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‘Fringe’ interview: My lunch with John Noble

April 29, 2011 |  9:00 am

Lunch3 When you sit down to speak with John Noble, you almost expect to be having lunch with Walter Bishop. Walter is one of those television characters that almost seems real. Sure, he’s usually pulling giant worms out of people or breaking holes in the universe, but Bishop also struggles with his own frailties, his own mistakes. After watching him every week on "Fringe," you feel like you know him. Like he’s a normal human being. A lot of that has to do with the writing and direction of the show, but even more comes from John Noble himself.

I’ve spoken with Mr. Noble before, but only for phone interviews. Once you get past the Aussie accent, you hear a lot of Walter in the actor that portrays him. They both speak with a calm intelligence, but at the same time they can get caught up in their passion for the subject. Almost to the point of giddiness. 

Yet meeting face to face is quite a different story. Instead of the hunched, insecure scientist wracked with guilt about his past, you get robust, confident John Noble. A man who, even though he was coming off a daunting shooting schedule and flights crisscrossing the globe, warmly sat down with me to talk about the third season of "Fringe" as it comes to a close.

“It’s like an endless stage play.” Noble told me. “The first few seasons were about the audience getting attached to these characters. Then the funny thing is, this season was about creating a whole new set of characters. What an extraordinary risk to take! We’ve got these characters that people like. They’re developed. OK, push them aside.” 

“Our big challenge was if we could get the audience to care about the people on the other side,” Noble said. 

Not an easy task. Season 1’s finale gave us a glimpse of the parallel universe. A quick visit to William Bell’s office on that side’s World Trade Center. Then throughout Season 2, the only visitors we encountered were the shape-shifting soldiers from another dimension. Then building to last year’s finale, Walter’s other-world counterpart Walternate appeared to take back Peter, the son that was stolen from him. 

“It would have been easy to make Walter the classic villain,” Noble explained over coffee, “but he could be much more if we could humanize him. No hurry, but every now and again sneak in a moment where it’s ‘Oh, I do understand why he does that.’ ”

Lunch2 In Walternate’s world, he is the hero. His son was stolen by invaders from a different world. Invaders who broke holes in reality and caused horrible blights. “I don’t have an issue playing Walternate in almost anything he does because as the key decision maker in the land of the other universe, he has to make some tough decisions. But he’s probably the sort of bloke you want in charge.”

Walternate is willing to use the Amber to seal up weak spots in his universe, even if it traps innocent bystanders as well. He brainwashes Olivia into thinking she belongs over there in order to find out the secret of moving between universes. He is bent on defending that universe at any cost. Well, almost any cost. Unlike our Walter, Walternate has a steadfast rule against using children. “He discovered that in himself after his son was stolen. In his fury. In his rigidness. He really made this a national rule. That crimes against children were a top priority. He’s made it the law of the land.”

Our Walter’s Cortexifan experiments on Olivia and the other kids in Jacksonville show that he had a much looser ethics code when it came to younglings. “In ‘Subject 13’ he was being pushed and pulled by different forces,” Noble explained. Walter was trying to make soldiers to defend us against invaders from the other side, even if it meant turning a blind eye to the home life of little Olive, but Walter lived up to his doppelganger’s example.  “I was very pleased in the final outcome of that, that Walter came to save the Olivia from her stepfather, which was something we discussed as well. It wasn’t in there originally, but if you paint this man as oblivious to the children, then you’ve lost two years of development.” 

“I find these characters particularly interesting in that these two, Walter and Walternate, are essentially the same person. Changed by events. Whether you’re Jungian or Freudian, you can see how they’ve developed,” Noble said. “The war between the worlds exists because of fathers’ instincts. One who stole a son and one who’s had one stolen.” 

Each of the "Fringe" regulars got to play characters in both universes. Except, of course, Joshua Jackson. “He tried to protest,” Noble joked. “Everyone else has a double, except poor old Lance. Loved his alternate character, but they killed him. He was so upset.”

As the rest of the cast had two different characters this season, Noble’s costar Anna Torv had three. Olivia, the other universe’s Fauxlivia and Olivia possessed by Leonard Nimoy’s William Bell. “She has been wonderful, hasn’t she? I’m so proud of her,” Noble beamed. “She’s just gotten richer, better and taken the risks you have to take as an actor. If you don’t take risks as an actor, you’re going nowhere."

Lunch1 “When Anna first found out she was going to play William, we talked about it a lot. I knew the Bill character and I knew the relationship that Walter would have had with him. It was just having fun with my old mate, and she responded amazingly.” Noble reminisced.  “I was truly thrilled with Anna’s courage to just go with it.”

Noble felt that Bell’s reappearance was necessary. “We’d set the character up so strongly in Season 1. There had to be some moment between" Walter and Bell. That moment came during an animated trip inside Olivia’s head. “When that script came up, I thought, 'That’s going to take someone six months. But we don’t have six months. We have three weeks. How will this happen?' But that’s the sort of things that happen all the time with ‘Fringe.’ Impossible things.”

In that moment, Walter confesses that he thinks he needs Bell to be his balance, but Bell tells Walter he’s ready to go on alone. “The writers told me earlier this year that would be a crucial point. Walter would have to accept that he has everything he needs. A lot of people go through their lives thinking, ‘If only I.... If only had this. If only I had that. If I just get a little more plastic surgery. If I change something, I’ll be something.' ”

“It’s what propels Walter forward to the finale of the season.”

I confessed then that I always love "Fringe" finales. How Season 1 left us in William Bell’s alternate realty office. And Season 2’s reveal of Olivia trapped over there. They always have the ability to leave me simmering all summer long.

At that John Noble grinned. “This one will make you simmer too.”

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Complete 'Fringe' coverage on Show Tracker

-- Andrew Hanson

Photo: John Noble as Walter Bishop and Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham. Credit: Fox

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