Interview with Peter Weller from Fringe

Peter Weller

We had a chance earlier this week to get in on a conference call with Peter Weller, who is guest starring on tonight’s episode of Fringe, on FOX at 9/8c. Peter is cousin to Fred Weller, who plays Marshall on In Plain Sight on USA! (Sorry, just an interesting tidbit for me. lol) Check out what Peter had to say, then catch the new episode of Fringe tonight!

How did this opportunity come about for you?

P. Weller – Well, you know they just called my… it’s the usual stuff. They called my agent and said we’d really like him to do this and I’d seen a little bit of the show. I’ve been finishing a PhD at UCLA, so I didn’t get a lot of time to watch primetime television. But, I’d seen a little bit of the show and my wife’s a big fan of it, so I said, “Listen honey, we got this offer and what do you think?” I have to tell you honestly; I’m very discerning about primetime television, you know, guest stars. A lot of it’s entertaining, but sort of hamstrung stuff, but Fringe is unique. Fringe is the best that science fiction can be. It’s fantastic and it’s entertaining, but at the same time has a humanist theme to it of people, places and things and relationships. So my wife said, “I think this is brilliant.” I said, really? Okay, so I read it and it was brilliant. So I said I’m in.

I don’t care what the money is, it’s fantastic. Sometimes, whether it’s a lot of money or a little money, Robert Mitchum always said he looked at the money and then he looked to where he’s going to shoot it; those are good criterion. But I always look at the script and look at the director, too. I thought it’s fantastic. It’s just rare. I’ve just got to say Josh; it’s rare that you see episodic television that has like a four page acting scene. It’s usually a lot of guns and cars these days or a lot of police work, but this is different, man. This is unique and wonderful.

More after the jump!

What can you tell us about the character you’re playing?

P. Weller – Well, that’s the thing that really turned me on about it. It’s a romantic. It’s a guy who is going back in time and he’s making some serious sacrifices in terms of other people’s livelihood and well-being to get back to save his wife from dying in a ridiculous moment, mistake that he made. So he’s trying to find redemption and go back to the only person that really means anything to him. It’s a complete; I don’t know. It’s just tremendously romantic and very moving, so that alone was enough to make me want to jump on it.

What challenges did you find in this role? You’ve got a long, wonderful career, great characters that you’ve played. What was really challenging for you with this character?

P. Weller – First of all, that there are scenes that are four pages of explanation and dialogue, but really well written. They’re not just expository, but their dramatic scenes to justify love and need and family. Those were challenges. Those are challenges to make come alive. The thing is predicated on losing the person you love. I come from the method. I come from Elia Kazan and Uta Hagen and you’ve got to plug in your personal life into that stuff and it’s upsetting stuff. So you have to sort of imagine what it would be like if I lost my wife, if a guy lost his wife or lost his fiancé anyway. That’s hard stuff to tap into.

At 60 years old, you want to kind of sit by the sea which I’m doing now; smoke a cigar, have a cappuccino and not take a look at those possible horrors. So that’s the biggest challenge; how to access the sorrow of losing the dearest person to you in the world.

From what we saw on the previews of the episode, it looks like there’s going to be some time travel involved in this one. What was it like to kind of delve into that type of a story?

P. Weller – Well, it’s entertaining. HG Wells was maybe the first to do it. The … thing about science fiction, it’s sort of like an autobiography of the world. If you can follow me with me, it’s like if you read history; I’m finishing this piece … essentially history at UCLA, you have a linear sort of record of the great events in the world. And then you have intersecting it vertically or thematically, science fiction; the what-ifs, the what if we did this; the whole thing outside of our sort of linear experience. That’s the great gift of science fiction. So it’s fun. What can I tell you? If you have any kind of inventive mind at all, you go racing with it. I just think it was great.

Also, particularly the way they’re handling time travel; what the electrical field does around the person whose time travelling. It’s sucking the energy out of the physical space, where one lands such that that energy gets re-rooted. It’s just fabulous to me. I don’t understand science that much. I’m not a scientist and I’m not really good at mathematics. But science fiction is just an extraordinarily imaginative trope.

You just mentioned what science fiction is like. What’s your view of Fringe science?

P. Weller – The reason why I love Fringe and not just because I was on it, is that it goes past the surface adventure of science and sort of plums the responsibility and accountability of science fiction; where the human being goes with it, what he has to suffer and what joy and also misery that he pulls out of messing with, if you will, fate or destiny as the Greeks say or choice or the order of the natural world. That’s what Fringe does. It takes you a little bit deeper and as a matter of fact in my opinion, at lot deeper than the usual science fiction program. It’s all entertainment, but Fringe has an inquiry into what it means to be human along with this and that’s what really turns me onto this show.

You mentioned the time travel aspect of this episode. How does that compare with the series you used to be on called Odyssey 5?

P. Weller – It’s very similar. That’s what turned me on about Odyssey 5 too is that people are placed back in time except they have the knowledge of the future and so they look, they mess with Mother Nature and everything goes askew. That’s a really good correlation. As a matter of fact, when I first started to do Fringe, I called up Manny Coto, the creator of Odyssey 5 and he said, “Oh wow, this sounds like Isaac Asimov,” indeed the writers of Isaac Asimov’s fans. I think it’s very close in parallel.

Look. Both of those shows, particularly “White Tulip” and Odyssey 5; there are a bunch of episodes on Odyssey 5, are using science fiction to leverage the audience into an inquiry about being humanly accountable, as far as just relationships go with other human beings. Are you a person of peace or are you a person of greed and aggression? These are great inquiries to me and I really appreciate you bringing up that analogy because that’s the very thing that turned me on about “White Tulip.”

Speaking of time travel, if you, personally you Peter, were able to go back in time at some point in your life either to warn yourself about something or to tell yourself about something or even just relive an experience in a better way, is there someplace that you think you’d like to go?

P. Weller – Yes, there’s a couple of places I would like to go but I don’t know if I’d redo anything. I’ve been very blessed, but there’s a couple of relationships that I made youthful mistakes about and they were egotistical and sort of self absorbed mistakes. Just like the guy in “White Tulip” as you will see. He gets in an argument with his fiancé, just a small argument and therein, death happens. I’d go back and I’d sort of make a few amends with some people that are no longer on the earth. That’s all I think I would do.

If I just really could time travel though, there’s a couple of guys I’d like to meet. There’s a couple of artists I’d like to meet in the Renaissance and an Emperor or two I’d like to shake hands with. I’d certainly like to go back and step on the Island of Elba and talk to Napoleon a second or go back and talk to Frederick II who was a great Emperor in the 1200’s who gave Jews and Muslim’s a whole lot of civil freedom and spoke Arabic and Hebrew and was a vegetarian and a poet. There’s a couple of guys I’d like to meet like that, but as far as my own life to go redo things, there’s about two or three people that I regret mishandling and I’d like to go back and sort of straighten that out.

Don’t you find it remarkable about science fiction that what science fiction one day can very likely be science the very next day?

P. Weller – I think you’re absolutely right. I think that Philip Dick and HG Wells; I did this wonderful movie with a bad title called Screamers based on a Philip Dick short story called The Second Variety or The Fourth Variety, I forget the name of it. But Philip Dick’s whole theme was that kind of a Zen thing, that if you invest your consciousness into building a robot or an automaton, it will eventually have consciences because you put your soul in it. Even though it might not be inanimate right now, it has an animation of its own. I think those guys are rolling in their graves about what’s going on with world communication now and the possibilities of space travel.

And who knows, it might be like Albert Einstein thought; a general theory of physics may allow us to cross into some dimension at some point. The whole para psychological thing that one time I thought was goofy when I was a kid, now looks more and more real to me and I can understand why places like Duke study it. So yes, it’s astounding, which would be great with being alive in the day and age. My grandmother grew up on a cattle ranch and essentially got to fly on a jet plane and she said I can’t … past that when she lived for 100 years. It’s a great trobe. It’s a great thing to invest in is why and the heck the world is developing exactly as the science fiction writers saw it.

Still wishing by the way, that Buckaroo Banzai had taken on the world crime league.

P. Weller I do too, man. Everybody asks me about it. As a matter of fact, they just did an homage to that film in LA at the New Beverly Cinema restored Art House and I went to talk. I thought nobody was going to show up and there was like a thousand people and they turned hundreds away. I thought my God, this films lives on and on and on.

You said that you had watched the show previously but it’s mostly of cause your wife was a big fan. You basically got to live I think many Fringe fans’ fantasy of being involved in one of the episodes and I was just curious to see how that is going to affect or has affected your relationship with the show and your wife’s relationship with the show.

P. Weller – Well, I watch the show now. I’m in Italy right now so I can’t watch the show, but we record the show now. I know that the forerunner to my dilemma with John in the show went on last week about his son essentially crossing into worlds that he shouldn’t have been in. So we tape it. Thank goodness for TIVO, so we’ve got them all recorded and I’ve been over here in Italy doing a PhD paper in Venice and prepping it for about the last two and a half weeks so I haven’t seen the show but we’ve got it all on TIVO when we get back.

The thing is that when your part of a show and you read it and you see an episode or two, then you become hooked on it. The same thing happened with me and 24 and now it’s happened with Fringe. There’s a great art historian and also is a children’s book writer named Ernst Gombrich who said one of the great statements of the 20th century I think is you don’t know what you like. You like what you know. Which means is that you can say what you like and don’t like, but until you’re exposed to it and have somebody offer you something about it and explain it to you; he ventured to say that you’ll fall in love with it.

What was it like working with the cast of Fringe?

P. Weller – Fantastic! One of the most fabulous crews, on the ball, some old friends and the cast is egoless, which is sometimes and many times not the case. I’ve been in the movie business for, I don’t know, many years and I’m sure when I was a younger man I threw my own little hissy fits once in a while. But after a while, you just want to get the work done, particularly if it’s a great part in a great show.

You just want to really get the best work out and the way to get the best work out is that everybody puts their ego on hold and although a movie set is not a democracy; it’s essentially an oligarchy, there’s somebody in charge and somebody else in charge. If everyone’s receptive to ideas, then you really get something done. And that set and I’m not saying this just because I was on the show because after 60, 70 pieces of work that I’ve done in the movie business and television business and theater, that show has this fantastic egalitarian accessibility of everyone on it. It’s magic.

They say in the Mafia where I am right now in Southern Italy, the fish stinks at the head, which means if you’ve got a son-of-a-… running the thing, everybody feels like a son-of-a-…. That show is the antithesis of that. That show is a gift of creation and a wonderful place to create. The writers were available to me on the phone. The directors were available to me night and day. The crew was extraordinarily, unbelievably helpful. The cast was nothing but gems, three gifted people and I had a ball. I just had an absolute ball.

Is there any chance that you will come back and direct an episode of Fringe and put Fred Weller in it, as well.

P. Weller – And put Fred Weller in it? Yes, I put Fred Weller and Graham Beckel in everything I direct. I’m going to pound Fringe to direct an episode for them. I’m actually cranking up a film to direct, but I’d love to direct for them and if so, yes, I’ve got to get Fred Weller and Graham Beckel in it because they’re gifted. I think that Graham Beckel; I don’t know if you know who he is, but he’s been in every movie I’ve ever made. And as Tommy Lee Jones said about Graham, he’s probably one of the two or three most inventive film actors walking planet Earth.

What’s the film you’re directing?

P. Weller – The film is called “The Meaning of Nowhere.” How about that for a title? You like that?

That sounds amazing. Can you tell us a little bit what it’s about?

P. Weller – Yes, it’s about a very bad girl, very bad who kills three people. She’s a low-level heist operator. She kills three people in the first five minutes of the film and by fate, by destiny she ends up in a life that’s actually sort of nice. It’s not about somebody trying to go good because she doesn’t want go good. Its just that the river that takes her on down, the current takes her on down the stream and she ends up in a fairly nice little sort of Brigadoon paradise and then doesn’t want to let it go.

And so underneath this thriller, it’s a thriller actually, but you have the age old question debatable in the Western World; you can’t say this to a studio but what it’s really about is whether or not we follow the Greek ideology are we our fate and destiny or are we what the great gift to Western humanity is the Jews, are we choice, do we have a choice in the matter? Can we be like Abraham and walk out of Samaria and go find a promise land on our own you know, because everything before Judaism was essentially a life/death cycle where you were born a pheasant, you were reborn as a pheasant. If you were born a king, you were reborn as a king. You didn’t change your life. This thriller is about whether you are fated to be one thing or whether you can choose to be another. How about that?

You were just talking about the cast a minute ago too. We know that Joshua Jackson is a big sci-fi genre fan. I’m curious having you on set, did you guys get to do a lot of back and forth talking about some of the amazing things you’ve done or did any of you guys talk about sci-fi at all?

P. Weller – You know, it’s funny. When you’re on a movie set, all Josh and I did was smoke a cigar together and talk about Vancouver and cigars. We didn’t talk about sci-fi at all. It’s kind of interesting like when I was doing Odyssey 5, in the midst of Odyssey 5 or in the midst of the set of “White Tulip;” and you’ve got to make that real, I don’t have a propensity to stand outside of it and talk about it as a … or as an entity. It’s kind of you’re in the middle of it, you’re in the foxhole of making the thing and it’s really hard to stand outside of it and objectify it.

Like I never had a conversation with Manny Coto about sci-fi, who invested Odyssey 5. All we’d talk about are the human relationships and what next to do and when I was directing an episode, what we want the human beings within the story to do. So it’s odd that you ask that. Yes, I never sat on a movie set talking about the genre of the film that I’m in. That’s fascinating.

We’re desperately awaiting the return of RoboCop and we’re all rooting for Darren Aronofsky’s vision. Have you heard anything about the status of this film and what do you think about bringing back this wonderful character?

P. Weller – You know, I wish him well. He’s a gifted director. I was happy to do it and happy to leave it. It was like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They were happy to get together and happy to part because they went on their own way. I went off.

I left RoboCop to do Naked Lunch and I was very grateful for everything that RoboCop brought me, particularly a large listening amongst young people in regards to education and making some sort of contribution to education or difference to education because young kids will listen to me because of that film. But I think the movie will probably be good.

I just have to say RoboCop I is hard to beat. You know, you’ve got that director Verhoeven and you’ve got those writers Ed Neumeier and Mike Miner and a combination of action and myth and humanity and humor, all those things wrapped into one in a perfectly constructed; the construction of that script was perfect. I don’t think they’re going to do anything better, but I certainly wish them well to do something as good.

I wanted to find out maybe if you could tell us a little bit about your experiences working with the director of “White Tulip” and what that was like for you?

P. Weller – It was his first directing gig on that. He’s the DP, he’s one of the two DP’s and he was fabulous. I mean he was absolutely fabulous. He had a structure and within the structure, John and I, because it was mostly with John, John and I got to invent and John is a very inventor actor. John is a workhouse. John has been around the block, man. He’s done theater and everything, so it’s not like the director was working with a couple of guys at a diner, a couple of newbies.

John is so in tune to a physical space and movement within a room and so forth and one of the things that I am good at, of the many things I’m not so good at, is physically inventing in a room. Some people say I’m prop heavy, but I don’t call those things props. I call them physical life. The director really gave me a lot of leeway to work with stuff. He was great. He was terrific. It was as if he’d been as if he were directing all his life.

And a lot of times, I have to say, you get a DP and many times they don’t make the directors, gifted DPs, because they’re so obsessed with a look and a shot that they can’t leave the room for actors to play. So a lot of times they micromanage and sometimes a scene needs to be micromanaged. I know when I’m directing, sometimes I wish the actors would just shut up and do what I say, but you’ve got to listen to them man because they’re going to come up with ideas. And as Robert Duvall said, if you don’t listen to an actor, you’re only using half the actor. But he used everything in me, man. He got everything out of me he wanted.

What has made a career in this industry rewarding for you so far would you say?

P. Weller – Wow. You know you can say the perks. Tony Curtis said there’s nothing like the perks of the movie business. Look, I got burned out on acting about four years into acting in the theater. I really didn’t know. I was just chasing one job to the next.

Then I had sort of a life change and hopefully everybody has a life change. You’ve got to have more than one, too. You’ve got to have them about every ten years. You’ve got to have these epiphanies. I realized that what it was about; now this sounds very simplistic. As a matter of fact, it sounds vacuous. It’s like alien, it’s right on your face and you can’t see it. It occurred to me in a major epiphany that what I was about was communication and that if I can communicate a particular experience that either assists, enlightens or makes some kind of difference in a fictional world to people watching it, then that’s what I can do.

Along with that, the fallout of that is that as Mitchum also said, having celebrity can call attention to your favorite charity or getting a nice seat in a restaurant. That’s about it. Insomuch as I got a little notoriety, I can bring some attention to my particular issues, which are essentially pre-school and early school elementary education.

It’s also given me the gift of travel and travel is also education and it also brings the world together. You find out about somebody else’s culture, then you don’t feel so isolated and alien about your own and you’re a little bit more available to understand somebody else’s position. Anything that can help somebody break bread instead of picking up a gun with somebody else is worthwhile.

And that’s what acting is really; I don’t want to get high and mighty about it, but it’s really given me an access to the world. And subsequently in communicating a particular experience like in “White Tulip,” which is about love, that’s all it is, that’s the whole episode is about love and the desire for love and the loss of people that you love, that’s all “White Tulip” is; if I can communicate that then I get re-infused with it and I can go out and be nicer to the people next to me. Moses, Jesus, Buddha and every other avatar on planet earth said is handle what’s in front of you with kindness and then the world will handle itself. That works by the way, you know?

That was all the time Peter had, but he had the following closing comments.

P. Weller – Well, the best closing comment is this episode of “White Tulip” is truly one of the most profound and entertaining and enjoyable jobs I’ve had in motion pictures or television or theater that I can remember. I haven’t even seen it but I know it’s good. It may be even great. But it’s just extraordinarily worthwhile from the personal experience of the crew and the cast to this script. It was wonderful. It was just wonderful. As Shakespeare said, “Wonderful, wonderful and yet most wonderful.”

Thanks again to Peter Weller for taking the time to chat with everyone! Don’t miss tonight’s Fringe, guest-starring Mr. Weller himself!

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