Most fans know John Noble as the eccentric and intelligent Dr. Walter Bishop in the recently-concluded science fiction television show “Fringe,” but now, fans get to see another side of the actor as he voices Brainiac in the DC Universe Animated Film “Superman: Unbound.” Based on Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s “Superman: Brainiac” story arc in “Action Comics,” “Unbound” follows Superman as he attempts to liberate the bottle city of Kandor from Brainiac’s clutches while protecting the Earth from the machinations of the most intelligent and devious villain in the galaxy.
CBR News spoke with John Noble about hills role as Brainiac in the recently-released animated feature and what drew him to the role, his appreciation for voice acting work, his love of science, music and teaching, and one of his earliest Superman memories.
CBR News: John, you’ve got an incredible voice, perfect for this role. As an actor, what did you find most compelling about playing Brainiac?
John Noble: Well, my main motivation was to work with Andrea Romano, who is such a fantastic voice director. That drew me into it immediately. Also, playing any of these iconic characters and trying to do something original with them and not going into preconceptions is a lot of fun. With Brainiac, we kind of reinvented him, took him out of that robot mode and tried to give him a bit of personality. That was a lot of fun to do and I think it came out well in the film.
I was told you closed your eyes during some of your recording sessions to really get into the character — did you really feel that connected to the character?
I usually do that, I think I’m fairly animated in voice sessions. I close my eyes and wave my arms around. It helps me to concentrate. With voice work, you’ve really got to drop yourself into it and disappear into another world. It helps me if I close my eyes, and I know I wave my arms around a lot. It must look very funny. [Laughs] But it helps me. It’s a lesson I learned in my 20s when a great voice teacher told me the reason I wasn’t getting any voice-overs was because I wasn’t doing it properly! [Laughs] So, that was how that came about.
Your background is in film, television and theater, which are all very physical, live-action mediums. However, even with your success there, you’ve had a number of different voice-over roles. What keeps you coming back to it?
It’s such fun! It’s a total creation of your imagination. You work with the script, but the environment is very technical. You’re standing there with your headphones on at a microphone, so there’s something amazing — you can hear yourself quite clearly, and you can hear if your voice is working and if it’s getting the right intonations, the right emotional pitches and so forth. Voice-over or doing ADR is a skill that you learn, and once you’ve learned it, it feels very special to go in there and create a character. That’s what keeps bringing me back to it. I love voice work and always have done it. I’m one of the few actors that doesn’t mind doing ADR, which I’ve had to do a lot of over the years. The same principles apply — it’s a little more technical when you’re lip syncing, but I kind of like having the skill set to be able to do it, really.
Brainiac is a very evil character. How do you get into the mind of someone so delightfully insidious?
[Laughs] Well, without going into an acting spiel, with any character that I play, and I play some very strange characters, sometimes, there’s the old acting adage, “You never judge your character.” You try to find out what makes them tick. Every word they say, I agree with, if you can understand that reasoning. I don’t judge them and say, “My God, this is an evil thing to say.” I just say, “This is what he feels at present, this is in his best interest and he’s going to say this line.” I just drop myself into whatever character I’m playing, whether that be good or bad or indifferent. It is actually an acting technique, so it’s not so difficult to go into the mind of an evil person. As Jung said, we all have dark sides and we’re quite capable of a lot of that stuff ourselves.
One of the things I think is intriguing about you taking on the role of Brainiac is that you have a history of playing men of science in a lot of your roles. Do you find yourself drawn to these roles?
Absolutely. It’s a frontier, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years, that everyone is interested in, and science is moving so fast, it genuinely excites me. I read an enormous amount — I’m not a scientist, but I read about science and I read science books. I find it totally enthralling, to be honest, and moving so fast in this frontier that we’re discovering at an exponential rate. I love talking to scientists, for example, and I love reading their works. So it’s a fascination, it’s almost like the last frontier.
You’ve also had the opportunity to narrate “Dark Matters” for the Science Channel, which I heard you really enjoyed. Is going into more narration work for educational programs something you’re becoming more and more interested in?
Absolutely. I loved working with the Science Channel. They were such good people to work with. I suspect we’ll cooperate again on future projects. With narration of “Dark Matters,” that was fun because it was sort of tongue-in-cheek. He didn’t take himself all that seriously, there was a lot of tongue-in-cheek about it. It was like someone tried to do Orson Welles and that was the approach we took to it. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun to do it and slightly larger than life. I was trying to be slightly larger than life in that series and it kind of worked for all of us.
It’s difficult to speak with you without mentioning “Fringe” and its incredible ending. Now that the show is over and you’ve had a little time to reflect, has it been difficult to let go of Walter?
Well, not really. I thought that in five seasons, we told the story of “Fringe.” As much as I loved playing Walter Bishop, I wouldn’t have known where to go with him. I think we actually told the story completely, so I’ve sort of moved on to other things. I’ve done “The Good Wife,” I’m now doing a film and a miniseries in Australia. I was incredibly fortunate to get that role, but I’m ready to try other things now. Should there be a reprise of him sometime or other, I’d be more than happy to do it.
You have a strong interest in science, but you also have an interest in music and painting. What kind of music do you perform? What do you most enjoy painting?
These two things are my escapes, these are things I do purely for myself. I don’t exhibit, I don’t play publicly. I do it for myself. The interesting thing about that type of creativity is that I don’t need permission to do it, I can do it for myself. I was talking to a mate the other day who’s an actor, and he loves getting up in the morning and not having to get anyone’s permission to do what he does. That’s kind of what it’s like. It’s not judged, it’s just me fulfilling my creative needs. I do paint and I love it. Similarly with music. I’m not a great musician, but I play a couple of instruments to my satisfaction. I usually sing along with it. [Laughs] I love doing that, but usually my only audience is my wife or my kids, whether they like it or not! [Laughs]
Which instruments do you play?
I play piano and guitar.
Is there a particular composer or artist you’re playing right now?
With guitar, I play a whole spectrum of things, whatever appeals to me. But generally with piano, I stick with the classics. I love the genius of Beethoven and the purity of Bach, to be honest with you. It’s sort of old-fashioned, but that’s what I play. When you get it right, it’s just magical. It’s just magic. When you’re playing Beethoven and you get a couple of phrases right, it’s transporting. That’s what I do it for.
In addition to acting, you’ve also been a director and an educator. Is that something that you’d ever want to go back to? Getting back into the director’s chair or teaching new actors?
I don’t have any urge to go back to directing, but I certainly will go back to teaching. I still run occasional master classes, which I enjoy immensely. It’s absolutely on my horizon that I’ll be teaching again. It’s just a matter of finding the time, actually, and then deciding to do it. I was talking to my daughter about it yesterday, who is also a teacher. We’re thinking of getting up a class together here in Australia. I’ll certainly be doing that.
When you were teaching, what did you find most rewarding about the experience?
In some ways, you can teach people the technical aspects of acting. The whole joy to me is to see when the spirit is liberated — in other words, an actor lets go and suddenly, they get it. They absorb themselves completely in the creative process and that’s when the magic happens, when you’re watching actors that are so tuned in that they disappear in the character for a line. I see that happening with students. It’s not a technique you can teach with the technical stuff. You have to find the moment where you get a couple of phrases right and you go, “Oh my God.” I see that happening with actors and it’s a total joy to me and a total liberation for them, too.
Wrapping up, I don’t know if you knew this, but it’s Superman’s 75th anniversary this year. Everybody has a passing association with Superman — do you have a favorite Superman moment, whether it was when you were working on this piece or during your childhood?
The interesting thing — I’m 65 this year — but I remember when I was a little boy in Australia before television or anything like that. I used to get comics sometimes when mom and dad could afford them, and I used to love comic books. I particularly loved Superman and I loved The Phantom. They were my two favorites. I have this strange collection of comics and I think for most living people now, Superman — that particular superhero — is the first one we ever came upon. It made us feel better that there was someone out there that could do good against all cause, as my childhood beliefs in it were. It’s stayed with me all my life. Now, billions of people have been affected by that character.
We’ve had so many super heroes since, but for me, Superman is still the epitome of a superhero. That’s why I was very thrilled to be associated with the making of “Superman: Unbound.”
“Superman: Unbound” is available now, digitally or on DVD/Blu-ray. For more John Noble, check out CBR TV’s interview with him from WonderCon 2012, below.