Interview: John Noble

Grace Murray 6 May 2015

Tomorrow, John Noble’s role in the Batman video game Arkham Knight will be revealed to the world. Unfortunately, he says, the surprise hasn’t gone completely to plan. “They put a trailer out, and everyone recognised my voice!” He laughs, but it’s a testament to the fact that his work as Walter Bishop on Fringe (as well as his scene-stealing turn as Denethor in the original Lord of the Rings film trilogy) has earned him a dedicated, international fanbase. He chatted to TCS before speaking at the Union about the work that goes into every role he plays, and how he went from an established thespian to a stalwart of sci-fi TV and film.

Is this your first time in Cambridge?

It is. I’m doing a publicity tour round Europe – I was in Northern Ireland last week and I’m in Romania next week. Eventually I’m going to Comic Con in London, which is now getting so big. It’s second only to San Diego, which is great to see.

You’ve done a lot of genre work in both film and TV. Is there something that attracts you to it?

Not particularly, no! I never really think that I’m acting in genre. I think that I’m playing a character somewhere, and I play that character as [realistically] as I can, whether it be in Lord of the Rings or Fringe or anything else. I think of them as very real people. So when people say to me, “You’re very well known as a sci-fi actor!” I say, “Really?” Because I spent most of my career as a stage actor and director.

You do seem to move around across media quite a lot, including returning to the stage on Broadway last year. Are you thinking about getting more involved in theatre again?

Oh, I’ll certainly keep a finger in all pies. What I won’t do is direct, because I love acting. It’s as simple as that really. I always thought there were better people to direct. And people always ask me whether I’ll direct TV and film, but that’s a totally different game, so technical.

Is it strange to see J.J. Abrams stepping into the limelight as a film director after working with him on Fringe? [Abrams is to direct the latest Star Wars film.]

He’s an exceptional intellect and an exceptional leader. I’m in contact with those friends [from Fringe] still. We became like a family, which became one of the central points of Fringe. That was such a winning idea, as well as the very smart ideas at the centre of it. A father-son dynamic like that one hadn’t really been seen on television before.

Do you do any particular research into characters like Walter, who was a Harvard scientist?

Yes, and for Denethor, for Lord of the Rings, because he was quite an underwritten character. He had only little bits in the second film and third film. When we meet him, he appears to be an insane monster, and I couldn't do that without a reason. So I then had to invent certain things, so that I understood his grief at the loss of his son. Psychology of characters is fascinating, because people are so fascinating. We’re not straightforward, so getting inside that, that’s my research. As for science, I had a request for the writers on Fringe: let’s do anything which is feasible within theoretical physics. I have to be able to play it as a scientist. And they were great – they changed things. No more monsters of the week!

Finally, is it strange to still be recognisable for Denethor? After all, your most memorable scene features you on fire and about to jump off a cliff.

Oh, it’s amusing. When The Lord of the Rings came out, people were terrified of me. Children used to run the other way. But that’s all changed. Fringe was the big one. There was never a character like Walter Bishop, and I don’t think there will be again.