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John Noble and the 'beautiful challenge' of 'Fringe'

September 26, 2011 |  9:00 am

John Noble talks Walter Bishop and 'Fringe'

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

I never pass up the opportunity to sit down and talk with John Noble. His performance as Walter Bishop is arguably the centerpiece of "Fringe." Even with the formidable cast and inventive stories, I’d be surprised if you could find a fan of the show who wouldn’t admit their favorite part of "Fringe" is Noble and the gleefully twisted scientist he plays.

Over the last three seasons, Noble has played Walter as well as his parallel universe self Walternate, the calculating Secretary of Defense fighting a war against our side. “I also got to do two flashbacks and play the character 25 years younger,” Noble noted. “That had different energies as well.”

A less gifted actor might struggle with the concept, but as soon as Noble fills the screen, you automatically know which version of Walter you get. “That’s a huge compliment, “Noble said. “It’s a beautiful challenge.”

Noble and I met up while he was in town for an appearance on "Conan," and even after a week of filming, flying and promoting the premiere of Season 4, he was enthusiastic to talk about "Fringe" and Walter. And as Friday night's opener showed, we have a whole new Walter to talk about. 

Walter 3 Season 4 starts in a world without Peter. Walter still broke the two universes and instigated a war with the other side, but he no longer has his son to help connect him to the real world. “I thought a lot about it.” Noble said. “I had to go back to the guy who was let out of St. Claire’s. A man in, essentially, solitary confinement. He is institutionalized. Everything in its place. Everything by the clock. The idea of agoraphobia came to mind. Terrified to go outside. The OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] was also a relatively easy choice. Those were decisions based on observations. It’s an interesting retrospective to play.”

“It’s not a show where the actors can rest on their laurels.” Noble joked when I asked him about having to rethink Walter now that Peter has been erased from history. “And because of that, our relationships change. One character changes, and all that character’s relationships also have to adjust. Now, how would this version of Walter relate to Broyles? Or Astrid?”

“Now we’re back to this version of Walter …. He’s not a very likeable man. When he’s focused on a piece of science, he’s still a genius. That brilliance of insight with geniuses, when suddenly their imaginations take them, and off they go. Walter is that sort of guy.” 

In this version of "Fringe" history, Olivia still got Walter released from St. Claire’s mental hospital to help her save her partner/lover John Scott, but she didn’t have Peter to help tether Walter. “His tether becomes Olivia," Noble said. "That we play out really strongly -- the relationship with Olivia. It’s different. There’s not that hope. That he’ll be able to resurrect that wonderful time with his son.”

“Such a fascinating relationship. Anna [Torv] and I enjoy it greatly. The story of these two misfits and how they bonded together.”

“How much more interesting is it for broken people to connect?” Noble asked. “Because we’re all broken to some extent. We want to identify with someone. We identify usually with the vulnerabilities. If you don’t see those moments, I don’t care how well it’s done, you don’t care about those characters.” 

“All great leading men are able to show that vulnerability.” Noble said. “Every great leading man has been able to do that. You can see it. This is frightening, or that punch really hurt. Then you get to see them rise above it.”

Fringe_ep401_2 We returned to the subject of Season 4 and how it seems to be a new chapter for "Fringe."

“We build this huge story about whether the two universes destroy each other. For now, they haven’t.” Noble said. “We’ve crossed over time and space. That’s, in a sense, the end of that as the A-story. Now we say, take that as a given and see where we go now.” 

One of the new parts of this next chapter is Lincoln Lee. The character gained much more prominence as Seth Gabel, the actor who portrays him, moved from guest star to full cast member for the season. “He is in the deep end, given a massive amount of work, serving an interesting function.” 

“I think dramaturgically it’s very clever. The audience wants to hear the answers to the questions he’s asking.” Noble said. “That’s always a danger. If you’re a fan, I don’t want to offend you by going back over everything again. We worked like hell to balance it.”

“We know that four years down the track, we’ve come up with this incredible complicated mythology. Not everyone can step into it easily. We put together a 12-part synopsis. Ari Margolis did that and I voiced it. I really like it cause it an hour, I’m there. Ari did an amazing job.”  

Margolis is the man behind the incredible movie-quality trailers for "Fringe" I’ve posted before. There's a retrospective at YouTube.

Walter and olivia And with the new season comes a new threat: the translucent shape shifters. “I think that’s very clever. It makes the audience think: I’ve seen that before. Way back with Agent Scott, which seemed like decades ago. We’ve seen shape shifters come through. Everything’s the same, but different.”

"Fringe" has done an excellent job of mining the mysteries of the first few seasons. “Sometimes they mine stuff that I forgot.”

“Even when I watch the show, I have missed points.” Noble said. “Could be things I’ve said. Mumbly old bastard.”

Noble also narrates the Science Channel’s "Dark Matters," which chronicles the real-life scientists who worked on the fringe. “I love doing that show!" Nobel said. "These things actually happened!” It’s almost as if Noble himself is becoming the spokesman for groundbreaking science.

“It’s an interesting place to be. I don’t know if I’m qualified, scientifically, but I have that curiosity,” Noble said. “I’m filled with that fascination, constantly reading new things."

Walternate and broyles His constant scientific curiosity is a necessity for "Fringe." “When a certain aspect comes up, I have to know more about it. I have to. Whether it’s quantum mechanics or something else, I have to find my understanding of it.” Noble said. “It comes through the eyes. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s right there.”

“We can’t make the mistake of underestimating our audience.” Noble said. “There is a type of television viewer that’s the couch potato, but our audience is endlessly curious. You’d wonder why’d they’d watch it if they weren’t.”

If you’re wondering what the future of "Fringe" holds, don’t ask John Noble. “There will be moments when I ask the show runners, 'How about if I play a scene like this?' And they’ll say, 'That’s good, we can work with that,' or 'Don’t go that way because we have something else down the line.' They don’t come to me and say, 'This is what we have planned,' and I don’t want them to. As an actor, I only need to know my history. For me, I just need to make sure I’m grounded in where I should be at that certain time. ”

Walter 3d But that doesn’t keep him from speculating on what Season 4 could bring. “We were talking and thinking, so what are we going to do for [Episode] 19 this year? Because it was Episode 19 of Season 3 when we did the animated episode, and 19 in Season 2 is when we did the musical episode. Everyone knows this year we’ve got to do something special. I don’t know what it could be. Josh [Jackson] suggested the other night that we should do the sitcom ‘Fringe.’ ” 

With "Fringe," that could be a possibility. “Just need Walter with a great big bong and the world is open to us.” 

For the record 10:33 a.m. Sept. 26: A previous version of this post referred to Ari Margolis as Ari Morgalis. Thanks to commenter Aimee Long for pointing out the slip.

RELATED:

'Fringe' recap: In a World Without Peter

'Fringe': Seth Gabel on Lincoln Lee, Season 4

Complete 'Fringe' coverage on Show Tracker

-- Andrew Hanson

Photos: John Noble as Walter Bishop, with Anna Torv as Olivia Dunham and Lance Reddick as Agent Broyles. Credit: Fox Television

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