FRINGE: An Evening Celebrating with Anna Torv and John Noble (2011)

John Nobel and Anna Torv of "Fringe"

On May 19th, the Paley Center for Media hosted a night to celebrate the end of FRINGE’s spectacular third season. With special guests Anna Torv, John Noble, along with writers/producers Jeff Pinkner, J.H. Wyman and Akiva Goldsman, the evening allowed fans to find out what exactly is going on in the increasingly murky world of FRINGE.

With Emmy season underway, it was only fitting to showcase the episode “Entrada” in which Anna Torv and John Noble magnificently portrayed both sets of doppelgangers: Olivia Dunham and her doppelganger Fauxlivia, and Walter Bishop and his doppelganger Walternate.

As fans of the show already know, the third season of FRINGE took the show out of its procedural pace and focused much more heavily on the underlying mythology of the collision of two universes. Adding to the craziness and sense of urgency, the season began with the principal hero, Olivia Dunham, having been replaced by her alternate and made captive in the alt-verse with her memories wiped and false memories implanted. The show really took things to another level and it played out beautifully over the course of the season until the final moments when Peter Bishop’s sacrifice may have erased himself out of existence.

It was that final revelation that sent shock-waves through the fandom. So it was no surprise that the moderated portion of the evening began with moderator Ralph Garman boldly asking: “Is [Josh] Jackson looking for work?” After John Noble quickly reassured everyone that Josh would have been there for that evening’s panel but for the fact he is working on a film in New Orleans, J.H. reassuringly said, “He’s not looking for work,” and Jeff added, “He will be back for Season 4.”  J.H. expanded his response with, “At some point, in some capacity.” As Jeff explained, “The studio and network were very nervous about not having a lot of Josh in early Season 3,” but as he concluded, “And that worked out okay!” So he and J.H. said that the fans will simply have to trust them again for the 4th season that they have a plan to ensure Josh, as Peter Bishop, will be incorporated back into the FRINGE-world in a fun and surprising way.

In fact, it is not their goal to frustrate or betray the audience. Taking Peter out of the FRINGE equation is just a way to look at the show and characters differently. Such as when it was argued: now that Peter doesn’t exist, does that impact characters he came in touch with – such as his mother’s suicide? Jeff responded, “Without giving too much away — that is exactly the right question to be asking.” The ripple-effects of removing such a pivotal character lends itself to a wide range of possibilities and stories that they are anxious to explore.

Jeff also strongly emphasized, “We won’t betray the audience.” To which J.H. playfully interjected, “You say ‘betrayal’ I say ‘opening’!” As the laughter subsided, Jeff added that if the show had not been renewed for a fourth season they had an alternate ending on standby, just in case. But as he explained, “The network has been so supportive, we were never really in fear of cancellation. Having said that -” Anna then excitedly jumped in to reveal, “We shot an alternate ending.  It’s really cool!” Jeff then concluded, “Having said that — if something had changed, the last scene would have probably been different for the simple fact that we wouldn’t want to betray an audience that is invested 3 years into the show.  It probably would have been very similar. .  . There’s actually a really nice, happy ending in that episode that would have made a good ending for the series.”

J.H. also explained, “There’s a definite level of support that we get from the network that not too many other shows get, and we’re so fortunate because our fans, the press, and everybody who sort of helped us get that recognition — it went a long way with them and they were really listening . . . .  So many times where fans are invested in a show they love and they complain when it is taken off the air.  But this time, you guys won.  So you have to give them the props — they did the right thing.  You don’t get that kind of support very often.  So we appreciate that as much as they appreciate us.” It was a nice acknowledgment of the steadfast, tenacious support that both the fans and critics have provided for FRINGE.

One of the funnier moments was when one of the audience members piped-up to say, “How can we get you guys nominated for more Emmys?” Jeff cautiously responded, “It’s too soon to speak to anything. The process is elusive.”  But then in a humorous gesture, he said, “Send letters to your local congressman!”   On a more serious noted, J.H. added, “The press has done a great job on singling [John and Anna] out and trying to platform them and say, ‘Look what’s going on here! . .  It’s amazing to us.”  So when another audience member said, “I’m a voting member of the Academy and you’ve got my vote,” J.H. quipped right back, “Thanks. Are you also a Nielsen viewer?”  In a world where ratings equate to cash, Emmy votes and nominations are great, but what a struggling television show really needs are fans tuning in to watch.  When J.H. noted that they are not doing it for awards, but because they love it, Anna happily exclaimed, “Totally! We just got picked up for a 4th season!”

Moving along to the ever-pressing interest in the doppelgangers, Ralph noted, “Your show breaks all sorts of rules. Normally evil twins have no redeeming qualities, yet you make them likable.” To which Jeff admitted, “Walter — our Walter — is the ultimate bad guy of our series — and we’re slowly peeling back and making you understand all the damage in two universes is because this man tried to save his son. . . That’s one thing we embrace: Walter could be the ultimate villain — but we got to know him as this gentle man.” Adding from his perspective, John added, “[Walter] could never be a villain. He did what any father would do . . . I ask of all of you: wouldn’t you do anything to save your child? Rational thoughts and future-thinking would go down the drain. What Walter did is what any father would do in that moment.”  John also speculated on the idea: can you strip the monster out of a man by simply removing portions of his brain?  Does that then make his crimes forgivable?

 J.H. tried to explain by staying, “That speaks to the large theme of the program and that’s choices. . . It’s a show about family.  It’s a show about connections.  That’s really important.  But what we felt was really important was that right now in this time:  it’s difficult to find faith in things.  There are a lot of great institutions that are faltering to some degree, whether it is politics or religion or whatever it is.  There are people that are struggling to believe.  They want to believe there is something that they don’t know.  So we embrace that . . . choices are really what life is all about.  You can choose to do anything you want — that’s free will.  So the whole demonstration of Walter’s set up — that shows us that different influences, different influences: ‘if I made different choices, I could be a different person. . . but if I choose another direction, I will be someone else.’  It’s sort of inspirational to us.  So that’s why it is so much fun to demonstrate our characters on this side with their doppelgangers on the other side — to show on an unconscious story level that you are in control and things that affect you in certain ways — we could write about that forever.”

In follow-up, Ralph asked John, “Is it hard playing a character who is so fragmented?” To which John shared, “As an actor, it’s thrilling.  There is a progression.  It starts in the pilot where [Walter] is quite simple and then he starts to catch up with contemporary science.  So there’s been a build up — there has been constant evolution. . . . It’s almost like the perfect acting exercise.” He also added, “It’s such a gift to be able to do that to take the same characters and take them to different places — and show them in different stages and different developments . . . I don’t find it difficult at all, I love it. It’s such a gift to be able to do — to take the same core characters and take them off into different places.  It’s an actor’s dream in a long running series.”

Anna also shared, “When we moved into the other universe, it meant you had a completely different perspective of the show.  It was nice to step back and appreciate it.  I was praying for two years that I was going to get the doppelganger, and when I did — this season particularly – it’s a joy.  I love it.”  Though when asked was it tough playing Fauxlivia playing Olivia, Anna shared, “It’s been nothing but a joy this season.  It doesn’t feel like I’m working any harder.  In fact, just the opposite.  And I think it’s because you keep getting a break from it actually and you keep working with other people — you’ve just got so much more to draw on.”  Anna further explained, “I keep going back to the pilot when we meet [Olivia] and she was happy and joyous and quite uncomplicated really.  But by the end of the pilot, she had just kind of spiraled down — the script was fantastic.  That was all there.”  For her that set the tone and trend of the entire series, with that sense that the rug had been ripped out from under Olivia. Anna further explained, “We also try to find the subtle differences. . . I was always thinking about how Olivia wants to be best and Fauxlivia wants to win and you can kind of see that you get to the same place, but on a little bit of a different path.”

In addition to the challenge of playing Olivia, Fauxlivia and Fauxlivia pretending to be Olivia, Anna got to add to her repertoire of characters by channeling William Bell this past season – giving her best Leonard Nimoy impression as William Bell. For Anna, she loved playing that role, and John noted that he felt like he was performing with an entirely different actor the way Anna nailed it. He was quick to praise his co-star telling her, “As far as Walter was concerned, that was Belly, his best friend.  He was so excited. . . . What Anna did with the voice and eye-brow was amazing.  Spell-binding.  Amazing, amazing work, my princess!”  John then quoted a line from the show saying, “I wish you could see yourself the way I see you — you have no idea how extraordinary you are!”

Also just as tickled at how well Anna was able to channel the William Bell persona, J.H. gleefully asked, “Who’d write something like that:  Olivia becomes Bell?” He then explained, “Literally, this is what happened:  we wrote it and then we said, ‘Did we really just write that?’ We all said, ‘yes.’  And the next morning [Anna] read the script and said, ‘So William Bell?’ and we said, ‘yep,’ and she said, ‘Cool!’ . . . We also have the most amazing cast – to write a script where Olivia becomes Bell and not have them freak out.”  Though Anna said the idea of it initially terrified her, she was thrilled with the challenge.

Talking a bit about why they took the show “over there” during the 3rd season and how that resonated with fans, Akiva explained their thinking on the necessity of exploring the alter-verse so thoroughly and immersing not only the characters in it, but the audience.  He explained, “What do people root for?  How do you tell stories so that people lean in towards the object and I think nobody knows the answer.  If we did, everybody would be doing it . . . People get tired from too much of the same.  There’s nothing formulaic about it . . .  I think what we’ve all tried to do is sort of say:  There’s an object that we sort of think is the same if you see it from here, or here or here.  It’s still the same stuff.  So when Anna says she goes to the other side, it’s still the same show.  That lets us move the lens around and sort of make what people keep saying are shows within shows.  But it’s not.  It’s just the show is seen differently. . . . Audiences have a much more creative and durable relationship to change than people think audiences can stand.  So we got the chance to tell in television stories you couldn’t tell anywhere else.”

J.H. further explained, “We knew we had a compelling mythology over there and we thought it was great, but we were not so sure that people would be okay with leaving [our universe] and discovering new things.  They like the show.  They love the show.  So we had a choice to tell half-there and half-here or little vignettes, but that would not be doing it justice.  We wanted you to invest in the characters over there and the mythology and to find it compelling, so that was a big moment for us when we said, ‘no, we’re doing it.’”  Jeff added, “[The network was] very nervous that we would tell an entire episode without Josh, and the only character that was familiar was Olivia, who didn’t know she was Olivia.” To which J.H. said, “We ultimately decided that the only way for the audience to invest is if we invest in that story of that people.”  And with that bold leap of faith, FRINGE took its fans further into the alt-verse and made us care for the people there so much that the choice to save just one became painful and conflicting.  That was the lesson of the third season – to show how impossible the choice Peter was being asked to make – and why the ending with Peter’s life being erased felt like the only answer.  For now.

In response to the question, did this show always have a plan? Jeff was quick to firmly state, “Absolutely. From the first season we have known where the story was going. The audience can feel if a story has structure beneath it.” As J.H. quipped, “Why get into your car in your garage unless you know where you’re going?” Jeff then explained, “I can tell you with utter sincerity that we knew before we started writing the 2nd episode — none of us were involved with the pilot — that we knew that Walter stole Peter from another universe, the doppelgangers — we started to write towards things very early on.  There was a high degree of audience frustration early on:  why is Olivia such an unsettled character, and it was because she was unsettled in her role.  We knew we were telling a long-ball story and that hopefully the audience would hold on fast and come along for the ride.  We do have a plan.”  J.H. then cited a number of examples from season one in which the foundation and clues about where the show was going were carefully woven throughout the episodes, such as the amber on the bus, the possibility of accelerated pregnancy when they showed that it was possible to grow soldiers.

Jeff further explained, “There is a feeling you get when you know the people know what they are doing.  There’s a high degree of comfort.  We also know that some are very successfully making it up as they go along, but you can feel that subconsciously.”  Thus, they have story tent-poles established that they work towards each season. Akiva also added, “People sense architecture. They don’t have to understand it to know whether or not it’s there.  I think if it’s not there, people are disappointed.  They do not feel safe. . . You can feel whether there is story structure and architecture and thoughtfulness underneath. . . It has to be present.  You can really feel the difference between stories that have structure underneath them and those that don’t.”  He also explained, “What you are making teaches you how to make it.”  They liked the mythology aspect, so after the first season they decided to run with it.   In fact, as J.H. explained, by the second episode of FRINGE they knew that Walter had stolen Peter and that Olivia had a doppelganger. They wrote towards those things.

Jeff reassuringly added, “We won’t betray the audience.  People connect with people they love by watching them suffer.” Akiva then explained, “People connect watching characters that they love suffer.  Taking Peter out of the story is another way to look at our series from the other side.  What would happen to these people’s lives up to this point without Peter?”  Even Anna chimed-in to remark, “I love the fact that people then ask: If there is no Peter, why are we fighting?”  To which J.H. confidently responded, “We never want to frustrate everyone. We would never pull the ‘everything you ever saw is not true’ kind of thing.”

Another key element that they were quick to reassure fans on: who were the Observers?  As J.H. noted, “People want to know about the Observers.  We get it. . .  They are sort of the most enigmatic, least defined.”  So he promised that season four would address more about who or what the Observers are.  In response to the question: what assurances could they provide that FRINGE is not going to spring a religious story, such as like turning the Observers into a religious symbol, when fans have invested in a science fiction show?  Akiva tackled this thorny question by carefully responding, “[We] sort of handled this sort of duality of science and religion — whether they are the same thing or not– and we’ve addressed it in a way that is really beautiful.  But that is about as close as we’re ever going to get.  Our show is not an exploration of science verse religion.  It is an exploration of the experience of life — the dramatic and intense humor – with relationships seen through the mirror of science fiction — and it’s a wonderful way of talking about life.”  Though he ruefully added, “Had we been feathering deity and some kind of great theology throughout, then, yes, we would end up at some celestial Vatican.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that that’s not where we’re going.”

Finally, addressing the impact of social media and how the FRINGE writers and producers feel about that influence, Jeff shared, “The most amazing thing about writing television in this day and age is that the feedback is constant and immediate.  We know we could write an episode and the online fans would be thrilled, but it may not be the best story to tell.  People hated Bolivia at first; hated her because she was replacing Olivia with Peter — which is exactly the feeling that we wanted.  We wanted to create that frustration so that by the time the payoff came around it would be really well earned.  The point being that we’re constantly aware.  The questions people are asking, we’re really interested in ‘cause we want to answer those questions.  We want the audience to be asking:  what’s next?  So we sort of use it as a feedback group to tell us if we’re doing our jobs well — and there are times when we’re not, so we adjust.  But at the same time we try not to be overly influenced by the media group or trying to gratify the audience too quickly.”  J.H. also added, “We listen.  But we have direction — and now that we’ve all found that [the fans] are with us – like somebody started a thread and it resonated where they said, ‘We trust them.’ . . . That’s gratifying because everybody’s with us.”  He also loved how passionate the fans are about FRINGE.

Akiva then insightfully added, “People who talk about FRINGE on the Internet are smart — and are really wondering what we’re doing the same way we’re wondering what we’re doing.  It’s sort of like a bigger writer’s room — and it’s fun, we don’t have to pay them — even more fun!  But it’s a very smart group which I think is not necessarily what you get with every show.”

In fact as Anna noted, “Anytime that I ever get stopped, or if a fan of the show comes up to me, it’s only questions about the show. It’s always connected to the show and to the stories and what’s going to happen next.  It’s a lovely thing to be working on a show where the show is the star” John chimed-in adding, “They really love the show.  It’s not really about us.  It’s about the show — which I think is a huge compliment to the three of us.”  To which Jeff happily exclaimed, “It’s the best cast in the world!”  And with such a gifted ensemble of actors, FRINGE will continue to delight and tease us with its mind-bending reveals as the show enters its fourth season.  But for now, for the cast and the writers and everyone else working on it, it is a dream come true.  They dreamed of a world where science fiction exists — and it draws a passionate audience that will follow them anywhere!

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John Noble
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