Aussie John Noble stars in the new sci-fi drama Fringe, writes Colin Vickery
EMMY Award-winning producer J.J. Abrams has an impressive TV track record — Felicity, Alias, Lost — so it’s no wonder his new show, Fringe, has been creating huge buzz around Hollywood.
A cross between The X-Files and The Twilight Zone, the pilot (which reportedly cost more than $10 million to produce) revels in post-9/11 paranoia.
The series begins when Flight 627 lands at Boston’s Logan Airport. All the passengers and crew are dead, so a special task force led by FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Australia’s Anna Torv) is sent to investigate. What looks like an act of bio-terrorism leads her to seek out scientist Walter Bishop (Aussie John Noble), who has languished in a mental institution for the past 17 years.
Bishop is the former chair in biochemistry at Harvard University and a pioneer in fringe science — wildcat research into everything from hallucinatory drugs to out-of-body experiences and ESPstyle mind communication.
Playing Bishop is a huge breakthrough for Noble, 60, who has been a regular on local series including Home and Away (as Dr Helpman) and All Saints (neurosurgeon Dr John Marsden).
He joins a growing list of Aussie actors who are making it big on US TV, including Simon Baker (whose The Mentalist goes head-to-head with Fringe in the US), Anthony LaPaglia (Without A Trace), Rachel Griffiths (Brothers and Sisters) and Alan Dale (Ugly Betty).
‘‘The build-up is astonishing,’’ Noble says from New York. ‘‘You can’t go anywhere around here without seeing Fringe billboards.’’
Noble appeared on the international casting radar after playing Denethor in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Feature parts in 24, The Unit and Journeyman followed, but a major regular role in the year’s most anticipated new series takes things to another level.
‘‘J.J. Abrams is one of the sharpest men I’ve known,’’ he says. ‘‘He has this incredible drive and imagination that inspires people — qualities that (Lord of the Rings director) Peter Jackson also has. Both men are able to get people around them to believe in the impossible.’’
Abrams is renowned for the secrecy surrounding his projects. The Lost cast is rarely privy to plotlines and it’s the same with Fringe.
‘‘The scripts come in quite close — sometimes too close — to filming,’’ Noble says. ‘‘Fortunately, with my character, there was more (background information) than actors would normally get because Bishop’s history is discussed in the pilot.
‘‘Walter Bishop has been incarcerated for 17 years and had electric shock therapy. He’s not a totally together human being when we meet him. The difference is that despite his behaviour, he hasn’t lost hope. He still wakes every morning excited that he has his freedom again. He’s childlike in that respect.’’
As with Lost, Fringe plays with shifting time frames and multiple points of view, and Fringe, M Channel 9, Wednesday, 8.30pm Sci-fi drama Duration: 1 hour Abrams is shameless in lifting ideas from other movies and TV series.
Torv’s Olivia Dunham is a mirror image of Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, Noble’s mad scientist is a sci-fi perennial from as far back as Frankenstein, the sensory-deprivation tank scenes a direct nick from 1980’s Altered States.
Despite those echoes of past hits, Noble believes Fringe will resonate because much of the fringe science it shows borders on the real.
‘‘What’s unique is that even though it’s out there on the fringe, it actually could happen,’’ he says. ‘‘If we are successful, that will be one of the elements that will draw people in.
‘‘It’s not fear-mongering, but there’s always conspiracy theories and big-brother aspects of life. This builds from some of those things that could be happening in the world today.
‘‘I don’t know that it’s far removed from the impossible.’’
Heading the Fringe cast alongside Torv and Noble is former Dawson’s Creek star Joshua Jackson, who plays Bishop’s son, Peter.
‘‘I’ve established a wonderful relationship with Josh, who is a delight and an amazing actor,’’ Noble says.
‘‘You’ll be proud of Anna, too. She’s a marvellous young woman doing a great job.’’
IN THE ’70s and ’80s, Noble played a major role in bringing Australian stories to audiences, producing more than 70 new Australian plays and serving as artistic director of the Stage Company of South Australia for 10 years.
‘‘I was part of that movement of people around Australia who said, ‘We’re sick of looking at British and American culture so let’s do our own’,’’ he says.
‘‘Now I’ve been swept along with the international thing. My goal these days is to perfect my acting craft and this (Fringe) has given me the opportunity to do that. I guess I’m at a different stage of my career.’’