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Exclusive: Noah Wyle on Falling Skies, final season frustrations and pride

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Jun 26, 2015, 1:24 PM EDT

The alien invasion is almost over for Noah Wyle. After portraying Tom Mason, the leader of the human resistance, on TNT's Falling Skies since 2011, he begins the fifth and final season of the show this Sunday at 10 p.m. And Wyle seems pretty happy about that.

While proud of the show, executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, Wyle told me in an interview conducted late May that the shoot has been a hard one. Determining the balance between family drama and genre fare, as well as undergoing a regime change of six showrunners -- not to mention filming during Vancouver winters -- presented a challenge for him.

But Wyle has been a stalwart leader on camera and off, and this season will direct an episode -- a first for the actor who first entered the spotlight 21 years ago with ER. Meanwhile, he is also directing an ep for the second season of The Librarians, the TNT series he also executive-produces and acts in based on his The Librarian television movie franchise.

In the refreshingly frank interview that follows, Noah Wyle discusses his assessment and frustrations with the five-season run of Falling Skies, its perception in the mainstream, and the network's branding in relation to the series. He also discusses diving into directing, and the support he received from seasoned directors (and fellow actors) Eriq La Salle and Jonathan Frakes.

You took on directing for the first time with Falling Skies this season ...

I did. We finished production on Falling Skies in February. My episode was the one that bridged the Christmas break, and it was great. It was my debut, long time coming. At the same time, I'm glad I didn't start the day before I did, because I felt like I needed every piece of information I ever learned to do it. It was tremendously exciting, a head-turning experience, and I can't wait to do it again.

With all the work you've done, what led to this being your debut?

We had a guy fall out of rotation for family crisis, and it was actually Drew Roy -- who plays my oldest son -- who put me up for the job. I don't know that I'd have the balls to nominate myself. I put directing on a really high pedestal for a long time. It was the support and egging on of the cast to take the plunge that gave me the confidence to do it. It chose me, is the answer.

Is this an episode where your character of Tom is in the background, or do you also have to direct yourself?

No, because it was an accident that's the one I got. I had a pretty heavy part in the episode before, and prep had to be done in and around those responsibilities. And I was really heavy in the one I directed, which sounds tricky. But when you've been on sets for 20-some-odd years, you should have a pretty good sense of working for the camera and where the energy flow of a scene is supposed to go. So a lot of time, when I'm in a scene -- especially as a protagonist character like Tom Mason -- you're pushing the energy around the room anyway. You are kind of directing from within, and it was an easier transition than I thought it was going to be.

Did you seek out any advice from colleagues?

I called Eriq La Salle, my old ER compatriot, who has become quite a good director. I said, "What do I need to know?" He said, "All you need to know is you know more than you think you do, and there's going to come a point where you're frozen like a deer in the headlights and won't know what to do next, so just shoot something." Even if it's bad, he said just shoot something, shoot a chair. He said as soon as you start, you'll know why it's horrible and then you'll start fixing it. Those two things got me through.

I wonder about another accomplished director, Jonathan Frakes, with whom you've worked on The Librarian movies and Falling Skies. Did he offer insight?

Yeah, we're very close and frank, and I don't think he'd mind me telling you this, but I got the most wonderful text from him. He's acting doing some low-budget horror movie indie thing playing a sheriff. He wrote me a message saying, "I totally forgot how to act today. Terrifying. Then I channeled you. Thank you." I kind of felt like that was the quid pro quo for what I would do on set when I was like, "I don't know what I'm doing; what would Jonathan do?"

Did Falling Skies evolve to where you wanted it to go, or were you hoping for more? More seasons, a different outcome, et cetera? Was this precisely what you expected when you entered this project?

No, I've been fairly ... I'm both politic, but also honest pretty much every year as I've talked about this show. Now that it's over, I feel even a little freer to say that, while it was a wonderful learning experience, and a lot of great relationships -- and I'm really kind of proud of it -- it was so hard! It was physically hard to shoot in Canada in winter, it was creatively hard doing five seasons with six different showrunners. It was hard on every level. A lot of that had to do with my frustrations about where the narrative was going. And where my sensibilities were about what is good drama or what is interesting to play. I'm not always right. In fact, a lot of times I'm wrong about what people find appealing about this show. But I took it because I really found a family drama set against the backdrop of an alien invasion was a wonderful tapestry. It didn't lend itself to being just a genre show. When the show would pull itself into a more and more esoteric storyline, relying more and more on technology or sci-fi solutions, or alien inventions, it would really frustrate me. I felt those were just deus ex machinas in sheep's clothing, really. They are easy go-tos and eye candy. And the more interesting storytelling was not so much about who are these aliens and why are they here, but who are we humans? What do we have the capacity to do? Kill each other and for each other. I never tire of those things. So it was a constant push and pull to keep it grounded in a sense of truth, a sense of humanity, while at the same time it's a summer blockbuster show that needs to have some bells and whistles on it.

Falling Skies has drawn respectable ratings, but it seems at times it's been hard for it to get attention from the outside. Why? Where does that challenge come from?

I think it's just TNT. No, I think it's a function of TNT's brand. They'd just gone through a huge transition to change their brand, or move their brand towards one that's closer to an HBO or FX model in terms of a programming they're interested in. That was made very clear at the upfronts last week [in late May]. I think they make popular shows. They program to the country, not just to the coasts. As a result, their shows -- while very successful financially -- aren't deemed sexy. Either by the press or, by extension of the press, awards shows. So you have a situation where every other network on television would kill for the profit bottom line TNT is enjoying, but they're looking at everybody else's trophy case -- how they never get an Entertainment Weekly cover, and saying, "Why not me?" So it really boils down to where your priorities are. Up until this point, they've been doing one thing, and I think they're about to change and become something else.

Is the work you're doing on the World War II era miniseries Those Angry Days an intentional departure from the genre stuff you've been wrapped up in?

The question presupposes there is any kind of strategy involved in planning a career! And the truth is, at least in my case, things happen when they happen. You try to ascribe a higher meaning to it other than your own selfish motivations, because a lot of times it's weird how things unfold. I just like The Librarian, but it went away for seven years because we lost the rights. It came back as a TV show purely because of the strength and will of Dean Devlin wanting to make it. But it wasn't my intention to go from one TNT show to another TNT show immediately. Nor was it my intention to be on Falling Skies for five seasons. Those things happening, of course, and then I come off of them and think, Jesus. I came off of ER, and I thought I'm not playing a doctor for a while -- of course you want to stay away from the thing you just did. But in terms of what you get to choose to do next, that's always been a bit of a crapshoot for me. Opportunities I chase down I tend not to get, and ones I'm supposed to get find me regardless of my efforts.

Along with executive-producing, will you appear in more episodes in the second season of The Librarians?

We're at 10 episodes this year, and I'm going to act in five of them. I am leaving tomorrow to prep to direct the first one, which I'm really excited about. So EP all 10, act in five, direct one is the scoresheet.