Michael Cerveris pauses mid-interview to appreciate the irony of talking about his new role as villain Professor Pyg on Gotham while walking on the streets of real-life Gotham, New York City – when a barbecue truck passes by with the picture of a pig's head on the side.
But this isn't the only coincidence the two-time Tony Award-winning actor – known from The Who's Tommy, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Assassins, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch – sees in his latest performance, which includes wearing a pig head and, soon, performing in the Nov. 16 musical number to the tune of Chicago's "Cell Block Tango."
Instead, Cerveris, who debuted Pyg in last week's episode and continues his arc tonight, says there are numerous parallels between his genre work in Fringe as the Observer September, The Tick as Ramses IV, and now the modern classic Bat-villain and the musical theatre roles that garnered him critical acclaim.
"I have done things where I have played normal human people who had lives, and families, and didn't wear pig masks and kill people, but lately it seems like I've been doing more of these genre things," Cerveris said in a recent phone interview. "And it dawned on me that, in a way, musical theater is to straight dramatic theater kind of the same way sci-fi and fantasy shows are to your procedural drama, and family drama shows; it is an aspect of that world that is more vivid, and on the surface, less naturalistic, less realistic."
In his opinion, genre allows audiences to connect to stories "in a visceral way through these fantastical worlds" that are as deep as, or deeper than, they may experience in smaller-scale family dramas.
"[Gotham] is a story of a young boy who loses his parents, and tries to figure out what his relationship to that horrible event is, and what he's going to make of the rest of his life, and, in Jim Gordon, it's the complicated, imperfect man trying to figure out how to do good in a decidedly imperfect world – and yet you have all these fantastic, extravagant characters."
"When I think about it, it's kind of a seamless transition between the theatrical world and this world of comics, and sci-fi," he added.
With regard to Pyg, that transition from theatrical to world of comics is no doubt assisted by the fact that the homicidal professor's Grand Guignol penchant for flair is not dissimilar to Sweeney Todd's.
"Pyg is quite a showman, and fancies himself a brilliant performer; he believes if something is worth doing, it is worth doing with some flair – simply killing somebody would be beneath his talents, and he wants to make an event out of it."
That flair, which Cerveris notes is as much to unnerve his victims as it is just to amuse himself, "and satisfy his desire to perform," manifests in the November 16 musical number on Gotham where the character performs "Cell Block Tango" as part of an elaborate scheme that involves numerous characters in the show – some of them willingly, some of them not.
Cerveris notes that it's all part of Pyg's quest to rid Gotham City of the corruption he believes it's his responsibility to root out, but that it's true to the character that he'd select a Broadway classic for the number and then rewrite it for the occasion.
"He is genuinely proud of what he pulls off – and I am proud that managed to work in some of the original Bob Fosse choreography into the number."
Regarding Pyg's quest, it appears slightly different than that of the character created by Grant Morrison in Batman #666 in 2007. In the comic, Pyg creates Dollotrons – genderless, mind-controlled individuals with masks fused to their faces – in an effort to craft an idealized version of human.
However, on Gotham, Pyg is introduced as a serial killer of dirty cops with an intent to convert the incorruptible Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) to his cause.
"His idealized version of Gordon, and Gotham, is as much his Dollotron as anything," said Cerveris. "Pyg's presence in Gotham pulls the rug out from underneath a lot of things Jim has been precariously trying to hold onto."
The actor likewise teased for future episodes that "there is something disturbing about this dark mirror Pyg is trying to hold up to Jim, and over time, bit by bit, it starts to unravel him and unnerve him more."
"There are things Pyg will say that he rejects at first, but they are landing on some deeper level, and making him question himself, and his actions – Pyg knows that – and he is going to have a big effect on Jim's relationship to Bullock.
Also teasing upcoming episodes, Cerveris said that his showdown with Robin Lord Taylor's Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin in the November 16 episode, "Let Them Eat Pie," is "about as over the top, and gross, and extravagant, and entertaining, and disturbing as you would hope their confrontation to be."
"It is clear that Penguin and Pyg are on a collision course," he said. "The things Pyg wants to eradicate from Gotham are the things Penguin is basing his empire on, and the confrontation comes in a roundabout way – meticulously planned by Professor Pyg, but a surprise to Mr. Cobblepot."
As for Cerveris' shared screen time with Taylor, the actor said it was a rewarding experience playing opposite an actor he views as the "engine and furnace of so much of the maniacal side of the series."
"I told them they didn't need to pay me when they told me I got to have scenes with Robin; it is so fun playing scenes with him because you are constantly thinking, 'Wow, I am going to have to be better than I have before just to keep up.'"
Cerveris additionally promises that Professor Pyg will interact with Crystal Reed's Sofia Falcone because "she is inextricably linked to Penguin."
But with a character arc that is only in the beginning stages, it would appear Cerveris has a lot of time ahead in a full-sized piggy mask – not that he is opposed to that.
"It is hot, it is heavy, gives me a neck-ache by the end of the day, and it makes it impossible for me to have lower peripheral vision, so I can't see the floor when I'm walking," he said before adding, "but the mask is a really freeing aspect, and I felt naked when I didn't have the mask on, and couldn't really be Professor Pyg – the mask helped a lot in creating that full demented aspect."
And so, whether he's walking the streets of the real Gotham or in Batman's future 'hood, it would appear that Michael Cerveris is currently content bringing home the bacon as the good, and villainous, professor.