Robocop’s Peter Weller – On The Fringe

In White Tulip, a second season episode of the Fox TV series Fringe, passengers aboard a commuter train appear to have died a still death. It seems that a switch was flipped because all cell phones, mp3 players, laptops, batteries and bodies have been drained of power. As the Fringe team assembles at the bizarre crime scene, Peter (Joshua Jackson) remains suspicious that something is amiss with Walter (John Noble), who is struggling to keep the unimaginable a secret. When the investigation leads them to Alistair Peck (guest-star Peter Weller, RoboCop, Odyssey 5, 24), a very powerful man who has tremendous energy with severe consequences, an ironic set of circumstances surface.

Prior to the airing of this episode last week on Fox, guest-star Peter Weller graciously spent part of his day speaking with myself as well as fellow journalists on a conference call. The following is an edited version of that Q & A. Enjoy! 

How did this opportunity on Fringe come about for you?

PETER WELLER – They [the show’s producers] called my agents and said, “We’d really like him [Peter] to do it.” I’d seen a little bit of the show, but I’ve been finishing a PhD at UCLA, so I don’t get a lot of time to watch primetime television. However, I had seen a bit of the show and my wife is a big fan of it, so I asked her, “We got this offer, what do you think?’ I have to tell you that, honestly, I’m very discerning about primetime television and guest-star spots. A lot of it is entertaining, but sort of hamstring stuff. Fringe, however, is unique. It’s the best that Science Fiction can be. It’s fantastic and entertaining, but at the same time it has a humanist theme to it of people, places, things and relationships. So my wife said, “I think it’s brilliant.” I said, “Really? OK.” So I read the script and it was brilliant, so I said, “I’m in.”

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

PW – He’s a guy who’s going back in time and making some serious sacrifices in terms of other peoples’ livelihood and well-being. And it’s all in order to save his wife from dying in a ridiculous moment, a mistake that he made. So he’s trying to find redemption and go back to the only person who really means anything to him. It’s just tremendously romantic and very moving; that alone was enough to make me want to jump on it.

What were some of the challenges you found with this role?

PW – First of all, there were scenes that were four pages of explanation and dialogue, but they were really well-written. They weren’t just expository, but dramatic scenes to justify love, need and family. Those were a challenge to make come alive. The story is predicated on losing the person you love. I come from the method [acting]. I come from [teachers like] Elia Kazan and Uta Hagen, and you’ve got to plug 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 was a guy who lost his wife or fiance, and 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 again that’s the biggest challenge, how to access the sorrow of losing the dearest person to you in the world.

What was it like to kind of delve into that type of story?

PW – Well, it’s entertaining. HG Wells was maybe the first to do it. The thing about Science Fiction is that it’s sort of like an autobiography of the world. If you can follow me with that – it’s like if you read history. I’m finishing this history piece at UCLA, and it’s like if 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 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. 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‘s science?

PW – 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 plumbs 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, a 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 on to this show.

How does it compare to the [Science Fiction] series you used to be on, Odyssey 5?

PW – It’s very similar. That’s what turned me on about Odyssey 5, too, is that people are placed back in time except that they have the knowledge of the future. And so they look, they mess with Mother Nature and everything goes askew. 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 [show’s] writers are Asimov fans. So I think it’s very close in parallel. Both these shows, particularly [the Fringe episode] White Tulip, and Odyssey 5 – or a bunch of episodes of Odyssey 5 – use Science Fiction to leverage the audience into an inquiry about being humanly accountable as far as relationships go with other human beings. Are you a person of peace or are you one of greed and aggression? These are great inquiries to me, and I really appreciate you bringing up the analogy between Fringe and Odyssey 5 because that’s the very thing that turned me on about White Tulip.

Speaking of time travel, if you were able to go back in time to either warn yourself about something or even relive an experience in a better way, is there someplace that you think you’d like to go?

PW – Yes, there are 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 are a couple of relationships that I made youthful mistakes about and they were very egotistical and sort of self-absorbed mistakes. Just like the guy in White Tulip; he gets into an argument with his fiance, just a small argument, and therein death happens. So I’d go back and sort of make a few amends with some people who are no longer on this Earth. That’s all I think I would do.

If I just really could time travel, though, there are a few people, including a couple of Renaissance artists and an emperor or two who 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 for a second, or go back to talk with Frederick II, who was a great emperor in the 1200’s who gave Jews and Muslims a whole lot of civil freedom and spoke Arabic and Hebrew and was a vegetarian and a poet. So those are two people I’d specifically like to meet, but, again, as far as my own life, there are two or three people who I regret mishandling and I’d like to go back and sort of straighten that out.

Don’t you kind it remarkable that what is Science Fiction one day can very likely be Science Fact the very next day?

PW – I think you’re absolutely right. I did this wonderful movie with a bad title called Screamers based on a Philip Dick short story called The Second Variety. And Dick’s whole theme was that kind of Zen thing where if you invest your consciousness into building a robot or an automaton, it will eventually have a conscience because you put your soul in it. So I think guys like him and HG Wells are rolling in their graves about what’s going on now with, for example, world communications and the possibility of space travel. And who knows, it might be like Albert Einstein thought; a general theory of physics may allow us to cross into another dimension at some point. The whole parapsychology thing that 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.

What was it like working with the cast of Fringe?

PW – Fantastic! One of the most fabulous crews who are on the ball, 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 how many years, and I’m sure when I was a young man I occasionally threw my own little hissy fits. 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 there and the way to do that is for everyone to put their ego on hold and, while a movie set is not a democracy, it’s essentially an oligrarchy. There’s somebody in charge and somebody else in charge. If everyone is receptive to ideas, then you really get something done. And the Fringe set – and again, I’m not just saying this because I was on the show – has this fantastic egalitarian accessibility of everyone on it. It’s magic. 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 unbelievably helpful, and the cast was nothing but gems. I just had an absolute ball.

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

PW – 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 don’t know if you know who Graham Beckel is, but he’s been in every movie I’ve ever made, and Tommy Lee Jones once said that Graham is probably one of the two or three most inventive film actors walking on planet Earth.

You said you were cranking up to direct a new film; can you tell us a little bit about it.

PW – It’s called The Meaning of Nowhere and it’s about a very, very bad girl who kills three people. She’s a low-level heist operator who kills three people in the first five minutes of the film and, 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 to go good. It’s just that 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. It’s actually a thriller, and one that’s about whether you are fated to be one thing or whether you can choose to be another.

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

PW – You know, I wish Darren well. He’s a gifted director. I was happy to do it [the original RoboCop] and happy to leave it. It’s like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; they were happy to get together and happy to part because they went their own ways. I left RoboCop to do Naked Lunch, and I was very grateful for everything that RoboCop brought me, particularly a large listing 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 [new] movie will probably be good.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences working with Jeffrey Hunt, the director of “White Tulip,” and what that was like for you?

PW – It was his first directing gig on the show. He’s one of the DOPs [director of photography] and he was absolutely fabulous. He had a structure and within that structure, John [Noble] and I, because most of my scenes were with John, got to invent, and John is a very inventive actor. He is a workhorse. John has been around the block, man. He’s done theater and everything else, so it’s not like the director was working with 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’m good at is physically inventing 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; it was as if he’d been directing all his life.

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

PW – You know, you can say it’s 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 onstage. I was just chasing one job to the next. Then I had sort of a life change, and hopefully everyone has a life change. You’ve got to have more than one, too. You’ve got to have these epiphanies about every 10 years. I realized that what it was about, and this sounds very simplistic. As a matter of fact, it sounds vacuous. It’s like [the feature film] Alien; this thing is right on your face and you can’t see it. It occurred to me in a major epiphany that what I was about was communicating, and if I can communicate a particular experience that either assists, enlightens or makes some kind of difference in a fictional world to those who are watching, then that’s what I can do.

The fallout of that is that, as Robert Mitchum 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 educational as well as brings the world together. You find out about somebody else’s culture, and then you don’t feel so isolated and alien about your own. As a result, 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; the whole episode is about love and the desire for love and the loss of people who you love. If I can communicate that, then I get re-infused with it, and I can go out and be nicer to the person next to me. Moses, Jesus, Buddha and every other avatar on planet Earth said, “Handle what’s in front of you with kindness and then the world will handle itself.” That works by the way, you know?

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