John Noble

Ringer Celebriel attended John Noble’s Saturday presentation at Dragon*Con. Many fans don’t know John as well as other principals in the film, and some may think he’s as fearsome as his character Denethor. Nothing could be further from the truth. John is engaging and personable, and both knowledgeable and highly articulate about his craft. He’s also well organized, starting out by giving answers to FAQs and getting them out of the way.

John explained that he’s not a Tolkien scholar but an actor, with an actor’s point of view. He takes his work very seriously, and views it as a great responsibility. He would have chosen to play Denethor, he says, because he is such a great character to portray, on the scale of the great tragic Shakespearean roles. “It’s what I do. I feel more alive when acting than at any other time. I am more myself in the creative process than at any other time,” he added.

While not all roles are great, John believes that the actor “is responsible to do it to the best of your ability – don’t get jaded or cynical.” He enjoys any work that’s challenging and fun, noting that in a recent horror film he played another father who tries to kill his son. “I keep having these great deaths,” John commented. He recently played a villain put to death by being quartered by rowboats. He says it’s fun to play bad guys: “What I do is access the dark side in all of us….I try to make them real.”

One aspect of “The Lord of the Rings” he and his fellow actors especially enjoyed was access to screenwriter Phillipa Boyens to suggest additions and changes to the script, noting Peter Jackson had said, “Make sure you pay attention to the actors because by the time they get here they will know more about the roles than we do.”

Noble has the greatest respect for Peter Jackson, calling him “the man who led an army to produce this masterpiece,” adding that he never saw any complaining or temperament from cast or crew, despite the long days and endless changes. He later commented that “many directors are for hire – they do a good job but are not as totally committed or as sure of their vision as Peter Jackson was.”

John believes that Denethor is a noble character, “He’s not a bad man, he’s a great man who made poor choices.” He played him as a man believing the choices he made were the best at the time. Denethor had a huge responsibility, as head of the last bastion of a threatened land. “I played him as totally insular. He doesn’t react to any other characters… I played him as someone who had never recovered from the loss of his wife.”

The level of detail in sets, props, and costumes set a new standard. He mentioned, for example, that Denethor carried a beautiful and intricately detailed sword that was never drawn, its details never seen by the audience. “Film is about illusion,” he noted, “but Rings wasn’t about illusion – so much was actually created.”

“The difference between a good piece of work and a great piece of work is the detail,” says Noble. Even dialects and accents in LOTR received special attention. John explained that there were specialist dialect people on set. He was sent a tape with samples of the Gondorian accent, which had a different “o” sound when compared to received pronunciation, which was spoken by the elves (received pronunciation is a pronunciation of British English originally based on the speech of the upper class of southeastern England). “Most of my dialogue is pure Tolkien – it needs articulation so it has a certain weight.”

John shared some wonderful behind the scenes stories. In Denethor’s tomato-eating scene, he said Peter Jackson loved when the splash came out of his mouth, asking, “Can you do that every time?” (Long time fans will be aware of PJ’s love for gore). He also mentioned that a fan at a convention brought him a basket of cherry tomatoes. He believes the scene is “one of the finest pieces of film ever” because of its complex structure and brilliant editing.

When Billy Boyd sang Pippin’s song, John said the set came to a complete stop. He loves how the song plays against Denethor’s cruelty and Faramir’s self sacrifice. He’s also a big fan of Howard Shore, saying he met him at a symphony performance and they had a chance to talk at the party afterwards. He also refuted Internet stories about scenes or publicity stills of him with the palantir, saying “It’s a lie. I didn’t see a palantir until I saw Billy Boyd with one.”

He explained that his costume was heavy and hard to work in. There was always a fear of falling down stairs. “In one scene I had to go backwards in the costume and hit a mark very close to the camera.” He said he probably looked a bit strange as he walked the pattern repeatedly while on a break. “The wig was made by Peter King especially for me… I would disappear as the wig and makeup went on and Denethor appeared.”

The oil pouring scene was fun, John said. It had to be filmed in one take, because the wig and costume would be wet for the rest of the day. He loved being able to flick the wig and scatter the oil drops, though it was difficult to balance on the wood for the pyre.

And he really enjoyed his “exit” saying that security and safety are always at their highest when a dangerous scene is being filmed. It was one of the more dangerous stunts in the film. The stunt man was covered in protectant but it was still dangerous because of the long run. The scene also used very traditional film devices, such as reflecting flame into a mirror and onto the lens to create the effect.

Noble thinks of his fellow “Rings” actors as a band of brothers and sisters who keep in touch and remember their excellence in working together. He views “Rings” as a once in a lifetime experience. “I can’t imagine another project of this nature, where everything fits together like a Rubics’ cube, starting with the greatest material of the 20th century.” He looks forward to working with others in the Australian LOTR contingent – including Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, Cate Blanchett, and David Wenham.

He did mention that for some reason, unlike most of the cast, he never received a farewell gift such as his sword, a clapper, or other memento. He even asked Barrie Osborne about it, but apparently by then everything had been disposed of. John never had to go back to New Zealand for pickup shots, but 18 months later he returned to shoot a new scene with Boromir and Faramir that appeared in the Extended Edition. He was glad the scene was added, as he felt it was essential to show the relationship between Denethor and his sons, especially to develop Faramir’s character and motivation.

In January 1999 he agent called about an audition for “The Lord of the Rings.” A few months later he read for the parts of Saruman and Denethor at a meeting in Sydney. He didn’t hear anything, and later he read on The One (yes, he’s a reader!) that Christopher Lee had gotten the part. But then he did get a call about Denethor, and 12 months later he went on set.

Noble has had a long and distinguished career in his native Australia and elsewhere as a voice, stage, and screen actor, and stage director, but he became an actor by accident. At university in Australia, John was a law student, but he had a flatmate who was an actor. John took an acting elective, was encouraged by his teachers and soon was working in the profession. “Once I did it, I knew it was what I wanted to do. It’s the canvas I’ve been given to work on. I can try my best to do a good job.” One accomplishment yet to come is to play King Lear, “when I’m old enough,” remarking that it’s a complex role about the relationships of a parent and children.

All the actors he worked with on LOTR were “fantastic.” He loved working with Ian McKellen, whom he called “the senior actor of the English stage.” Since LOTR he’s worked with John Rhys-Davies (in a film called One Night with the King – a big, sweeping, historical drama, based on the biblical story of Esther with gorgeous production design, sets, and costumes, plus Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. I could not locate an exact release date – IMDB just says 2005).

And he enjoys attending conventions, noting of his fellow actors, “We’ve moved on with other projects and with our lives, but it was a great honor to be part of it.”