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Noah Wyle Looks Up In the Falling Skies

Updated: Mar 30


Noah Wyle stars in "Falling Skies"

Noah Wyle stars in “Falling Skies”


Noah Wyle

Looks Up In the Falling Skies

by Jay S. Jacobs


Noah Wyle is back.


He is returning to series television six years after he hung up his stethoscope as the beloved Dr. John Carter in the classic series ER in 2005 – though he did guest appearances on that show periodically until it eventually left the air in 2009.


It would take a pretty special project to lure Wyle back into the fray, and he found that opportunity in TNT’s new alien invasion series Falling Skies. The show was co-created by super-producer Steven Spielberg – who also was behind the scenes in the first season of ER before handing the reigns off to co-creators Michael Crichton and John Wells.


Falling Skies takes place in some undetermined time in the near future, six months after the Earth has been attacked and decimated by space aliens. The military has been pretty much destroyed, forcing normal people to take up arms to fight off the deadly invaders.


Wyle plays Tom Mason, a fortyish former college history professor whose wife has been killed, one of his sons abducted by the aliens and he is trying to keep his other two sons safe as they plot to save the remaining survivors and hopefully release the kidnapped son. He is drafted into running a new militia of normal citizens because of his knowledge of the history of war and his ability to teach young people.


We were recently lucky enough to be one of several websites that had the chance to speak with Wyle about his return to series television.


I’ve been struggling with the series V for its current run because there’s too much soap opera drama that continues to build. What I love most about Falling Skies is it picks up right in the thick of the madness. Talk about that aspect of the show where we go right to the meat of the story instead of having a season or two of build-up?


Yes, it’s sort of atypical story telling in the sense that we don’t start with everyday life going on business as usual and then suddenly everybody’s eyes turn to the heavens and say: “What’s that coming in towards our planet?” We pick up six months into what has been a devastating alien invasion and meet our characters already in a pretty high state of disarray – which is exciting storytelling because it allows you the opportunity to fill in the back story through episodic storytelling and also opens up the possibility of being able to track back in time down the road if it seems dramatically appropriate.


How involved is Steven Spielberg in the production of this show?


He’s pretty damn involved. His fingerprints are all over it. He was instrumental in helping craft the original pilot script and certainly in casting the pilot. He came out and was on set when we were shooting the pilot. He made lots of editorial decisions and even drew some storyboards for the reshoots on the pilot. Then he helped craft the overreaching story arcs for the season, watched all the daily’s and made lots of editorial suggestions all along the way in bringing those shows to their final cut. So I would say he’s instrumentally involved.


You’ve been very active philanthropically about wildlife preservation so I thought it was interesting that you’re doing a show about humans facing extinction.


(laughs) Yeah, we’re the new polar bears, right?


Yes, that’s true. Now, if you were in the position of your character – what do you think you’d miss the most in the new world and also what do you think would be the most exciting opportunity about a civilization to start over?


I’m guessing a variety of diet would be the thing I’d miss the most. And hot food. But we tried to pepper each episode with exactly that. What are the cons and disadvantages to the state we’ve been thrown into but what are the sort of more subtle pros – whether it’s seeing a group of kids having to exercise their imaginations at play and actually relishing in the opportunity to do so or the quality of relationships between families being that much enriched without all the other distractions. There’s a sequence that comes midway through the season where a woman who’s among our ranks is pregnant and is throwing a baby shower. Having been to quite a few baby showers this was unlike any that I had experienced, in the sense that it wasn’t so much about the gifts and the swag and stuff for the impending birth it was really more about the spiritual aspects of brining a new life into the world and your responsibilities are as a parent and what are our collective responsibilities for this new life? Those I find very rewarding aspects to the storytelling because it allows us an opportunity to kind of pick and choose between separate the wheat and chaff – what’s important and what’s not.


I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about them saying that Falling Skies feels so epic in the first pilot episode. They’re saying that it almost feels like a feature film. Can you reflect on that? 


Yes, sure. Well, it wasn’t intended to be sandwiched together. The pilot was a stand-alone hour and it’s being married to the first episode which we shot as a first episode for the season to build it into a two-hour block. It was never scripted to feel like a movie, but I think anytime Mr. Spielberg’s name is above the marquee you can’t help but to make a cinema comparison. It’s got a lot of rich production value. The budget on the pilot was pretty extensive, so we had a lot of bang for our buck and that wasn’t necessarily the case in every episode, so I think getting a sense of what the series is going to be like comes probably more accurately from the second half, second hour, than the first. But, yes, it’s got a very cinematic feel to it. 


The show is clocking in at ten episodes for the first season. Do you think that the show has enough time to spread its wings in season one? 


Well, I had lunch with Michael Wright who’s Head of TNT and we discussed if this came to a second season whether he would be interested in picking it up for more episodes. His philosophy, which I tend to agree with, is, that if you’re writing for ten episodes you can really write to a focused point and make sure that all of your T’s have been crossed and your I’s have been dotted. If you’re trying to slug it out through 15, 17 or on a network 22 to 24 you run the risk of dissipating the potency of your storytelling and falling back on sort of hackneyed clichés. He really didn’t want to do that. He really is very proud and pleased with the show and wants – should the second season come to pass – it to have the same kind of punch that the first season did which I think you really only get from shooting a truncated season of ten, 12 maximum. 


One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed from watching the first three episodes, is I really enjoy the family dynamic that’s on it. I was wondering if you could talk to us a bit about how you guys approached keeping your family together in this broken world? 


Well, dramatically that was probably the theme that was most interesting to me. I haven’t had a lot of experience working in the science fiction genre so that had a certain appeal. I went into this with the confidence of knowing that the spaceships and the aliens were going to be just fine with Mr. Spielberg designing them. So my responsibilities really fell to making sure the human aspects of the show were as compelling as they could be. I found that dual conflict that we set up in the pilot to be really provocative of a guy just trying to keep his family intact and alive being given the larger responsibility of having to care for 300 veritable strangers and the conflict between the two: very interesting. Really, I think, what’s at the core of the show is once the reset button on humanities has been pushed and these characters, should they survive, are going to become the next founding fathers for the next civilization. What are the best aspects of the previous civilization that you would want to retain and what are the more superfluous or esoteric ones that you wouldn’t mind dropping? Certainly, the notion of family and the quality of human relationships comes to the fore and that’s what I think we pretty successfully explored through the first half of the season. 


After all of your years working on ER did you ever have to stop yourself from wanting to jump in and help in any triage type of situations? 


I learned enough to know that I didn’t really learn very much at all. (laughs) The best thing to do is be a cheerleader on the sidelines and say things like “breathe.” I had the misfortune of being first on scene at a couple of different accident sites and fortunately had to do nothing more than call 911 and a little handholding because I don’t think I could really have risen too much more than that. 


The dynamic that really touched me was the difference between Tom and Weaver (played by Will Patton). Weaver’s a character who – especially in most of these post-apocalyptic movies, something like Battle: LA – you see the military persona is the one who steps up to the plate and becomes the default leader. With Tom he really has no practical experience for military application, but his knowledge as a professor, you see it coming out in all of these different situations. What do you think distinguishes Tom as a leader as opposed to what all of these other projects have that they automatically show the militaristic personalities step to the foreground to take charge? 


That’s an interesting question. I would say that when you traditionally have a character whose career military like Captain Weaver – their strong suit is leading men who have been trained and focused for the battle and mission in hand. In this particular scenario most of our military has been eradicated already and it’s a civilian militia that is being trained. It’s exactly Tom Mason’s back-story as having been a teacher that puts him in a little bit better stead to teach these mostly kids how to arm themselves and defend themselves than it is for Weaver to fall back on the military paradigm. It’s looking at the realm of academia and saying that’s a little dry for what we need right now and looking at the role of military and saying that’s a little dogmatic for what we need right now and trying to find a synthesis between the two that I think makes my character a leader of a different strength. 


Tom does seem like somebody who has his act together but, and I’m only three episodes in, I’m trying to figure out, are we going to see in the first season Tom’s breaking point? 


He comes damn close to it. He comes very, very close to it. Yes, I would say episode… in the four or five range… that’s where he starts to wear a little thin. Although, there was an adage that we used to say a lot on my other show where you really didn’t have time to feel sorry for yourself during the course of the day because you had another patient to treat or two or three. So you really had to earn whatever private moments you allowed yourself to reveal, whatever inner life was going on. The same holds true for this show is that there’s such a constant and eminent threat underneath each and every scene that these characters who probably if they had a week off would develop all sorts of the hallmarks of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and go through all sorts of debilitating grief don’t have the luxury of doing so because there’s just too many other things that need to be done. So I would say that the big breakdown is still coming but we definitely show glimpses of it. 


If I had to compare it to another show, I’d actually put it up with another great series in Walking Dead, only replacing zombies with aliens and obviously it’s a little less violent because it’s on TNT. With this post-apocalyptic story, how are you, as an actor, able to really get in the character where you believe, and you translate that belief to the audience as far as just being isolated in a sense of direness every day? 


I’m at a bit of a disadvantage. I haven’t seen Walking Dead yet so the comparisons that I’ve heard I can’t say whether they’re well-founded or not. From my own preparation, nothing could be more isolating than pulling a guy away from his family and sequestering him and throwing him to Ontario for five months. (laughs) That’s the tongue-in-cheek answer. The straight answer is we watched a lot of movies, we read a lot of books, we passed stuff around from trailer to trailer trying to get everybody on the same page. In terms of trying to find a level of continuity between everybody’s performance so that we were all playing relatively the same stakes but individualizing them. We talked a lot about encounters with the aliens serving as metaphors for encountering the worst aspects of our own personalities. So if you stop thinking of them as scary alien creatures which would force you into the limited choices of acting like Fay Wray in a King Kong movie and tried to personalize it a lot more and having them represent something that you really did not want to encounter at all costs. Then the level of threats always existent but it’s very specific to character. And I think we accomplished that pretty well. 


I was wondering because you haven’t done too many big action roles other than really the Librarian series, which was great, what did you have to do to prepare for the action involved in the show compared to the previous work that you’ve done? 


Oh, I probably should have done a lot more. I showed up and we all had a couple of days of running around the sound stage and learning gun safety. But in terms of physical preparation I found myself at a disadvantage trying to keep up with Drew Roy who is part springbok, I’m deciding. He plays my oldest son. Very early on in the pilot we had to sort of run and jump and dive and whirl and roll and do all these crazy things. All of which, eventually, I got more comfortable at. But it’s certainly not wearing the white coat every day. 


Did you find that you were able to do a lot of your own stunts or was a lot of it done by a stunt team? 


Kind of both. I mean, there are stunts but they’re not real stunts. I mean, running, jumping, sliding, and diving and all that stuff looks so much better when the actor’s doing it. So I did a lot of that kind of thing. There was one sequence where I’m fighting one of the aliens in a steam tunnel and I did all of that fight with the exception of one throw where the alien sort of chucks me. That required some wirework to get thrown high up against a wall. So, that’s the one I farmed out to the double. And I had to learn how to ride a motorcycle for this show which I’m still kind of terrified by. So I can start one and I can stop one and I can kind of coast through a scene on one but anything requiring any more acrobatics than that I give to the double as well. Things like that. 


Going back to the question of family for a moment, it seems like there’s a good setup for some brother-related themes that are going throughout various different stories with Captain Weaver and the Band of Brothers mentality that he has with the soldiers versus the civilians. You’ve got the Mason brothers and the question of what they’ll do for each other in this situation. And it almost seems like Mason and Pope might have the beginnings of something setup for that discussion there in the theater. Is this something that’s been discussed and planned or is it just coming out in the performances as just a natural outgrowth of the story? 


I think kind of both – not to give too non-specific an answer. Relationships, especially when you’re starting up a new show, it’s a lot like testing spaghetti. You throw a bunch of stuff on the wall and see what sticks. Certain relationships have greater resonance than others and certain themes become more pronounced than others and oftentimes they’re not the ones that you expect to pop. Certainly when we started it was pretty black and white that I was coming from the humanist angle and Will Patton was coming from the militarist angle and that we were going to butt heads continually. Then as we got into the playing of it, Will brings such an interesting complexity to his character and a lot of humanity to what could easily be perceived as a two-dimensional character that it became a lot more interesting to kind of explore the areas of commonality between these two characters as opposed to the areas of conflict and to see how under different circumstances these men actually might like each other but are forced into opposite camps because of their dueling ideologies. The same holds true with characters like Pope where you know it’s this notion of who your allegiance is to. Obviously when you have an external threat from another planet suddenly the divisions between black, white, rich, poor, old and young get erased immediately against a common enemy. But if you take that enemy off the table for a moment and are allowed to take a little bit of breathing room, what are the lessons we’ve learned? Or do we revert back to our own kind of pettiness and clannishness? These are all themes that are worthy of exploring as we go on. 


You talk about breathing room. It seems like your characters are actually getting some of that where a comparison was made to V earlier. It seemed like in that series there were really a lot of slam, bang and no character development. Are you guys consciously aware of being able to spend time with these characters before you go in to just doing action sequences? Is that something that you’re being careful about? 


Well, you have to be careful about it even just from a production standpoint because obviously action sequences require the most money of an episode budget. If you’re going to give a little action sequence in every show, you’ll get a little action sequence in every show. But if you can buy yourself a couple of episodes by saving on your post-production budget and focusing the drama on interpersonal and character conflict then suddenly on the fourth episode you’ve got quite a large war chest to work with and you can stage something pretty epic. So there’s a financial necessity that goes into it. But also, it’s much more compelling to have the threat come, not as a constant, but in waves. To have it start off as a huge wave and then be able to get a lull, reflect a little bit, and synthesize some information and then to have another wave come and also the anticipation of that wave coming is great dramatic tension. What are the lessons learned after an encounter before the next wave comes? I think that for this particular show it works much better than having it be a constant threat. 


I don’t know if you’re a big fan of Jason and The Argonauts like I am, but I noticed that it had kind of a feel of very Harryhausen feel to the aliens here with very sort of mechanical and stop motion a little bit. I wonder what - did you know anything about that if that was intended to make it look a little different from what we see today, or do you have any thoughts on that? 


I don’t. I hope you’re not suggesting that ours looks like that kind of Claymation. 

No, no, no, no. No. I don’t know if you saw Jason and The Argonauts, the old one but... 


Yes, no. I saw it, yes. 


I was thinking, is this a very - to me it’s kind of scarier. 


I don’t know if that was predetermined or not. I don’t say it flippantly when I say I left the post-production to the post-production people. My level of involvement really extended up and through the writing of the scripts and the shooting of the episodes and then we turned it over to the real technicians to flush out this world. So I had nothing to do with it really. 


Well, can I ask you about the target audience for this, is it going to be more for families you think or how edgy is it going to get? How violent do you think it’s going to get? Will it be more like Battlestar Galactica or more like... 


It’s a really fine line to walk because you don’t… You know, I’ll use as an example the sort of budding love story between my character and Moon Bloodgood’s character. We tee it up that there’s an initial interest between these two and it starts the clock ticking in the audiences mind about when this is going to get consummated. As we were shooting the episodes we were always conscious of the fact that we hadn’t really advanced this relationship at all. So we’d write scenes where I would be on guard duty, and she’d bring me a sandwich and we’d start talking about whatever and suddenly it would get a little romantic. As we rehearsed them or talked them through it seems like it immediately dissipated the tension and level of credibility for the world that we were trying to establish and that we hadn’t earned that moment yet. Then it stuck out like a sore thumb as an obvious beat in the television show, so we cut it. Instead we would play it out probably closer to the way it would realistically play out which is, yes, there’s an interest from opposite sides of the room but these are two very busy people who have to get back to work. As the season progressed and we finally got into the final episode there was a moment that seemed truly earned, very kind of romantic and I think it became incredibly satisfying to have it pace out that way. Does that answer your question at all? 


Yes. But I was just wondering about how edgy it was going to be, how kind of... 


Oh yes, that was the parallel I was trying to draw (laughs) which is it’s a fine line to walk because you want to create a world where threat is very present but you don’t want it to be so bleak that it turns off viewers who are tuning in to watch more of a drama than a genre show. By the same token there’s a science fiction audience out there that I think the network would very much like to attract that is coming with the expectation that this is going to have a lot of epic battle sequences and be a fairly dark and violent show. So it’s going back and forth between the two. It’s having moments of humanity and hope and humor punctuated by moments of terror and action and then how we move on from there and get back to the moments of humanity, hope and humor before the next attack comes. I don’t think it’s going to get much more gratuitously violent than episodes we’ve already shot. I don’t think that that’s in the works, but I don’t think we really want to paint the rosier picture of the world prematurely either. 


Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 29, 2011.


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#1 © 2011. Courtesy of Dreamworks Television/TNT. All rights reserved.



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