Noah Wyle signed up for TNT's "Falling Skies" to impress a bunch of second-graders.
"Honestly, I put it to my 8-year-old son, 'Do you want to see your dad be a lawyer or a policeman or an alien fighter?' He said, 'Alien fighter,'" Wyle told me earlier this month during a visit to Chicago to promote the show. "He was totally psyched. I think 80 percent of the reason I'm doing this show is to get street cred with his second-grade class."
The sci-fi heavy family drama kicks off at 8 p.m. Sunday with a two-hour premiere. Wyle plays Tom Mason, a former history professor who now is one of the leaders of a militia group fighting the aliens and trying to rescue the children—including one of his sons—who the six-legged "skitters" have enslaved. He's also raising his youngest son, and supervising his oldest as he grows from high school student to resistance fighter.
Moon Bloodgood, Will Patton and Drew Roy also star in the series from writer Robert Rodat and executive producer Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg, of course, was another reason for Wyle to jump on board. After playing Dr. John Carter on “ER” for 11 seasons as a regular, Wyle took a break from acting to “reintroduce myself to my kids,” he said. He guest starred on “ER,” focused on his L.A. theater group and worked on TNT’s “The Librarian” movie series. That’s how he developed a relationship with the network.
He said he read a few pilots programming executive Michael Wright showed him, but none was tempting enough to draw him back into series TV, until “Falling Skies.”
“I thought this was a totally new genre for me, completely different kind of character, certainly thematically, a gigantic departure for TNT and I thought that was a pretty bold and courageous choice for them,” Wyle said. “And then, of course, having the pedigree of Mr. Spielberg and DreamWorks involved, it seemed like a pretty good fit.”
Wyle appears to have thoroughly enjoyed his first foray into the sci-fi genre. But it’s been an interesting learning curve. Admitting that he’s “a little late to the table as a science-fiction fan,” Wyle raves about how the genre covertly explores hotbed contemporary topics.
He’s also thought about why Hollywood is so fascinated with post-apocalyptic stories.
“I think there’s an innate curiosity with every [technological] advancement about what would it be like if we lost it,” he said. “And aliens provide a really great foil, because they’re an exterior threat. It’s not human against human. All the lines and divisions between us that exist now, whether it’s black/white, young/old, man/woman, gay/straight, religious, get washed away in the face of an external enemy.
“And then it becomes really about our own survival.”
While working long hours in freezing Toronto weather to film the 10-episode first season, Wyle wondered if he’d survive. But the experience has allowed him to do all kinds of new things—work with green screen technology and mechanized puppets, and even have his voice heard throughout the production. (He’ll be a producer if the show is picked up for a second season.).
And let’s not forget how awesome he looks in the eyes of his son, who got to spend time on the set. Wyle’s glad about that, because now he won’t be frightened of the aliens.
“He was on the set a lot and operating the ‘skitter’ animatronic head; the whole thing’s on a machine,” Wyle said. “And he got to meet all the characters and cast members. I think he’ll be able to handle it.”
Wyle and I talked more about the series, filming it and what "ER" advice he was able to share with his co-star, Moon Bloodgood.
What did you think when you first saw the freaky “skitter” aliens?
They’re pretty freaky. I saw them in stages. When we were shooting the pilot, we had absolutely no conception of what they were going to look like. We were basically acting to tennis balls and pieces of tape on the set. Probably midway through the shoot, we saw the first renderings, just two-dimensional images that they were cooking up. And they looked a little bit different then they are now, but there is a resemblance. By the end of the final week of production, they had a digital mock-up of one crawling up the wall and on the ceiling and you got a sense of how it moved. When I finally saw the final cut of the show, that was the first time I saw them. I thought they looked terrific.
When we see it, it looks like an alien. But you worked with animatronic puppets? Or was nothing in front of you at all?
Well, it’s a little bit of both. When we shot the pilot, it’s all [special effects]. There was nothing there at all, but then when we committed to doing it serious, we kind of did it all three. We had a puppeteer in a suit with all the various appendages being worked by other puppeteers under the camera frame. Some of the one-on-one battles, when [the alien is] locked up in the cage or when I fight in the tunnel, that’s me for the most part with a little digital enhancement. The big set pieces are still green screen, and then occasionally we’ll just sort of move a claw or a limb on a stick through the frame.
That’s a lot different working situation than other things you’ve done.
Yeah, I like variety and I like to try and do things I haven’t done yet, so this was definitely something that’s a box I hadn’t checked … It was good fun.
Tell me about Tom.
Tom Mason, former tenured history professor at Boston University, father of three, recent widower, pretty stand-up guy. I think has a real hesitancy to accept the mantle of leadership or any larger responsibility than just keeping his immediate family safe and alive. But once it’s sort of thrust upon him, I think he kind of grows into the role. I think at first, he sees background of academia as being pretty superfluous and unnecessary with the orders of the day. But as the show progresses, he realizes that his teaching skills and his familiarity with historical battle strategy and tactics and the military mindset actually put him in better stead to lead, especially a civilian army, than you would think.
What do you think is his biggest challenge? Survival? Keeping his family together? Keeping his own sanity while desperately wanting to get his son back?
I think that’s probably it. I think, obviously, humanity’s survival and the survival of his three kids, if only to honor a silent promise I’m sure he made to his dead wife, looms large. But I think just to get through each day is keeping his breaking point in check and keeping a pretty good game face on and not completely letting his guard down to probably experience this tidal wave of grief that would come rushing in if he had a moment of self-analytical thought.
Do you think he feels that he can get is son back safely?
I do. There are a couple pieces of information that comes through that kind of encourage him. But you’ll see.
OK. No spoilers
Systematically throughout this season, we get these pieces of information that radically redefine what our assumptions have been about why we’re here and what [the aliens] want, which I think make a really interesting storytelling.
Why do you think Hollywood is once again so fascinated with post-apocalyptic stories? I was wondering if you have any thoughts on why…
On why Hollywood is cyclical?
Is that all you think it is or you think there’s some kind of a…
Oh, you think we’re being indoctrinated?
Is something happening in society at the moment?
Preparing ourselves emotionally for the inevitable invasion coming? [Laughs.] I think the closest I can come to an explanation, and this could be shot full of holes, is that the more technologically advanced we get and the more dependent we become on our Blackberrys and iPhones and iPods and X-Boxes … the more this sort of suspicious fear creeps in, into our subconscious that, well, what if this all went down? Once we become so incredibly dependent on all of these things for our daily survival and existence, what if that wasn’t there anymore? How would we be able to react? Would we have the skill sets or the knowledge that we’ve probably lost in the last couple of generations on actually how to manufacture things or how to survive or how to cook or how to hunt or how to do any of these types of things.
So I think there’s an innate curiosity with every advancement about what would it be like with the loss of it. And aliens provide a really great foil because they’re an exterior threat. It’s not human against human, it’s all the sort of lines and divisions between us that exist now, whether it’s black/white, young/old, man/woman, gay/straight, you know, religious, get washed away in the face of an external enemy. And then it becomes really about our own survival.
Also, your band of survivors has to fight “outlaw” groups, like the one led by John Pope.
That’s exactly what his character was there to serve as, this idea that this threat isn’t totally external. Not all humans are altruistic as those of the 2nd Massachusetts. In fact, many people have a lot of differing opinions about how to survive. And that’s partly for good storytelling and that’s also partly for budgetary constraints. You can’t blow your post-production budget on special effects every episode and expect to get a lot of bang for your buck, but if you can buy yourself a couple of shows by creating conflict that doesn’t involve aliens or any of the CG work, then you basically get to save all that money and on the fourth episode, stage something fairly big that looks good.
That’s so pragmatic. I was going to say, it’s kind of the truth that no matter what happens, not everyone would get along.
Well, I think it will be really interesting, should this go on for awhile, I don’t know if this would be a probable ending or not, but one day we wake up and [the aliens] are just gone. They’re just gone. And what do we do now? Where do we revert back to or what have we learned from the experience? That would be a really interesting question.
That’s a good idea. Are you kind of hoping that as this band of survivors travel to Chicago, so you can revisit you “ER” days?
Chicago would be a good stop, but it’s a lot warmer in California. We shot this thing in Toronto, Ontario, basically in the fall and winter. It occurred to me that we should seek out resistance groups in warmer climates.
Did you help Moon Bloodgood out with her medical scenes?
Oh, she has no idea what a wonderful resource she has at her disposal in me. [Laughs.] Actually she does. That was good fun. She comes from the action/adventure/sci-fi world, so she could school me on, how to look tough with my machine gun. I showed her how to hold the stethoscope and do CPR.
Tom likes to give lessons. Do you find this as annoying as his son does?
Well, that’s a good question. It’s a little annoying in the beginning, but … it falls on deaf ears in the beginning because he’s still professorial. He’s still quoting from textbooks and history books to an extent. But by the end of the season, the very same speeches suddenly take on a much more visceral tone as he becomes an active participant in history-making. And it takes on greater immediacy and has greater resonance with his listeners as he gets more and sort of empowered to not be the teacher, but be the leader. But yeah, it’s pretty annoying in the beginning.
It makes for some good humor in the show.
I’ll tell you a really funny, quick story. When we were shooting the scene in the park where I’m giving that speech and it falling on deaf ears, the prop guy came over to me and said, you know, “What are you talking to these kids about the Athenians for? They don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You should be talking about something that means something to them. Tell them Red Sox/Yankees 0-4.” I said, “That’s really good.” So, the prop guy came up with that one.