HitFix Interview: Noah Wyle talks ‘Falling Skies’

06.18.11 8 years ago

The Noah Wyle of “Falling Skies” is a Noah Wyle you’ve never seen before.

The “ER” veteran toplines the new TNT alien invasion drama playing Tom Mason, a history teacher who suddenly finds himself using guns as well as his brains to protect his family and fight off the vicious extraterrestrials.
But it’s the Noah Wyle you don’t see in “Falling Skies” who has changed the most. The five-time Emmy nominee came onto his new series determined to expand his horizons behind-the-scenes and from speaking to producers or co-stars, it’s clear that Wyle’s “Falling Skies” passions extended well beyond his on-screen performance, to working with the writers and helping to establish the tone on set.
Last month, I interview Wyle in Beverly Hills and came away with a clear sense of *his* clear sense about this heavily promoted new project.
Click through for the full interview, which touches on his new hands-on attitude, the challenges of finding TV projects post-“ER” and his ongoing relationship with TNT.
HitFix: How many episodes have you seen at this point? I was just talking to Moon [Bloodgood] and she was saying she’d seen three or four episodes…
Noah Wyle: Well, that’s Moon’s paygrade. I’ve seen them all.
HitFix: With completed effects and everything?
NW: Pretty much. They were still tweaking the finale when I looked at it. There were still some place-holding special effects cards, but for the most part, they’re locked and loaded.
HitFix: You mentioned the “paygrade” issue and I’ve heard several people reference the input you were giving in the writing process and the steering of these characters. Could you talk a bit about the stake that you wanted to have in this?
NW: Well, this was different from the outset from anything I’d done before. Certainly it’s a new genre. But I think, more significantly, that it was really the first time I ever came into a project at the head of the call sheet. On “ER,” I inherited more and more responsibilities as the show went on and then found myself, after 11 years, sitting at the top of the cast list. But this was coming in cold as the big head on the poster. I’d been thinking along these lines anyway, that I wanted to have more of a creative stake in what I was working on, or at least access to have input, whether it was valuable or not, just to sorta feel allowed to have an ongoing education in all aspects of filmmaking. I hadn’t really done very much work in post-production. I hadn’t really seen that process. I hadn’t really done a lot of pre-production work either. So being given access to be on the ground floor in location scouting and extras casting, all of it, I found incredibly fascinating and I was really happy that they listened to what few ideas I spouted off here and there.
HitFix: Some people would have tried to get their feet wet in a small comedy or an indie film. This is a fairly big production, so you just decided you wanted to plunge right in?
NW: Yes and no. I was going in with the security of knowledge knowing that with Mr. Spielberg’s involvement, the aliens and the spaceships were going to be taken care of. I looked at my responsibility as making sure that the ensemble of actors was as committed to playing the same stakes across the board as we could be, so that there were no weak links in that chain and that beat-by-beat, moment-to-moment, character-to-character, we were playing out this “As If…” storyline as if this is what would happen in these circumstances. That put, for me, the fact that it was a science fiction, alien invasion show more as a backdrop to what was playing out as a very human character drama, which is something I’m much more well-versed in, so I felt comfortable doing that.
HitFix: How was your character different after you got through poking around with him?
NW: Not too. Not too different at all. It was really a line here, a line there, “Let’s clarify this moment” or “Let’s really get the essence out of this scene,” those kinds of suggestions. We hired a great team of writers. Mark Verheiden is phenomenal. I had very little issue with anything they wrote. It was really just sorta on-set about whether it was playing and conveying the exact thing that we wanted in that particular moment. What we had learned very quickly, and I’m sure you know this as well as I, is how attentive the science fiction audience is in terms of detail and how it can be perceived as insulting if you haven’t really crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s beforehand. So that was very interesting me, is to make sure that as we were doing this peeling-the-onion-back storytelling and learning new strands of information about the enemy so that we could synthesize it and come up with a gameplan to eventually turn the tide, that that was as engaging to an audience member as it was to the characters on-screen.
HitFix: Are you a fan of the genre?
NW: You know, I’ve been saying that I haven’t been, but then as I say that, I start reflecting back on what a huge “Star Wars” nut I was and how I lapped up movies like “The Black Hole” and “The Last Starfighter” and all of these titles are coming back to me from my youth, which I guess makes me a bigger science fiction fan than I thought I was. 
For some reason, when I hear the words “science fiction,” I think about the 1960s “Star Trek” shows, which I came a little later to. I grew up in the early-to-mid-70s when those were being rerun for the first time, so I saw them, but they weren’t really part of my cultural milieu and then I was a little old to catch the Next Generation wave that coon soon thereafter. 
But yeah, I guess I am a fan. I like it best when it’s used as metaphor for tackling some hotbed topic that is easier to view one step removed from it, so people can get a little objectivity and a little insight to it. And I think that’s something that the old “Star Trek,” Gene Roddenberry did that better than anybody. We do a little bit of that on this show.
HitFix: So what would you say the metaphorical underpinnings are in “Falling Skies”?
NW: Well, I don’t think it’s truly agitprop. We make the historical reference that this is analogous to the American Revolution, but you can pretty much go through history, all up to the present day, and find cases of a large invading force occupying an area where the local inhabitants don’t want them and even though they’re out-manned and out-gunned, they find some kind of grit and determination to not just hold their own, but eventually repel the occupying force.
HitFix: How long did it take you to see that? It sounds like even though you like some elements of science fiction, you may have had some reservations. How quickly did those reservations pass? 
NW: Well, it didn’t take me very long. I thought the way that we paced it out in the pilot… We see them, but we don’t really see them. Eventually, at the very end of the pilot, we see one up-close-and-personal, but it’s a boogieman threat through most of it. Our numbers are being thinned by things we can’t see and quite figure out. We don’t really know why they’re here or what they want from us or how we can best fight them. Then, because  of budgetary restraints, you can’t use the aliens in every episode. You’ve got to pick and choose the moments where you want to blow that budget out, so you may save up a couple episodes worth and focus really on the interpersonal storylines between the characters and try and create drama there, to show that the threat isn’t only external, it’s also internal, it’s human to human as well. That’s very interesting storytelling and then you’ve saved up three post-production budgets worth of shows and you can have a big epic battle and blow the wad.
HitFix: How much did you get to have your fingers in that aspect of things, the money and budgeting and whatnot?
NW: A little bit, but it was set gossip more than anything else. You want it to look good. If you’re amortizing your post-production budget over 10 episodes and you’re gonna allocate it to each episode, you’re gonna get not a lot of bang for your buck.
HitFix: I was talking with Moon about this, that your character and her character, they’re introduced and they’re looking at each other, so we instantly make the assumption…
NW: Here we go! 
HitFix: Exactly. But it doesn’t go down that way. The characters are too busy and too messed up for that to happen.
NW: That was it. It was always intended that these two characters would end up together, but there were certain stumbling blocks that prevented them from being able to get there. So of them were dramatic, on-camera, and some of them were off-camera, in the sense that both of these people lost spouses, so you can’t really have these two characters get together until they’ve had a period of grief and respect for their losses. And also, as you said, when you’re trying to establish a level of constant threat, it’s hard to get away with scenes that divert away from that and become interpersonal scenes waxing towards romance. Every time we wrote a scene, and we wrote several, where I’d be on guard duty up on a rooftop and she’d bring me a sandwich and then she’d ask me a question and I’d hold her hand, we just thought, “This is going to take all of the momentum of this episode and plunge it right into the toilet.” So it became a question of how could we keep these characters’ spark alive and the interest alive and the tension there, but also have it play out plausibly over the body of the season. I think there’s a nice moment by the end of the last episode that feels very earned by that point.
HitFix: How much weapons prep and boot camp did you guys have to do?
NW: Very little. And that’s even though we had Dale Dye as a castmember and Dale runs *the* boot camp, we call got to skirt that. It was probably because we don’t have to play soldiers. We’re playing civilians-turned-into-soldiers, so there’s a bit of a learning curve built into how to handle these weapons. We had a few days of rehearsal, running around soundstages with our guns learning proper safety and handling and how to field-strip them, all of that kind of fun stuff. I’d done a little bit of that before. It’s just good fun.
HitFix: Can you just feel Dale Dye judging you when he’s on the set?
NW: Yeah. Well, whether you feel it or not, you feel his presence and you feel the body of knowledge that he brings to the room, so you’re very conscious of where your muzzle is pointing when Dale’s on-set. He’s not above chewing out a background member for improper gun-handling.
HitFix: I’ve talked to him before and he’s very proud of his ability to make the people at the top of the call sheet cry.
NW: For some reason I got a pass. I came in early on. I was respectful as all hell. I quoted all of his movie dialogue from various Oliver Stone projects. I just basically kissed his ass up and down until I made him like me.
HitFix: When you’ve done a show that was as significant, basically in every way, as “ER” was, how does that color how you look at any script that comes to you subsequently, particularly TV projects?
NW: It does and it doesn’t. I gave up a long time ago believing that “ER” was ever going to happen twice for me. Once I released myself from that pressure, of feeling I had to double it or replicate it, then I could look at everything else on its own merits. This is just very different. One of the things that was most attractive about it was shooting 10 episodes as opposed to 24, which affords me a bit of quality-of-life and allows me to have a presence in my kids’ lives. But in terms of quality of writing, this was great writing. Mark Verheiden’s a great writer. I enjoy this kind of storytelling just as much as all of those years on “ER.”
And it’s difficult to say “ER,” as an entity, because I look at it in segments. 
HitFix: How many different layers or segments do you break “ER” down into in your mind?
NW: Oh, four or five easily. There’s the original incarnation with the original cast and the original writers’ room. Then, right off the bat, there was the introduction of Laura Innes and Alex Kingston and a couple other characters who brought it to its second stage. Then there was after all of the defections, after George left and Tony left and Eriq left, it became a totally different show. Then after I left, it became a totally different show again. Then we wrapped it up, going back to the original starting five, in a way.
HitFix: I vividly remember the outcry when your character on “ER” suddenly returned with a beard. Here you are back in the bearded realm. Were there any second thoughts about that?
NW: There may have been, but I think I quieted all dissent early on, “Look. If you’re going to make me play the father of this 17-year-old kid, give me a little help.” 
HitFix: I assume you also remember that “ER”/beard outcry.
NW: Oh yeah, I still have a letter from Bob Daly, who was the president of Warner Brothers at the time, telling me that he’d written the exact same letter one other time in his career, which was to Harrison Ford after he saw some dailies from “The Fugitive,” telling him to “shave that f***ing thing off his face.”
HitFix: That’s a thing that could scar you for future bearded roles.
NW: Nah. You take that as a challenge! But in the case, it’s appropriate. How much vanity and grooming could you possibly do in the apocalypse.
HitFix: How would you describe your relationship with TNT? You’ve done a handful of movies for them, including the “Librarian” things and now this…
NW: It started years ago with “Pirates of Silicon Valley” and then soon thereafter, they became the syndicating channel for “ER,” so I’ve been in bed with them for a while. Certainly the first “Librarian” movie cemented that and my relationship with [Head of Programming – TNT, TBS & TCM] Michael Wright, who wasn’t in the job that he’s in now, but was one of the earliest champions for that franchise to hit the air. And when it succeeded, so did he and so we’ve enjoyed each other’s company now for many years. He was incredibly generous about calling me up and showing me all of the projects he was going to be greenlighting, pilots. This one came up and it was very quick conversation.
HitFix: I hear actors talk about their relationship with different networks, but in your case it’s something you can really feel?
NW: With him and with them. I don’t know if that’s typical. I find Michael to be a pretty atypical executive. Maybe it’s because he used to be an actor and I’m biased? He has a really hands-off management style. He lets you go off and make your show. And then he’s got great taste. I think he’s  a really smart programmer and just a genuinely nice guy.
HitFix: And there have been reports that a second season pickup could be very soon-to-come…
NW: Well, we hired a showrunner. Remi Aubuchon is going to be running the writing room for a potential next season. We have to start now, even though TNT wants to wait and see how it performs. But if we waited to start assembling a team until after the second episode airs, we’d be putting off production until the fall, which would be putting off air-dates until… So if we want to keep to this type of air schedule, we have to at least have a couple scripts in place before the pickup order comes so we can hit the ground running.
HitFix: Do you have any hopes/aspirations/goals that you’re looking forward to addressing in the second season?
NW: Well, we have to do a second season, in my opinion, because we’ve basically run ourselves into a very significant corner that’s either a golden opportunity to start a second season with, or a very unsatisfying end to a first.
HitFix: And for you personally? Is directing an episode the next thing you have as a goal? 
NW: Maybe. Second season may be a little premature?
HitFix: But Season Three?
NW: Season Three I’d take one, I’d take a crack at one. Yeah.
“Falling Skies” premieres on TNT at 9 p.m. on Sunday, June 19.

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