Noah Wyle was an unknown 23-year-old actor in 1994 when he was cast as John Carter, a medical student in a new TV series set in a Chicago emergency ward. Eleven years and five Emmy and three Golden Globe nominations later, the "ER" star had become a household name, as his character morphed from eager learner to tough and dedicated doctor. But "ER" has not totally defined Wyle's career; he played Steve Jobs in a made-for-TV movie and has had success with three "Librarian" TV films, starring as a librarian protecting a secret cache of artifacts. Now, in "Falling Skies," the TNT series that begins its second season Sunday night, he's made a mark as Tom Mason, a former history professor fighting aliens who have invaded Earth. We caught up with Wyle during a publicity tour for the show.
Alien invasions have been a pretty popular theme ever since H.G. Wells wrote "The War of the Worlds" in the late 19th century. Why do you think that is?
There's a basic curiosity about what exists out there, and if it shows up, will it be benevolent or antagonistic. And anytime there's a new piece of threatening technology, it rekindles this notion of will it be good or bad.
So what does "Falling Skies" add that's a bit different?
I look at this show as more of a war movie, like [the 1945 film] "They Were Expendable." It's about a disparate group of personalities forced to rely on each other and the conflict that brings up, and uses the aliens as a backdrop. And when Stephen Hawking predicted that we'd be asinine to assume there's no other intelligent life, that seems to me to be pretty current.
Your character in the series is a former history professor who helps lead a group of civilian fighters, and is also concerned for the welfare of his kids. What intrigued you about the role?
There were three themes about this character I was interested in exploring, and they had resonance in my life: fatherhood, leadership and loss. If you have something like that, you can find something to hold your hat on.
You appeared in over 200 episodes of "ER." What appealed to you about the character? And how did you stay fresh?
TV characters usually have wonderful arcs, and the ones I gravitate toward do. And seeing in the pilot this was John Carter's first day on the job, he was going to have the longest learning curve, that kept me more interested throughout. And he got more confident, put himself in more dangerous situations, that was very compelling. There were also compensating aspects -- the money was really nice, and the camaraderie.
When we were making that movie, we were told not to contact him, because they were afraid we were going to be sued. After it aired, he called and told me he hated the movie, but liked my work. He asked me to impersonate him at the Macworld convention, and he wrote this skit out. He was personable, answered a lot of questions. The feeling I got was I was able to have a conversation that was more relaxed than people in his employ, who were scared to death of him.
Your stepfather, James C. Katz, is a well-known film preservationist who had a hand in restoring "Spartacus," "Vertigo" and other films. Was he the reason you got into acting?
It was very much his influence. He was VP at Universal, ran their classics division, and from a really early age, I was exposed to great movies and great actors. I was watching Beatles movies, Merchant-Ivory, we got the Z channel , which also showed enough cleavage to keep a teenage boy interested. It was my form of escapism.
Growing up, what kind of career did you want to have?
I think my mother would be very happy if I was Jimmy Stewart. She would say what would Jimmy do in this situation, and I'd say, I have no idea. I respect actors who have good careers and keep a low profile, like Tommy Lee Jones, who lives on his ranch, and that seems a palatable road for me.