The man who plays Walter Bishop talks about Leonard Nimoy, tomatoes and Mata Hari.
Fringe is a show that takes “uncompromising” to new levels. Returning to the UK on Sky1 tomorrow at 10pm to complete its third season run, the show is more daring, more outrageous, more complex and more downright enthralling than ever before. Some might say that having stories featuring two versions of the main characters in two different realities running concurrently is madness, confusing the hell out of casual viewers. But why pander to the lowest common denominator? Fringe has stuck to its guns, and the result is a show that rewards loyal viewers tenfold with some audacious storytelling. And it’s not too late to hop on board. Newcomers might experience some initial disorientation, but it won’t be long before everything clicks into place, and it’s worth the effort.
Central to the show since day one has been Walter Bishop, a guy who makes all previous nutty professors look like the model of sanity. John Noble (you may also know him as Denethor from The Lord Of The Rings) has been bringing the junk-food-loving, pot-smoking, potty-mouthed boffins for three years now, and last Thursday SFX had the chance to chat with him.
Word of warning: while you will find only very mild spoilers on this page, if you click onto the next page, things get much more spoilery indeed – recommended only for people up to speed with the show’s US schedule, or spoiler-whores.
SFX: Season three has seen the show reaching new creative highs. Can you give us any broad hints about where the show is heading at the end of the season?
“I think you’re right. Creatively season three continues to amaze. We’ve tried some fairly radical things. One of the most radical is to create an alternative version of ourselves, which is really dangerous because fans are inclined to be invested in the characters they know and for them to create a whole package of other characters is dangerous.
“But it’s such a grand experiment to do. We’ve introduced the fact that there’s this major conflict that exists between these two places, between these two sets of characters that has to be resolved, and it’s been said that only one can survive so the stakes are enormous.
“Towards the end of the season that builds and builds. I haven’t seen the final script yet but it will be sensational, I know that from the little leaks I’ve heard about how this season will resolve. We’ve had some most unusual things happening. There will be some form of resolution to that conflict by the end of season three.”
SFX: For two years now the season has ended with a jaw-dropping cliffhanger, can we expect the same this year?
“I think there’s no doubt about that at all. From what I’ve heard it’s, ‘Oh my God!’ territory. Our writers are still juggling. I’m off in a moment to do a reshoot of the end scene of an episode three episodes ago, because they need to tweak that, and that happens all the time as they continually refine their thoughts and direction.
“That’s what happens. It’s kind of exciting. I remember in the finale last year having to go back and reshoot the opening scene for ‘Brown Betty’, which was the musical episode. We needed a better opening in there so they put in the opening with Walter smoking a bong, which worked like a dream, but that was put in later.”
SFX: Are the showrunners building towards an endgame?
“When I was hired to do this JJ Abrams said to me it’s a six-year story arc if we can keep going. Just talking to [showrunners] Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman they could do more, because the material’s so rich they could go anywhere. They could also do less. They haven’t written themselves into a corner where if the show has to go out after three, four, five years it’s going to be left hanging, because no-one wants that. So they’ve left options open for themselves, but I know they were told to write six years.”
SFX: How much of a challenge has playing two very different sides of the same character been for you this season?
“It’s the best challenge you can possibly get. Ask any serious actor about being challenged and they’ll all say, ‘Yes please.’ It’s been a huge gift to me to be given this range of stuff to play on an ongoing basis, because normally as a stage actor we get to develop a character and play them for a couple of months and that’s it. They improve a little bit or change a little over the course of it but you’re limited by the script you’re given. Here it evolves and what happens with my character is he evolves depending on what the writers perceive and what I’m prepared to do with it. And because I’m basically on for anything they throw at me it’s allowed Walter to become incredibly complex.”
SFX: What’s the feeling among the cast and crew about Fringe returning next year?
“The feeling among cast and crew is we want it to. We think it’s probably, in terms of production values, the best show on television in terms of what is produced each week. It’s mind-bending stuff. It’s constantly interesting. No-one’s longing for it to end, saying, ‘Oh thank God that’s over!’ which happens with some series.
“The chances of it returning? I know, for example, the people at Fox and Warner Bros, who are our two American heavies, they actually adore the show, they’re incredibly fond of Fringe and proud of it. That’s one side of it, the other side of it is that it has to find a place in the commercial world. It has to be sufficiently popular to make money for them. So that’s the dilemma they face at the moment. Which way will it go? Our feeling is that it will get a fourth season, but that decision hasn’t been made yet and I’m hoping it will be made this week. We’ve kind of done what was asked of us when we moved to Friday night and all things being equal I think we probably will get another one. But if it went the other way I wouldn’t be terribly surprised either.”
SFX: What was your reaction to the show being moved to its tough Friday night slot in the States?
“My reaction was probably unlike most of the pundits – I thought it was a grand idea. I thought we were never a Thursday night show. Thursday night is family night; it’s mum and dad and kids watching Grey’s Anatomy. So when they said Friday night it was a huge opportunity for us to own Friday night because that was what The X-Files did all those years ago. And in fact we did come in and we’ve been winning the demographic on Friday nights, so it’s been quite an achievement frankly. But it’s been tough. Maybe other shows could have done it, but I think our show was the right show for Friday night so I was always really very pleased by the fact we got put there.”
SFX: Do you have a favourite Walterism or strange random action of Walters?
“There are so many! Sometimes when I’m looking on the internet I look at what people claim to be the most jaw-dropping Walterism. The one where he came out about the gender seems to have taken a huge effect on people… Mata Hari and her “vagenda”*. I mean there’s so much random stuff you almost take it for granted he’s going to say something like that every episode. So really, there’s nothing that jumps out at me. There are certain things that have entered the lexicon of our family and our crew that are Walterisms, but that’s just natural with a character like him. We have little saying like, ‘Don’t cross Olivia or she’ll shoot you,’ you know? Because in the first season Anna’s character use to shoot about five people every episode. So there’s all sorts of little family things that happen within the company. But Walter’s expected to behave poorly and he does. Although we still get a lot of laughs about it on set.”
SFX: Considering all the various food you’re made to eat as Walter, has anybody ever been tempted to have him with tomato juice trickling down his chins as a Lord Of The Rings in-joke?
“I never thought of that [laughs]. Oh golly, you could squash a tomato and crunch a bone. No, it’s never been raised, what a nice idea.”
(* In case you don’t recall the quotation, it’s this one, from the season three episode “Entrada”:
Walter: “I have no idea how to bring our Olivia back. It’s all because of that temptress! She tricked my son with her carnal manipulations and he fell right into her vagenda!”
Walter: “Like Mata Hari, using her feminine wiles to accomplish her evil ends, and I, too, fell prey. She used my stomach to get through to my heart.”)
SFX: Will we see Walternate’s machine in action before the end of the season?
“Yes you will.”
SFX: In a recent episode we saw Walter struggling to find a way to stop the spread of vortexes on our side of the universe, and we see it has quite a profound effect on him – will the pressure start to affect him as the series goes on?
“It’s interesting and thank you for noticing that. Of course – pushed into a corner what decisions do you make? He created this issue, or claims he created this issue – he certainly takes it on his own shoulders – and now is asked to resolve it. So he has to make hard decisions and what worries him is the way his doppelganger chose to resolve it, this man with the same intellect solved it by creating amber and creating a police state. Was that the only solution the Walternate had? Perhaps it was. I think that Walternate probably made the best decisions that were open to him at the time to be honest. As much as we don’t like Walternate very much I think it was just as well that they had a man like Walternate there with his intellect and his power to do what he did. Walter hates the fact that he’s beginning to respond the way that Walternate did.”
SFX: Will Walter be returning to the alternate universe before the end of the series, or will the alternate universe Fringe division be coming to our side?
“There will be communication… From the scripts that I’ve seen – I’ve still got two to see – there has been no crossover per se. But there is communication. There could be a jump later but there’s nothing I’ve seen at this point of a tangible, physical body going from one to the other.”
SFX: Leonard Nimoy has said he’ll be returning to Fringe in the future. Do you know if you’re going to be sharing any more scenes with William Bell this year?
“I’m going to keep you in the dark there. I know that Leonard said that and he doesn’t tell lies. His return is in the most unusual way you can think of. Very, very unusual. I’m just so dying to tell you but I can’t. You find out at the end of episode 18 and then 19 when we really see that in full. It’s extraordinary; it’s the most amazing television you’ve ever seen.”