Noah Wyle interview: The Librarians, ER, playing Steve Jobs

As The Librarians returns to Syfy UK, we chatted to Noah Wyle about directing, Falling Skies, and Jonathan Frakes peeing in a dumpster…

Since he first appeared as medical student John Carter in the Emergency Room of County General Hospital, Ill., Noah Wyle has specialised in playing a particular type of brainy hero. During his record-breaking tenure in ER, Wyle was notably the first to portray a fictional version of Steve Jobs in biopic Pirates Of Silicon Valley, a part that earned him an invitation from Mr Jobs to play a prank on the audience at the 1999 Macworld Expo.

Among a host of stage and screen roles, Wyle also played the small but memorable role of Dr Monitoff, a science teacher with an interest in parallel universes in 2001’s Donnie Darko, followed in 2004 with the part of Flynn Carsen, perpetual student-turned-Indiana-Jones-type in three The Librarian television movies. More recently, there’s been Tom Mason, the history professor-turned-military-strategist in five seasons of alien-invasion drama Falling Skies. 

Now, Wyle is back as Flynn in season two of The Librarians‘ TV show, for which he’s also directed an episode. As the second series arrives in the UK, we chatted to Wyle briefly about his early days on ER, theatre work, going behind the camera, and collaborating with director, actor and trombonist, Jonathan Frakes…

In The Librarian movies and show, you play a geek superhero, if we can call him that.

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Those are your words! I wouldn’t call him that.

But Flynn’s not cut from the traditional brawny superhero cloth, more Doctor Who than say, Thor? Or, as you once put it, Indiana Jones played by Don Knotts…

Yes, that’s how I phrased it. Originally in the first film he was basically a professional student, he’s someone who was incredibly comfortable in the realm of academia but very reticent to step out into the real world. He’d attained twenty-two different degrees but he’d never really kissed a girl and he still lived at home with his mother, he’d never really had a job, and then he’s put into the position of caring for the most magical and mythological objects in the world and keeping them from falling into the hands of evil.

He’s been on the job for a while now, twelve years, and he’s worked basically in isolation, so the series finds him a little bit redefined from the films in that he has a touch of madness about him now, his people skills are wanting, he’s very irreverent and very eccentric. He’s a character of opposites, sort of a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

He’s had to get used to working with a team a bit more in season two?

That becomes the sort of maturation growth arc of the season is him learning how to work well with others and to delegate responsibility and accept help, ask for help…

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Flynn’s the latest in a long line of super-smart characters you’ve played, with Falling Skies‘ Tom Mason, John Carter, even Dr Monitoff in Donnie Darko

Yeah, that’s true. I think Flynn’s probably the smartest, although Tom Mason is incredibly resourceful in a pinch. He’s who I’d want to be with in a fox-hole situation for sure.

Have you ever played a dumb character?

I have. I have. They’ve been in smaller jobs here and there but I tend to get cast as people that are way smarter than I am as a person. My family finds it even more ironic.

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You’re about to play a fictionalised version of yourself in Adoptable, I understand?

[Laughs] That made it online already?

Yup!

That’s a friend of mine named Scott Lowell, his web series. That’s going to start up in the New Year. He’s written a part and I’m going to play myself which is kind of fun.

What’s the fictional Noah Wyle like?

I haven’t read the scripts yet but I just asked him, I said ‘As you write it, just make me a complete, total tool! I want to be incredibly egomaniacal, make me a misogynist, make me whatever you want, just give me something fun to sink my teeth into’.

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Speaking of smart guys, of course, you were the one who started the current trend for playing Steve Jobs in movies, back in 1999…

Yes, I suppose that’s true.

Now, everyone’s doing it, Fassbender, Kutcher…

Where will it end, I ask you?

Is there a trick to playing Steve Jobs?

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I would love to have another crack at it to be honest, I enjoyed that job immensely. Not only because the character is so dynamic and complex but also because the writer/director Martyn Burke gave me a lot of freedom, it was one of the nicest working relationships I’ve had with a director.

The trick to playing Steve Jobs? I don’t know. There are two things you want to bear in mind whenever you play a real-life character, one is your responsibility to that person and to their families, because you’re depicting them in something that’s not going to go away, ever. And the second is not to do an impression, not to just mimic them but to figure out emotionally how to convey an essence of their life from a truthful place. It’s a tricky thing to do with a guy like Steve Jobs, because I don’t know that he let anybody get close enough to him to really show that side.

Mr Jobs was a fan of your portrayal, I understand, even if he wasn’t a fan of your movie?

He was not a fan of the movie, and he gave me a compliment about my performance. I don’t know that he would have gone so far as to say that he was a fan… [laughs]

He made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the movie then?

He couldn’t have been clearer.

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When you went up on stage as him at Macworld in 1999, did everybody get the joke?

It sort of rippled from the front to the back of the hall. It was a huge place, Avery Fisher Hall in New York, which holds about ten thousand people and those in the front row I think could tell right off, but it sort of made its way to the back of the house over time. By the time he came out, the joke was way up.

Going back to The Librarians, you directed an episode this season.

Yes, I did.

And you also directed your first Falling Skies in the last season?

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Yes, the first one non-subversively, yes [laughs]

How did those directing experiences compare?  

They were very different, actually. Obviously there are certain built-in similarities but the shows are so different in the way that they’re executed that they present completely different sets of problems.

Shooting in Vancouver in the winter means weather issues, it involves a lot of pyrotechnics and a lot of special effects for that particular episode, so there were a lot of physical challenges between the show and the eight days we had to make it.

The Librarians is a show that really needs to have ten days, but we shoot it in seven, so the workload is really tremendous, and we don’t really quite have the budget to really give it the production value that it deserves, so we try to be as resourceful as we can. It was a lot more like putting on a high school play and having it look like a Broadway play.

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Lots of the ER actors are directors now – Eriq LaSalle, George Clooney, whatever happened to that guy…

[Laughs] Right. Even more than that. Laura Innes, who played Dr Carrie Weaver, directs quite a bit, Paul McCrane, who played Dr Romano, directs quite a bit, there’s a few of us out there that have made the transition.

I think it’s really a by-product of the fact that we’ve all been working in TV for over twenty years, you get a sense of storytelling, you get a set savviness and you reach a point in time where you no longer are excited to get up at three o clock in the morning and sit in the make-up chair. You want to go to work and have your vision executed for a change, and put your stamp on it in a more auteur way, I guess.

That experience must have been like going to TV college for you all?

Yeah, boot camp.

As Dr John Carter in ER, you currently hold the record for playing a doctor in a primetime drama series longer than anybody else, but, I hear that in November, a couple of the Grey’s Anatomy doctors may be poised to take the record from you…

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I don’t think that’s true?

Maybe I have bad information!

I don’t really give a shit if it is true [laughs] but I have 260-something episodes under my belt and I don’t know… Have those guys been doing it for that long?

They’re coming up to about 250 episodes this season, so the ones that have been there since season one, like Justin Chambers and Ellen Pompeo…

They’re all original cast members?

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I think so.

Well… God bless! [Laughs]

So, when you started ER, you were twenty-two.

That’s right.

And starting something like Falling Skies, you were obviously among the older, more experienced members of the cast. Can you think back to your first days on set on both, and how you’d changed between them?

You mean to compare and contrast? I just remember being on the set of ER and looking at all those people and I was so hungry and so eager that I just remember being incredibly ambitious and looking for ways to steal the scene out from under them [laughs]. And then on Falling Skies, it was just the opposite, where I was the elder statesmen and I was trying to get these guys motivated to try to steal the scene from me.

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On the subject of motivating young actors, you’re also part of the Blank Theatre Company. You’re the Artistic Director, if I’ve got that right?

I’m the Artistic Producer of the company, Daniel Henning is the Artistic Director. I’ve been involved in that company since its inception twenty-five years ago. We’re still going strong. For such a small company, we have a very nice national reputation, a very active board of directors.

I just actually saw the show that we have up right now, it’s tremendous. We have an original piece called Something Truly Monstrous, a three-character play about Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid and Peter Lorre and the night that they apocryphally dug up the body of John Barrymore and took it to Errol Flynn’s house.

And the idea is also promoting the work of up-and-coming playwrights and performers?

We do have a young playwrights festival where we take submissions from kids all over the country and produce their plays as part of a month-long festival in June, but the company is predominantly dedicated to new works or West Coast premieres in general.

Is there a specific connection to the cast of Buffy The Vampire Slayer? There’s something like six members of the Buffy cast on the Blank Theatre Company alumni list: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Amber Benson, Eliza Dushku, James Marsters, Nicholas Brendon…

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Well, we just all kind of knew each other. Daniel Henning, who is my partner, was friends with Sarah Michelle Gellar. I did a play with Nicky Brendon. Nicky Brendon did a couple of other shows with us. James Marsters was in a show for us. My partner Daniel Henning’s husband, Rick Baumgartner was the Visual Effects Supervisor on Buffy… So it’s just really the social relationships that we had at the time we formed the company, rather than [laughs] an obsession with that particular show.

Because we’re Den Of Geek, I can’t not ask you about working with Jonathan Frakes, a man best-known of course, for being an awesome trombone player…

Indeed.

He played the trombone in one of the Librarians films, didn’t he?

He did, Librarians 3 in New Orleans, he played a street performer! Jonathan’s wonderful. He’s one of my dear, dear friends. We worked together on The Librarians but he directed several episodes of Falling Skies as well, he’s a very prolific television director and he’s just a beautiful guy. He takes his work seriously but doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s one of those guys you can work hard with all day and then go out and play hard with all night. I think I last remember him peeing in a dumpster in Portland, Oregon, truth be told.

Do you talk Star Trek with him?

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I have, although his Star Trek was not my Star Trek, so occasionally I’ll ask him to do his Riker impression where he dips his shoulder and takes the full stance, just for my own amusement.

We’ve run out of time, so quickly then. You’ve worked on several Spielberg projects over the years. Do you have a favourite of his movies?

Well I love a lot of them, but Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Noah Wyle, thank you very much!

The Librarians returns on Monday 2 November at 8pm on Syfy.