Interview: ‘Sleepy Hollow’ star John Noble on Season 2 and what drives War, Henry and Jeremy

WILMINGTON, NC. There was a point a few years back when I seemed to talk with John Noble every few weeks about the universe-bending twists and turns of FOX's “Fringe.”

We talked on the drama's Vancouver set. We talked at FOX summer press days on multiple occasions. We talked via satellite. We talked at Comic-Con. Because of the constantly evolving nature of “Fringe” and Walter Bishop and Walternate and various permutations on each character, Noble never repeated himself in our conversations and always impressed with a passion for the subject matter that extended to his hosting duties on Science's “Dark Matters: Twisted But True.”

Noble probably wasn't worried about the year or two that he spent not being interviewed by HitFix. He did some Australian TV. He guested on CBS' “The Good Wife” a couple times. And he began work on another FOX drama “Sleepy Hollow,” in which he got to play yet another character who turned out to have two or three very different layers.

Introduced as Sin Eater Henry Parrish, we were later told that Henry was actually Jeremy Crane, son of Ichabod and Katrina. And as if that dead-cheating secret wasn't enough, we also discovered that Henry/Jeremy was actually War, the Second of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It sounds confusing, but in context it all makes sense in that way that nearly everything in “Sleepy Hollow” sounds confusing, but all kinda makes sense in context. And don't worry, it's a challenge for John Noble to understand as well.

Last month, I sat down with my former scene partner in a makeshift press holding area above a “Sleepy Hollow” location in Wilmington, North Carolina. After years of the “Fringe” grind, Noble seemed enthusiastic and energized with his responsibilities on “Sleepy Hollow.” Just two days from his 66th birthday, Noble was all smiles, talking his relative surplus of downtime, which gives him the chance for music and painting, among other pursuits. 

It's also giving him time for research. Just as “Fringe” let Noble delve into a passion for physics, “Sleepy Hollow” is letting him research magic and witchcraft and he sounds every bit as invested in this character as he was in the role he spent five years playing previously. In this interview, he talks about his approach to the Henry/Jeremy/War trinity and the challenges of playing a character so frequently shrouded in mystery and conflicted motivations.

“Sleepy Hollow” will air its second episode on Monday (September 29) night.

Click through for the full John Noble Q&A.

HitFix: Last year when they first approached you about this, how much did they tell you immediately about the character and how much did they sort of gradually tease out to you?

John Noble: No. When Alex [Kurtzman] rang me to talk about the role they told me the backstory and they told me that it would lead through to the finale. I knew what season one was about. There was no indication at that stage of what season two would hold. And a lot of the reason for that is that people don't know.  [I laugh.] No they don't! They go in and they have to re-create a new season, re-create a new arc, a new Bible and look at what worked and what didn't work. It's very important. So I don't think they knew.

HitFix: So, was the initial draw for you sort of playing this character with these sort of three different layers of who he was?

John Noble: Totally.

HitFix: And when you were in the first season, I was just talking with Tom and he talked about how he was sort of noticing little things in your performance that he didn't necessarily understand and then he got to the end of the season and suddenly he understood it. What was it like for you to sort of craft this character dropping those little hints.

John Noble: Delicious. Delicious. I loved every moment of it.

HitFix: Well, how did you distribute those hints? What if I went back and watched season one would I notice you doing?

John Noble: Sometimes I would be told, “Be careful with the delivery of that line, it's significant. And particularly if it's a line that's repeated later, make sure you get it syllable perfect so even in your intonation be careful not to shift, it's got to be perfect.” And it was just stuff that came up sometimes. I could see it in the script because I was reading it from Jeremy's point of view and I could see the little teases. I loved it. [He laughs.]

HitFix: And is it easy for you to keep secrets from your fellow actors? Because I know that sometimes actors will just blab, you know, when they're…

John Noble: There's no need to keep secrets from other actors. We're actors; we're not doing it for real. It just happened that even Tom didn't quite expect it, which is great.

HitFix: Now how do you sort of draw the differences between sort of the three sides of this guy, the Henry side of him, the Jeremy side of him and War?

John Noble: It's probably easier than it looks because he's ruled by… He's still got an undeveloped teenage boy running around him that's how he went out. That's what he brings with him so you'll still see that …and that's the Jeremy character. The Henry is someone with the wisdom to play people, to play the game and he does that in pursuit of his goal, which is to get revenge on mom and dad. That's what he does. The third one, I'm not even sure that he's comfortable with, that is the uncomplicated unquestioning soldier of Moloch. [Something a bit too spoilery redacted.] Moloch's a pig. He's ugly and he's a pig of a man or whatever he is.

HitFix: Well, who has been sort of Henry's mentor? Like who has been steering who Henry is?

John Noble: There is no indication that he's taken a mentor at all. And it's a beautiful question, by the way, which I think is probably why he seems to be so unreasonably and immature in his approaches. He's got no one to tell him, even though he's an old man. No one has told him how to be a man even. He's picked it up as he's got along. And we haven't done much exploration on what happened in those 13/14 years prior to it, but it was a lot. And I do think about that sometimes what brought him to the stage that we meet him in season one, already into the game of the doddering old man playing… It's all a game, so what did he do to get there? And I've got something running and it may be revealed sometime, I don't know.

HitFix: Is that stuff that you sort of have conversations with the writers about or is that just you in your own…?

John Noble: Well, I'll certainly create a scenario. I may, if I think it's important I may discuss it with the writers simply because it may be I'm wrong in the terms of a pay-off they may see. Just check that so you don't find yourself, “Oh s***… You want me to do this?!?” It's an actor's dilemma in television, it really is, to get a continuity of character. You develop a certain line and then you read the next script and it's nothing like him. It's written by a different writer. You think, “But last episode I was… Oh s***!” That's when you get on the phone, “Save me.”

HitFix: I can imagine that being sort of a problem when you have just one character you're playing, but you're now on your second straight show where you've played two, three, four different sort of permutations of characters.

John Noble: Yeah. But that's an internal process. That doesn't concern me. It makes life interesting and I love complicated performance so that gives you the opportunity to do it.

HitFix: I remember talking to you on “Fringe” and you were very invested in sort of understanding the logic of it all. How well do you feel like you understand the logic on this show?

John Noble: [He nods.] I'm still struggling. And I'm sitting with it because the pragmatist, the skeptic in me, is not getting it sometimes. Now, that doesn't mean to say it's not there, but instead of making big statements about that, I'll wait and see. For example, at present I've just started to read some backstory on witchcraft because frankly the powers that are exhibited I had to find out is this within the normal range of things or are we stepping out? And these are things that are important to know because you, the viewers, will know them. By the time it gets off the discussion boards. No seriously, if you're not playing it right, we'll be exposed. So I have always thought, and I thought this on “Fringe” too, that you absolutely owe it to your viewers to get it right as much as you can. And “Fringe” was a great example because used I make sure they got the science right too.

HitFix: And that was a sort of things because I know you have that interest in science where they're actually, you know, you can sort of pretend that there was a scientific logic to it, whereas you can't here. So what are you using as sort of the foundational logic?

John Noble: I'm working on trust at present. It's a serious. Here's the thing, if this show opened and suddenly garnered a huge audience, which it had, and then we went to Comic-Con and saw that fan love that was amazing for a show that's only had 13 episodes, then something's working. So I've got to go back and say, “Well what is it? What's working here?” They understand it because if they don't understand it they'll piss us off; there's too many options. Then I've got that challenge between me the man with all of my intellectual abilities just having to step back and say, “There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio then are dreamt of in your…” so it's an interesting time. But yeah it's just trust; you've got to put a lot of trust back into it.

HitFix: So, you talked about sort of the witchcraft of it all. What have you actually read and what have you sort of found that you've decided to use yourself or to internalize yourself?

John Noble: The ability to cast spells, which is quite interesting, has a long history and a lot of stuff will be found in primitive cultures about that ability, the black magic abilities and so forth and looking at the Haitians, what came out of Haiti too that incredible ability to heal or kill by the power of the spirit or what they believe to be. So I read all that. And I don't deny it. I don't like my Western academic cynicism work. I just say “There's got to be something in this. What are you missing?” And maybe I still won't agree with it but I won't diminish it without doing the study on it.

HitFix: Now, as we sort of begin the season and as we progress, are there key differences between what Henry wants, what Jeremy wants and what War wants?

John Noble: Well, Jeremy is gone as far as we're concerned and Henry says that. “I'm not Jeremy any more.” So forget Jeremy. At this point. Henry has accepted that the pay-off of giving back to earth, getting to do what he did is he's a servant of Moloch. That's the deal and so he's a major servant of Moloch, who is a pretty hard taskmaster who doesn't treat him very kindly. So he's a servant, he's like a Nazi senior general waiting for orders from the Fuhrer. And if you don't obey them, you don't do well. And War, War is still an enigma to me. What Henry knows is that he can bring War back to existence. He has the power, with Moloch the power, to bring that basically a set of rusty armor back into this thing who is like a hologram in a sense but Henry can control it with thought. So he can send him into the battlefield and control him, but I don't have an attachment to him. That's part of the pay-off to Moloch.

HitFix: But is War a tangible thing that you can sort of put your finger on, feel its pulse, give it a backstory, or is it really just a concept? And how do you play a concept?

John Noble: I think it's a bloody good question. To me it's a concept. Except that I do know that forces gather in the world. Forces of evil gather and forces of good gather. And then they then generate an incredible power. And again, witness Nazi Germany, good people, I mean a fine group of people turn into monsters because of the building of that culture. And yet they weren't monsters, but within that sort of “Lord of the Rings” thing where they all got swept along and then they came out the other end shaking their heads and saying, “What the hell were we doing?” [He pauses and muses and goes silent.]

HitFix: And can the writers help you with some of this stuff? Do the writers sort of help you with the answers to the background questions that you have about playing this sort of concept I guess?

John Noble: Look, if I was stuck on something I could ask. But it's kind of interesting to do the research yourself. I mean I found it very interesting to do the research myself. And that's what I do. And if I'm stuck on something, in terms of a story arc, I'll certainly ask the writers. And sometimes they're still writing somewhere else and they can't actually tell you. It's not because they're incompetent in the least, it's just that they haven't gone there yet. Sometimes you have to and you have to make a stand if something is just not working, but I haven't had to yet.

HitFix: Now, is this guy is he all nurture and sort of the lack there of nurture, did that shape him? Or is there any sort of nature? And you look at your two parents and sort of see things…?

John Noble: I have looked at that and come to the conclusion that he's a result absolutely predominately of nurture or lack there of. But he does inherit from his mother the special powers. And he's got their genes so there's going to be something residual of his wonderful father somewhere, because his father is wonderful. But dominating what we've seen so far is nurture.

HitFix: But when you look at Tom and when you sort of watch what he's doing, is there anything that you can take or that Katia is doing honestly also, is there anything that you can sort of take from what they're doing and sort of extract from that?

John Noble: Behaviorally? No. He's seen all the negatives. Still riddled with what's called the primitive child [muffled] is the term they use. This stuff he can't even articulate riddled with it. And it's going to be a major counseling session to get over that between the family, I'll tell you, huge counseling sessions.

HitFix: Had you wanted to jump back into regular series television after “Fringe”?

John Noble: No. I hadn't at all. I went back to Australia I was working there, which I enjoyed because I hadn't worked there in a long time. And did some good work there but it was funny how it came about because I know Alex and Roberto [Orci] and respect them enormously and I'm very fond of them. And so when Alex contacted me, I mean I was obviously very honored that he did this. That was a major swing thing that it's coming from such creative people who I respect so much, so I weighed it up and decided to go again, but I hadn't intended to at all.

HitFix: Had you always know that he was going to be a regular in the second season after being sort of a guest in the first and was that any sort of determining factor?

John Noble: There was discussion of him being in the second season. There was no discussion beyond that.

HitFix: This is a show that shoots a lot and moves a very quick pace. Has it felt different from “Fringe” at all?

John Noble: This is like a holiday after “Fringe” for me because I only do a little bit. I'm not a lead in it, so I had to get used to having all this downtime. No, it's not difficult at all. I think the show is difficult because of the size of it and the expectations. “Fringe” was too but it settled into a rhythm. This hasn't yet. It will. It's only early days.

“Sleepy Hollow” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on FOX.