character actors

All the Character Actors Who Could Have Played the Penguin in The Batman

Colin Farrell (under heavy makeup) in The Batman. Photo: Warner Bros.

Pity the regular-guy character actor, who in recent years has thrice lost out on plum gigs to pretty-boy stars making dramatic transformations. First, Viggo Mortensen gained the weight of a typical 5-year-old to play future Sopranos guest star Tony Lip in Green Book. Then, Jared Leto went full mamma mia! for House of Gucci. Now, Colin Farrell piles on the prosthetics to play the Penguin in The Batman, a performance that is such a match for Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated turn that I almost expected him to fold an entire pizza in half and eat it.

As thrilling as it may be to see Hollywood’s makeup artists transcend the limits of the human face, I can’t help but worry that something’s getting lost. Or make that someone — the guys who already look like what these A-listers are trying to turn into. (Question for the class: How many of those castings would have happened if James Gandolfini were still alive?) Take Farrell in The Batman. In decades past, the part of the Penguin would have been a prime opportunity for one of our finest character actors to go Full Ham. In today’s industry, filmmakers would rather cast someone who looks like Jon Hamm and make him unrecognizable, as if he’s the one who’s hiding a secret identity. It’s enough to make me feel like Emma Stone in “Wells for Boys” — everything is for hunks, this one thing is for character actors!

Who could The Batman have cast instead? I’m glad you asked.

Richard Kind

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Getty Images and Warner Bros.

We’ll start with the man who seems to have been the primary visual inspiration for the Penguin’s look in The Batman: beloved character actor Richard Kind. (Did Farrell tell them, “Make me Richard Unkind”?) Now, Kind is best known for playing nebbishes in projects like A Serious Man and The Other Two, so would he really be able to pull off a mobbed-up Gotham City nightclub owner? I don’t know, but wouldn’t you want to see him try? Besides, Kind played the mayor on Fox’s Gotham, so this is not wholly unfamiliar territory for him.

Alfred Molina

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Getty Images and Warner Bros.

“Wait a second,” you might say, “there’s no way Molina can play a DC Comics villain, he was already claimed by Marvel.” But recall that Colin Farrell also played a Marvel baddie in the early 2000s: He was Bullseye in the Daredevil movie, during a period now chiefly remembered for, um, something else Farrell filmed at the time. All I’m saying is, the precedent is there. Anyway, I suspect that Molina’s hatchet-faced mien also had its own page in the Batman makeup artists’ look book, so why not use the real thing? The explosive energy the British thespian brought to his small turn in Boogie Nights would serve him well as the Penguin, who spends much of his screen time arguing with people in rubber suits. It seems likely the character will have more to do in the inevitable sequel, and when it comes to superhero sequels, Molina is a notable good-luck charm.

John Carroll Lynch

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Getty Images and Warner Bros.

The Batman’s version of the Riddler is heavily inspired by the Zodiac Killer, right down to the cryptic ciphers he sends the Caped Crusader. It would be a fun little in-joke to cast John Carroll Lynch, who was so chilling as suspect Arthur Leigh Allen in David Fincher’s Zodiac. That film proved the actor could do scary, but Lynch can also pull off the pathos that’s a key quality of this incarnation of the Penguin — considering all the weirdos he’s got to deal with, you almost feel bad for him.

Glenn Fleshler

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Getty Images and Warner Bros.

Or you could lean into the scumbag factor and go with Fleshler, who since True Detective has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for creeps, perverts, and ne’er-do-wells. Because Fleshler also popped up in Joker, it might have been a little awkward to bring him back to the DC Universe so soon, but since his character there got murdered, the repeat appearance would helpfully underline the fact that all these movies exist in separate continuities.

Paul Giamatti

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Getty Images and Warner Bros.

The Penguin is a major role, and what if you want someone with a little more star power? Then go with Giamatti, who hasn’t dipped his toe into superhero cinema since his cameo as Rhino in the Amazing Spider-Man 2 epilogue. An actor of Giamatti’s caliber deserves a meatier villain role than that, and the world of The Batman, which exists at the intersection of the grounded Gotham of the Nolan movies and the hyperstylized Schumacher version, would provide the perfect palette for him to unleash his wildest instincts. (Also, I told myself that I wouldn’t just choose people from The Sopranos for this exercise, only to accidentally wind up with three people from Billions. Oh well.)

Honorable Mentions

Of course, we couldn’t leave it at just five. Here are some more names to inspire your mental casting director.

Sopranos/Scorsese–Cast-Member Branch
Michael Imperioli, Kevin Corrigan, Matt Servitto, Domenick Lombarazzi, Michael Badalucco, Vincent Curatola.

Vulture-Favorites Branch
Bill Camp, Jason Clarke, Michael Rapaport.

Brits-Who-Can-Play-American Branch
Ray Winstone, Ritchie Coster, Stephen Graham, Mark Addy.

‘Should Have Just Cast Him When They Had the Chance’ Branch
Jonah Hill.

Which of them would you choose?

5 Character Actors Who Could Have Played the Penguin Instead