Off-the-cuff: With pop culture legend John Noble
Meet John Noble, charming, humble and so darn likeable. He’s played troubled fathers across sci-fi and fantasy franchises and voiced one of the Man of Steel’s greatest foes, Brainiac in Superman Unbound, and most people don’t even know he’s Australian.
So far you’ve played a mad king in The Lord of the Rings, unhinged scientist Walter Bishop in Fringe and the destroyer of Cyber-worlds Unicron in Transformers Prime. Now it’s a maniacal alien named Brainiac in Superman Unbound. Are you starting to get a complex about the way you’re cast?
[Laughs] No. I’m very happy about the way I’m cast. Being in a position to play those great, I guess, distracted roles is a real blessing. I mean, they are great roles and they’re complex characters and I really enjoyed playing the complex characters as against simple characters, and fortunately my career, most of the time, directed me into those things. That’s what I get off on as an actor is playing those incredible complex , driven characters, certainly in The Lord of the Rings and Fringe. Even as Braniac, Andrea Romano and I tried to work out little alternatives to the clichéd animated voice and have a lot of fun working on the fact that, he is a megalomaniac obviously, and a man that was lonely and who had doubts, and all those sorts of things which come to make up the character of Brainiac.
You mentioned voice director Andrea Romano who is a legend in DC animation. How did she hone your performance? Was it subtle prodding, did the two of you have a general plan of attack or did she just let you run with it?
She is a legend. I put myself in the hands of voice directors. I mean, I certainly come up with a lot of ideas, and that’s my role, but it’s a wonderful liaison. When a voice director and an actor are working well together it’s an extraordinary experience because you get into the subtleties and shifts. It’s a very intense relationship for the few hours in the studio. You’re almost tuned into each other completely and that happened when I was working with Andrea. She’s amazing and I’ll certainly work with her again, for sure.
Were you familiar with the character of Brainiac and his motivations?
I wasn’t. I was very familiar with Superman, but I wasn’t up to date with Brainiac. I was quickly filled in by people who are fans and they told me all about the part, and of course I got the character notes from Warner Brothers which were incredibly comprehensive. It wasn’t something I had to go away and spend weeks researching. I was filled in pretty accurately by Warner Brothers.
The character of Brainiac is quite detached did you find you had to be more subtle in your delivery to give him some semblance of emotion?
Yes, absolutely. When creating that super-villain, there has to be some vulnerability in there somewhere. That’s what makes it interesting. It was a matter of going through. At times he was strong and in control. There are other times when he wasn’t as sure of himself or alone and lonely. I sorted through all those options and made him very direct, but we did try to give him something to cut the cliché short.
Was that part of the appeal of the character, that he was lonely and not exactly the all-powerful being he professed to be?
Oh yes, because that makes him playable, otherwise you just use an unmatted voice. They’re not robots, as such, you know? Of course, you… can… play… a… robot, [said emotionless and haltingly like a robot] if you want to, but it’s not that interesting. What’s much more interesting is you don’t expect the main villain or main opposition, in this case to Superman, has human qualities almost, which Superman picks up on. So their great arguments and fight in the mud pool, and all that, there was evidence in there of Brainiac’s vulnerability. You know, the fact that he couldn’t cope with change and couldn’t cope with life and he had to control everything. That sort of gave me plenty to play with, really.
Superman Unbound has a darker edge to it with a lot of death and the Man of Steel finally cutting loose. Do you feel it’s a natural progression to appeal to a more mature audience?
Well you can tell that from its rating, that’s for sure [laughs]. It’s a natural growth for any franchise. The fans of Superman are not little boys and girls any more. People, perhaps as old as 70, have grown up with it, so you can make it a little more intense, in this case a little more violent and I think it can do that. If it was the beginning of a franchise maybe you wouldn’t, but should over 75 years, so it’s logical to extend it into other areas. With the rating the little kids aren’t watching it, but those who have been fans all the lives are taking it into a different area which I think they enjoy and deserve, frankly.
When your fans meet you, are they thrown by the Australian accent?
[Laughs] Yes they are. It’s funny actually because when I’m back in Australia, people think I’ve got an English accent, which totally amazes me. I’ve got no idea how that happened. Yeah, [chuckles] it completely throws people when they hear me.
Do you ever miss it and wish someone would just cast you with a thick broad Australian accent?
Well I hadn’t done an Australian accent for… I figured it out and worked it out the other day. I went and did a guest role on The Good Wife and the director said to me you can do this with an Australian accent. I said, can I? So it was twelve years. Twelve years since I’ve used my own accent. It’s been a long time and the funniest part was while I was doing it I popped into an American a few times, which cracked everybody up [chuckles].
We’re huge fans of Fringe on the site and what drew us to it were the quieter, low key father/son moments between you and Joshua Jackson. Are you working on anything focussing on your softer side, as opposed to your villainous characteristics?
What you’ve just identified was probably the great strength of Fringe, which was the family relationship aspect between Peter and Walter. I noticed talking to fans over the years that that was the thing they kind of felt closest to their hearts, and Josh and I took it very seriously too. We had a spectacular working relationship, but at this stage I’m playing a couple of villains, really, fun characters, but villains [laughs]. It seems I’m back in that road for a while.
Still on Fringe, did you have a hand in picking any of your character Walter Bishop’s eccentricities or foods he’s constantly eating, and was it just an excuse to chow down?
No [laughs]. Eating on set is not a good thing to do, I promise you. Not when you’ve got multiple takes. No. No. No. It’s a really bad thing to do. The development of Walter Bishop was very much the writers, obviously. J.J. (Abrams) and Roberto (Orci) created the character initially. We went in and they saw what I could do and what I was bringing into it. I had a really good working relationship with the writers. You know, we would develop stuff together. Also once they found out I was basically up for anything they kept throwing me new challenges, which I loved. It was, at times, a very unusual and best relationship to have for over five years with a character which keeps expanding and changing as against just getting stuck in a rut. Credit has to go to the writers, though. They’re the ones who create the story.
With Fringe’s multiple universes and characters which was your favourite version of Walter Bishop to play, Walter or Walternate?
Well, the funnest character was Walter, you know, because he was so random, but he changed. I think we did about thirteen different versions of Walter with flashbacks and flash-forwards, mixed emotional states, different universes, so there was always more challenge there for one. But Walter himself, particularly when he was at wits end was such fun to play. Anything was possible and I certainly did anything that came to my mind. He was a very liberating character.
We’ve got to know, what was the worst thing you had to eat on the set?
[Laughs] I don’t know, mate. I don’t know. I don’t eat sweets and so I was quite often in a situation where I had to eat really sticky sweet things and it was something I didn’t enjoy too much. You know when you eat liquorice you get the red dye hit, so it’s something to be avoided or you get these big sugar hips. To be truthful, you don’t actually eat the food very much because you can’t if you’re doing multiple takes. You chew on it for a while and spit it out and then do the next take otherwise you’d finish up about twenty stone or something or other. It’s hard enough to keep the weight off when you’re doing the show, it’s hard enough to keep the weight off without eating lollies, but all of the sweet stuff was a challenge for me.