A chat with John Noble, John Noble interview, Fringe, Walter Bishop
John Noble

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Last year, I selected “Fringe” as the new series of Fall 2008 that I was most interested in, and as the show evolved over the course of its first year on the air, I felt in no way let down by my decision to follow it through to the season finale. Fox is clearly behind the show, giving both the Season 1 DVD release and the upcoming Season 2 premiere as much publicity as they possibly can, including providing the series with its very own panel during the summer TCA tour. The various cast members were wandering around the network party that evening, but the one actor that I was most interested in chatting with was John Noble, who plays Walter Bishop, the show’s resident…well, let’s call a spade a spade: he’s a mad scientist. When I found Noble at the party, he was at the tail end of a chat with another critic, but since I had my recorder running from the get-go, I decided I’d transcribe the whole thing for your reading enjoyment. As such, we come into the conversation just after the critic made a comment about how, with any luck, Noble would receive an Emmy nomination next year…with the obvious subtext being that, frankly, he really should’ve gotten one this year.

John Noble: (Grinning) It’s a tough business, isn’t it? You know, it’s actually quite disturbing when you…because I was so heavily pumped to get one this year, you try not to think about it, but it starts to permeate into your thinking. It was actually quite a relief when it didn’t happen, because I’ve been in the business for so long that you kind of grow aware what goes on, so I went, “Oh, no? Okay, back to work.” (Laughs) “Well, now I don’t have to worry about September!”

Critic: Well, there’s just so much extraordinary drama on TV right now.

JN: Oh, yes. Well, in this second season, we’ll see a great maturation from the other two leads. I think you’ll see more from them where you’re going to go, “Wow.” Both of them are quite gifted actors, believe me, and so we’ll see that develop now.

Critic: Will Blair Brown be back?

"People talk to me, and the character that I play (on 'Fringe') appeals to all age groups, which is fascinating to me. Part of Walter appeals to the older people, you know, that emotional impact you get from some characters, where you feel like you understand them. And, of course, the kids just like him like a granddad."

JN: Oh, yeah. How could we lose Blair? I still haven’t done a scene with her! I’m so disappointed. Every time we see each other, we give each other a hug and say, “Soon!” (Laughs) Blair used to say to me…in fact, right during the first table read, she said, “We’ll have an affair.” And I said, “Done! That’ll be great!” (Laughs) But we never have. But Blair Brown, what an actress. She’s also from a stage background, you know. She’s a legend. She’s fantastic.

Bullz-Eye: It’s a really good mix of actors.

JN: It is. It’s a very strong cast, and as we become more confident with the material, I think it’ll only get stronger. No one is indifferent about the show. Everyone’s still got a lot of to prove about the show and their work…and we’ve got to keep the interest of your readers!

BE: Well, the show seems to draw a really interesting demographic, one that’s more all-over-the-place than your average sci-fi show.

 JN: What an amazing demographic. It really is. But do you know what I’ve found? Just because, as I move around, people talk to me, and the character that I play appeals to all age groups, which is fascinating to me. Part of Walter appeals to the older people, you know, that emotional impact you get from some characters, where you feel like you understand them. And, of course, the kids just like him like a granddad. (Laughs)

Critic: It’s a myth that kids only want to watch kids. Think about when you were a kid: you loved watching grown-ups in various roles.

JN: When I was a kid, we didn’t watch kids! You might’ve heard about Shirley Temple, but she was really the generation before mine.

BE: Well, look at “Up,” the Pixar movie that came out this summer. That’s proof right there that kids will watch old people. (Laughs)

JN: They love it!

Critic: Well, I think we’ll see you back here next year, and people will be continuing to rave about the show and your work.

John NobleJN: Well, look, if we do what we want to do, and if we retain the level of integrity that we actually do have in terms of what we do, then I think you’re right. But we’re going to keep working, because what we try to so hard to do is to, really, produce a mini-film each week. We push to high production standards, and these complicated special effects, but we’ve got some of the top writers in Hollywood, so things are strong. But if we start to get boring, you’ll let us know, won’t you?

Critic: Absolutely! (Laughs)

(At this point, the other critic bid Noble adieu, leaving me make my formal introduction and kick off our one-on-one conversation.)

BE: You know, I feel like I should call you Walter rather than John. That’s how much you inhabit the character you play.

JN: Thank you.

BE: How quickly did you find your groove when playing Walter Bishop?

JN: Oh, I knew him immediately. When I saw the script, I actually knew him. It’s probably a combination of things over many years, observations of life, but it didn’t take long at all.

BE: He’s such a remarkable character. He’s funny, he’s dramatic, he’s scary…

JN: …he’s pathetic. (Laughs) He’s all sorts of things. Just like a real person.

BE: You see so few of those on TV, though.

JN: The character is a gift. What I’m very lucky about is that the writers gave me that to start with, saw what I did with it, and they’ve allowed me to go those ways, to show the layers. And that’s really a gift to me.

BE: How did you feel the first season of “Fringe” progressed? Because some would argue that it took several episodes to really find its footing, as far as what it wanted to be and how much mythology it wanted to offer.

JN: That’s the question, isn’t it? I though the pilot was huge and introduced everything, but we struggled for, I thought, about 7 or 8 episodes. There were some good episodes, but we were in and out. Then the decision was made that we needed to redefine the characters. Sorry, to define the characters! The only character who was defined from the beginning was Walter, so we made the decision…well, not me, but, still, the show needed to find a role for Olivia. We needed that. So what we did was push her through that crisis, and she turned out this tortured wonder woman, really, this very dense character. And that validated a lot of what Anna had been trying to do. She was getting criticized at first, but she’s a terrific actress, and we found what worked for her. And once we found that, I thought we came home with a full head of steam. I thought the last four episodes were just dynamite, and what we earned from that was, in addition to Walter, Olivia has now also become most interesting, and with this season, it’s Peter’s turn for the focus. This season, we’re letting Josh run, and he’s just fantastic. You’ll see a lot more of Peter. Finally, he is, as Josh has put it, “committing to the cause.” He’s saying, “All right, now I’m here not because I have to be but because I want to be,” and he’s already had some fantastic material. And once you’ve done that, then you’ve still got people like Lance Reddick and Blair Brown sitting in the wings, just waiting for their character thrust.

On Leonard Nimoy's "Fringe" appearance: "When they mentioned him to me, I thought it was inspired. In some ways, they had to make some leaps, because Len is actually much older than me, and we originally thought Bell Walter were contemporaries, but, hell, we can live with that! Just his very presence in the show is almost like a validation, and the fact that he wants to do it with us, that he likes what we do and wants to do it with us, is huge."

BE: It’s a testament to a show’s ensemble when there’s so much good material that actors like Lance Reddick and Blair Brown are underused.

JN: It’s amazing, really. Amazing. They’re such brilliant actors, too, so…when you walk on stage and you’re coming in to do a scene with actors of that caliber, you’re forced to start at that level. I guess some might take it for granted, but….I think it’s pretty cool. (Laughs)

BE: I’m very curious to see how the alternate-universe Peter storyline plays out. As a sci-fi geek, I watched it unfold during the finale, and I just went, “Oh, my God, I totally should’ve seen that coming…”

JN: I did find that out quite early. I had a couple of things that I was working out, though, so I didn’t tell anyone. But the tantalizing thing about it is that, if Peter was stolen from another reality, then there’s a very bereaved father somewhere. My son actually pointed that out to me! He and I were first talking about this, and he said, “You’re kidding.” I said, “What?” He said, “There’s gonna be one pissed-off somewhere. I mean, come on, Dad, think!” And I thought about it, and I said, “Oh, shit, you’re right!” (Laughs) He said, “Imagine if someone took me!” And he was right. So that’s something we’ll have to explore, absolutely. But these are also layers in our minds. Our minds work at levels this complex, in a Freudian sense, so I can relate to a lot of it without actually having to decide to. But, anyway, it’s going to be very exciting, just as long as we keep pushing and pushing for excellence. That’s what I want, and that’s what everyone wants. We’ll be doing that.

John Noble

BE: You’ve just namedropped Freud. Is this the heaviest show on network television?

JN: It’s probably the most…well, it’s funny that you say that, but it is probably the most intelligent. It takes intellectual risks. I suppose so. You’d probably see the intelligence more than I would, being on the outside.

BE: Well, like I said, I’m a sci-fi geek, but as a result of that, a lot of times I’ve been watching and have found myself wondering, “Can the average viewer find a foothold on this show?”

JN: Oh, you know, what we’re trying to do…you’ve heard us say this before, but we’re trying to make it so that someone like you, who likes that level, can find it interesting, but then it’s also got a story that others can relate to. And it doesn’t always, but it nearly always does have the Monster of the Week, as we call it, so that’s sort of satisfying the masses. But I also think we underestimate people. You don’t need a college degree to think, you know? The stuff we deal with, the other realities and whatnot, particularly if life ain’t so good…which it isn’t…you start to think, “There’s got to be another way.” Literally, in this case! So I think people are tantalized by this, whether it’s a couple of kids sitting on a stoop in New York or two intellectuals up at Harvard. We all think the same things. And just judging from the fans, they’re into it. They like it. Apparently there’s a huge network online for the show.

BE: I believe it.

JN: And they talk about these things.

BE: Well, it’s certainly the kind of show that inspires discussion.

JN: Well, doesn’t that mean we’re popular, then? That’s truly what we mean by popular culture, in a sense: that we do something that’s popular enough that it enriches…or otherwise…our culture. We hope it enriches our culture! (Laughs) God willing we’re in that place. I certainly hope so. But it’s very exciting!

BE: I know you didn’t actually have any scenes with him, but when the word got out that Leonard Nimoy was going to be on the show, was there a palpable sense of excitement on the set?

John NobleJN: It’s… (Hesitates) How do I explain it? As Spock, Nimoy was the ultimate science fiction character. Even if you weren’t a fan of “Star Trek,” everybody knew him. And his presence…it’s amazing, really. When they mentioned him to me, I thought it was inspired. In some ways, they had to make some leaps, because Len is actually much older than me, and we originally thought Bell and Walter were contemporaries, but, hell, we can live with that! (Laughs) Just his very presence in the show is almost like a validation, and the fact that he wants to do it with us, that he likes what we do and wants to do it with us, is huge. So it’s pretty exciting. And I’ve not worked with him, but I’ve heard on the set that it’s wonderful watching him. Like a master, he just plays it beautifully, with his focus and that voice. It’s pretty exciting.

BE: And I hear that he’s back for at least one more episode.

JN: Oh, it’ll be more than that. I think it’ll be more than that, anyway. If we keep interesting him and if he finds that what we do is stimulating. He doesn’t need to do the work, I wouldn’t imagine. I don’t know for sure.

BE: I’d heard that he was all but retired before he agreed to do the new “Star Trek” movie.

JN: Well, he’s 78 years old. But he’s found his second wind, as it were. He had a massive day last week, all day doing dialogue, and the guys were telling me that he was amazing, so that in itself is like a youth drug, isn’t it? I mean, he was just nailing this dialogue, boom boom boom. He probably just went, “YES!” (Laughs)

BE: So where do you see Walter going this season? Have you been given any clue yet?

JN: Well, there are two or three memorable things that will happen. One is that he’s got to face this issue with Peter. That’s going to be massive. He’s also got to face the issue with Olivia, about the tramitsophan, and ultimately that’s going to be messy. And we’ve still got to deal with the issue of Walter’s life, and his mother. We’re very aware that that’s something that’s got to be dealt with. So between those things, that’ll be plenty to deal with, not to mention the repair work afterwards. But in the meantime, there’s always the Monster of the Week! (Laughs)

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