People say they love the fall season because the leaves change and the air grows crisp. I live in Los Angeles where our trees are always green and the air rarely dips below 72 degrees. But I love fall because it brings with it new TV. And I'm psyched for the return of Fringe, my favorite new show of last year. Going with an X-Files-style plot, it centers around FBI agent Olivia Dunham, who's been recruited to investigate the FBI's Fringe division – weird scientific anomalies and abominations that have some kind of greater connection. Along the way, she's assisted by Dr. Walter Bishop, a mad scientist who worked on many of these Fringe experiments, and Peter Bishop, Walter's brilliant, estranged son. I just caught off a press conference call with Joshua Jackson, who plays Peter, in which he told me what we can expect from season 2. Read the interview below.
A little lost? Check out our recaps from season 1 and catch up before the season premiere tomorrow, September 17.
As an actor – or even as a viewer – which kind of episode do you prefer: the action-heavy episodes, the more sciencey episodes… scenes with the cow?
The cow is a diva – it's a little known fact. She's not very giving [laughing]. I don't know that I have a particular favorite. I think if I did any one of those too often, each would become boring in their own way. The hope is to try to balance those out every couple of episodes. The thing that I spend the most time thinking about is keeping the dynamic between Peter and Walter truthful, and ever-evolving. The beauty of being on a television show is that you get to do a little of everything all the time.
When you get a script for a new episode, how do you react when you see the crazy storylines?
That's the beauty of our show – if we don't have a new, crazy thing, something has gone horribly wrong. So I always take it as a positive. Each week is a little bit of a science lesson for the class, a little of a vocabulary lesson for the class, and it always presents you with some other kooky thing. As a fan, the thing that I like best about our show, and the genre that our show is in, is the bigger story, rather than the individual "creepy-ghoulie" stuff. What we've done pretty well is take those "creepy-ghoulie" elements each week, and add them up into a bigger story. That's the thing that I geek out about.
Did you see your character's twist coming at the end of season 1?
Thankfully, they gave me a heads up a couple months before so that I didn't read the script and think I had been fired. It sounds like a tag line, but it is true: if we can dream it, we can do it. I don't think anybody saw that twist coming. I was only told about it four or five months in advance. But I think it's incredible. I think putting the last frame of the show in the World Trade Center is incredible. That's why I love our show. It should keep on pushing boundaries like that.
What can we expect for the first half of the season with your storyline?
What I love about that story line is that now the audience knows something about Peter that he doesn't know himself. We come to find out that this is a large part of the guilt that Walter carries around. He kidnapped Peter as a young boy. Inevitably, that information has to come out. I don't know the particulars about that, but I do think that has to come to a head. It will lead to a conflict between them. The entire first season for Peter and Walter was about them reconnecting through the crazy circumstances, and actually becoming something of a family – a very dysfunctional family, but a family. Season 2 will carry that forward. Peter is really invested in being part of this team, but eventually, he's going to find out that this horrible thing happened to him as a child, and that's going to blow up his relationship with Walter – and probably with Olivia, too. To me, that's the great thing that will be hanging over Peter this entire season.
Peter's sarcasm is a huge selling point for the show, as well as the interplay between Peter and Walter. How much of that is improvised versus scripted? And how much is Josh versus Peter?
Can I ask you a favor? My sarcasm is not really welcome in my household all the time. Maybe you could call my girlfriend and tell her to appreciate it [laughing].
I have to give credit to the writers. Most of those lines are written. But John and I have a very strong working rapport, and he is a very playful actor – I mean that in a good way. He likes to keep things lively and – to toot my own horn – I feel I am a bit that way myself. So a lot of the humor of those moments comes out just because the two of us are playing around. But the scenarios are definitely written. I would say that Peter is a much more cynical man than I am. His sarcasm tends to be a lot darker than my sense of humor.
In the first season, we got a little idea of your dark background. Will we get more of that in the second season?
Yes. We actually delve right into that very early in the season. We kept hinting at it last year, but never showed it. And that's because it's Fringe. It's not Peter's Fringe. It's difficult to put these characters' back stories into the show. Each episode has a central focus. However, we immediately understood what Walter's function on this Fringe team was, and the first season did a good job of explaining why Olivia was meant for Fringe division, over any other FBI agent, but what we never got into until the final episode was why Peter specifically needs to be part of this. This season we have gone a lot deeper into showing this prior life he had.
Are there certain aspects that make it fun to play?
Absolutely. That's what drew me in to this character: the idea that he has – not even grey, but a very black past. In a way he is running from it, but in another way he wants to run back to it. Oddly, being an arms dealer and all the other super-not-nice stuff is easier for him, emotionally, than dealing with his father and confronting his childhood.
During the first season, Fringe seemed to grow its audience steadily before really becoming a breakout hit. Was there a particular moment that you really knew it was catching on?
There is a lag time for those of us who work on the show, between making it and waiting for it to get on the air. I think, though I'm pretty sure I'm not alone on this, that when Dunham gets kidnapped – I think it's around episode 11 – I think that is when the show hit its stride creatively.
J.J. Abrams has said he is trying to keep Fringe accessible to new viewers. Do you think that will continue?
Yes. We're just starting to shoot the eighth episode of the season. The eighth episode is a mythology-heavy episode, but I think so far this season we are 50/50 with episodes that are heavy into the backstory and stories that are just one-off investigations. The idea is that, regardless of if it is a mythology episode or not, each of these investigations – in every episode – will have a beginning, a middle and an end. Even if it is a heavy mythology episode, you can still come in and get a satisfying story, as opposed to tuning in to a story halfway through. Everyone uses Lost as an example, so let's use it again. Lost is a fantastic show, but each of those episodes doesn't really have a beginning, middle, and end. It is part of a larger continuing story. So if you don't know the things that came before it, it is difficult to just drop in. The format of our show lends itself to simpler storytelling. Every week there will be something that this group of people has to investigate. Sometimes it will lead them to learn something about the larger story they are investigating, and if you don't know anything about that larger story, you probably won't be engaged by that part. But that episode will still come to a conclusion. But that is the conceit of Fringe. If you want to watch it every week – and please do – there is a lot of story being told all the time. But if you just want to drop in for a fun hour, there is that aspect too.
Has working on Fringe opened up your mind to the idea of parallel universes?
Maybe it's my left-coast liberal upbringing, but the idea of parallel universes doesn't strike me as being too "out there." After the 1960s, the psychedelia, the doors of perception, I don't really think it's all that far-out. What defies my imagination would be that there is something out there that would defy my imagination. Maybe it's because I'm a sci-fi fan. But it seems to me that the only justifiable position a human being could have in 2009 is humility in the face of the universe. We are learning so much. It's like that Carl Sagan thing with the candle in the dark. Every time the candle gets a little bit brighter, it only serves to illuminate how much we don't know.
This show has been called a cross between X-Files and Dark Angel, along with a few other sci-fi shows. What is your take on that?
I think The X-Files is a more fair comparison, though they dealt with things that were, by design, of a paranormal nature. In Fringe what we are really trying to say is, "These things that some would classify as fantastical are actually part of the normal." They all have legitimate explanations in the scientific world. It can't be chalked up to alien abductions or whatever.
As a sci-fi fan, does Fringe fulfill all your sci-fi needs, or is there a project you are dying to do?
Fringe does not fill the science-fiction quotas of my acting life. I don't know if there are any particular projects I'd be dying to do because it has probably already been done. There are plenty of books that I read as a young man that I would love to turn into a movie. Some of which have already been turned into movies. But it is a ton of fun for a guy who loves science fiction to be working on a science fiction show. I would have loved to be part of The Lord of the Rings. Now they are making The Hobbit and I'm not part of that, either.