Noah Wyle on 'Falling Skies': 'Total immersion experience'

Wyle as Mason, courtesy TNT

Noah Wyle has built a career portraying thinkers. Whether it was as Dr. John Carter in E.R., Flynn Carsen in the Librarian series, Steve Jobs in Pirates of the Silicon Valley and, most recently, as a father and college history professor-turned-human resistance fighter Tom Mason in TNT’s alien apocalypse series Falling Skies, Wyle has mastered the performance of intellectuals who think before acting.

It is appropriate, then, that Wyle the actor comes across in much the same way. A soft-spoken man with more than two decades of work on his resume, he isn’t the bad ass action hero type who attempts to imbue his characters – or his interviews about those characters – with vein-bulging machismo. Instead, the 41-year-old is thoughtful about his fictional role as a leader of human survivors on Falling Skies, which debuts its second season on June 17 at 9 p.m., and as his role of leading actor and a producer on the ensemble show.

Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, the first season of Falling Skies premiered June 2011 as a family-friendlier cousin to The Walking Dead, except with highly-advanced, insectoid aliens. These “skitters” appear in ships above major Earth cities, and make quick work of upending civilizations. And the humans they don’t kill, typically kids, are fitted with a parasitic harness and become mindless slaves. Wyle’s Tom Mason comes into the picture as a widower with three sons (Drew Roy, Connor Jessup and Maxim Knight) who joins the 2nd Massachusetts resistance force. Applying his knowledge as a military historian, he quickly established himself as a capable second-in-command under Will Patton’s Captain Weaver. Also along for the alien fight was doctor/love interest Anne (Moon Bloodgood), roguish anti-hero Pope (Colin Cunningham), strong silent type Dai (Peter Shinkoda) amongst others.

At the end of the first season, Wyle’s 2nd Mass dealt a symbolic blow to the aliens by destroying part of their massive ship over Boston, and by deflecting an attack at their home base. But it also had Tom Mason departing with the spindly, grey aliens who command the skitters to learn more about their mission.

Wyle joined Paranormal Pop Culture to discuss responsibilities as series lead on Falling Skies, the series evolution between seasons into a darker show - and avoiding problems from the first season - and the toll a show of this magnitude takes on him (after the jump)...

Q: It’s been a few months since you’ve wrapped, so in that timeframe, what are you thinking about with the show? Are you going back and rethinking the choices you made about a character or do you just sort of pack it up and set it aside?

A: I got to say, of all the jobs I’ve worked, this one is a particularly hard one to decompress from. It took a long time to get my feet back under me and feel normal again once I got home. Probably because of the survival instinct, I did put it to bed. I said, ‘Well, I did the best I could and I’ll revisit it when I have to sell it.’ So I really haven’t thought that much about it. As I get closer and closer to air date, and I talk about it more and more, now I’m in the anxietal stage of going back and rethinking all my choices. So it’s both.

Q: Why is it a hard project to decompress from?

A: It’s a pretty total immersion experience. Four-and-a-half months away from your comfort zone and your family - living in a hotel room - and working 17, 18, 19-hour days in a fairly bleak world, and having to maintain that headspace for the duration is a tough undertaking.

Plus, it’s a physically tough show to both produce and to execute. We identified a couple of significant flaws last year; one being that the show doesn’t work as well during the day as it does at night. So that meant that we were going to be shooting mostly on a split schedule of going to work midday and working until sun up. So you were keeping vampire hours and living on a different time clock than your friends and family.

And the other is that the show doesn’t work as well when the group is stationary and holding a position. It works much better when they are on the move, being hunted - which means that we were going to be doing a lot less interior work and a lot more exterior work in the elements in Vancouver in the winter; all of which made for exciting television and a fairly arduous experience. It’s always tough to regulate coming out of something like that.

Q: Are you able to bring your kids while filming in Vancouver?

A: It’s harder and harder. We shot the first season in Toronto and they were two years younger than they are now, and I brought them every two weeks for two weeks at a stretch. Which seemed to work out but my son’s got soccer and my daughter’s got ballet, and they both have school and they both have friends and lives. Sometimes, it feels a little selfish to pull them out of their comfort zone and routine to live in a hotel room where I’m working 18 or 19 hours anyway - and not really able to spend that much time with them. So we struck a bit more of a balance this year. They came up. I came down on weekends when I could. They came up for longer weekends more often. It’s tough. It’s not like they can come and be with me the whole time.

Q: Because of all the experience you’ve had in the business, in a lot of ways, you’re the elder statesman on the cast. Do you find that you have to take on that role? 

From left: Sarah Carter, Drew Roy, Wyle
Colin Cunningham, Will Patton. Courtesy TNT
A: That’s an unintentionally loaded question because it’s one I’m still grappling with. E.R. I sort of inherited, over the years, and moved up the call sheet as other characters left the show. So I never really felt that was my show as much as it was a communal effort. This was the first time I started Day One on the call sheet, at the top of the call sheet. I was excited to tackle that challenge to see if I could carry an ensemble - and a young ensemble, at that - and how I want to do it, and who I thought did it really well, in my experience, and who I could pull and draw from to make that an easier experience for everybody.

But in practice, it’s a tough thing to do. Everybody comes to the table with varying degrees of experience and different work ethics. Sometimes, it’s an unenviable place to be when you feel like you’re a hall monitor and telling people to show up on time and know their lines, and hang up their costumes and whatnot. And other times, it’s a pleasure to have a creative seat at the table, and for the first time in my career, really feel like I’ve got a creative stake and sense of ownership in the material I’m involved in. So, it’s both.

Q: In your career, you’ve played a doctor, a librarian, a historian. You’ve done wonders for higher education within popular culture.

A: [laughs] Having not gone to college, I think I’m atoning for the end of a mission.

Q: Do you find that your character Tom’s biggest weakness is that he is so much of a thinker? Is that his strength and weakness?

A: Well, that was what was appealing about the arc. Again, there’s an analogy to be made with E.R. in terms of what attracted me to the project. When I looked at the pilot script for E.R. and I saw that John Carter was having his first day on the job in the pilot, I realized very quickly that he had the largest arc ahead of him. Because everybody else had to start off with a high level of proficiency and confidence, and that I would get a really juicy landscape to be able to play.

Similarly, you take a character that’s lived a very cloistered life in the realm of academia, an intellectual - and throw him into a situation where that skill set seems totally useless and esoteric - seemed like it was going to provide another good arc as he had to become more physically adept, come to terms with feelings of inadequacy, a real reluctance to step into a leadership role that he doesn’t feel he’s adequately prepared for. And then there’s the learning curve of discovering that, because he taught history, that a lot of times there are historical precedents that could inform present-day decision making on a tactical level, was a significant turning point for him. The realization that because he was a teacher he’s, in a lot of ways, better served to lead a civilian army than somebody that has a military background would be because he’s used to conveying information and instilling a sense of confidence and inspiration in kids, in particular.

So it all makes for a nice well-rounded arc of a guy who starts confident and gets incredibly unconfident and starts to build himself back up again. Having a character like Captain Weaver played by the incomparable Will Patton, who starts off ideologically on the opposite end of the leadership spectrum, and getting to play this sort of transference that occurs of the course of two years between them where he adopts more of the humanistic side of Tom, and Tom adopts more of the militaristic side of Weaver, seemed like great storytelling.

Q: Do you actually believe in aliens? Have you ever seen a UFO? 

A: Never seen one. Don’t really know anyone who has. But who am I to argue with Stephen Hawking?

Q: Fair enough. Speaking of Hawking, he says that if we were to encounter aliens, they’re going to be potentially nasty. They’re going to be like us: Conquerors. We see that reflected in popular culture. Even Steven Spielberg, his early alien stuff was kind of friendly, cuddly, benevolent. As his career has gone on, it’s sort of shifted to malevolent, nastier creatures. What do you think that shift says about us? Is it that we are kind of afraid of reaping what we sow?

A: I think, historically, science fiction is a genre that seems to come into fashion on the heels of some great technological advancement that creates a divide of opinion as to whether this is positive or negative for us. You saw it, certainly, with the advent of the atomic bomb, with the moon landing. And I think we’re experiencing it now with our increasing dependence on technology for basic survival and communication. It sort of makes us schizophrenic in a sense. It seems that we’re either on the brink of utopia or our own version of the Roman ruin. That’s why these things are sort of back in the zeitgeist again.

Q: Can Tom spend so much time away, with these aliens that he spent an entire season killing, and then come back and not have gotten too close? Will he be tainted because he’s been embedded with them?

A: I think it will be an easy transition. I think he gets off that ship inexplicably and suspiciously let go, but with a very clear understanding that there is no negotiation to be had. And there’s no peace to be brokered. That this is going to be a fight to the last man and to the last stand, and that whatever sort of hope he retains about the kind of society we might be able to rebuild, needs to be shelved for a while until the threat is eliminated. So, I think he comes back pretty focused - and a lot more amenable to adopting a pretty strong dogmatic approach to dealing with them.

A Skitter in a Mech suit. Courtesy TNT
Q: The show is a family sci-fi show, and we know that it tends to be going in a darker direction this season. Is there no going back to sort of a, by comparison, lighthearted Season One? Would you want it to go back?

A: Well, every episode we try to show advantage, disadvantage. The disadvantages are obvious. We’re living in a high state of deprivation, under a constant level of threat, on the move, zero creature comforts, danger around every turn. But there’s certain advantages that we try to showcase as well.

In the midst of all that, the quality of the relationships becomes a lot more authentic, and Tom is a far better father post-apocalypse than he was pre-apocalypse. He’s, out of necessity, forced to negotiate with and comes to terms with very desperate personalities who he probably would’ve had nothing to do with under normal circumstances. A celebration is a true celebration. A birth is a real ritual. Things that we sort of take for granted now become extremely significant then.

I think that allows the show to retain a sense of hope and optimism. In the face of it, people are still going to be people. They’re still going to need to laugh and to love and procreate, and all the rest of it. And we did pretty well balancing that, I think.

Q: When you wrap the season, are you happy to go back to a clean-shaven face? Or is this just part of your lifestyle now, rocking the beard?

A: It became a bit of a crutch, to be honest with you. There were periods of time when I was really excited and I had fantasies about, on the last night of shooting, as soon as they called, ‘Wrap,’ going right to the makeup trailer and shaving. But then you get producers, of which I am one, saying, ‘Wait a second, we might need to reshoot something; don’t shave yet.’ And then, we came back and there were press photos they wanted to do, and promo spots for the network where they wanted us in character so I had to keep the beard for that. Eventually, I just got sick of it and shaved it off.

Wyle takes aim for Season 3. Courtesy TNT
Q: And I guess you’ve got a little bit of time before having to grow it back. Do you know what the prospects are already for Season Three and when you might go back to film?

A: Well, confidence is high. We did pretty well last season. I think we would have to have a significant drop off in our numbers to not justify a third season given the level of investment the network has put into it. If everything goes as planned, we’ll be back to work around September first. But we won’t get the official pick-up until we start airing a couple of episodes and see how they’re doing.

Q: You mentioned to me before you were hoping to do Shakespeare in the Park at some point. Are you really aiming to do more theater?

A: I would love it. I would love it. You know, all my ambitions are mitigated by fatherhood and theater is the one casualty that I haven’t quite been able to reconcile because night time is daddy time. I run my own company in LA, I would very much like to a do a play as sort of the gymnasium for me. But I haven’t been able to do it for a little while so I’m sort of chomping at the bit to do it.

Q: Is there a show in particular that you want to put on? And would you also star in it?

A: Yeah. I don’t have one identified yet. I don’t have my star-making piece of material [laughs]. I just recently, actually, took part in a benefit for the Ohio Valley playwright conference, which I do every year. And every year we honor another playwright. We’ve done Terrence McNally. The year after that we did Jon Robin Baitz, and this year we did Bill Cain.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Bill Cain’s work, but he’s an extremely prolific, and growing in popularity, playwright. And he wrote a play called, Equivocation, which was a really wonderful comedy set in Shakespearian England and is about Shakespeare and his acting troupe, which I thought was very funny. I read the Shakespeare part and just had a ball doing it. So it’s the one that jumps to mind.

Q: And finally, what other apocalypse scenario would you like to visit as an actor?

A: I feel fairly sated on that front, at the moment! [laughs].