Fringe’s Dr. Walter Bishop
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Since his first role in 1988’s The Dreaming, John Noble has often played characters confronting the astounding and impossible. He’s perhaps most famous for his performance in the final two Lord Of The Rings films as Denethor, a ruler crippled by madness, doubt, and the influence of evil elements. Noble’s work there led to plenty of other parts, and he soon found a niche starring in TV series popular with genre fans, including guest-star performances in Stargate SG-1 and 24. He then landed his current role on Fringe, for which he’s received widespread acclaim, even from some who don’t usually enjoy science-fiction series. He plays Dr. Walter Bishop, a man driven mad by guilt and grief who may be the only thing standing between our universe and the dissolution planned by a version of Walter from an alternate universe (known as the Walternate on the show). Noble recently talked with The A.V. Club about whether Walter and Walternate are two different people, how he got the role, and his part in the highly anticipated upcoming videogame L.A. Noire. Spoilers for the third-season finale of Fringe—which airs tonight (Friday, May 6) at 8 p.m. EST—are present in one answer, but they’re clearly marked.
The A.V. Club: You’ve done a lot of wild things on this show. What was the single day you’ve had the most fun while shooting this series?
John Noble: The funniest thing we did actually goes to air [April 28]. The writers keep throwing challenges at me, because I never say no. They said, “Okay, John, you’ll do a scene naked.” I said “Okay.” And so that was a big surprise.
So I do this scene, this strange scene with Anna Torv, without any clothes on. Anna’s staying at the Bishop house with Walter running around with no clothes on except for a pair of slippers, getting breakfast. She comes round the corner and catches him in the full monty, going, “Oh no!” Didn’t know where to look. That was probably one of the most fun things we ever did. Anna’s reaction was priceless to that. I haven’t seen the scene yet, but it was hilarious to do it.
Fun things come out of left field all the time, and not what you think you’re going to be doing on network television, particularly as a senior actor, different from if you’re 21 and looking good. So I remember that one quite recently. The range of stuff that I get to do is so profound, from really intense, black drama into some absolute joy and flippancy, and I work with a cow. I have fun with Astrid (Jasika Nicole), who’s my sweetheart. And there’s very rarely an episode where there isn’t some aspect of Walter or Walternate that allows me to play along. And also I’ve been given the flashbacks, which is a very rare gift to an actor, to be able to play those. They present their own challenges, but those challenges keep me very fresh and very alive.
AVC: How did you land on this series?
JN: My daughter Sam’s an actress, and she was in L.A. She said, “Dad”—she rang me—“Dad, there’s a role that’s made for you. I’ve heard it, everyone’s talking about it. J.J. Abrams.” So I rang my manager, and I said, “Well, this role.” And they said, “No, no, no, it’s not for you, you’re too young for it.” I said, “Oh, okay, glad I asked.”
So I went back to Australia and we were back there over the Christmas break, and she was there as well. I got a phone call, “They want you to put a tape down, and here’s the scene.” So I looked at the scene, and I said to my daughter, “Will you tape this with me?” So we went into a little taping booth. I did my role, she read against me, and we sent it. And that was it, off that tape. This is so unusual. Off that tape, I was cast as Walter Bishop. Just unheard of.
AVC: When you started the series, did they give you any sense of all the backstory you’ve since gotten?
JN: If you sort of sift through the pilot, there was a fair bit of information given. What happened beyond that point was a slow reveal. Once we as a couple of actors came together and they saw what our strengths and weaknesses were—because they didn’t know, our showrunners came on after the pilot—then they started to write accordingly the relationships. J.J. was very keen to have the father-son relationship develop, and that did happen a lot. That was one of his requests: “Make this special.”
Then I think a lot of the time, the writers waited to see what was working and what wasn’t working, so rather than going down paths that nobody really cared about, we shifted around and then made absolutely radical decisions. Halfway through season one, we made a radical shift to focus back on the Olivia character. Then we introduced the alternate universe, then we spent half a season in the alternate universe. This is very risky, risky stuff; risky establishing a whole series of new characters that no one cares about, and hoping it will hold, and that we can win their interest. Nobody knows if this is going to work. Similarly, doing an animated episode, this has not been done before. Is this going to work? We don’t know. Doing a musical episode. I think the great thing about Fringe is that they will continue to throw us those sorts of challenges. So why not? Why not try?
AVC: All TV shows evolve, but was there a moment where you felt Fringe was really starting to click?
JN: There was a moment in the end of season one. I can remember the location, somewhere out in Staten Island. It was just a scene between Josh Jackson and I. And what the details of it were, I can’t remember, but I can remember that feeling and intensity. Something incredibly special happened in that house.So I must go back and look at the episode, where I thought, “This is really, truly, wonderful drama.” That was a big point for me.
When the writers told me I was going to do a flashback to ’85, I thought, “Gee whiz, they are taking this seriously. They are going to go back, and they are going to start to unravel.” And that’s a challenge in itself, because there’s quite a lot of preparation required to drop 25 years as a character. That was really exciting. That was the end of somewhere in season two, I think. And from then, the development for me of this alter-character, supposedly this bad guy, who as far as I was concerned was doing everything he had to do to make his world survive. So there have been constant challenges, and occasionally absolutely exquisite pieces of dialogue where you go, “Ah, oh my goodness, did I just get to say that?”
AVC: So do you see Walter and Walternate as separate characters, or the same guy at a different point on the same path?
JB: One of the things our showrunners have always talked about is chance. That in a life, [there’s a] decision, “Do I go this way, do I go that way, and what are the ramifications if I do that?” We’ve talked about it from season one; we’ve put it up on the boards. It’s actually proving fairly heavy for people to understand that’s one of our issues.
With Walter and Walternate, in a sense, that was an easy one for me, because you had two men going along in their own successful fields, then something dreadful happens. One steals a son, one loses a son. The effect on the mind of that simple act caused these men to veer off into such diverse… It drove Walter mad; it had to drive you mad. His wife committed suicide. It ruined their lives because of this terrible thing they’d done. The other man was driven to this powerful, single-minded, “I will get revenge, and I will save what’s left of our world.” But they’re the same man.
AVC: Orla Brady has come on a couple of times to play your wife. You seem to have a really easygoing chemistry. How do you build that relationship with someone who’s just a guest star?
JN: With her, she’s such a pro; she’s such a fine, fine, actress. I knew of Orla Brady, and I was very, very happy when Orla was cast in the role. There’s no half-measures for Orla; when she acts, she’s there. And I’m a bit the same. And I like her and respect her. So it was no trouble for us to hit those emotional beats at all. I would kill to do more work with Orla Brady, I think she’s that gifted.
AVC: You and Anna Torv (who plays Olivia) are both Australian. Was there a bond over that? I assume you hadn’t worked with her before this.
JN: Well, apparently we did. Anna tells me there was some series in Australia, that we were in the same series for a while, but we never met. So I knew of her, and I guess she knew of me, but we had no contact. Now probably more than ever, we share a few Australia jokes, but at the beginning, we didn’t. It was just like [Gasps.] there was no time to think. But of late, we do share a few Australianisms, over the last 12 months. I think your nationality disappears when you’re doing something like this. People from everywhere and all over the place cease to exist, except in the function that they play, and that’s been the case with us as well.
AVC: When you’re approached by fans who recognize you from Lord Of The Rings or Fringe, is there a difference in how they approach you?
JN: Lord Of The Rings fandom was massive, worldwide, entrenched. Generally it had been part of the fans’ life all their life, because they had it read to them as children; they’d become Tolkien students. So when I met Tolkien fans, they were incredibly knowledgeable, and, thankfully, incredibly flattering about what I was able to do with the character, because the fandom was terribly frightened we’d messed it up, which we didn’t. So that was almost an intellectual approach with them. They would ask terribly difficult questions, and sometimes, I didn’t know the answers. But there’s been a crossover now. I was in Paris on the weekend doing some signings, and I would say about half were still for Lord Of The Rings, and that’s 10, 11 years later, and [the rest were for] Fringe. But they cross over.
AVC: You were in only of two of those films, but it’s such a massive undertaking. How do you keep the human element in something that big?
JN: That project was unique. We locked ourselves away in a corner in this southern land. In a corner, literally, all of these people from all over the world. Peter Jackson led like Alexander the Great. For that period—I don’t say that he could do that all of his life—but he inspired everybody. Inspired everybody to lift the bar. They were very true to Tolkien and to the books. Every department—I don’t know, I can hardly explain it, except that the bar was lifted.
And so when we go in as actors, it’s like, “This demands the best we got.” So everybody, without exception, every actor, every costumier, every person who makes the whippings or the chainmail, the horsemen who came in from all over New Zealand when there was a call because they wanted to be in the back. They literally brought their horses in from both islands because they wanted to be part of it. Really unique. A small island who took it on as their national project. Unbelievable. And I think that’s why it was such an exceptional and is such an exceptional film project.
AVC: You’re in an upcoming videogame, L.A. Noire. What’s the experience of acting in a videogame like?
JN: That’s an interesting story. Five or six years ago, Brendan McNamara, who’s an Australian fellow, contacted me to say, “I’m doing this thing,” and he explained it to me. He said, “Would you be involved?” And I was listening to this technology, going, “My God, this sounds amazing.” I might have voiced characters before, but to be involved… I also liked Brendan McNamara enormously, so I said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
I went in and did their tests with their new equipment, and slowly, it came together. We didn’t film it until 12 months ago, finally. But the technology is outrageously good, and I think it will completely break new ground for what the player will be able to do, and to read off the characters. He put together a cast of really good actors, professional actors. The reviews of it have been amazing, and it’s the first videogame ever to be accepted to the Tribeca Film Festival, which is on the 24th [of April]. Which unfortunately I can’t get to, but that’s pretty huge, isn’t it?
AVC: Have you gotten to see some of the footage?
JN: I’ve gotten to see the shorts, which look grand.
AVC: Is it strange to see a computer version of yourself?
JN: I don’t know, I guess it is. And he’s such a different character than what I play normally. I don’t know, I guess it is strange. I don’t have a huge part in it. It’s a good part, but it’s not, like, the cop that carries the load. But he’s a wonderful character. I’m very proud to be involved in something that’s this groundbreaking.
You know, it’s amazing, we talked about Lord Of The Rings, it’s an amazing bit of luck to be involved in something that might just be the greatest film ever made. That a huge bit of luck, isn’t it? And then to say, “Wow, I’ve just landed this new technology which might be the most exciting.” And I won’t dismiss Fringe from that, because I actually think Fringe is the most interesting show on television too, so I got lucky in a lot of ways.
AVC: Returning to Fringe, you recently had an animated episode. When did you find out that that was going to happen, and what was the process of that coming together?
JN: Well, we found out a couple of weeks before we did it. This is part of the risk-taking that our creators will go for. It hadn’t been done before. We wanted to find a solution to a plot problem. And we still had Leonard Nimoy’s presence there, even though he was dead. So they came up with the bizarre idea of putting his presence into Anna Torv, which is outrageous. Outrageous, and yet we did it, and had a lot of fun doing it. Then we had to get him out of it. Because Leonard’s officially retired, so we did the animation to use his voice.
I haven’t seen the episode yet because I was traveling, but apparently it’s wonderful. Again, it’s a lot of like, “Nobody does that on television. What are these guys? Why do they keep doing this?” I hope that it will continue to be one of the things we do, episode 17 every year we’ll do. We did “Brown Betty,” the musical, last year, this one we did the animated. Who knows what we’ll do next?
AVC: How did that idea to have Olivia be possessed by the spirit of William Bell come about? Did Anna Torv already have a Nimoy impression?
JN: No, golly, no, it was nothing like that. It was to resolve a plot issue. We had set up the thing about soul magnets, which set it up quite carefully. And then where does the soul go? What are you going to do with it? Where are you going to put it? What’s the most outrageous place to put tall, old Bell? You put him into beautiful Olivia. So that was the decision. Anna was going, “Oh my God, what have you done?”
I can remember she and I worked together; she came around to my home on the weekend. She said, “John, you know Bell, you know having a relationship with him. I didn’t do any scenes with him. How does he act?” All this sort of stuff. So we had this session where we talked and laughed and stuff, and then she finally made a really involved acting decision to say, “I will take these mannerisms, this vocal mannerism, a couple of facials, and just do that.” Which is a great decision; it’s quite brilliant. And she just did it with confidence. It’s a true credit to her.
[Some spoilers for the season finale are in the following answer.]
AVC: You know how the season ends, but heading into that, did you have a certain preference for which universe would survive, or which version of your character would survive?
JN: I think the scientist in me, but also pragmatist in me, said that we couldn’t have a simple solution like that. The scientist says that you can’t destroy something by itself, there will be a balance, and in fact, Walternate says that somewhere in season three. He says to Broyles, “Nature doesn’t recognize good and evil; it only recognizes balance.” It was evident to me that there was not going to be “someone wins, someone loses.” Because in life, that never happens anyway, it’s never a winner and a loser.
So what the end of the season realizes, makes that point, is that you will need to work together to resolve this. You have to find balance. So in a sense, that’s what the final thing is, and it leaves us with this incredible cliffhanger, two of them actually, about how and if the people on both sides are prepared to, or else. Or if they want to fight to the death, we don’t know, we’re left with this. But scientifically it makes absolute sense, and Walter and Walternate face off in the final scene of the series, these versions of each other, and we’re left wondering what will happen.
AVC: The character of Walter has evolved quite a bit since the start of the series. Have you changed how you play him at all?
JN: I mean, in the sense that when I started Walter, I was determined to play at least six months of drug withdrawal and short-term memory recall. Because of my research, I knew that coming out of his environment, he was going to be struggling socially. So then, slowly, I was able to let that go. Rebuild the relationship with Peter on a more realistic level. And so that he wasn’t quite the ditherer he used to be. Not quite as random. He still had these mannerisms, his Red Vines and so forth.
But as he became aware, he also then became aware of the burden he carried. And so then we had this terrible burden that Walter carries for a long time. By the end of season three, we see Walter accepting that what he is is enough, instead of a whole, tired, “If I only had a brain” type of thing. “I can’t do this without Belly; I can’t do it; I’m falling apart. Peter doesn’t love me, duh duh duh.” Walter goes to pieces, and now he has to put himself back together again.
It’s a really interesting journey. And he still potentially will drop off into a dangerous place, because he has been a man that’s resorted to mind-altering drugs a lot in the past. It’s kind of a default position for him. One of the dangers is that he doesn’t keep going there. I’ve always thought that we’ve got to be careful of that. He can go back and use it, but he could easily finish up on a street bench.
AVC: If this show ran for six, seven years, where would you want to see the character go?
JN: The writers would make that decision, but I think what we have at present with Walter is two distinct versions, two distinct young versions, and there will be two other versions that will be revealed by the end of the year. So we’ve got these different images of Walter, and that’s only dealing with two universes, and really dealing with one set of choices within those universes. So what we can do at any stage is make different choices.
I don’t think we’ll let go of Walter. He’s sort of central, as indeed the lab is, that’s central to Fringe. I think Walter in his way will continue on. Walternate, I think will be there, but he will be in a more passive and positive view. This is me guessing, but I think there are so many other possibilities available. And I spoke to [showrunner] Jeff Pinkner last night, and he said, “I don’t know yet, John, where we’re going.” That doesn’t worry me that he doesn’t know yet. There are so many places to go. The three principal characters have so many potentials to play out in this world.
You know, Stargate always had the thing, “Let’s go through a gate and go somewhere.” It’s much more cerebral for us; we actually go somewhere in the mind, or we take options. I don’t know where it will go. J.J. Abrams originally said, “I want six seasons,” but that was back before we even had the pilot. I think they’ll put an end date on it like they did with Lost, and that way we can go out really strongly and finish up as one of the great science-fiction series of all time. That would be my wish, rather than going on for 10 years then going [Snores.]
AVC: There’s often a bias against science fiction and fantasy among actors, directors, and writers. You don’t seem to have that bias. What about this sort of material appeals to you?
JN: Material is material. You know, there’s a tendency to want to put things in boxes so we can judge them and feel superior to them. Apart from the fact that science fiction is, and always has been, the most popular form of popular entertainment—which is interesting—science fiction is also clever fiction, because it invariably deals with potentials of the future. The stuff we deal with in Fringe is not going to happen in 200 years. I predict it will happen in 2025.
If you listen to Ray Kurzweil and other predictors, what we’re doing now will become commonplace in 2025. So we’re sitting just ahead of things, and for thinking audiences, they’re already aware of these possibilities. Those that are rooted in kitchen-sink dramas don’t want to know it. People don’t want to think like that, a lot of folks don’t want to know. It’s like, “I don’t want to know.” And I’m not judging that, they just don’t. So they judge it as being too hard. “It’s too hard,” they say, “I don’t want to think that hard.” If you just want to sit down after a day’s work, a beer in your hand and flick it on, and you can watch Fringe or Grey’s Anatomy, you’re going to go Grey’s Anatomy.
AVC: You can’t just drop into Fringe casually. That shift from more standalone stuff to the ongoing serialized story, was that a conscious choice by the writers?
JN: I think it was an inevitable choice. I think we set out with the best intentions in the world to produce shows that would be self-contained as well as having a mythology running through it, and the mythology just took it over and gobbled it up. We still try to do standalones, but really the interesting part, the compelling part about Fringe, is this amazing backstory, and the character relationships. It’s a human drama between these people, really deep human drama. It’s like great literature in some ways, the way these characters develop.
I don’t know that we can get back to doing one-offs. It’s like picking up a novel halfway through and thinking, “I should be able to do this.” But the advantage folks have is that there are the season DVDs, which are a really great watch. We can’t force audience taste, but we know that the viewers who love us love us a lot.
AVC: There’s been a lot of really dark, emotional material on the show alongside the goofier stuff. When the writers made that choice to shift to dark storylines, did you welcome it? Were you apprehensive?
JN: No, I wasn’t apprehensive at all, I thought it was inevitable to go to another stage. Human beings, we have dark sides; we have dark issues in our lives. To progress anywhere in life, you have to face your demons. So I think the characters in the show and the show itself have to go down that path.
One of the things we’re conscious of is not losing the humor. We’re very conscious that Walter doesn’t become too heavy, for example, because Walter provides a lot of the humor. So we’re very conscious that we need to keep Astrid and Walter still as kooky as ever sometimes. We’ve got a little bit of levity now with Olivia and the boys on the other side, that’s starting to take a little bit of a weight off of it. But the key to it still remains in Walter and his goofiness and those experiments, and we’re very conscious that we can’t lose those.
AVC: Do you think Walter’s done facing his demons, or are there more things you know about?
JN: Well, there’s not more things I know about, but as a student of human nature, I’d say there’s definitely more things to come. It’s like unraveling an onion. You take away, you get acceptance of a certain thing, and then you’re confronted with something else, and you go, “Oh my God.” This is a journey of redemption, and always has been since the beginning. It’s a huge arc of redemption. What’s the end of redemption? God-state? I don’t know, but it’s a long way to go. And maybe then he can take on the golden-years thing of becoming a very wise mentor to others. That’s also a really wonderfully valid function in the classical archetype of arcs. I don’t know. They’re not going to let him go get too sane, I don’t think. They don’t want to, and the audiences don’t want to.