You don't need one of the strange laboratory contraptions from "Fringe" to detect that John Noble is an actor to watch this Emmy season — television critics and fans of the Fox sci-fi series have crusaded to bring attention to the Australian actor's inspired, quirky and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of the mad scientist Walter Bishop.
None of that is lost on the 61-year-old Noble, but last fall, as he brewed a pot of coffee in his trailer on the set of "Fringe" in Vancouver, Canada, he seemed far more interested in the delights of scripted madness than the allure of industry accolades.
"Walter is like a King Lear for television," Noble said. "He's got all of those extremes. He goes from the raging fool into these incredibly tender moments. He had moments that, to most of us, are quite insane and then show this incredible lucidity."
"Fringe," created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (respectively, the director and writing tandem behind last year's "Star Trek" film), recently closed out its second season with a tense cliffhanger and a tale of multidimensional intrigue — essentially, there are nefarious doubles of key characters who are crossing back and forth between our universe and a parallel world and doing bad things to good people.
The show goes in search of strange science, but really the most important physics connect the three central characters — FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), con man turned FBI "consultant" Peter Bishop ( Joshua Jackson, long removed from the banks of "Dawson's Creek") and Noble as Peter's father, something of a modern and mellower version of Dr. Frankenstein.
For Noble, the series and the character have been a chance to delve into "the nature of true genius" and his studies of those singular souls who sometimes have cosmic insights but also terrible obsessions and mental or social rhythms that set them apart in life.
The actor has worked closely with the creators and writers of "Fringe" to shape the madness of Walter Bishop — he studied the effects of psychotropic drugs on people and "what happens in mental institutions." And, on a recent trip to Mexico City, Noble and his wife became mesmerized by the elaborate romanticism of senior couples dancing the samba in a central plaza.
"They were so focused," the actor said during a phone conversation after the trip, "that they transported back to when they were beautiful 19-year-olds." That scenario stuck with Noble and then, after watching a tango exhibition on the same trip, he e-mailed the writers of "Fringe" with an impassioned new idea: " 'Walter must tango,' I told them! They wrote back and said it was a grand idea. Now whether we use it or not, we'll see, but it's in the boiling pot."
Noble (who has now scheduled some tango lessons during his upcoming vacation to Italy) said the dance is a wonderful fit for Walter because its performance is not only theatrical, it "is time standing still in a way," which brings rich possibilities to the character's ongoing arc. As "Fringe" viewers know, Walter was at the creative center of numerous bizarre experiments and dark government projects before he was shipped off to mental institutions. Now, as he emerges from a pharmaceutical fog, he is rediscovering himself but also his past sins.
"The memories appear and they hurt him, but he is also finding moments of strength and insight," Noble said, explaining that through the course of a few dozen episodes he has used posture, tremors and voice to show the scientist's physical condition. "He's not the same man we meet in the first episode."
Noble said the cast of "Fringe" has been a revelation for him and that he is especially fond of his rapport with Jackson, his on-screen son.
"That's become the glue that sticks the show together and I think J.J. Abrams always had that in mind," Noble said. "But Joshua Jackson and I just picked it up and ran with it. It seemed like a beautiful opportunity to create something special. It's resonated so much with our audience. People stop Joshua in the street and tell him to treat his father better. I had a driver the other day who told me that he totally relates to Walter as a father and going through difficult times with his son. This is beautiful stuff."
After the season finale, Noble said he was still marveling at the fact that he gets to play Walter as well as the character's aggressive doppelgänger from another dimension. "Think about that. I get Walter and his polar opposite. These are gifts you just don't get as an actor. I cherish it all."