Noah Wyle first met producer/director Steven Spielberg on ER in 1994, when he created the role of Dr John Carter. He went on to work on TNT’s series of movies, The Librarian and the TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley playing Steve Jobs.
He’s now back on TNT in a new series produced by Steven Spielberg, Falling Skies. In the sci-fi series he portrays Tom Mason, a Boston history professor, who is now the leader of a group of soldiers and civilians in the aftermath of an alien invasion. His wife was killed shortly following the initial attack, and one of their three sons has been taken captive by the aliens.
Noah Wyle spoke of his new series at the TV Critics Association.
Could you talk a little about your ongoing working relationship with Steven Spielberg?
Steven was tremendously involved with the beginning of ER, as you know. So I had the great fortune of getting to spend a lot of time around him and to see how razor sharp his mind is when it comes to developing story and character.
This job came about more probably because of my relationship with Michael Wright than Mr Spielberg. Michael and I have now made four movies together, and we get along quite well. And he was very generous about showing me all the pilot scripts that he had. And the fact that this was a DreamWorks project was a very enticing detail, but it was the quality of the script in itself. And to do 9 episodes as opposed to 22 seemed like a nice schedule.
But getting to work with Steven Spielberg again, especially in something that’s probably more in his bailiwick of interests, the sci-fi/alien genre, has been tremendous. And getting to see his notes come through, whether they were in preproduction, in casting, in script shaping, in the editing room or in the postproduction with the special effects, it’s like getting to sit at the foot of the master.
Stepping back, when you started ER what was it like the first time you met Steven Spielberg?
Oh, I couldn’t say a word. My hands were sweaty. Luckily he kind of ignored me. In fact, he totally ignored me, I believe. (he laughs)
But I think it was halfway through the first season, he made a reference to some of the dailies he’d been watching the night before. And I asked him if he made a habit of watching all the dailies, and he said, ‘I never miss a day of footage.’ And I thought that that was incredible.
He was doing the postproduction, I think, on Schindler’s List at the time. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was watching all the ER dailies.
So that was the first clue I had as to how hands-on he was and yet how hands-off he was in his managerial style. But I was incredibly intimidated. I’m still incredibly intimidated to be around him, to be honest.
How do you integrate your character and his background into the action storyline without having to give historical lectures every 15 minutes on the underground resistance forces?
I think initially it gives a context for what the storylines entail, and it gives a historical context and precedent. But as the show goes on, I see him less as being somebody who is calling on historical precedent and how it can be applicable to the present, and more of somebody who becomes a chronicler of the next age.
He becomes the author of the next set of history. Since the reset button on humanity has been pushed, the survivors will become the authors of the next Gospel or Constitution or whatever the document or framework for society is going to have to live under. I think his back story of having been a college professor, a history professor, puts him in a great position to be that chronicler.
There’s a great physicality to your role.
This was the most physically demanding work I’ve ever done in my life. It was incredibly intense. We were doing a tremendous volume of work in a relatively short period of time using all practical locations, shooting mostly at night in pretty miserable conditions. And it was hard enough just to keep up with Drew Roy, who is like a springbok. But it was really fun.
Half the reason I decided to do this show, was to look slightly heroic to my 8-year-old son. And him getting to come to work and see his dad run around with a machine gun and fight aliens was worth the price of admission already.
With the Librarian you got to do a lot of action, ER was obviously very personal stories. Is this the best of both of those worlds?
Yeah, this is a bit of the best of both worlds, although the Librarian’s are special to me, and I hope one day we can make ore of those because those are just pure joy.
The Librarian didn’t have to carry a 20-pound machine gun everywhere he went. There are certain built-in obstacles to this role that made it physically challenging. But that was the reason. As you go through your career, you try to do something a little different than you’ve done before.
After having played on ER for as long as I did, which had an element of politics and an element of emotion to it, but it didn’t really have an element of physicality to it like this, so I thought this would be a good challenge as I enter my 40th year. The clock is ticking on how long I can do this sort of thing.
Like Lost, there’s a basic strength to a story about being stripped down and just having to do without all the privileges. Does that make a character a hero?
As the root of all heroism, resilience, strength of character, those are the moments when those untapped qualities come into the forefront and become the defining qualities for a person.