John Noble and Christopher Lloyd know a thing or two about being wacky scientists who deal with time travel and/or alternate universes. In the sci-fi TV series “Fringe,” Noble plays scientist Walter Bishop, who is dealing with the consequences of taking his son, Peter (played by Joshua Jackson) from another world. Lloyd is best known as playing Dr. Emmett Brown, the kooky scientist in the “Back to the Future” movies.
In the “Fringe” episode titled “The Firefly,” Lloyd guest stars as Roscoe Joyce, a musical hero of Walter Bishop. The episode, which is the show’s Season 3 mid-season premiere, airs January 21 on Fox at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time. Noble and Lloyd recently chatted with journalists during a recent telephone conference call. Here is what the two actors said about working together on “Fringe” and playing outlandish characters.
Christopher, can you share with us a little bit on what to expect from “The Firefly” episode?
Lloyd: Oh, what to expect? I’m only speaking for myself. I was very excited about this role that I had in this episode. It was very interesting piece to work with. My character goes through an experience that he never realistically anticipated would ever happen to him, and his efforts to adapt to that, adjust to that, and hope for a good outcome.
John, were you excited to have Christopher Lloyd on “Fringe” as your musical hero?
Noble: Absolutely. I mean he’s one of my heroes anyways, so when they said that Christopher Lloyd was coming on it was like a dream come true, and of course to have him play the musician from Violet Sedan Chair, which was this creation of ours, made it even more interesting. And we had an amazing time together these two old guys reminiscing and getting the music back up again. It was the best fun.
Lloyd: I concur.
Chris, how much do you know about keyboards really? Do you play?
Lloyd: Oh, I am not a piano player. I had the obligatory piano lessons growing up, but I have not really touched a piano since then. But they adapted a piano so that I could pound on the keys without making any noise and sort of go with what they had written at that point for me to play and pretend I was playing it. I grew up in a household where everybody was playing the piano all the time, so I had fortunately kind of a feeling of the kind of body movement that went along with it. So hopefully that helped me through.
Christopher, having played so many great characters can you talk about what you drew from as reference to get inside the mind of Roscoe?
Lloyd: Ahh, let’s see. Well I feel he’s a man who is sort of retired from life. He’d had some big losses in his life and his life as a rock star has faded, and he’s lonely and wants to be in a place around other people at this home. And then surprising things develop that sort of force him to sort of come out of himself and depends with a new reality … The script really gave so much information and clues that hopefully I was able to follow him and make it happen.
Chris and John, can you talk about how dealing with alternate time and universes, and how that makes the acting experience richer for an actor?
Noble: We’re not playing the ordinary universe; it’s the real universe, so I don’t think of it as the ordinary. I think the great opportunity that’s existed for me and the other actors in our show is that it’s allowed us to play in slightly different versions of ourselves in that — and that’s a huge opportunity. And it’s been amazing for our set-design people to be able to create a world just like ours but slightly different, and socially slightly different, and we go back and we play within those roles. So from an actor’s point of view, it’s been a really wonderful opportunity for us.
Lloyd: Yes, I mean my character, I feel, had been living kind of a very introverted sort of distant life from anything. He’s kind of pulled out, retreated from society, and the things that happen in this parallel universe he has a lot of trouble grasping exactly what’s going on because they are quite extreme and affect him very personally. It’s just really a challenge and also a lot of fun to kind of play that bewilderment with the situations that came up for him, and try to make him believable, credible, and real for himself and hopefully for the audience.
Christopher, can you discuss what it was like joining a cast that already has such a great chemistry going already?
Lloyd: I loved it. I love working with John Noble. I mean, not to say that because he’s on the air here, but it was just such a pleasure. And the cast, the director, everybody was very supportive and I really felt I was being included in a very special ensemble and it was a thrill to experience that.
Noble: And speaking from our point of view, we were all just pretty excited about having Christopher Lloyd join us, and he was just amazing and had some huge scenes and just hit it every time. We were so impressed and thrilled that he joined us.
And will we get the chance to see your Roscoe Joyce character again, Christopher?
Lloyd: I have no idea.
Noble: Wouldn’t that be wonderful, Chris?
Lloyd: It would be wonderful and I would just so love that.
John, this “Firefly” episode features the observers. How does the episode advance the mythology of the series and what do we really have to look forward to this season?
Noble: Well, I think the observers have been that one thing since the beginning of “Fringe” that have sort of kept us way up there. Who are these strange bold people that appear everywhere? And so to have Michael Cerveris as the principal observer back in the 26th episode, I think, was fantastic and he got to do some really fine things. I had wonderful looking myself but trying to find out what the role of these observers are. I mean, do they stand outside of the universe? Do they stand outside both universes? Are they observers or should they be hands on?
And I think what we’ve discovered is that if they do become hands-on at any stage then they wreck the natural order of things, and then they try to correct it. And one of the founding premises of “Fringe” is that because of the interference of an observer, we did rupture the two universes. We ruptured it because one of them interfered in an issue. So it’s really interesting to have them back in again trying to repair the damage, trying to put things right. And at the end of the episode, the observer has the last scene and he says something incredible telling, which I’ll leave for you to observe, but it just shows the way … hidden how much the danger and drama there is ahead.
Christopher, how is the Roscoe Joyce character different than any other you’ve played?
Lloyd: I feel the situation is different from any other character that I’ve done. I sort of wake up, in a sense. I’ve admitted myself into a nursing home of sorts to sort of retreat from life, and this parallel universe, so to speak, suddenly comes in very strongly into my life in a very personal way, and I am at a loss what to make of it, how to deal with it and what exactly is going on.
And like I say John Noble’s character when we’re in his laboratory has all kinds of apparatus, everything, what is this all about because I am confused and dismayed and kind of awed by it all. And I feel for me the challenge of kind of coming to terms with that, creating that character and his new reality was very exciting. I loved the script and the people I was working with had all helped to make it happen.
John, have you ever considered the possibility that “Fringe’s” real universe, you know the one that you’ve spent most of your time in thus far, is in fact yet another alternate universe?
Noble: Absolutely, yes, my friend. Absolutely. Well you know it’s interesting that when I’m playing in the other universe and playing the character of Walter in the other universe, obviously this universe is the alternate universe. We have the other universe.
So I imagine from which ever hill you stand on, the opposition’s on the other one. And yes, I’ve thought about that quite a lot, and if there were more universes, and there could be, they would all be alternate to the one you’re standing in.
When you start to get too deep in that, does anybody ever like snap their fingers and say, “John, we really have to do this scene”?
Noble: Look, our creative people … [it] must be an amazing place to be in their minds, because they come up with the most extraordinary ideas. If we have, from our point of view as actors, if we have an idea, they’re always receptive to it and will listen and sometimes if it’s appropriate they will build it in. There’s a big creative team of writers working and continually coming up with ideas that we wouldn’t even dream of to be honest.
John, do you have any personal favorite kind of crazy science-fiction moments over the course of the “Fringe” series?
Noble: Now let me tell you, and it’s not because “Fringe” [has its Season 3 midseason premiere on January 21, 2011], but probably the best plan that I had was doing the stuff with Chris Lloyd, because there were these two crazy old guys just trying desperately to communicate with each other and we had a lot of laughs, and there was the common thread of trying to find the music again because Christopher’s character had forgotten how to play the piano. And so we go through this journey of bringing the music back to him and the thrill to Walter. This happens all the way through this very complicated episode, but in terms of pure joy in the lab I think it’s probably the episode you see tomorrow night was the one.
John, in what ways would you say your character has further grown and developed in your eyes this season? And what continues to make him both exciting and also challenging for you to play would you say?
Noble: A bunch of things happen this season. Walter came from a very big fog when we first knew him and slowly he’s put the pieces back together and rebuilt his life, and that’s all history, and then he went through the terrible second season of realization that Peter had to know, had to find out, so we did that. So we start the third season with this rift between the two men, and we haven’t been able to get that back so that causes a great deal of sort of loneliness and frustration in both of the men but what’s also happened is that Walter’s become conscious.
The major problems he faces, he thinks he is incapable of solving because he’s been ill, because he’s had part of his brain removed, so it’s this incredible struggle. He keeps saying, “I’m not smart enough to do this anymore,” and Nina keeps encouraging him to do it. And through the course of this season you’ll see him finally accept his limitations but also he accepts his strengths, which are more than enough to deal with situations here. It’s a beautiful journey really of acceptance for Walter, and he goes through all the emotional stages to get there, but a gorgeous journey of accepting where he is and then moving forward.
Chris, what would you say makes a career in this industry rewarding for you so far?
Lloyd: Well, certainly the fact that I’m still working at the moment, but I’ve been able to continue working means a lot to me. I’ve always admired actors who may have their moment of flash and great success but above all keep sustaining their work, doing their work. An actor, fortunately, does not have a cutoff time. There’s not a retirement age. You just keep going and keep going until you can’t go anymore, which is fully what I intend to do and hopefully the work will be forthcoming. It’s just sustaining a career today and keep working, which I love doing so much and discovering new roles and discovering yourself in the process is very rewarding.
How do you work with that short period of time that a guest actor comes on the show to build your character’s lifelong rapport that needs to come across as quickly as possible? Did you guys work props or have any conversations about things to do so you could put that on the screen?
Noble: The answer is no. The pace at which we work is that it’s terribly difficult to get … Someone with Chris’s depth of experience and ability probably makes it look easy but I’m sure it’s not. But to walk into an established ensemble and there is no rehearsal and we rarely meet each other until we actually go onto the set of the show. So it’s pretty tough going. What do you think, Chris?
Lloyd: Well, I just want to comment to something that made me think earlier that the two characters that we play are so vastly from different worlds, utterly from different worlds, and yet really, really something I so much enjoyed while we were working together are these two kind of aging souls and their complicated worlds individually but there seems to be a common ground. There was something kind of a bond developing between these two characters in spite of their differences.
I don’t know, when I come into a show where I haven’t met any of the actors or whatever, I just try to really generally let’s get to what’s expected of the character I’m going to play, and hopefully keep my focus on that and friendships and developments things develop from that. If everybody’s happy, if everybody’s taking in the work that their expected to give, I just try to keep my focus on what is expected of this character and try to fulfill that.
Chris, you’ve done television as a guest and as a cast member. Do you ever think about going back to doing a TV series as a cast member?
Lloyd: If the right part came along with a great team of writers and a cast and director with a character that I loved doing. As we speak, I would jump on it, but it doesn’t come up often. “Taxi,” just like so many series that are really successful, they’re one out of hundreds that get through all the trial and error, grind and find a niche. And so if one comes along I’m certainly not going to turn it down.
Christopher, one of your most famous characters is Doc Brown in “Back to the Future.” What would you say is the secret to sort of bringing these outlandish characters or outlandish scenarios and making them seem real?
Lloyd: I don’t know. I feel like I’ve witnessed a lot of people in my own life who were pretty much on the edge at one time or another and I just try really hard to find the reality of a character, how he perceives things, the way he feels about things, and try to put that all together and create a person, a character. And it’s something I do, whatever the role is. It’s just a matter of the way I work and I know a lot of other people that work the same way. So no matter how outlandish or far out the character is there is somewhere a line of reality, which I try to connect with and hope for the best.
What your thoughts on that, John?
Noble: I think I’m just looking to the perfect answer and absolutely what Chris has said. You find the truth in the character and it doesn’t matter where and I love Chris’s comment of having contacted many people during his life who are on the fringe or very sustained and that’s the observation you make. That’s exactly the right answer.
John, are there any tidbits you can give us on the alternate universe and Walternate? Are we going to be seeing more of that?
Noble: OK, yes I can give you a little. We can’t resist the alternate universe and having created it we have to go back there because of this huge conflict. We all go back. The character of Walternate will be developed, I think, at this stage he’s seen as sort of a nasty, cold man. We’ll give you a little bit more background on why he’s like he is over the course of this season, and we spend a few episodes back in the universe and wonderful episodes back in the alternate universe. So I think you’ve got that to look forward to as the season goes through.
Christopher, how did you as an actor did you find the “Fringe” cast and crew different from others you have worked with in the past?
Lloyd: I don’t know it’s tough to evaluate. I mean, every group is different in one way or another. Most of my work was with John Noble and I just felt so secure, confident, and comfortable working with him. It really helped me get into the role of this man’s … lost and given up on life in a way and the entire cast is very supportive, the director very much so, and of course a wonderful script to work with, so with those all in place, it’s sort of a little bit of heaven. It’s what we all wish for when we come to work the first day.
John, are nominations for the Emmys and other types of awards important to you? If so, how important is it in the scope of your career and all the things that you’re doing?
Noble: Well, of course it would be beautiful. At this stage in my career and my age I don’t know that’s it’s going to make a great deal of difference, but of course it’s lovely to be recognized with awards. But I can’t live for that. I can’t live for those things.
And what I do is the work and it never stops me from trying to improve. I’m not worried by the fact that someone bypasses me an award. And really I think the many, many divisions of the “Fringe” team could be recognized by awards and haven’t been yet, but you know maybe we will be because there’s some amazing people throughout the whole “Fringe” company. So we’ll see. Time may tell.
Christopher, how do you end up with these great sci-fi roles?
Lloyd: Well, I don’t know exactly how I end up with some of these roles. It mystifies me sometimes, but I am a fan of sci-fi and I love being taken into a strange world, and when it’s done with imagination and credibility I love being taken on that trip into the sci-fi film. I always have. When a good sci-fi film comes out, I go to the theatre and I sit down. I’m looking forward to a great ride and imagination, and so I’ve always been a fan in that respect.
Since you two have two of the more memorable mad-scientist characters in the last two decades was there any comparing of mad-scientist notes?
Noble: Not really. I think we just blended. We did talk about that. We did sort of seem to understand each other instinctively from the moment we went on set. So that was what happened.
John, we haven’t seen that much of Walter being in charge of massive dynamics so far. Are we going to see more of that side of his life and whether he’s going to be torn between spending time in his lab and running this giant corporation?
Noble: Could you imagine a world with Walter running that? I figure it’s just as well we have it safe … I think it’s very, very fortunate we’ve got Nina there. He does go back in there occasionally and without giving too much away we just in fact shot a scene last night, which is a wonderful dynamic and showing … but it’s very, very funny, and he’s not the most responsible CEO in the world, so let’s hope he doesn’t get too much say.
It seems like Walternate is kind of losing his grip. Like now that he’s had to kill Broyles, it seems like he’s starting to loss his grip and kind of fall apart. Are we going to see some of that?
Noble: You won’t see him falling apart. What you will learn is more of what made Walternate what he is, and you’ll see some humanization of the man that behind that steel exterior there are decisions that he makes that are very, very difficult, and we’ve done some terrific scenes which don’t soften him but help to understand that he is in fact a man not a machine.
I hope and I don’t know, but I would hope that there is a resolution between Walter and Walternate because obviously playing them both I don’t see either of them as bad men. Obviously, men that are misguided but regardless some reconciliation. I don’t know if that’ll happen but that would be my ideal.
For more info: “Fringe” website
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