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HitFix Interview: John Noble talks 'Fringe'
FOX star talks Walternate, insanity and drug addiction
When I caught up with Noble on the "Fringe" set in Vancouver in August, we'd just spent a couple hours filming together, or rather he'd spent a couple hours delivering and redelivering a lengthy speech and I'd spent a couple hours trying to avoid being a distraction in the background of the same scene.
That episode will air on Thursday (Oct. 14) night and I'm relatively confident that Noble achieved his scene goals. The jury is still out on me.
In any case, this interview elides the part where the Emmy-worthy actor reassures me that he'd had worse acting partners and picks up with our discussion of the third season of "Fringe."
Click through for the full interview...
HitFix: We just watched you do the same lengthy speech well over a dozen times, all in a very short window of time. Does doing that sort of thing on a TV pace get easier after you've been doing it for a while?
John Noble: I'm not intimidated by it. I have a good memory and the way that I memorize, you might have noticed that the first thing I did was block out where I'm going and then stay within that blocking, because that becomes part of the motion memory of the whole thing. Once I lost my memory because I was in the wrong place, so I had to stop. That becomes part of the process for me. But I like it. It's quite exciting. I don't get stressed by it.
HitFix: How about maintaining the energy, because that's a high-effort speech and you have to circle back over and over again.
JN: I also switch off in-between. Completely. I don't walk around in it like that. That would be very difficult. Some people seem to, but I couldn't stand it. I go and have a cup and a smoke.
HitFix: Was there a period in your career where maybe that was harder for you, to tune into the character and then to let go?
JN: No, that was one of the things I got quite early in my career. I understood and, no, better, I *adored* the absorption. Roughly when I first started, I thought, "This is a wonderful place to go" and just completely absorbed. Where it's frightening is if you *don't* absorb yourself in it, because then you become terrified about everything that can go wrong, of all the other elements around you, of the script itself. I don't even think of the script, but it's there. I was very fortunate that that wasn't part of what drew me to craft.
HitFix: Is Walter an easier or a harder character to get absorbed into than others you've played?
JN: Walter's one of the most complex characters around, actually. I like complex characters. The interesting thing about Walter is that you've got not say the two hour of a stage play to work with or the two-and-a-half hours of a film, you've got an endless week-after-week of trying to hold the line and find the growth. It's almost like real-time. It's almost like like real-time growth. That's huge. I know I've never done anything like that, just having the time to... Very often, actors get to the final night of a play and get a realization like, "Oh my God, if only I'd done that." But with this, you say, "It's alright. I'll do it next episode."
HitFix: Though I assume you can still second guess decisions when you watch episodes. Or do you not watch?
JN: Well, I quite like watching "Fringe," I have to say. I actually forget that I'm in it until I come up, which sounds like bulls***, but it's not. It sounds like rubbish, but in fact, I can be going, "Oh my God. That's interesting." And I'll say to my wife, "What did he say? What are they doing?" It's great fun.
HitFix: The way this season is starting, with Walter and Walternate, that has to be like an actor's dream, getting to do those two characters at once...
JN: The Walter character himself is an actor's dream, because of the things that I've described. Walternate is the sort of character I've often played, the big, tall, strong fellow, so it's not the same reward of "Oh my God, I can play that character." I have yet to grasp, in my own mind, the fact that a viewer is seeing the same man and going, "But they're the same... but they're not." I try to put in tiny little mannerisms into Walternate and that Walter does, just the tiniest thing. I imagine when I first start watching the episodes, I'll find it more interesting.
HitFix: So there's a familiarity for you when you play Walternate?
JN: Walternate is the classic one that you get to play, the minister of defense or the titan of industry or the president or something like that and they're inscrutable in the sense that you don't get to see their softer side, although we could. I think it would be fabulous to get to know Walternate better, but when do we have time within our storytelling arcs? These guys, these writers, have got so many options available. Which way do they go? Do you follow Peter to the nth degree? There's a whole series in just following Peter. Or Olivia. Or Walter. They've got these things to juggle and hold together. I don't know which way they'll go. [He cracks a devilish smile.] But I put my two bobs worth in all the time. I have a little e-mail in every now and again.
HitFix: So when you saw Walternate on the page, you instantly knew how he should be played?
JN: Here's the point: I knew Walter. I knew Walter very well. I knew where Walter was 17 years ago because I did the "Peter" episode. So I'd already found him and that took some research and I went back to that. So I knew where Walter came from. So it was just plotting a different set of choices. It wasn't so hard. All of the hard work had been done to come up with Walter.
HitFix: Backtracking, set the foundation for where we find Walter at the beginning of this season....
JN: Poor old Walter is in a quandary, I think. He's been to the other side and he's seen the devastation there. He's seen the towns in amber, he's seen the devastated planes near Boston. He's seen a city living in terror, almost like a police state. So he has that thought. And his son knows that he lied. But his son comes back. So he's caught in an awful position, really, where he tries to take life as normal, but he doesn't have the same rapport with Peter anymore and he starts smoking more dope and using stuff. So it'll be interesting to see how far we go with that and whether he, in fact, has a relapse, because he came out of a mental institution, of course. So we'll see...
HitFix: From the research you've done, how much do you feel like you understand what Walter's state of mind was during that institutionalization? Would you be able to draw on that?
JN: Oh God yes. I did it for the pilot. Absolutely. I researched that completely. I just had to research what drugs he would have been on and what effect they would have had on him. Oh yeah, I did all of that two-and-a-half years ago before we did the pilot. That's not so bad. That's all locked away in the memory cells.
HitFix: So how bad do you reckon he got during that time?
JN: Well, if you take the combination of his own unstable mental state, if you take the fact that he was isolated a lot of that time, that he was given electro-shock therapy, that he was basically unable to see his wife and his son... He had no visitors. He was isolated from the world. All of those things, any single one of them would cause madness and he had them all. It's a miracle that he came back out of it. And he'd become an addict. He'd always used drugs and coming off that stuff ain't easy. I hope we got a progression during the first season where you saw him slowly becoming more cogent as he disciplined himself, but he could go back like a shot, like any addict.
HitFix: Is that an arc that you'd enjoy the opportunity to play?
JN: It would be an interesting arc, but it can't be an end arc. It could be an arc that prompts reconciliation, for example. It could be an arc that prompts other people around him to say, "Oh my God, we value this man" and maybe leads to an intervention? I don't know. That's not my call. Thats the writers' call. But in life, this is what happens. People fall to pieces. And Walter may well fall to pieces unless we can get some reconciliations.
HitFix: Sometimes there's a predictable shorthand that actors go into when they get to play a drug experience, but you've kept different nuances each time. How do you sort of plan out Walter's different trips?
JN: Well, to some extent it depends on what state of desperation he's in. There's a difference between being a totally and utterly depressed person who's just hanging out for a fix to escape completely, sitting on a park bench, and somebody who uses to get themselves through the day, deceiving themselves that it's actually not affecting them. Walter's probably in that state now. That's against the person who just smokes dope at home because they want to. There are plenty of them, whose lives appear to be functioning. Walter's in the middle ground. He's holding on and he's doing his old methods to do so, because they always smoked dope and used acid and a few other things... mushrooms, I would imagine, based on my research. So he can go back, but once the addiction's kicked in again, then he has to come off it again. We'll see. It'll be an interesting thing to play.
HitFix: Are you always aware that there are easier and less well-researched choices that you could make in those scenes? Lazy choices?
JN: It would be pretty unsatisfying. I'd have to be really unhappy and very disrespectful of the people around me to make that choice, to be completely honest with you. I don't know where my pride would be to make those choices. The reason why we do what we do and why we're professional actors is that we're supposed to take pride in our work and I do. I love the unusual choices, because that's what people do! We're odd. We're odd.
HitFix: With this season, going forward, if you got to whisper in the writers' ears, which relationships would you like to see get more screentime?
JN: I would think, and I've not discussed this with them, but I would like to see a strengthening of the relationship between Walter and Olivia. It's already strong. It's already very strong, but they can't articulate it. They never articulate it and I think it's there to be found. We started to develop a beautiful relationship, Astrid and I, when we're given the chance. That's so cute and that, I would hope, would continue. But obviously the main one is Peter, which we have to get back. So from Walter's point of view, probably the main new one would be to find some dialogue with Olivia, something where they could actually stop holding back from each other, just for a moment, and come to an understand. Perhaps we don't need it. Perhaps we need the tension. It's very difficult to say. We always thought that maybe we'd introduce new characters, but we don't seem to. We don't seem to need to. We don't know where to put them. And, of course, Nina and I will continue to have this strange relationship which we have and Blair and I love this. We have this secret thing. That will certainly be explored this year.