A Noble Villain: “Superman Unbound”‘s John Noble
By Brian Walton on May 11, 2013
This week, John Noble got to play in a world he’s loved since childhood. The Australian actor, best known for roles in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Fringe, got to fight Big Blue himself as the villain in DC’s Superman: Unbound. Noble brings his very distinct pipes to bear on the eponymous villain from Geoff Johns’ “Brainiac” storyline in Action Comics. We caught up with John about all things Brainiac, transitioning between live-action and voice work, and whether or not all those Star Wars and Doctor Who rumors are true.
Growing up in the Australian countryside, John Noble didn’t have access to a TV. As he tells us, his connection to Superman came about when he couldn’t get any other form of entertainment. “When I was a little boy growing up in the country, we didn’t have television or anything, in fact, television wasn’t in Australia. But I was able to get hold of certain comic books and the two that I loved most were Superman, the quintessential superhero, in my opinion, and I also loved the Phantom. They were the two I would read all the time. We’d listen to him on the radio as well. We listened to radio a lot. As kids we’d come home from school and there’d be Superman on. So we’d listen to that and become very involved. Therefore, it was quite an important part of my upbringing as a young fella. Everyday, we’d be tuned in and listen to The Adventures of Superman.”
Throughout the years, Brainiac has had many incarnations in the comics and television, from the live action James Marsters iteration on Smallville to the heroic Brainiac 5 of the Legion of Superheroes, and there’s nothing more confusing to a new Superman fan than someone trying to explain Brainiac’s backstory. With Superman: Unbound, Noble puts a voice to what could be the definitive Brainiac, a version he hopes to revisit. “The writers and the director wanted that to happen. They wanted to define Brainiac, finally. That was the intention when they brought me in. I think what we did was come up with a version that does have longevity, that can be interesting enough to revisit, so, yeah, I suspect that will be revisited. I hope so.”
John continued, turning the conversation to the human element he wanted to bring to Brainiac, “Look, one of the things I wouldn’t have been keen to do is an animated cliche. I approach everything as if it’s a human being with all the flaws and so forth of a human being. It was there in the script. The script allowed me to do that. So I had these options, and Andrea was such a brilliant director; She was working with me and guiding me and molding what I was doing. We both agreed that it was interesting to have him with those human vulnerabilities, which became quite evident at the end of the show. It made it far more interesting.”
To that note, John elaborated on how he made the character almost sympathetic in the climactic battle with Superman. “Playing any character, no matter how evil, I would always try and find it. Vulnerability is what makes us sympathetic, and he was very vulnerable at the end of that. Superman had him by the short and curlies, you know. He had him. Even when you might think someone is a terrible villain, to see them reduced in that way is kind of sympathetic. I was certainly playing for that using the script and Andrea encouraged me to do that. I certainly want to work with Andrea Romano at Warner Brothers again, and that will happen.”
How critical is Andrea Romano to the recipe of success these films have? Well, we know we love what she’s able to get out of the talent she recruits, but for John, she was one of the biggest draws. “Her reputation is huge. She’s the best in the business and I knew that. She’s also just a terrific lady, a terrific lady, and we also got on really well as people. We seem to share a common enthusiasm and certain intellectual vigors that I enjoy. I was more than happy to hand over to her and trust her completely on what she said works. I didn’t doubt her for a minute.”
Like most actors who understand the value of voice-over work, Noble is just as serious about his efforts in the studio as he is when he’s being filmed for live-action. “Two things, one – I’ve always been a working actor. I would use my skills wherever someone would employ them. That’s just a reality of being a working actor, but also, it’s a skill set I’ve really enjoyed developing, because there is a skill set involved in recording studio [work]. Over the years, I started doing radio drama back in the seventies before radio drama died out, so it was kind of a surprise to me to want to come back into all that as I hadn’t done much for a number of years. When I went to L.A. in the early ’90’s, I was approached by a voice agent and unlike film, (it) is something you can keep doing forever, you know, as long as your voice holds out. It means you don’t have to go to locations for three months. You go into a sound studio and work crazily hard for a few hours and create whatever magic you can. I’ve done about three projects since Superman and I love it, man.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, talk turned to roles fans have wanted John to play. We asked him how it felt to be on so many fans’ shortlists to get involved in Doctor Who. “I’ve heard them,” he said. “There’s a lot of rumors spread around the place. There was the other rumor that I’m going to be in the Star Wars movie playing a villain. These things get around whether they’re created in the imagination of fans, I don’t know. Doctor Who‘s been around for fifty years. Isn’t that amazing? If there was something there and they approached me about it, I think it would be interesting to go. It’s a bit like playing a character in Superman. When you do something that’s so iconic, it would be just an honor to go and do something on that show, simply because it is, as I said, fifty years old and still amazing audiences. People adore it. I went to a fan conference in Los Angeles and it was amazing. If they did offer it to me, mate, I would certainly take it seriously and be very honored. I don’t know if I’d want to dedicate my life to doing another series, but I’d certainly be interested in doing something. There’s a lovely cross-globalization if you did that. It’s a bit like us having Leonard Nimoy and Christopher Lloyd on Fringe. A real extraordinary thing, those legends working with us.”
And now, everyone that worked on Superman: Unbound gets to say the same thing about him. You can find out more about the making of the film with Superman himself Matt Bomer and Supergirl Molly Quinn here on Nerdist.
Superman: Unbound is out on Blu-ray, DVD, and digitally. You can also enter to win a Superman: Unbound autographed script cover and Blu-ray Combo Pack on our contest page. Just enter your email and then go to our Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages for extra entries.