November 21, 2018

‘Gotham’ star talks life on set as young Batman

When David (pronounced “Da-veed”) Mazouz announced, “I am Batman,” to his friends at Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, he wasn’t just joking around. David, 13, stars as the young Bruce Wayne (the future Batman) in Fox TV’s highly anticipated “Gotham,” which airs Mondays at 8 p.m.

David first appears onscreen several minutes into the pilot episode, when his character skips down an alley with his parents after a night out at the movies. A masked mugger is waiting in the shadows, and after demanding money and valuables, he unexpectedly opens fire on Bruce’s parents as the boy looks on in horror. As the armed robber flees, Bruce sinks to his knees, his hands covered with blood, and emits an unearthly scream.

The series goes on to depict how the young Bruce Wayne bonds with detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the show’s main character, who, Bruce learns, lost his own father as a boy. “Gotham” further spotlights Gordon’s morally challenged partner, detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), as well as budding villains such as the Penguin, the Riddler and a teenage Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman.

“Mazouz is great as the young Bruce, and manages to seem both haughtily precocious and deeply damaged,” The New York Times said of his performance.

“Bruce is in a very traumatized state,” the actor said by phone from New York, where he has been living for months at a time, accompanied by his mother or a guardian, to shoot the series. “In the first half of the season, he will be very depressed, having nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder and feeling [guilty] that he wasn’t able to do anything to help his parents, even though realistically he couldn’t have done anything. He goes so far as to burn himself because he is testing himself and trying to make himself stronger. He takes his parents’ murder as a kind of wakeup call to make Gotham a better place, which will eventually lead to him becoming Batman.”

In conversation, David seemed as upbeat and affable as his character is tormented, chatting about his Orthodox bar mitzvah this past February at Young Israel of Century City; about writing and performing his own improvisational comedy; and about how Kiefer Sutherland, his co-star on Fox’s now-cancelled drama “Touch,” gave him a guitar for his 11th birthday.  

The young actor is no stranger to portraying characters in trouble. On “Touch,” for example, he starred as a mute boy with mystical powers who is in constant peril and who turns out to be one of the lamed vavniks, the 36 hidden saints of the world, according to kabbalistic tradition. David also depicted a boy dying of leukemia on CBS’ “Criminal Minds” and will appear as a child who unwittingly invites evil spirits into his home in the upcoming film “6 Miranda Drive,” opposite Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell.

So how does the teenager tackle such dark roles?  “It’s the job of an actor to put himself in his characters’ shoes,” David said. And although he experienced the death of his grandmother last year, he added, he doesn’t use that personal loss to drive his characters’ pain. “I just pretend I’m Bruce Wayne and imagine how he would feel to lose his parents,” he said of his work on “Gotham.”

“David is a really happy, funny kid, but when he’s working he’s really good at moving in and out of things from moment to moment without carrying around the [angst] all the time,” David’s mother, Rachel Mazouz, a psychotherapist, said in a telephone interview from New York.  

Even so, she said, on the “Gotham” set it was tough to watch her son enacting the death of his fictional parents. “Honestly, every time I watched it, I cried, because he looked so sad,” she said.

David’s family is Sephardic (his father, a physician, hails from Tunisia, and his mother’s parents are from Greece), as well as kosher and Sabbath-observant; when he is at home in Los Angeles, he attends the teen minyan at Beth Jacob Congregation. 

He began taking acting classes when he was 6 and soon went on to appear in commercials, as well as his first film role, playing “a really annoying kid,” as he put it, in Edoardo Ponti’s 2011 film “Coming and Going.” 

At 10, he got his big break with “Touch,” followed three years later by the “Gotham” job, which he got after acing several grueling auditions and screen tests in one week.  

But, David admitted, it was initially stressful to take on such an iconic character. To prepare, he read every Batman comic he could get his hands on, watched the campy 1960s “Batman” TV show as well as “Caped Crusader” movies starring actors such as Michael Keaton, George Clooney and Christian Bale.

But perhaps the biggest challenge in taking on “Gotham” was the fact that he had to be in New York to shoot the series. “It was really daunting to think of David doing something indefinitely in another state,” Rachel Mazouz said. “I asked him many times, ‘Are you sure you’re going to be OK with this?’… But he really loves acting, and he really wanted to do the show; it wasn’t an opportunity that we could pass up.”

While her husband and 16-year-old daughter remain in Los Angeles, Rachel Mazouz often flies to New York to live with David in an apartment in Brooklyn that she selected not only for its proximity to the set, but also because it’s walking distance from a small Orthodox shul.

And even though David reports that he is now recognized on the street, he said his family and his Judaism keep him grounded. He keeps up with his Hillel studies with an on-set tutor and by Skyping weekly with one of his rabbis, learning mishnah, Gemara, halachah and Torah, among other subjects.  Because his mother was not going to be in New York for Yom Kippur, arrangements were made for David to stay at the home of the rabbi of Chabad of SoHo in Manhattan.

“I’m starting to get really homesick,” David said. “But I’m still really excited to be here.  I have a great life and feel really blessed. And acting gives me an opportunity to feel things that [I] wouldn’t [ordinarily] feel.”

“Gotham” airs on the Fox channel Mondays at 8 p.m.