Aussie John Noble has some pretty prolific pop culture roles under his belt. Since his time as an All Saint, John has found himself the covetable intelligent, slightly wicked choice for Hollywood producers looking to cast someone with that versatility (it’s not by his choice he swears).
The result has been a flourish of eloquent and measured performances, including his time as Denethor alongside Peter Jackson, and his recent roles in international television series Sleepy Hollow and Elementary.
Before John returns to Australia ahead of his Supanova appearance, Fergus Halliday caught up with him to see how he feels about being remembered for one of the greatest eating scenes in film, as well as his take on the characters he’s found himself reveling in.
John, it’s nice to catch up. Coming from Australia yourself, how do you feel the local film industry is these days?
To be honest, I haven’t been in Australia for a while, when I was there a couple of years ago, I did a film called The Mule and I did a miniseries and couple of other things. I’m a bit out of touch apart from what I read on Facebook [and] that forum generally says [the Australian Film Industry] is one that’s not very good. It’s certainly not the 80’s I’m sure of that. Those extraordinary days of the eighties, sometimes I look back and look at films that were made in that time, and think “my god these were some of the best films ever made”.
You’ve played a number of iconic roles across pop culture, from Denethor (Lord Of The Rings) to Walter Bishop (Fringe), and more recently Sherlock’s father on Elementary, which of those roles do you think had stuck with you the most?
Well, there’s also Sleepy Hollow in there, which is probably the one that has stuck to me the least. There’s still to my amazement an incredible recognition from Denethor even after all these years, it’s been twelve years since that role, but it has been shown all the time and it’s quite surprising to me the amount of recognition. And certainly Walter Bishop is an iconic figure and with international releases on Netflix he’s just got bigger and bigger, so Walter Bishop has become quite a character. I did voice a Batman game last year and those roles all feed into the same audience.
Just regarding your performance as Denethor, how much of that was scripted and how much was actually improvised, specifically during moments when you were required to be obnoxious like the eating scene in the Grand Hall?
Actors always improvise and in that particular case when I was sitting in the grand hall and there were plates of food in front of me, what I did was work out a pattern so that there’s continuity, so I thought very carefully and when they started to shoot I was crunching something and Peter Jackson saw it and raced out and he said ‘can you do that again’, and I thought that’s easy, just dribble, and that’s how we filmed the squishing of the tomatoes, that was completely organic.
What was amazing about the whole thing was the way it was cut together and the dynamics that took play in the scene, between Pippin and Faramir and Denethor. It’s an astonishing piece of cinema. There’s always an element of (improvisation), you can’t always make yourself look good in the situation, you have to play whatever truths are a part of the role. I had to do a lot of background research on Denethor (to get that right).
You do seem to get a lot of enjoyment out of wicked characters, is that the case or what is it that draws you towards those sorts of roles?
What draws me to them? I think I get cast in them (laughs).
My voice has always helped me to be honest with you and in particular with this [industry] here, people are going to be cast in what they know and so [producers] believe ‘he would be terrific in this because we liked him in that’. So you really have to get into independent films if you want to do something differently.
Touching on casting people for what they know, it seems like so many well-known actors and actresses are ending up in the superhero film franchises, how have you managed to escape that?
I’ve been working solidly for years, I’ve only very recently come back onto the market again as I had a one year contract with Elementary, which has just finished. Apart from that I’ve probably been working for the past eight years and therefore am available only now, that’s a good excuse anyway.
On Elementary, what was the most important element you wanted to bring to Sherlock’s father?
I thought, initially when I read it, ‘who is this bloke’? So I had to look at these people who live above the power and all the brokers that live above the government, which is very topical. I found that there are incredibly powerful people who manipulate the world, well beyond the scope of government circles and this character was one of those people. It’s certainly an aspect of globalisation, and I suspect these men, or mainly men because there are certainly women involved, they work above (or with) the government, and it’s not a new system, that’s the way the British Empire worked with the East India Trading Company. So I researched the character and looked at the characteristics of the family.
Elementary often ends up getting compared with Sherlock, how do you feel about this comparison? Are they two very different things?
Elementary is definitely a very different take on it, Sherlock goes to New York and meets up with a beautiful Asian-American woman. I can’t see someone like Jonny Lee Miller entering this world; he’s a unique actor, he takes on things differently and he’s very intense. I also reckon that the writers of this show are very smart in what they do, for example they will only bring in characters like mine, which may be really popular, for one year and then bring in someone new the next season. So they keep it fresh that way and that’s clever, otherwise you get caught in a rut, which can happen in television, but they are into their fifth season now so good on them.
So jumping back to Walter Bishop for a moment, you spent five years in that role do you ever feel like you want to go back and explore that character more or do you feel you’ve got it pretty well covered?
I loved Walter Bishop. I understood him from the first time I read him and the places he was coming from, I just used to adore playing him and as time went by the writers started to recognise that I was up for anything, literally, so they would give me anything. And whatever it was didn’t matter to me because Walter would do it. He was a glorious character, but also in terms of what I did with it, there was so much freedom to move; it was like a role of a lifetime. I loved it.
To your recent appearance on Sleepy Hollow, that character was one sort of driven by a major plot twist, did you know about any of that character development going into the role?
That was weird, the executive producer is a friend of mine called Alex Kurtzman and I was in Australia at the time when Sleepy Hollow had just opened the night before. That day I got a call from the executive producer and he said ‘John, can you come and do some stuff with us’ so that day I got some idea of what the role was and it really sounded delicious.
So I joined them for the first season but then I feel they lost their way a little in the second season and they didn’t know what to do with my character, and I just had to say ‘look let me go’ because I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere there. So they let me go and that was a lovely gentlemen’s agreement that Alex and I had, because the first season was a lot of fun, it was certainly bizzare having a thirty-year-old man as your father, it really stretches the imagination sometimes, having to act as this outrageous youth in the body of a sixty-year old man it was quite funny really.
One last question, working in Hollywood for as long as you have, you are certainly no stranger to recycling or remaking properties, you ever feel like they would ever get around to remaking Lord of The Rings?
I don’t see why they would. I think that Peter Jackson has almost nailed it, everything about that movie was so real and everyone worked so hard, I still can’t find a flaw in it. So no, I don’t see why they would or there ever will be, but I don’t know, ‘ever’ is a long time, but why would you when it’s the greatest trilogy of all time.
You’re preaching to the choir
Well, I don’t see why they would although I’m surprised by the amount of shows that get reruns, but that’s another story. Hollywood seems to like to try to repeat things that worked once, and that can be very limiting; and that’s one of the great things about Lord of The Rings, at the time they were coming out they weren’t copying anyone.
Thanks for your time John, and we’re looking forward to seeing you for Supanova later this year.
John Noble will appear at Supanova Sydney from June 17th to 19th and also Supanova Perth from June 25th to 26th. You can check out all the superstar guests that are attending here.