Photo by: Gary Miereanu
By Matt D. Wilson
Actor John Noble has spent a good chunk of the past decade or so appearing in projects nerdy fans love. He was Denethor in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, Dr. Walter Bishop on “Fringe,” even a Transformer. But he hadn’t dipped into the world of superheroes until now.
In the new DC Animated Feature “Superman: Unbound,” Noble takes on the role of Brainiac, the evil, alien-AI force that shrank the Kryptonian city of Kandor and put it in a bottle. Now that the movie is available on Blu-ray, DVD, on-demand, and as a digital download, I spent a few minutes on the phone with Noble to ask how he got involved in the movie, how he prepared to play such an evil character, and what science fiction means to him.
MTV Geek: Tell me a little bit about what led you to this project. You haven’t done a lot of superhero work in the past.
John Noble: It really came about because I ran into Andrea Romano, who I knew by reputation as a great voice director. She said to me, “We’ve got to work together,” and I said, “OK.” [laughs] I liked her very much.
It was so fortunate that I happened to be in Los Angeles for some reason or another — I can’t remember the reason — when the call came. I had this window of opportunity, so I jumped at it to work with Andrea.
And also, in my past, when I was younger, I did a lot of radio drama and commercials and so forth in Australia. It’s an area I love working in.
Geek: It sounds like Andrea willed it into being. It wasn’t very much of a question.
Noble: She’s quite a compelling lady, and she is truly a great voice director.
Geek: What’s your history with Superman and the character you play, Brainiac? Did you have some familiarity with them going in?
Noble: When I was a little boy, which is now a long time ago, we didn’t have television, etc. I was a country kid. But we did get comic books. My two favorite comic books were Superman and The Phantom. I loved them. I adored them. I used to do sketches of them.
To me, Superman was the quintessential superhero. I know there’s been 1,000 superheroes invented since, but to me, he was the first and best of them.
Brainiac, I didn’t know about, so I had to be brought up to scratch with that particular supervillain. But my initial impression with Superman was that, as a little boy, that was a comic book I was allowed to have.
Geek: What did you do to familiarize yourself with Brainiac? Did you read some of the comics stories or see some of the other animated material with him in it?
Noble: What I did was I looked at the extensive character notes that were sent to me by Warner Bros. They sort of give you a lot of background on what’s required, so I had that in mind. It was kind of just Andrea and I worked around a number of options to come up with the voice we thought was interesting for Brainiac, without going into a [adopts robot voice] cliche automated voice, [back to normal] which I didn’t want to do. We played around, and that’s what we came up with.
Geek: You have played a few non-human characters in the past, either aliens or robots. Did you draw on any of that experience to voice this character?
Noble: One of the traps is to fall into cliches. It’s much nicer to go in and sort of create from scratch, which is what we did, obviously, knowing who the character was. What will happen is I’ll put a few voices out there and she’ll say, “Yeah, I like that one.” During the course of the recording session, you get different moods and approaches to different lines. It’s very much cooperation.
The voice director has knowledge of the film itself and the emotional beats of the film much more than the actor does, so they’ll be able to help, and they do help to say, “At this point, he’s in control and he’s feeling strong,” or, “On this page, he’s feeling threatened, or whatever note they give you to guide you to deliver that line. It’s a very important relationship between the director and the actor.
Geek: As I said, you’ve played a lot of otherworldly characters, or characters who travel between worlds. I would assume it’s hard to draw from experiences in your own life to play those characters. How do you get yourself in the headspace for something like “Lord of the Rings” or “Superman” or “Fringe”?
Noble: Because we’re a human audience, we’re inclined to anthropomorphize everything. If we’re playing a dog in a cartoon, we give it human qualities, because that’s what we understand.
A voice can go into [robot voice again] an automated voice [normal again] which is useful, sometimes, but I think we always want to anthropomorphize our characters and make them accessible to our human perception. We can’t help but do that, because we’re speaking English, as well. We’re speaking human language.
It’s not that difficult, really, to do it. I guess you might deal with a character who doesn’t have normal human emotions, but I’m sure there was a time in all our lives where we’ve responded without emotion, our emotions have been truncated and suppressed.
Geek: In this story particularly, Brainiac is a very evil character, putting an entire city of people in a bottle. That’s probably not something you or I would consider doing, but it’s something you have to portray.
Noble: There’s plenty of reference points throughout history to megalomaniacs who have done similar things. Everyone refers to Hitler and the Third Reich, but you could go back to Genghis Khan and find that megalomania repeats constantly throughout history. So the tendency to say, “I must control” is quite a human trait, actually. It’s been echoed hundreds and hundreds of times throughout history.
So while we don’t have the technology to shrink cities and put them in bottles, if we could, perhaps we would. Not “we,” but someone. The attraction of power is so intoxicating. Power does corrupt. We’ve seen it all the time in history anyway, so it’s not such a big step to think that Brainiac would do what he did.
Geek: I wonder if you’ve been a fan of science fiction generally. Is sci-fi something you just fell into being a part of, or was that your plan?
Noble: I did fall into it. It’s an interesting genre. It’s the most popular genre in the world, because it allows people to use their imaginations, to dream, to explore mysterious things. That’s why it’s the most popular genre in the world. We have these imaginations that are frozen and limited by our daily lives. This gives us the chance to dream. Without that, we’re not very happy, to be honest with you, as people. We love to be able to use our imaginations.
It seems to me, anyway, talking over the years to people who are real science-fiction fans, going to conferences and so forth, that’s what they do. They live within that world of their imagination. It’s really healthy and something that the human animal loves to do.
Geek: At the same time, you were able to draw parallels to history, just now, in regards to Brainiac. We talked about drawing from real emotions to play inhuman characters. In some ways, sci-fi is a way of amplifying emotions and present allegorical stories about the real world, too.
Noble: I think you’ve nailed it completely. The characters are larger-than-life, the time is compressed, the technology is astounding. We use those, whether in fantasy or in science fiction, to create these great, as you said, allegories, these great stories that, in the limited world of our natural relationship, we don’t see as we walk down the street to go to work in the morning at the office. We’re much more practical.
I often think about “The Lord of the Rings.” what an extraordinary story it was that Tolkien created by using the techniques that he did. How would you tell that story, that massive story, unless you went into the world of fantasy? I don’t think you could, any more, perhaps, than Jules Verne could have created what he created without allowing himself to go into a scientific fantasy world.
It makes total sense that, as you said, these characters are amplified. The villains are worse. The goodies are better. The superheroes are not just ordinary people. That seems to be something we’re all attracted to.
Geek: One last question. John, in the past you have mentioned the possibility of a “Fringe” movie. Is that still a possibility? Where does that stand?
Noble: I think I invented that story, to be honest with you. [laughs]
Look, the reality of it is, if the franchise has got a future in terms of a little bit of box office, I suspect it will happen. And if the franchise doesn’t, it’ll get down to a financial decision, ultimately. I think it could do quite well, and it’s certainly got a huge fan base, but we’ll wait and see. I haven’t heard anything, to be honest with you, beyond the rumor that I started.
“Superman: Unbound” is out now.