turn. Did you know that was going to happen? Did the writers know?
The format of the show is always changing and continues to change. Season two feels quite different. We are starting to get this swell of major criminals and long dramatic scenes. It feels more like a drama than a serial.
So, your character is becoming more dimensional?
We finished the season where you witness this moment of psychosis with my character as he’s kind of losing his mind. He’s confronting two sides that are part of him where he wants to be a good guy, but it’s just not working for him on any level. He wants to be liked at work. He loves his work but he keeps getting into trouble. He’s obsessed with this girl, arguably in love, and she doesn’t get it. So, at a certain point you have to ask what is wrong with me? All these good intentions are not working. He has to start asking himself that. It manifests itself in sort of a schizophrenic dialogue.
Well, he has already killed someone and disposed of the body.
(laughs) Yes, he has killed someone. It was very Jinx. It was funny, the night before I’m supposed to film the finale [of Gotham], the finale of The Jinx airs, which is the moment where [Robert Durst] is in the bathroom talking to himself. And I’m to be alone in the records room talking to myself, I have killed someone, I have dismembered them, and I’ve gotten rid of their body. I have confessed to someone and now I’m confessing stuff and talking to myself alone in a room! This is fantastic. I am Robert Durst. I’m a geeky—geekier Robert Durst!
You’ve done a lot of theater. I know TV and theater are two completely different beasts.
Do you miss doing theater?
Absolutely, I miss doing theater. I had workshopped and helped develop this musical for a year and a half that’s playing right now, that I couldn’t do because of my film schedule.
What’s it called?
Prelude. It’s about Rachmaninoff in his twenties. The writer and director are brilliant. I was pretty crushed that I couldn’t follow through and do the production. But that is the reality. So, yeah I miss theater. Maybe it’s because I did it first, but the experience of performing live and having someone there: that exchange of energy is really invigorating. I think I prefer that experience of storytelling. As a consumer when you’re going to see a film, it’s the first time you’re seeing it and it’s exciting, electrifying. But for the people who made it, you don’t get this same experience. It’s this really weird vacuum. [you feel] disconnected from the consumer, the person for whom you’re making it.
Sure, you film it: then it’s gone, done and you move on.
Yeah. Especially after Olive Kitteridge, because it was such a painful role and difficult to do. When you do that in theater, you have an audience there kind of supporting you. You know why you’re doing it. The torture is purposeful. Sometimes you take on a role, you’re like “Oh, wow my job is being a masochist.” But you feel like you’re doing it for a reason. I don’t necessarily feel that on TV.
Are you having a bit more fun shooting season two, acting-wise?
Totally more fun! My role in the police department and in the show is completely different. In season one, I felt like I had a ten thousand piece puzzle and all I could do was fill in the border. It was tedious and kind of exhausting, but necessary. We laid the foundation for this genuine guy as he was silly and adolescent.
You’re doing your scales.
Yeah. I’ve learned that I’m impatient. It’s a gift to be able to tell this story on television. Accepting that it actually takes time, you just want to get to the exciting stuff.
Did you walk away from Olive Kitteridge feeling like you grew? Were you different after you finished?
Yes, when I finished that project, I felt like I had become a better actor. I was very proud of that work. It was just difficult. I filmed all of it in three weeks. Not being in New York, being in a weird hotel room in the north shore of Massachusetts and not knowing anyone else in the production, and playing someone who is suicidal.
Was it is intimidating working with Frances McDormand?
It was really exciting. I was nervous to work with this caliber of people. I knew that they were taking a chance in hiring me for this job and not someone that had more notoriety or stature. So, I felt pressured to deliver a kind of performance that was worthy to be alongside Frances, Richard Jenkins, and Bill Murray. It was terrifying in that way, but I loved this character so much. I felt like I had a very clear idea of who he was for me —the Kevin Coulson who I thought the story was about. I liked the character because he was incredibly tortured but he doesn’t lash out at anybody. It’s all self-inflicted. He’s [a] fragile person who is slowly being eaten away by his own demons. He refuses to ask for help and he refuses to lean on anybody. That to me is fascinating. Someone that won’t hurt anyone else, in fact, saves someone else’s life, as if that has massive value and his [life] doesn’t. It’s interesting and truly tragic. I felt like I knew him.
The [character] was in place before you started shooting?
Yeah. When we started shooting the car scene, which starts episode two with Frances and I. We spent two days sitting in a car together.
How was that?
Well, I was much better the second day working with her. I’ve gotten to work with some massive stars and it’s a little debilitating at first because you’re trying to get past the [thoughts of] “You’re my favorite actor! You’re an inspiration.” You almost want to just say that, so you can then say, “alright, now let’s work.” I didn’t do that and I’m sitting in this car with her and I just want to ask, “What are you doing?” So, I found myself staring at her for awhile. It took me a second to realize this is not appropriate.
(Laughs) Let’s talk about Carol. I read that you play a charming salesman. Anything else?
All I can say is that I’m a traveling salesman who’s a little odd...and charming. I meet up with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s characters while they are on a road trip and I keep running into them.
How’s Cate to work with?
She’s very intense—such a professional, so skilled and experienced. She sweeps into a rehearsal and she’s efficient and present and demanding—in a good way—of the director and the other actors.
She’s prepared and ready to work?
Yeah, she’s a workhorse. I certainly learned a lot from her demeanor on set. I don’t know how to explain it but she has this austere presence. She’s very open and kind but there’s a level of intensity that makes everyone watch and listen for her move.
She has that extra thing.
Yeah, she walks into a space and her energy is boom! Her vibration is the most intense in a room. Also, she’s tall and stunning. And Rooney is super quiet; she’s very independent and easy going. The two of them are both very intense in a complimentary way.
I watched you in Olive Kitteridge and then immediately watched you on Gotham. It was a nice contrast; Edward Nygma is such a different character from your character in Olive Kitteridge.
Definitely. I do, however, miss playing the tortured people. Is that horrible? It was so hard for me but I miss it.
Perhaps it’s cathartic? Maybe you get to exercise something.
Hm, Maybe? I had a professor say to me, “you’re only going to be as happy as you are willing to experience darker emotions.” I feel comfortable when I swing down. It just feels right to me. I feel like my joys are more real. In recent times, I laugh more when I’ve been pretty low.
I remember watching Jim Lipton interview Jessica Lang on Inside the Actors Studio; by the end, I got a sense that she’s ultimately a sad person. Can you relate to that?
Yes. I think the biggest marker is that I’m always aware of how carefree other people are. How much happier people are in an easy way. I’m aware of how other people laugh more easily. I have this chosen family in New York who I lived with for five months. There was this time when I was super quiet and disengaged. They sat me down and asked if I was ok and they told me that my mother had warned them that at times when I get disengaged, that those are times that my sadness might get overwhelming.
You mean overwhelming to others?
Yes. I was like, “My mother said that to you?”
You didn’t know that your mother knew that?
She never talked to me about it. It’s just these things that parents know. She just warned them that I get like that and that it’s not about them.
Acting makes actors open, sensitive, it forces them to explore things [for a role] that other people, because they are non-actors, don’t have to do, they don’t have to face themselves.
I guess that’s the addiction to humanities. We get the time to think and feel and that’s the job.