As Superman: Unbound debuts on shelves today on DVD/Blu-ray/digital download, it brings with it a decidedly different approach to the alien robotic villain Brainiac: it give him some humanity.
Based off a story by Geoff Johns, this Brainiac isn't simply a maniacal robot, but a lonely man, the only one of his kind, who knows too much while knowing nothing at all of how to fit into a larger society. While the movie has Superman in the title, and gives powerful moments to him, Supergirl, and especially to Lois Lane, Brainiac, and his newest portrayal, is the real star of the show.
With that in mind, we sat down to chat with John Noble (Fringe, Lord of the Rings) to discuss his approach to the character, why villains are great to play, what's uniquely awesome about science fiction, and even just how Walter Bishop and the Fringe team would take down Brainiac if worlds ever collided.
Newsarama: John, obviously everyone knows who Superman is: How were you approached, and what was your reaction to being asked to be involved in a Superman project?
John Noble: It came about because – to start with, I’m a huge admirer of Andrea Romano, the voice director. She approached me at a Warner Brothers party, actually, and said “We’ve got to work together!” and I said, “You bet we do!” So really, when the time came and she found this role, it was a no-brainer to do it. And she proved to be every bit as wonderful a voice director as I knew her reputation to be. It was an absolute joy working with her.
Superman, for me, he was the first superhero I ever came across as a little boy, reading comics, so he was the epitome of superheroes to me. It was really cool to be associated with a Superman story. It’s something I’m proud of, you know?
Nrama: Absolutely! However, I'm guessing you may not have known about Brainiac ahead of time. What kind of research did you do to prepare ahead of time?
Noble: No, not at all, I had to be briefed. Basically, Andrea sent me the character notes and that was sort of sufficient – she filled me in on what was required.
Really, beyond that, we went in to create a unique voice for him – not just that [robotically speaking:] ROBOT ANIMATED VOICE – which I didn’t want to do! (laughs)
So we came up with something else. I tried to invest a little bit of humor and emotion into him at times. In other words, it was very fun. I didn’t go in with preconceptions, so I was in her hands, and we created that particular voice for that particular character.
Nrama: That’s interesting. Talking a little more about how you developed the voice of Brainiac; something that stuck out to me about the voice was the direct cadence, and that’s the robotic side, but then there’s this twinge of anger that you wouldn’t expect from a robot. What went into developing that?
Noble: That’s right! When I was looking at the dialogue, I was thinking, “well it indicates to me that he’s pissed off about something!” (laughs) I suppose the fact that, as the film points out, he’s this lonely man. So what he does is he freezes civilizations at exactly the time because he can’t stand people moving and growing. That’s kind of a sad statement of any living being! And it also must come from an emotional base; where else would it come from?
So, that gave me the freedom to put those emotional beats into it, and Andrea agreed with the approach.
Nrama: You also have touched on villainy a bit with Walternate on Fringe, and your role in Lord of the Rings - What's appealing about playing villains? Did you pull from your Walternate steely-voiced approach for Brainiac?
Noble: I don’t think so? I have played a lot of villains, including Denethor, I suppose, from Lord of the Rings.
No, I don’t know – I didn’t go in, as I said, with preconceptions. I kind of just go in there and disappear into what I’m doing in the recording studio. I try things, and finally you get the big thumbs up from the voice director saying, “that’s it! That’s the voice we want!” (laughs) and it’s cool when she did that!
That’s really what it is. You go and do a reading, and she says, “can you go and do a little more of this or a little more of that,” and you just say sure! It’s a great cooperation in the studio between the director and the actor.
Nrama: Well what’s fun about playing villains in particular for you?
Noble: Ask any actor what they want to play, and they’ll tell you villains. Absolutely. Seriously
Everyone loves playing a villain. Really, they’re very powerful people, and they reflect that dark side that we all have but most of the time don’t exhibit. They give us something to react against, that means that we have to have good guys to save us. It’s all that human stuff!
I love playing the bad guys, because they’re so powerful, usually – I’m not talking about psychopaths, more these kind of guys (laughs).
I can totally understand why they’re like they are. Power corrupts! I can understand why they do it. History is strewn with men that turn evil to defend their territories and so forth.
And also I am a student of humanity. I read enormously deeply into history. These people are all over history, who turn villain, and it’s power that does it to them, absolutely, in my mind. As I said, unless you’re dealing with a psychopath – but generally it’s power that does it to them.
Nrama: And as you said with Brainiac, it’s power and loneliness!
Noble: Yup, sure! And if I was to go back to Denethor with Lord of the Rings, the same thing applies there, it’s power and loneliness. What we do as human beings, very often, is we close done, we close ourselves off from other people. So obviously Brainiac’s done that, as Denethor did. We become socially isolated, and that’s very often apparent.
You don’t hear very often about very powerful men or women having very successful close personal relationships.
Nrama: Well, as we’ve been talking about here, you've been involved in a lot of sci-fi and genre entertainment. What do you think makes sci-fi unique in its approach to the human condition?
Noble: We are creatures of imagination. That’s what we are, from the time we’re little ones. Slowly, we get hemmed in, through education, through life, we learn these harsh realities and our horizons are shortened all the time by society. But what we all love to do is to dream, and to use our imagination.
Science Fiction gives us the absolute permission to do that, which is why it’s the dominant genre. Simply, it’s the dominant genre, because it allows us to dream, and to wonder, to live in the world of mysteries!
That’s pretty well the reason why.
Nrama: Likewise, Voice Acting is something you've really come into more recently in your career, just in the last few years. What made you try it out initially?
Noble: Well, I used to do it when I was young. When I was a stage actor, I used to do a lot of voiceover commercials and such. Now this is going back a few years, but I used to do it to make some money, because stage acting is not that well paid! (laughs)
I used to do a lot of voiceovers, I’m going back now, probably thirty years. I also did a lot of radio drama, in sort of the last days of radio drama, when people used to listen to their radio and have all these wonderful dramas. I caught the tail end of that, too, which I enjoyed enormously.
So even though in the international world it seems to be kind of recent, I’ve actually been doing it most of my career.
Nrama: I see! Well, what keeps you coming back to voice acting now?
Noble: Well, to start with, I enjoy it immensely.
I kind of like being really focused, and you have to be really focused doing voice work – incredibly focused. You come in and do three hours, and you’re absolutely exhausted and rung out. I love that.
I don’t like sitting around! One of the problems with doing film or television sometimes, is you spend an awful lot of time sitting around. But you don’t do a lot of waiting for voice, it’s full-on working from when you walk into the studio and when you walk out drained. That’s sort of my personality!
Nrama: With your radio play background, did you get to record alongside Matt Bomer and all, or was it all separate for you?
Noble: No, no, it was all separate. I’ve never even met Matt! (laughs)
When I was first doing radio drama, we’d all come in, and that was fun. But not this time, it was all separate.
Nrama: Maybe that’s something for Comic-Con, we can get you all together and have you do a scene live!
Noble: (laughs) That would be fun! If we ever go back to Comic-Con, right? It’ll be strange at Comic-Con time, not being there, having been there for the last five years [for Fringe].
Nrama: How does your approach to a role that you're voicing compare to one you're playing live-action? What are the differences when you’re preparing?
Noble: For me, not too much. With a voice job, to start with, you don’t have to learn the script – you’re working off the script in front of you! Although, I must say that generally when you’ve run it a few times, I don’t really look at the script, it just goes into the memory.
But beyond that, I sort of close my eyes and disappear into it the way I would with any character. I think you have to do that. You can’t think “I am a voice actor,” because then you become a talking head, and that’s not what we’re employed to become. If you become a talking head, the voice doesn’t work properly, you sound like a news reader.
So I sort of involve my whole body, I wave my arms around, and close my eyes, so there’s a similarity.
And you have to involve it for the emotional part, because you’re doing lots of screaming and yelling, and you have to use your body to find that voice.
Nrama: Let me ask you, then, how awkward is it recording all of those grunts and smacks when you’re just getting beaten up by Superman?
Noble: God, it’s exhausting! (laughs)
And they usually leave the big screaming stuff to the end of the session because they know it’s going to shred your voice. You do the “AHHHH,” a few of those and it doesn’t matter how you’re trained, it’s going to hurt. I think that sometimes those grunts, the “UNF” and such are the hardest, and you have to do them time and time again! (laughs) It must be hilarious to watch me sitting there going “OOF! AH!” (laughs)
Nrama: Well it sounds like you had a lot of fun, and as you noted, Andrea is amazing; are DC Animated movies something you’d come back for?
Noble: Oh, absolutely. I definitely want to work with Andrea again, too. I’ve voice three characters since then that are sort of undercover that I can’t talk about yet, but yeah, I do. I’d certainly like to work with Andrea Romano again, she’s simply fantastic, and Warner Brothers was excellent to work with, too.
Nrama: Okay, one more just for fun. Let’s say there’s no Supergirl, no Superman around: How would Walter and the Fringe team deal with a Brainiac invasion?
Noble: (laughs) Well, Walter would probably match Brainiac intellectually anyway, and he’d probably enjoy that! He’d probably find that all absolutely fascinating! (laughs) That’s the way Walter’s mind works; he’s a very interesting man.
So I think it would be up to him to combat him intellectually… and probably then it would be left to Olivia to shoot him! (laughs) That’s what she does!
Superman: Unbound is available now from Warner Bros Animation and DC Entertainment