I spent some time with John Noble on the set of “Fringe” last November and then spoke with him again by phone after the season finale. This story is pieced together from those interviews. This is a longer version of a story that will appear in the June 10 Emmys issue of The Envelope, the Los Angeles Times’ special pull-out section on entertainment industry awards.
You don’t need one of the strange laboratory contraptions from “Fringe” to detect that John Noble is an actor to watch this Emmy season — television critics and fans of the Fox sci-fi series have crusaded to bring attention to the Australian actor’s inspired, quirky and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of the mad scientist Walter Bishop.
None of that is lost on the 61-year-old Noble, but last fall as he brewed a pot of coffee in his trailer on the Vancouver set of “Fringe,” he seemed far more interested in the delights of scripted madness than the allure of industry accolades.
“Walter is like a King Lear for television,” Noble said. “He’s got all of those extremes. He goes from the raging fool into these incredibly tender moments. He had moments that, to most of us, are quite insane and then show this incredible lucidity. He can be laser-like at times. But do you know what? I don’t know that those aspects of a person are far different from a lot of us, to be honest. It’s just that Walter’s barriers are so low that he actually does the things that most of us sit on. That’s a great opportunity for me as a character actor, obviously.”
Noble paused, shook his head, sipped his coffee and then smiled broadly. “It’s a lifetime opportunity, isn’t it? To play a man who is 10 characters in one? Oh, it’s a helluva gift.”
“Fringe,” the series created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (the director and writing tandem behind last year’s “Star Trek“ film), recently closed out its second season with a tense cliffhanger and a tale of multi-dimensional intrigue — essentially, there are nefarious doubles of key characters who are crossing back and forth between our universe and a parallel world and doing bad things to good people.
The paranormal show goes in search of strange science, but really the most important physics are between the three central characters — FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), con-man-turned-FBI-“consultant” Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson, long removed from the banks of “Dawson’s Creek“) and Peter’s father, who is played by Noble and just happens to be a modern and mellower version of Dr. Frankenstein.
For Noble, the series and the character have been a chance to delve into “the nature of true genius” and into his studies of those singular souls who sometimes have cosmic insights but also terrible obsessions and mental or social rhythms that set them apart in life.
“I did my own research into those rare breed, the geniuses, and it’s not that they are anti-social — they simply have no social skills. It misses the point, in a way, to think any other way about it,” Noble said. “I also studied the people who have been subjected to a lot of drug use — prescription and otherwise, the psychotropic drugs and so forth — and what happens in mental institutions. Walter would have been subjected to electroshock therapy, so that was something I looked into, what the short- and long-term effects might be. I made all of that part of Walter.”
Noble has worked closely with the creators and writers of “Fringe” to shape the madness of Walter Bishop. On a recent trip to Mexico City, for instance, the actor and his wife became mesmerized by the elaborate romanticism of senior couples dancing the samba in central plaza — “They were so focused,” the actor said during a phone conversation after the trip, “that they transported back to when they were beautiful 19-year-olds.” That scenario stuck with Noble and then, after watching a tango exhibition on the same trip, he e-mailed the writers of “Fringe” with an impassioned new idea: ” ‘Walter must tango,’ I told them! They wrote back and said it was a grand idea. Now whether we use it or not, we’ll see, but it’s in the boiling pot.”
Noble (who has now scheduled some tango lessons during his upcoming vacation to Italy) said the dance is a wonderful fit for Walter because its performance is not only theatrical but “is time standing still in a way,” which brings rich possibilities to the character’s ongoing arc. As “Fringe” viewers know, Walter was at the creative center of numerous bizarre experiments and dark government projects before he was shipped off to a mental institution. Now, as he emerges from a pharmaceutical fog, he is rediscovering himself and also his past sins.
“The memories appear and they hurt him, but he is also finding moments of strength and insight,” Noble said, explaining that through the course of a few dozen episodes he has used posture, tremors and voice to show the scientist’s physical condition. “He’s not the same man we meet in the first episode.”
Noble said working with the cast of “Fringe” has been a revelation for him and that he is especially fond of his rapport with Jackson, his on-screen son.
“That’s become the glue that sticks the show together, and I think J.J. Abrams always had that in mind,” Noble said. “But Joshua Jackson and I just picked it up and ran with it. It seemed like a beautiful opportunity to create something special. It’s resonated so much with our audience. People stop Joshua in the street and tell him to treat his father better. I had a driver the other day who told me that he totally relates to Walter as a father and going through difficult times with his son. This is beautiful stuff.”
After the season finale, Noble said he was still marveling at the fact that he gets to play Walter and the character’s aggressive doppelganger from another dimension. “Think about that. I get Walter and his polar opposite. These are gifts you just don’t get as an actor. I cherish it all.”
Noble is recognized around the globe for his role as Denethor in the “Lord of the Rings” franchise (the final film in the trilogy, “The Return of the King” in 2003, stands as the third-highest-grossing film ever in worldwide box office) but has dedicated most of his career to the stage in his native Australia — as an actor, director and teacher. He starred in 240 performances of Ron Blair’s one-man play “The Christian Brothers,” a harrowing character study of a priest who brings his strident ways into the classroom to save souls but ends up perhaps compromising his own.
“It was about a man doubting his faith,” Noble said. “We had a chair on stage — that was the symbol of all students. He would terrorize this chair. He would belt it and kick it and take the strap to it. I knew what I was doing too. I went to a boarding school where class was taught by this teaching order, the Christian Brothers. It was tragic in the play to see the agony this man was putting himself through as he did these things. I called upon what I knew. It was a wonderful play and a grand thing to do.”
This second season of “Fringe” found the show taking some chances, and none was more obvious than the April 29 episode that was presented as a noir musical, a setting that was reached (no surprise) by roaming around inside the curious cranium of Walter Bishop. Noble laughed when told that the writer of this article fretted that the singing detective episode would be a fedora disaster.
“You weren’t the only one, mate! Our fans were certainly saying, ‘What are you doing?‘ I think we knew that if we did it badly, it would be dreadful. But I think it ended up being really fun. I think the word ‘audacious’ is a good one to describe our show and where we hope to go with it. That’s where the adventure lies, that’s where the invention lies.”
— Geoff Boucher
ON THE SET: “Fringe” looks for it’s own identity
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