Noah Wyle came to most people’s attention in 1992, when he played the young Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes in A Few Good Men. But he vaulted to stardom two years later on ER, playing fresh-faced third-year medical student John Carter, whose first day in the mania of County General is recounted in a pilot that changed the way medical dramas were presented on television. Wyle played Carter for the first 12 of the show’s 15 seasons, coming back for five episodes in the final season. Since then, Wyle has bided his time in various roles, including the nerdy-but-adventurous Flynn Carsen in TNT’s The Librarian franchise. Now he’s back on series TV on that network’s new Steven Spielberg-produced science fiction show Falling Skies, playing a history professor who is pressed into service as a militia leader after an alien invasion leaves the population scrambling to survive. Before the June 19 première of Falling Skies, Wyle talked to The A.V. Club about entering the “dad” phase of his career, what separates the show from other survival series, and if he ever objected to the hell the producers of ER put John Carter through.
The A.V. Club: The first shocking thing about the show wasn’t the alien invasion, and it wasn’t the plot, it was the fact that you’re playing the father of a what, 17-year-old kid?
Noah Wyle: God bless you. [Laughing.] God bless you for being the first person to mention it in the 300 interviews I’ve done in the last two days. [Laughs.] It was a little daunting to show up at the casting sessions for the part of Hal and see these young bucks walk in, and realize I was about to be one of their fathers.
AVC: And the connection’s not really clear at the beginning of the series that Hal’s your son.
NW: It wasn’t supposed to be ambiguous. It was just supposed to be not hit over the head. The idea being that he was the product of a young, new marriage, and we were very young parents with him. And he represents, like you said, being very much on the cusp on manhood, that he’s now being thrust into probably sooner than he would be otherwise. So he’s champing at the bit to cut the paternal ties and go out and make a name for himself as a fighter in his own right. And a lot of the storytelling that involves he and I over the course of the season is just that. It’s sort of having to redefine what the relationship is, and see each other now in a new way.
AVC: How tough is it for you to adjust now that you’re being asked to play fathers of teenagers?
NW: Well, you always know that line of demarcation is out there somewhere in your career. You don’t ever expect it to be thrust upon you as quickly as it is. I would say the hardest part about it is having to keep up with him in all these action sequences. I definitely feel the 20-year age discrepancy between us when I’m trying to keep up with that young spring buck.
AVC: This is obviously a bit of a different role for you, although The Librarian movies helped fuel this—
NW: They’re physical, but it’s physical comedy as opposed to this type of action. Yeah, it’s a different part all the way through. And luckily, amnesia’s settled in, so I’m looking at it through a much rosier lens than I did when I finished it and I was covered in bumps and bruises and scrapes. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was the biggest physical challenge for you?
NW: My mother was an orthopedic nurse for 20 years, and she forbade all of us children to ever get on a motorcycle, and we listened. So when I showed up and we started shooting the series and I got the new script, and I saw that Tom Mason jumps on the back of his motorcycle and peels off screaming into the night, I thought, “Oh wow. Okay. When are we shooting this? Tuesday? Okay. Small detail: I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before.”
AVC: How long did it take you to get the hang of it?
NW: Oh they were very generous. They gave me a whole afternoon in an empty parking lot somewhere. [Laughs.]
AVC: How many times did you fall down?
NW: On camera or off? [Laughs.] I never dumped it off camera, but there was one sequence where I forgot to put my kickstand up, and I had to do this sharp little turn by the camera and it basically drove itself like a spike into the ground and I did a nice little flip over on it.
AVC: And how fast were you going?
NW: Luckily only fast enough to bruise my ego.
AVC: What sets Falling Skies apart from the other post-apocalyptic survival series we’ve seen?
NW: Well, certainly Mr. Spielberg’s involvement gives you a great safety and knowledge knowing that the aliens and the spaceships are going to look terrific. What appealed to me in the script was the family aspect of it, the idea that each episode we were going to be weighing the obvious cons and the more subtle pros about this form of existence, this idea that once the reset button gets hit and we’re scrambling to figure out how we’re going to survive, obviously the level of deprivation that we’re living in, and the level of threat that we’re living under are the cons; but the subtle pros of kids having to use their imagination to play, the quality of relationships becoming much more authentic without all the distractions of modern-day convenience, seem very appealing to me. And not to get too philosophical about it, but the idea of taking a history professor who’s really an academic, a chronicler of things that have happened, the deeds of great men who’ve come before him, to a place where he realizes that he’s now an active participant and an author of history, and that these people, should they survive, will become the authors of the next gospels, they’ll become the next founding fathers, they’ll create the template for the next civilization that may not even be realized in their lifetime. I thought it was really exciting.
AVC: Does the fact that this takes place months after the invasion happened, when the resistance’s armies have been organized, make it more intriguing to you?
NW: I like jumping off. It takes off like a rifle shot, you know, and you don’t really get the preamble, except for the monologue that comes out of the mouths of babes over those children’s drawings to give you the setup for the story. It allows you to start with kind of a punch, and you don’t have to dedicate all of that legwork to suddenly business as usual, everybody’s driving their cars and stuck in traffic, fighting with their wives, and [then], “What…what’s that up in the heavens? Oh my!” But it doesn’t rule out that we won’t go there at some point to show what formed these characters: what lives they lived, what the early days of the invasion were like. I remember at the end of last season, one of my favorite shows, Treme, did just that. They’d started in a post-Katrina world, and we’d followed these characters now for a whole season, becoming very invested in them. And then the last episode flashed back to the day of the evacuation from New Orleans, and it was very, very poignant to have the storytelling run that way.
AVC: So there is a possibility that the show could flash back a bit?
NW: Yeah, we haven’t done it, and I think everybody that’s involved thinks of it as being a bit of a cheat, and only if our back’s up against the wall and we’re at the bottom of the barrel should we resort to it. But I wouldn’t rule it out. I think it could be very informative.
AVC: After the pilot, the show settles down and explores the relationships between the primary refugees. How do you think the more personal stories mesh with the action?
NW: I think one complements the other. I would go to some of Mr. Spielberg’s earlier work, for an example, it just popped into my head: One of my favorite movies of his is Jaws, which is really about a great white shark attacking this small little island. But the scenes that I remember most, and that I find most interesting, are the scenes around the table when Shaw gives the monologue about being on the Indianapolis, or the scene at the dinner table when Roy Scheider and his kid start doing that little pantomime with each other. Those little character moments, where you really start to get invested in who these people are, create the tension and the drama that allows you to be viscerally affected by this shark swimming around and potentially wanting to eat them. So it’s the balance of both that I think makes it really effective. Too much of one, and it gets a little sentimental and corny. Too much of the other, and you lose basically the audience that TNT’s built their brand on, which is people who tune in to see really good character drama.
AVC: The kids on the show factor in the story heavily. How does that compare to other shows of the genre, in using the kids as part of the story?
NW: Well, I can’t think of another show that’s utilized the kids, where the kids became the coin of the realm. In essence, that’s what’s on the table. That’s what everybody’s wanting. We obviously want our kids safe and with us, and the aliens obviously want them for some sort of slave labor force that we don’t quite understand. And it brings up this really interesting notion of child soldiers and being the father of three young boys. Which is the kinder approach: to protect them, and shield them, and try to give them some semblance of childhood? Or is that the biggest disservice? Should they be armed and trained, and sent out to the front in the hopes that we’ll survive and that their kids’ kids will have the childhood that they’ve been robbed of, which I think is really effective.
AVC: When you read these stories as a father, what does it bring up in your mind?
NW: Ah, it’s terrifying to think about it. Terrifying to think about what choice I would make.
AVC: When you play the role, do you think about a real-life situation like this where you would have to figure out what to do and how to react?
NW: You do it only to sort of make sure that you’re mining every situation for all of its intrinsic possibilities. You wouldn’t want to rule out what you would do in that scenario. Right early on in the pilot, there’s a scene where I find out my middle son is not only alive, but probably within grasp, but it would come at the jeopardy of not accomplishing the mission to get food for the 300 people that are waiting for me to feed them. So it’s the first proverbial Sophie’s choice he has to make on this long learning curve of accepting the mantle of power. That’s, I think, just really great storytelling to have these ethical decisions that have to be made week in and week out, serving the greater good in the face of really wanting just to protect mine and my own.
AVC: Do you see how people have to make these tough choices?
NW: Yeah, I would totally go the other way. I think I would take my family and hide them out someplace, and stay away from the herd at all costs. I think that’s more my stripe, although I’m embarrassed to admit it.
AVC: Why do you think this model of organized militias that we see on this kind of show appeals to audiences, rather than just stories about people trying to survive however they can?
NW: Well, what we use is the historical allegory of the American Revolution as a backdrop for this invasion taking place in the exact patch of land, and one of [Mason’s] calls to arms, to instill a little esprit de corps, is to remind them that there’s many, many historical precedents for a small, determined group of indigenous people who’ve not only defended themselves, but actually repelled an unwanted invading army. And you don’t really have to look too far into the past to find examples of that. So I think it’s around, and this notion of, even though we’re outmanned and outgunned, we have something worth fighting for, so that makes us a formidable foe. It’s right out of Arab Spring, it’s right out of…
AVC: The hope that despite everything, people can still be civilized and organized?
NW: Yeah, I think in the way that disaster brings out the noblest aspects of our character, and some of the worst aspects of our character, and we show all of that; the Second Massachusetts happens to take the more noble route. But the other humans we encounter along the way do what they need to do to survive. And that puts us, often times, in ideological conflicts.
AVC: Are you a history buff at all?
NW: I’m a huge history buff. It was no hardship to read history textbooks for homework. I like that aspect of my job, whether it’s applicable or not. I like to marinate myself a little bit in whatever world I need to marinate myself in. Even if it doesn’t have any practical application, it’s just sort of fun for me to do it.
AVC: When you think back to different war stories and different histories, which one do you think intrigues you the most, where you wish you were there and living in that time?
NW: Well none of them are particularly eras where I’d want to live. I don’t think I’d want to be in the Warsaw ghetto. [Laughs.] It certainly proves as a good model, the French Resistance, or the Khmer Rouge, or any of the rest of it. I don’t think I’d envy living in any of those times, but I find them all really interesting.
AVC: Are you still doing The Librarian movies, or are they over with?
NW: I don’t know. I like making them. They’re just pure fun for me. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had working on anything. The people that are behind the scenes creating it are just a bunch of great guys, and we really enjoy each other’s company, and they’re fun stories to tell. And we go off in some fun locations, and work hard, and play hard, and make fun little movies that seem like monumental achievements on an $8 million budget. To be sandwiched between Jane Curtin and Bob Newhart for a couple weeks is phenomenal. And then of course it satisfies all of my early interests in becoming an actor: You get to ride the horse, and swing on the rope, and kiss the girl, and sword fight, and beat the bad guy. It’s just fun. So I would very much like to do more. A big part of the reason I’m doing [Falling Skies] is in the hopes that with me doing this show and [Librarian producer] Dean Devlin doing Leverage on the network, that we can apply—no pun intended—leverage on the network to get back in the Librarian business. We stopped making it for no other reason than TNT got out of the movie business. They decided to focus more on series programming.
AVC: But this series is unique for TNT so far, because it’s been more known for police and lawyer procedurals and things like that.
NW: Oh, it’s a huge thematic departure for them. This is none of that. This doesn’t compare in budget size, this doesn’t compare in marketing, this doesn’t compare thematically. It’s a bit of a gamble that they’re taking to attract an audience that currently exists on their network, but at the same time, try to pay homage and respect to the one that is there. So it’s trying to have our cake and eat it too. We’ve gotta have the sci-fi show that really is the backdrop for human character drama. So hopefully we’ll be satisfying two audiences.
AVC: Of course, everybody knows you from ER. For years and years, you were in an environment where—
NW: I was the youngest cast member? [Laughs.]
AVC: How does it feel to be now the TV veteran in a cast?
NW: It’s a little disconcerting at first. You know, especially when you’ve dined out most of your life on having been praised for your maturity at such a young age, or your level of professionalism for such a young age. And suddenly you show up and that’s all just taken for granted as part of what you’re being paid for.
AVC: People don’t always realize that ER was built around Dr. Carter’s experiences.
NW: The pilot episode was his first day on the job. So in many ways, the audience’s point of view of that arena was seen through that character’s eyes. And the journey that the audience goes on kind of mirrors his maturation and growth as a physician, and as a man, to the point where he goes from a bumbling, stumbling, comic-relief third-year medical student to eventually Chief Attending, having suffered through loss of child and drug addiction and near-fatal stabbing and African tours and all the rest of it.
AVC: Carter didn’t exactly have a smooth time there at County, did he?
NW: No, he didn’t. But it was an interesting, ongoing evolution of character that allowed me to continually be entertained and amused by where the character was going, and never to feel stagnant or stale, or feel that I was being particularly pigeonholed into a type of character that I wouldn’t be able to break away from.
AVC: Was there any time when you got a story, like when Carter got stabbed, where you just went to the producers and said, “Really? Carter’s going to be near death again?”
NW: There were only two times that I ever called [ER executive producer] John Wells about anything. One was when he wrote a storyline where I slept with my medical student in the hospital, who was being played by Kellie Martin. And I came to him and said, “This is kind of coming out of left field and I don’t know that he would do that. It seems like a big ethical slip, and I’m worried that once you kind of infringe on that ethical center, that is this character’s core, it’d be difficult to get back from it.” And I made a big mountain out of a molehill and we ended up compromising to a certain extent, and it was a nothing scene. The other was the drug addiction, where I said, “Really… really?” And he said, “No, I want to have the face of drug addiction be the least conspicuous face. I want it to be an everyman face to show how prevalent this problem is, and who better a character to do that through than yours?” That made perfect sense to me.
AVC: How did it feel to see the cast changing constantly around you?
NW: It worked very well for that particular show, because an emergency room is really not a career place. There’s a huge turnover in any emergency room. So it lent itself well to the storytelling to have new faces come through. And also, you know, when you get into seasons nine, 10, and 11, you’ve basically run through most of the medical storylines that you can. So the only way to show the same thing differently is to do it through a different set of eyes.
AVC: Do you look back on it and say, “Oh my God, we launched George Clooney, we launched William H. Macy, we launched CCH Pounder, we launched all these actors that are now pretty big stars”?
NW: There’s even more than that… I mean, Shia LeBeouf was one of my patients when he was like, 12 years old. I mean it goes on and on and on. If you go back and look at the annals, we had everybody come through those halls.
AVC: What’s remarkable is that William H. Macy and CCH Pounder in those first years were just guest stars.
NW: Yeah. I don’t think Bill had done much outside of his Mamet work. I think he did Homicide and maybe Searching For Bobby Fischer, and maybe a couple other film roles… House Of Games he had a small part in.
AVC: How did working with all of those people help you out with your acting?
NW: Well, those were all the up-and-comers whose careers got launched, but I had the benefit of working with all the old-timers. I got Mickey Rooney, I got Red Buttons, I got Sanford Meisner, I got John Randolph, I got Eli Wallach, I got a series of just a lot of really great—Alan Alda—some tremendous veterans. I would say the most gratifying was Red Buttons. He and I got very, very close. He did four episodes early on in the show’s run, then we brought him back many years later. He and I remained close up until he died.
AVC: What did you learn from him?
NW: Oh, he had a great sort of philosophy about taking your work seriously and not taking yourself too seriously, and a great kind of joie de vivre, reminding me that as hard as we were all working, that we should really enjoy ourselves. Because it’s fleeting, and at the end of your life, if you haven’t accrued enough wonderful memories, you’ll be conscious of it.