JOHN NOBLE “FRINGE” INTERVIEW
John Noble’s natural Australian lilt is softer and smoother than the sonorous tones he employs as Dr. Walter Bishop, let alone the stern, cool voice he uses as “Walternate,” the head of state in the alternate universe the characters have discovered in FRINGE, now in its third season on Fox.
Prior to FRINGE, Noble has probably been best known to worldwide audiences as Denethor, the bitter and increasingly doom-laden steward of Gondor in the LORD OF THE RINGS films; he also has an extensive stage career. However, Noble seems to have a special fondness for FRINGE’s Walter, as evidenced in what he says at a party thrown by Fox Television for the Television Critics Association at the Santa Monica Pier.
Raising his voice a bit to be heard over music and an especially clattery nearby roller-coaster, Noble says that playing Walter has done something for him. “Apart from the fact that it’s a joy to be able to do it, to go in every week and find him, I suppose it’s made me maybe a bit more comfortable with my own eccentricity.” However, Walter’s darker aspects don’t go home with him. “Not at all. I know some actors do it. I don’t hang about in character. I don’t have that problem.”
Instead, Noble says that he brings something of himself to Walter. “A lot of my observations of life are in there, about people, and some things are a bit close to home at times,” he laughs. “But I kind of understand Walter. We’re all a bit like that, except we don’t do it. We have these thoughts go all over the place, but we just don’t verbalize them.”
The FRINGE creative team allows the actors a lot of freedom in interpreting their characters, Noble reports. “I do invent a lot, absolutely, in terms of the storytelling, of course. But that’s the joy of the business, isn’t it? We’re given the basic format, and then we make it work. The blocking decisions are made really quickly, and we’re inventing and finding and thinking of things to do. It’s like,” he begins to speak very rapidly, to indicate the speed of decision-making, “‘Oh, let’s do that!’ ‘That’d be good there.’” He returns his speech to normal tempo. “I love it.”
Who are the current show runners on FRINGE? “Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman are our show runners,” Noble relates. “Jeff came from the background of LOST and ALIAS. Joel came in later as co-show runner, a very fine director. He used to be an actor, too. As a combination, they work very well.”
There is even some freedom to invent Walter-isms, Noble adds. “I put in little ones of my own, just little ones, but not to interfere with the plotline. A lot of them are written in, but there will be certain looks that aren’t written in. They’re just in and out.”
When Walter goes in and out of what most of us would consider a normal manner is usually left up to the performer, rather than indicated in the script, Noble says. “I guess they do [write specific performance instructions] sometimes, but it’s mainly evident by the reaction of the other characters, who are listening to him talking about something, and then he goes off on ‘something, something, something,’” he laughs. “That’s what makes Walter amusing is the way that other people look at him and say, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’”
Sometimes Walter is talking about some fairly gruesome stuff. The character is generally either excited or unruffled in the face of gore, slime and the like, but does Noble ever get at all squeamish about any FRINGE sequences? Not much, he says. “One of the things we don’t have to deal with, for example, is the smell. Now, if I always had to deal with the smell of the work that I was doing, I think it would be [harder], although I think about it as an actor and I think that it would smell, but I don’t have to live with it. So some of those rotting corpses and people with worms crawling out of them – I know that affected a lot of people. There was one [episode] where we had a person burst open with worms and I think we had to get two buckets, because someone was going to be sick. That was pretty gruesome. But no, that’s what I do in the lab.” So nothing has gotten to him so far, gross-out-wise? “No, nothing in particular.”
Walter has evolved into not only a complex character in this world, but literally into a dual role, with Noble playing the sane but utterly ruthless “Walternate” of the alternate universe. “We finished off season two – we decided to rush things through, basically from about the ‘Peter’ episode, where we flashed back and I played the twenty-five-years younger [version of Walter]. Then we went fast, fast, fast and we answered a lot of the questions in the finale. Now what that’s done is enabled us to quickly play two universes. And we’re treating them equally. So from our point of view, there is not one good, one bad, although obviously the audience will think that. There are two, and we live in both.”
What sort of discussions did Noble have with the FRINGE show runners about what Walternate would be like in terms of his personality and how Noble would play him? “The way it was written and the way it needed to be portrayed early was self-evident, I thought. My conversation with them was, ‘Okay. Now we need to humanize him, because he’s a very arch character.’ And so the objective now is to keep that strength, but to humanize him, to show his soft inner side somewhere.”
Does Noble feel that Walter is changing this season? “It’s almost like there’s another layer off the onion,” Noble replies. “As he becomes clearer on certain things, he’s also exposed to certain other things which are his memories and his guilts and then, as he remembers something positive, it’ll bring the negative with it. So it’s really quite a spiritual thing to watch, Walter’s revealing. Because he can’t reveal all that he is without having to pay, I don’t think.”
Despite Walter’s sometimes distracted behavior, Noble feels that the character is consistent unto himself. “He’s a cohesive character – he’s one character, with many aspects, which we all have, but his are [more overt]. We all have voices in our heads, we all talk to ourselves.”
The Nobles as a family are big FRINGE fans, Noble reports. “They love it. Because I love doing the role, I’m enthusiastic about it. And my wife and my children, they love it. They love the fact that it’s such a successful show and it’s such a fun character. They’ve always known me doing things in acting, but this time, it’s so much more. It’s the perfect thing. It’s what you want to do as an actor. You want to keep revealing depths and adding depths to reveal. And there’s still many to go, because it’s a well-rounded character. We’re not a procedural per se, so we don’t get stuck in one place, and all of these characters have room to grow and move. And I think it’s what separates FRINGE from a lot of shows, to be honest with you. Whether we were science-fiction or anything else, the character drama in itself is sustaining.”
Fans love FRINGE, too. Comic-Con has been a revelation for Noble. “We went into a room, I kid you not, and it was crammed to the ceiling with seven thousand people. It was just a love fest, amazing.”
People also recognize Noble on the street occasionally, he adds. “People will call out, ‘Walter! Walter!’ to me. I don’t get, ‘John, John!’ I don’t think they know my name, to be honest with you,” he laughs. He says the recognition is customarily a good expreience. “In my case, because I’m not a young actor that everyone goes silly over, the people I get are really kind and respectful, so the respect that I get from people is very genuine, and it’s not half-baked, it’s people saying, ‘I love the show, I love Walter Bishop.’ It’s really strong reactions.”
At this point in the conversation, Joshua Jackson, FRINGE’s Peter Bishop, walks up to ask how Noble is doing and what his plans are for the rest of his stay in Los Angeles before everyone returns to Canada to resume filming there. The two men tease each other with clear affection. “Look at this handsome man, This is my son!” Noble proclaims with a laugh.
Both men have been on vacation during the series’ hiatus. Noble talks briefly about what he did during the break. “I had a little bit of work to finish off in Britain and then we went to Italy and did an Italian course again, my wife and I, and I did a painting course with a painter in Tuscany and generally just had a wonderful time.”
Returning to the subject of FRINGE after Jackson takes his leave, Noble says that there was definitely a turning point for the cast and creative team. “Halfway through Season One, we realized we were wobbling – I did, everyone did – so we started to change things about Episode Ten, got it back into a form to get a second season, really, and then I think it was about a third of the way through Season Two, we realized that we were constantly producing quality. We’ve not had one wobble last year, and a wobble that anyone’s entitled to, but then we kept getting consistently stronger and the writing kept getting more consistent. And so there was a certain confidence in the company, right across the company, that this was quality.”
A huge plot point in Seasons Two and Three is that the Peter Bishop Walter and the audience know is not literally Walter’s biological son, who died in childhood, but is rather the alternate-universe Peter, stolen by Walter as a boy in order to save his life. As Walter does view Peter as his son, will he ever grieve the death of the “other” Peter? “Grieving is a funny thing,” Noble answers. “I don’t think he’s in denial of the true events. I think something has come in which has replaced it. I think he well and truly did his grieving. I’m sure that his mental illness was greatly as a result of what happened there and now he’s found this other boy who he adores. So the touching and the challenging thing now is to find out how do they build a relationship that is not a genuine relationship, but it feels like it. And Josh Jackson and I work on that all the time, talk about it every day.”
Is it difficult to play someone who is in as much emotional pain as Walter Bishop is so much of the time? “No, it’s not,” Noble replies. “It’s actually a bit of a privilege to be able to play that, to be honest with you. Without getting soppy about it, most of the world does live in that state a lot of the time. I don’t take it home with me.”
On the flip side, what’s it like doing some of the surreal scenes that crop up, including the episode “Brown Betty,” with a drug-influenced Walter telling Olivia’s niece a metaphorical film noir story in which everyone sings? Noble laughs.
“Well, Walter’s stoned. It was a delirious, outrageous thing to do and the only way you could do it is out of the mind of Walter Bishop. I mean, seriously, you just have a great big bong and that’s what he thought. It’s a bizarre episode. I’ve acted in and directed [stage] musicals, a long time ago. ['Brown Betty'] wasn’t a musical – it was a show with bits of music in it. We didn’t rehearse the music or anything, we just did it.”
What are some of Noble’s favorite FRINGE episodes so far? “‘Peter,’” he replies without hesitation. “The one with the flashback was the most satisfying, the most difficult for me personally – I mean, I had to get in really excellent condition, I had to lose weight and get very fit.
It was a great challenge and a wonderful script. I mentally and physically backed [Walter] up [to what he had been like two decades earlier], absolutely had to do that, because at the beginning of ‘Peter,’ you see a very confident man, at the beginning of ‘Peter.’ He’s talking to people, he’s got a strong voice, he’s in charge of things, he’s physically able to run and jump and move easily. Those were the details that I had to work on a lot to make it work, but it’s also what made it so satisfying. That has to remain my favorite.
“There were some other great episodes,” Noble continues. “And moments in a lot of it. There’s one ['White Tulip'] where the scientist [played by Peter Weller] went back in time. There are some very powerful scenes in that, very telling and very mature. Peter Weller and I had a couple of scenes – well, there’s actually one eight-minute scene, which is unusual, but it was terrific. We were like these two really smart people just confessing to each other. And it was great working with Peter, too.”
Speaking of guest stars, what was it like working with Leonard Nimoy, who played Walter’s legendary early partner William Bell? “It’s almost hard to describe,” Noble replies. “It’s one of those things – you’ve known this man, this icon, all your life. I don’t know what you’d compare it to – it’s sort of like somebody who’s there, that you know about, like the Queen of England. You’re never going to meet her. [The meeting] happened and we finished up doing some terrific work. He and I got on really well and we were keen to do some strong work together and they gave it to us to do. And I was very proud to be there for his final scene, seriously very proud.”
Is there anything else Noble would like us to know about his work on FRINGE? “What I think it does to me is, it makes me feel grateful,” the actor says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t actually realize how lucky I am. It’s not something that some people get as a God-ordained gift. It’s really lucky, really lucky to be on a successful show. So for me, this is really lucky, not only to be working in a successful show, which is a character to die for. You guys [in the press and in the audience] hear a lot of hype from us. But the truth is, the level of excitement we [on FRINGE] have about the work at present is really high, right across the board. And there’s a sense that we’re on to something special and that’s genuine.”
By Abbie Bernstein
Entertainment Reporter – Buzzy Multimedia