Interview: John NobleMay 5, 2019
Recently we had the chance to talk with John Noble, who many know from his roles as Denethor in Lord of the Rings and Walter Bishop from the hit TV show Fringe. He talked about his life as an actor, including his work on stage as both actor and director, and his new movie Silencio.
Was acting something you always wanted to do?
John: Well no, only because I was completely unaware that you could be. It was probably not until I was a teenager, maybe a bit later than that, where I realized it was something you actually could do. I went down to boarding school, was going to get into law school, didn’t like that very much but while I was there I picked up an elective for drama for some reason. The teachers, they saw something there, and they asked if I would do some community theater and I said yeah, I’d love to. Anyway I did and it was a pretty fast ascent to professionalism I’d say, I was definitely in the right place at the right time, in terms of theater really getting started in Australia. I didn’t get into television until I was 40, theater kept me busy for many years, but I was just lucky, man. Here’s the thing: I finally found something that I knew I was good at and I really loved it, that was the difference. I’ve never wavered from that, I’m 70 now, and I’ve never lost that joy I get, especially with the difficult stuff. The easy, two-dimensional roles I feel very uncomfortable with the trickier, more difficult stuff, I love it.
How did you move from acting to directing when it came to working on stage?
John: I never meant to be a director, I don’t know how I got into it, but I spent a long time doing it and really, it wasn’t my first love. My timing was kind of unusual and one of the first things I realized when I started was I needed to do was get a good voice teacher, and I got a fantastic teacher in Adelaide, which really helped me moving forward. Beyond that, it was more of going and learning on the job and I was always doing stuff so I was learning really fast, and being a bit of a perfectionist I didn’t like not getting it right. I used to be amazed at all these guys and gals walking around doing their lines, quoting Shakespeare, and I had no idea what they were doing, I was a bit out of place there. However, even being frightened of accents, I was determined to get to the bottom of it, which the voice training helped with immensely, to the extent that I was teaching them after a while. Directing…I never thought I was a particularly good director, I just kind of fell into it, really, compared to all of the people who came along with grand plans and these big visions. I had a fairly simple approach with directing, it seemed to work, but no, there was no grand plan in terms of directing.
Do you think working in theater is something every actor should experience or is it just not for everyone?
John: If you work enough in the theater, your skills are going to expand enormously. Say you do a play every four months or something, you’ve got to completely submerge yourself in the history of the play. I learned more about history, and I still do, just by doing plays, and that’s always kept me interested.
Besides theater, you’ve done work in TV, film, and voice acting. Do you have a favorite medium to work in or do you simply go where the work takes you?
John: The basic principles are the same for whatever you’re doing. I like television because I like the pace of it, having to make quick decisions, I get off on that, I really love it. The fast pace lends itself to wonderful things lying dormant, ready to be tapped. Film is pretty slow, the theater is still interesting and exciting, and the success has much more to do with the ensemble you’re working with, I think. I actually had decided I wasn’t going to do any more plays and I’ve now done three in New York in the last four years and I’ve loved every one of them, I just don’t want to do it all the time.
How did you end up landing the role of Denethor in Lord of the Rings?
John: That was freakish. (Laughs) I hadn’t read Lord of the Rings and my agent in Australia said oh, they’re doing Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, Peter Jackson is doing it, and they want to see you for Denethor. So I went and did it, and honestly, did it very well. I’m not bragging when I say that, I know when I have or haven’t and I did that one very well. I didn’t think much of it after that, they were all over the world looking for people, then a few months later my agent said, Jackson is coming himself this time, he wants you to do more, he wants you to read for Saruman as well. I did, and I did a really good audition for both roles, but then I heard Christopher Lee had got the role of Saruman, which was fantastic casting, so I didn’t worry about it. Even after I found out I got the role of Denethor, I didn’t realize the importance of that, what it meant. I mean, they liked us, Chris Lee, myself, Ian McKellen, who still wasn’t very well known then, great stage actor, because we could handle the difficult languages. As an ensemble, we all worked together well, and some great leadership from Peter Jackson at that time, he was an inspired man. It’s funny, I’m telling you this and I still shake my head because I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time (laughs)…it was certainly bigger than I ever could have imagined.
Was it a good experience for you, working on Lord of the Rings, because obviously, it was a huge production.
John: It was a once in a lifetime experience. It was Peter Jackson’s passion project, he wanted that so badly. Prior to that, he had a bit of a following with some horror films he made, then he did Heavenly Creatures, a beautiful film, Kate Winslet was discovered in that, but this was the film he wanted to make. He went to Hollywood, no one would listen to him, then went to New Line and they said, why don’t you do all three at once? (Laughs) That shocked him but he took it as a challenge and took us all for the ride mate, there was nothing like it. The whole of New Zealand, I’m serious, was totally supportive and behind him, it was amazing.
Your role as Walter Bishop on Fringe was wonderful. What was it like working on that show and playing that character?
John: It was a dream. In fact, if someone said to me ok John, you can write your dream role and play it for a while, I would have written Walter Bishop, because there were no limitations, really. Once I got the role, I did research very carefully a series of things that would make Walter Bishop who he is, including drug abuse, what it’s like being a genius, so I was prepared coming in. As they got to know me they realized they could throw anything my way, it was great, I just loved it. They had a lot of trust in me to make choices they would agree with, they were brilliant showrunners, excellent people. For me, it was five years of joy, and it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Going to conventions, meeting the fans, it is mainly Walter Bishop and Denethor that people line up for, and that’s fine with me.
Walter had a very interesting relationship with his son Peter, something that was fascinating to watch throughout the whole series.
John: It’s funny, I’ll tell you about that. Josh Jackson, who plays Peter, he and I got along very well and Peter is basically a boy who has been left behind early by his father and had difficulties supporting the family. We thought you know, let’s make this real, not some quick reconciliation that would come off as phony. So we built the trust up slowly and we talked about it all the time, Josh and I. Josh is an incredibly smart guy so we began to develop a relationship, lose it, develop it again…I loved that relationship, it was wonderful.
When Fringe ended were you looking to do another TV show right away, because it wasn’t too long before you were starring in Sleepy Hollow?
John: I really didn’t know what was going to happen. We went back to Australia for about nine months and it was great, everyone was offering me work, terrific stuff, I did some wonderful stuff when I was home. Then Alex Kurtzman, who created Sleepy Hollow, rang me and asked me to be in it, described the character to me and I said I’ll do it, but I do want the option to walk away and I did after the second season, then I went on to Elementary. I think I have one series left in me, that’s what I tell people, anyway. TV series can be pretty rough going but if you get the right role, you can spend years developing this person so you know all the subtleties and nuances in the character. I love that, but I’d hate to be doing it as a two-dimensional character.
You have a new movie out called Silencio that has a lot of the same elements from Fringe, sci-fi, family, power, love. How did you come to be involved in this film?
John: (Laughs) I was thinking about this morning, how on earth did that movie find its way to me? Well, somehow it got to me, I read it and it appealed to me for a couple of reasons, one being it’s a love story and the unconditional love that a father has, and it’s heartbreaking in some ways, what goes on there. That drew me to it more than the science fiction, the science fiction was the wrapping but the core was the love story. I had a great relationship with the actress who played my daughter (Melina Mattews), we found the joy in the characters and each other. Also, it was being done in Mexico, where I hadn’t filmed before and it was written and directed by a woman in a very powerful way. There are few women directors, let alone writers, and I hope she learns what she needs to learn from this and goes on and does many more films. If she does I’d be proud to be part of her team again.
Do you actively seek out smaller roles like this, characters and films that pique your interest?
John: I don’t think I actively seek out roles. I’m not really an A-lister, there aren’t piles of scripts on my desk waiting for me to go through. My manager knows me well enough now to know what I like, so if it’s a good storyline, strong character, I’ll do it. I’m going off to do another small film in Hungary in a couple weeks’ time, I’ve never been to Budapest, so that’s another draw for me. Good script, world traveler, that’s me.
How have you enjoyed voice acting, specifically joining the world of Batman voicing Scarecrow in Arkham Knight?
John: Oh yeah, it’s great. You know, a lot of actors complain about doing ADR, oh I hate doing ADR, so I decided to make it one of my life skills and I love it, especially since I know what I’m doing now. That Batman game, wow, what a big project, that went on for about two years. It all came back to wanting more dialogue as there were so many options in the game. It is quite a good game, apparently did very well, and not a bad one to have under your belt. It’s nice to be able to say yes, I did a voice in a Batman game. (Laughs) Yeah, I like it a lot.
How have things changed in the world of television and films, from when you started up until now?
John: Well, in television the production standards have gone through the roof, so much so that now TV loses nothing to a movie in terms of quality. Network TV is no longer king, with so many options in cable and streaming services, I really don’t know how people decide, there is just so much out there. I think for television it all started with Breaking Bad, I was filming Fringe at the time, and it really didn’t have an impact until the third season where it suddenly took off. I was up against those guys for awards sometimes and they’d always win, in fact, they still talk about that show. To me, that was a show that just captured the world’s attention and really, I’d like to be involved in one of those cable shows one day. The freedom they have compared to network television…that would be fun.
So what other projects do you have coming up?
John: Oh goodness, I don’t know, I never know. I wouldn’t mind doing another series but if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t matter. I’m tempted to go home to Australia, my kids are still there, but I just try and take it a day at a time. The thing is at my age, at any age really, you have to keep yourself ship shape because you never know what might come next.
I want to thank John for taking the time to talk with us