Noah Wyle trades in scrubs for guns in “Falling Skies”

What is it about today’s world that has us so worried about an alien invasion?

If our escapist entertainment is any indicator, the idea of malevolent extra-terrestrials wreaking havoc on our way of life is foremost on our minds, with the past couple years having seen the box office thrill to films like District 9, Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles, while a revamped V lasted two seasons on television. The idea has even infiltrated scientific realm, with none other than Stephen Hawking issuing an ominous warning against trying to contact any such beings, as they most likely wouldn’t be friendly.

Add Falling Skies to that mix. The epic new TNT series, which airs Sundays beginning June 19, picks up six months after an invading force has wiped out most of humanity, leaving the remnants behind to try to survive and rebuild civilization, all while searching for a way to defeat a seemingly invincible enemy.

Star Noah Wyle spoke with us recently and shared why he thinks the topic might be so popular, why he was researching so much American history for the role, and what it’s like being the old guy on set:

Is there any worry of fatigue regarding the subject? With V, Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline, there have been quite a few alien-invasion projects lately?

Noah Wyle: No. Not for me anyway. I can’t really — maybe if I watched those other shows, I’d feel more threatened — but not having seen them, I feel ours is very original. I know this is a major departure for TNT. It was really exciting to be part of a new direction for the network. From what I’m hearing from other cast members and people, it’s thematically just different enough to withstand comparison.

How does it stand out?

What I’ve found most attractive about this is it felt very much like a character drama, a human drama, set in the context of an alien-invasion show, as opposed to that being a central theme.

Why do you think these kinds of stories are so popular right now?

That’s a good question. I think maybe it’s a byproduct of living in a highly technical society. Everybody’s sort of completely tethered to their PDAs and their computers and their BlackBerries and their iPhones and iPads and whatnot, that there’s a growing fear of that dependence and if that were suddenly taken away what the quality of human life would be. That, and there’s probably a certain nostalgia for living in a simpler fashion and in a more authentic way. Science fiction, when it’s operating on all cylinders, really serves as great metaphor storytelling. Aliens can represent just about any kind of threat that you want them to, to showcase a certain theme. Going way back to the original Star Trek episodes, one of the things that was so genius about what Gene Roddenberry did was to be able to tackle really interesting and hot-button topics of the day, but couch them in a metaphor of being storylines involving an alien culture, so that it was one step removed and allowed [audiences] to see something like an episode about race relations [and] watch it objectively. That’s certainly true with this show. In the pilot, my character who is a former tenured American history professor, spouts all sorts of precedents and examples of small bands of dedicated people being able to not only fight but repel an invading, occupying army. While there are many historical precedents for this, there are also a few contemporary.

I’ve also heard you say you wanted to look like a hero to your young son. Has he seen any of the show yet? What’s he think?

He’s seen a couple sequences and he’s on the set quite a lot. I scored on that front. Being able to tell my 8-year-old son, “Here, hold my machine gun for a minute, I gotta go to the bathroom.” It was very empowering.

On the flipside of that, with you being a father, I imagine the storyline of Tom searching for his son has to be especially powerful for you. As an actor, do you bring your own feelings into your portrayal, or do you keep it limited to how your character would react?

It’s very synchronistic, the jobs that I get. I tend to get the ones that thematically have the most resonance in my own personal life, or at least allow me to explore themes that I’m the most interested in. Certainly that’s the case with this one. Three areas that I find myself fascinated by these days, which are this notion of leadership, this notion of fatherhood and this notion of living with extreme loss. That pretty much rounds out that character for the first season: his reluctance to accept greater responsibility and the mantle of leadership, the necessity of redefining his role as a father to three kids who he probably was close to but gave short shrift to in pursuit of an academic career, and this profound sense of loss that everybody collectively feels and he feels very personally in that he was widowed in the initial invasion as well.

In the first two episodes, the damage caused by the aliens is apparent, but mostly what we see is the danger coming from humans toward other humans. Is that a major theme going forward?

It’s both interesting and cost-effective. When you shoot a pilot, you have all sorts of money and toys to play with. When you go to series, you scale all that way, way down. So out of necessity, rather than have little encounters with aliens every week, I think it’s smarter to find other areas of conflict to explore and save up that post-production budget so that when you do fight the aliens and shoot those sequences you’ve got a little bit more of a war chest to do so with. But I think, you know, that was one of the things that good storytelling and good science-fiction storytelling does, is it’s an onion and you continually peel back the layers from it. It’s very satisfying, the way we’ve done that, because the perceived threat at the outset keeps morphing. At first you think it’s just an exterior threat, it’s humans against aliens, but then as you say you realize that there is human-to-human conflict as well, and then conflict within our group as well, and conflict within my family as well, and as the season progresses and we start to glean certain pieces of information about the aliens in the hopes of finding some kind of vulnerability that we can synthesize into a way to fight back, and we realize that they’re not exactly what we thought they were.

Is there pressure, though, to have the big, large-scale alien attack scenes? I’ve read that there aren’t any plans to feature flashbacks from the invasion.

I wouldn’t rule it out. One of the things I thought was interesting about starting six months into the invasion as opposed to starting with life as normal and then suddenly everybody looks to the skies and says, “What’s that bright light?” allows us an opportunity to flash the storytelling in any direction. We could go back to prior [to the] invasion, we could switch points of view and go through the eyes of the aliens potentially. In fact, we end the season on a very interesting cliffhanger — I don’t want to give anything away — but it’s the first time we make actual contact, where’s there’s actually a bit of sit-down dialogue that takes place between the aliens and the humans.

How much of the overarching story do you know? Does any future information you have play into how you might perform a certain scene?

I don’t mind knowing where we’re going. In fact, I often find it helpful. But it’s certainly rare in episodic television to know … because usually you’re working on the fly and kind of making it up as you go. Especially in a first season, and especially when you only have 10 episodes. You find very quickly that certain relationships pop more than others and certain themes are more interesting to explore than others. So even if you have a pretty good template, or a pretty good roadmap at the outset, you always end up deviating from it to a certain degree. By the end of the season, we were sort of writing as we were going, and we only have broad, broad outlines about where to go from here. There’s an overreaching arc with lots of really wonderful reveals, and it’s set for probably the first three seasons. But how we flesh that out is going to be a mystery.

I noticed Dale Dye in one of the military roles. I take it that means he had you guys doing some sort of brutal military-style boot camp?

You know, it’s one of the great rites of passages for an actor to be put through Dale Dye’s boot camp, and unfortunately I still haven’t done it, mostly because we had to not look like trained, seasoned professional fighters. We had to look like civilians who were being suddenly given guns and told what to do. We all wanted to see that sloppy learning curve to this core group. But Dale, when he’s on set, he’ll certainly tell you how to hold your weapon appropriately.

Your character is a history professor, so did you feel the need to bulk up on your historical knowledge, or are you content to learn as you go?

I enjoy the detective part of my job more than most other aspects of it. Even if it’s superfluous and unnecessary, I sort of enjoy having a life filled with an ongoing education with different areas in life that I either showed no aptitude or interest in high school, but now find it a necessity. So I ate a pretty steady diet of American history textbooks for about six months before we started just so that I had the opportunity — if I decided to deviate from the script or find the historical parallel or precedent or a line of dialogue or a quotation from a noted figure in history, I’d have it at my fingertips. I peppered the season with a few of them.

There are quite a few young actors in the cast. In fact, the cast kind of runs the gamut, with all ages being represented. What kind of chemistry does that lead to among the cast?

This is different for me, certainly. I’m used to being the young man in an ensemble, sort of 10 years younger than everyone I’m working with. This is the first time I’ve found myself, with the exception of Will Patton and Dale Dye, of being the oldest cast member, and it made it very interesting. It was interesting to see how much I’d learned in the last 20 years, and gave me an opportunity to pay back some of the wonderful advice and tutelage that guys like George Clooney and Anthony Edwards and Eriq La Salle gave me when we started ER. It’s nice to be able to pay that forward to a certain extent. But this show was so physically demanding and there were so many action sequences that a youthful ensemble was almost a prerequisite.

You’ve taken this show to Comic-Con and WonderCon … what has the reaction been like from audiences? Do you think they’ve got the right idea as to what to expect?

It’s a very interesting audience. They seem to be on parallel tracks [of] both extremely excited and extremely cynical at the same time. There’s this sort of “I can’t wait to see Spielberg’s thing” and it’s immediately followed by, “Yeah, but it’ll probably be just like” this or that. So it’s a very specific audience, but you have to be very respectful. They pay maybe closer attention to detail and find loopholes in storytelling probably quicker than most. You really have to cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s beforehand. It’s a very committed audience, and if you are able to come up with something they enjoy, it’s an incredibly loyal audience as well. So hopefully they’ll dig it.

This involves a bit of special-effects/CGI acting. Was that a new challenge for you?

I’d done very little of that kind of work before. Some of The Librarian films, we’d used a bit of it. I acted to a green screen a few times, but it presents an interesting challenge, mostly because you want to make sure that everyone is playing the same stakes. It’s a chain that’s really only as strong as the weakest link, so you’re constantly checking with the other actors to make sure you’re not all doing the same Fay Wray expression looking up at Kong. It makes the work very interesting, because the way you do that is to use the aliens as metaphor for whatever it is you find to be your greatest point of vulnerability, or your greatest fear. That’s what they represent. So when you’re encountering them, everyone’s playing something that’s very specific but highly heightened.

You said the 10-episode season was appealing to you. Is there any indication that that would be the norm for future seasons, or can you see them expanding?

The last conversation I had with [TNT president] Michael Wright, he feels very strongly about not dissipating the storytelling by trying to stretch the season out too far. He likes the idea of doing a concise 10-episode season, which I completely concur with, both because it’s an easier workload on me and you do run the risk of diluting when you’re trying to stretch out those last back nine, as we used to refer to it. You start the season out strong, and then there’s a bit of doldrums, and then you kind of punch for sweeps period, and then there’s another doldrums and then you wrap it all up for the finale. This allows it to come out punching week in and week out and not have to worry about that.

Is there a reason that has been made clear to you as to why the series is set in Boston? Is it the Revolutionary War parallels?

That was a mutation. Originally the script was called Concord, and it was a [reference to] Concord, Mass. [where the first battle of the Revolutionary War was fought], and there were a lot more historical parallels to the American Revolutionary War. The word I got was Mr. Spielberg felt that really limited the storytelling to just being an American story, so he wanted to move away from that and have it be more thematically universal. So in the pilot my character starts spouting off precedent examples of small factions of people of defending their homeland and repelling an occupying army, there are many examples to choose from besides the American Revolution and some are quite contemporary.

The relationship between your character with Moon Bloodgood’s seems to be headed toward romance. How is that handled in a show about survival? Moments of passion would be understandable, but is romance tougher to pull off?

It was tough to write, because you’re trying to just for credibility’s sake, establish a base level of threat that’s constantly present. It’s very difficult to find a moment of calm for two characters to do anything but reflect on the immediate needs for survival. So every time we’d write a scene where I’d be on lookout and she’d bring me a sandwich and we’d start to talk and it would turn flirtatious, it just seemed completely wrong and unearned to a certain degree. So we cut it. That left us saying, “Well, how are we going to bring these two characters together?” It sort of got saved for the end, and I think we did it pretty appropriately, and that’s something that will probably get explored more in subsequent seasons.