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'Fringe': The complete and definitive chat with John Noble

September 17, 2009 | 11:21 am

201_newday_0616

Science fiction has produced some of the most memorable characters in television history. There’s Spock, Dr. Who, Bender B. Rodriguez, Adm. William Adama, Sam Becket, Optimus Prime. The list could go on forever, but a new name has made a permanent place for itself in the group: Dr. Walter Bishop. The combination of mad scientist, delighted child and psychotropic drug enthusiast, Walter is a core component of "Fringe," and in a single season he’s become one of the most interesting individuals on the small screen.

While the brain child of series creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Walter also owes just as much of his creation to John Noble. The Aussie actor began his career in theater down under before leaping into roles in "24" and "Stargate" and as the mentally unstable Steward of Gondor in Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King." 

Last fall he donned the lab coat, grabbed a Slusho, and Walter Bishop entered the world.

Just in time for the premiere of "Fringe’s" second season, I got a chance to speak with Noble about the character of Walter, the morality of science and the acting talent of cows.

Are you filming now?

We’re very deep into it. We’ve just finished our seventh episode, and we’ll start our eighth today.

I watched the first episode. Seems that the show is taking a little more of an active versus reactive approach to the fringe science this season.

I think so. I think that was the logical way to go. A lot of that was to do with the character that Joshua Jackson plays. He takes a much more active role. We’ve also learned an awful lot about the Olivia character. She’s been through hell.

Yeah, right at the beginning of the season she has a pretty traumatic start.

And then it keeps on going. She gets whipped off to another dimension at the end of the first season. It’s a different take on Olivia. She’s really a tragic heroine, what she’s going through. There’s a different shape. Toward the end of the season we exposed what we were about. We got it, and we showed the viewers what we were trying to do. That kinda makes it easier for us to go forward now. People perhaps understand the characters, perhaps understand what our task is. We can sort of make some jumps. We did in the first episode.

There's more — a whole lot more — after the jump ...

201_newday_0469 The end of the first season did get a little more serialized, whereas the beginning was more "event of the week."

Yeah. It was very strange. We were conscious of doing that, and in some ways I think we had to do it. But we were straining at the bit, as they say, to get into it. We had promised that we wouldn’t be serialized totally. However, it is seductive to get into the meat of the story. I guess, we’ve taken that forward. We can’t resist getting into the depth of the character development, the depth of the plot development. We just hope that people will run with it. We’ll still keep on our attempts to make it a self-contained story each week, but it’s not so much the priority now.

Walter had quite a bit of development in the first season, from coming out of the mental hospital and his drug-induced daze to having more freedom and trust on his own toward the season end. Will Walter continue his development in the second season?

He does, absolutely. As Peter is out chasing around doing things, Walter is going to be left with Astrid [Walter’s FBI lab assistant]. Astrid’s role will be developed. She’s such a wonderful girl and such a good character. We’ll see a development there and in her relationship with Walter. Walter is what he is. He won’t always handle it very well. That’s just a fact of life, but he is given more freedom. The man has in some degree come out of that terrible haze he was in at the beginning. As he does so, he’s getting memories back that he’s not very happy with. The poor guy is having to face his past to a large degree and face the potential losses as well. Having found all this again, having found his son, he’s very aware he could also lose him again. It’s a very complex relationship. It’s great fun to play. 

The chemistry between you and Joshua Jackson really clicked during the first season.

That’s a bit of a gift, being given a well-written father-and-son relationship. We work really hard at making that. There was just an episode where we were fighting, awfully, as families do sometimes. It was quite uncomfortable to play, to be honest with you. We were ripping into each other. Jackson and I are quite happy to play those rough edges. That’s families. That’s what happens.

Walter is a character with a very dark past. Did the writers give you additional insight into his history or did you just have what was in the script?

Not so much. Given what I did know, I was able to glean when he was working and the sort of work he would be doing. Then you examine what were the ethics of it. Was it amoral? Moral? Necessary? I don’t know. I examined all those questions about why he would continue to do that. When we see him given a scientific issue, it’s almost like his morality goes out the door. He focuses totally and utterly on that. That’s constant with Walter. He’ll do that, whatever the challenge may be. Even if it’s figuring out the flavor of a particular piece of fruit. He’ll become totally obsessed, and nothing else will get in the way. That’s a constant, and it’s kind of fun to play. What was also really interesting is being able to unravel that slowly as the drug mist lifted. Then there was the horrible revelation of the son and what he did to Olivia too. That’s pretty horrendous stuff, isn’t it? Basically abusing little children by giving them drugs. They wouldn’t have seen it as such, but we see it that way now.

So we're learning Walter’s history as he was almost relearning it himself.

It’s the ideal situation for an actor. Absolutely. You try not to play the end result. It couldn’t be better in the sense that I, as an actor, don’t feel that I need to know the future of a character. There’s a huge dark chasm he’s been living in. We’ve got all sorts of things to find out there. About his relationships. About what happened to his wife. All these things that the man has to face and will face this season. It’s pretty rich. It’s going to be emotionally volatile as time goes by.

It’s pretty constant with people. Everyone wakes up in the middle of the night with a memory and goes, “Oh, my God. I’d forgotten that.” I can say that because I think most people have had those experiences, “Oh, what did I do that for?” But Walter, he has them in trumps. It’s an incredibly complex character. I sometimes have to pinch myself that such a complex character was written for television and allowed to evolve. It’s kind of unusual. Very often, as you know, we get characters and establish them, and then we play the plot out for the next three seasons, but it’s not the case with our characters.

With most shows, the idea is to get the character back to the same point by the end of the episode, but in the case of Walter, especially over an entire season, he evolves.

That’s constant. If you look at the Olivia character, and Peter, you’ll see evolution coming through there. The relationship between Walter and Olivia is incredibly complex, but we can only slowly eke it out. But you’ll see, even in the first episode, Walter’s grief when he thinks Olivia’s dead. That’s not normal of a man who knows someone casually. It’s far more intense than that. Which indicates that there’s something deep in that relationship too. Those things have been unraveled slowly. We have to plan that we’re not just here for one season. These characters can evolve, which is difficult in television because you never know how many seasons you’ll really get. 

The writers are terrific. As they watched what we were doing last year, as they watched the characters, as they watched the actors that they didn’t know as well as they do now, they change things. That’s the dynamic nature of writing. 

The principal characters are pretty well established. You’re going to see more exposition for Astrid, certainly about Broyles. You’ll see an episode that’s just about him. Lance [Reddick] is quite an actor. We were all thrilled when he got his big episode. And you also have sitting in the wings Blair Brown. What an actress to have waiting. We’re rounding out. We’re getting to know all the people. Last year you got to know two or three of the people quite well. This year the team will be exposed more.

201_newday_0698 At the end of last see we just touched on the fact that Olivia and Walter had this shared history. Are we going to see more of that this year?

We have to. It’s not going to happen overnight. We go on with our independent tasks. From my point of view playing it, there’s an awareness in Walter of something far deeper in his relationship with Olivia. It’s a scary situation because if you start to care a lot about somebody, then your efficiency in some ways is altered. He’s now faced with two people he’s strongly emotionally bonded to, Peter and Olivia, as well as developing this terrific relationship with Astrid. Nothing is as simple as it was in the beginning. He’s now going to become very concerned about the welfare of these characters, which he wasn’t so much in the beginning.

It’s something you don’t get in most procedurals. In Fringe, you also have these great relationships that are just as important as the cases they’re looking into.

You have this complex group of people getting to know each other, and you also have a procedural every week. You probably could do one without the other, and that would hold up. Throwing them both together in a series is what we think makes "Fringe" special. And we do think "Fringe" is special. That feeling is very pervasive across the team, that we have something special, which means we have to work like hell to be honest to it. Everyone’s aware of that. No one ever sits back on their laurels and says, “We’re OK now.” It’s constantly evolving. Constantly questioning. But that makes life very interesting.

On the other side, you have the crazy science. Must be fun to play with.

Oh, it is. Some of it’s nonsense, you know. Some of the attempts that Walter makes to solve things, you think, “Oh, come on, Walter. What are you doing?” But there’s always a method to his madness. It’ll appear to be absolute nonsense, but there will be something underneath it, in the true nature of those rare animals that are geniuses. There are few enough that are around. In the nature of that, we don’t always understand him. But, by golly, he’s a clever guy. I hold him in awe at times.

It does get crazy out there, but it is always based on at least a sliver of science.

That’s the constant conversation. I have this with the writers all the time. Let’s at least keep it in the realms of what we know. Scientifically possible. We’re all pretty well read in contemporary science. The writers research all the time. You find out that if you research, what we’re trying isn’t all that strange. I read something the other day about these students who were doing genetic manipulation to get different tastes. It’s happening. And these are students. Not the top geniuses. This is happening all the time. As you look at the stuff that’s out there and cutting-edge science, it’s really not that strange. I find it very flattering that things like Popular Science are following us very closely. I remember we had a professor from Harvard on the set, a friend of a friend, and he said, “You know, what you’re doing isn’t all that out there.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “We’re doing this now.”

With all this science, it seems like you get a lot of interesting, gory props.

The macabre eye candy. Our props people are always being asked to create these insane experiments. We don’t have a multimillion-dollar lab available to us, so we have to invent things. They come up with incredibly funny things. Bodies in different states of disrepair. The artists doing that are doing an amazing job. I’m never disappointed by them. You come in to find a body that’s been dead for 10 years, and you look at it and say, “Oh, my God. How did you do that?” It looks so real you can almost smell it, and you’re glad you can’t.

And playing Walter’s glee as he digs into it.

I love it. He gets very disappointed if there’s no body to play with. He has that line, “It’s boring. There’s no body.” That’s Walter. He loves all of that. To him, it’s just a scientific playground. The chemical breakdown. The makeup of things. I know Anna [Torv] often says, “Oh, I don’t like this stuff. It’s so gross.” She’s out shooting the villains, and we’re into the bodies. Astrid’s now starting to take a glee in it. She’s almost become a little clone of Walter as we develop, which is very fun to watch.

So Walter and Astrid are developing more of a relationship this season?

Absolutely. It’s very sweet, really. Nicole is a young actress that I have very good chemistry with. She’s just a delight to work with. She’s almost taking on Walter’s characteristics at times, which allows us to put some humor in. She’s obviously been waiting patiently. It’s been interesting to go to a couple of fan conferences. Fans seem to want more of Astrid, which I’m thrilled about.

And Walter is going to interact with the other recurring characters?

Walter finally gets to meet Nina. Blair and I have been waiting for so long to do some work together. I know Blair’s work from theater because that’s where I came from as well. She’s a legend. So to have the chance to actually do scenes together is something we’ve both been looking forward to. And I still haven’t worked with Leonard Nimoy. It’s kind of exciting to look forward to. The problem with the Walter and Bell relationship is that it can’t be revealed too soon. When it does, it’s going to be major. Recently in an episode, Walter went to Massive Dynamic, and the effect on him was pretty strange. What Bell had achieved and what he hadn’t achieved. You can imagine those emotions coming into play. But the meeting, and this is the writers’ call, not my call, I would hold that meeting as long as possible. That inevitable confrontation between these two men.

They did a wonderful job the first season of just sprinkling in mention of Walter Bell, so at a point, even though we hadn’t seen him, he was still a major character in the show.

There was something the other day of Walter defending Bell, saying, “He wouldn’t do this.” And I was thinking, we’ve really given this Bell an intricate background well before he came. We were giving him a hell of an introduction. And how perfect is it to just give him the final scene of the season.

And to have Leonard Nimoy, such an icon of science fiction, play him as well.

Wasn’t that an achievement? It’s a huge compliment to "Fringe" that Leonard would come back and do it. I get pretty pleased to see people like Nimoy believing in us enough to come back to work with us. When you have someone like Akiva Goldsman who’s so keen to write and direct for us. That’s a pretty powerful statement of our potential.

Were you a big fan of science fiction or the science before "Fringe"?

No. Not in terms of popular culture. I suppose it’s the term “science fiction” that has a sort of low-brow ring to it, when it should have a high-brow ring. Going back to Jules Verne. These are the men that sort of predicted where we’d go in the world.

When we talk about the big arc of the story, if we have interfered across dimensions, for example, what are the repercussions? What are the repercussions of screwing with nature? We have some scientific background of why this could be catastrophic. I find that big picture fascinating. That’s kind of what we deal with. Morality issues.

Like with the experiments Walter and William are doing on children. You might not always agree with Walter’s morality, but do you understand it?

Certainly. Absolutely. What happens if you close your eyes? If you turn off that sensitivity gene and look for an end result? Even if you look at animal testing. There’s a part of that that’s a horror. We’ve used those animals brutally, but there’s also the justification that if we didn’t, would we have progressed? There’s a cost to everything, and what Walter and other scientist do is close off that sensitivity gene. I do understand it, but I’m also very aware of the other side. We face this with the upheaval of stem cell research. Or over cloning. These are ethical problems for society. They become political questions. It’s almost logical, almost inevitable that science will go down that path.

This season, production has moved from New York to Vancouver. How has that transition gone?

The change went remarkably easy. I was surprised to walk into the studio on June the 23rd and the machine rolled on. 

I couldn’t tell the difference in the first episode. Walter’s lab looked almost identical.

Walter’s lab is the heart and soul of "Fringe." That has to remain constant. We’ve had three versions of that lab. We built one in a basement in Toronto, and when we moved to New York we replicated it exactly. Then we came here.

201_newday_0108 And did you have to cast a new Gene the Cow?

Oh, don’t say that. You can’t tell people it’s a different Gene. We’ve had three Genes now, and they’ve all had quite distinct personalities. But all of them are stars. They seem to know when the camera’s on them. I don’t know what that is about cows. They can be sitting around, pooping and carrying on, and when the camera’s on, they look up with their big brown eyes and moo on cue. I don’t know how they do that, but I love it.

What a great choice.

Isn’t that part of the genius of J.J. Abrams? Who else would think of that? Having such a cumbersome, difficult animal as a lab pet. And everyone always loves it when she comes in and steals the show.

What’s Abrams’ involvement in the show at this point?

We’re trying to twist his arm to get him up to direct an episode, and he’s very keen to. We have access to the other creators. Roberto Orci was up here for a while, last week, I think, and we still have access to those guys. They’re as keen as ever to talk about things and plot future moves.

Those guys are in high demand now. Seems like everything they touch turns to gold.

The great thing about those guys is that they’re absolutely modest about their achievements.  Alex [Kurtzman] and Roberto are the most open guys. Totally open to conversation and ideas. I don’t feel the least bit that that has closed them off or that their ideas must be permanent. They’ll talk to you and get ideas. I had a long conversation with Roberto recent about an issue concerning me, and it was taken on board and immediately put into practice. It’s amazing to have that relationship with these guys.

It’s probably the reason they’re doing so well.

You’d have to say so, wouldn’t you. I was talking to Joe Chappelle, our producing director, and what we can possibly get here, and being an old theater man, this is what I want, is a team. A sense that these people are all locked in and tight. I’ve got the sense that’s what we’re aiming for here. To develop this very coherent team of people. All these people working toward a common goal. Where we know each other, respect each other. So you don’t ever feel like you’re out of the loop. You just go in there and think, “Oh, well, I’ll try to make this work.” We do have an accessibility to our writers, and they do listen to us. They really listen to us. It’s a great place to be.

It’s a gift to be in a show when you’re not defined in the first episode and go on reading the lines there on in. Not that I’m knocking that; it’s just I’d rather be doing what I’m doing.

"Fringe" returns at 9 tonight on Fox.

— Andrew Hanson

Photo credit: Fox


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