Noah Wyle on Quitting 'ER' and Falling in Love With Acting (Again) on CBS' 'Red Line'

The star of CBS' new race relations drama gets candid about his regrets and the lessons he's learned throughout his decades-long TV career.
Elizabeth Morris/CBS

Noah Wyle has been a TV star for 25 years.

While he's best known as wide-eyed intern-turned-longest-tenured cast member on NBC's groundbreaking medical drama ER, he followed up his signature role as a post-apocalyptic alien hunter on TNT's sci-fi drama Falling Skies, treasure hunter (and producer/writer/director) on TNT's fantasy adventure movie series-turned-TV show The Librarians, and now, on CBS' drama The Red Line, a teacher and father of a teen girl whose husband is shot by a cop on Chicago's South Side.

The eight-episode limited series, shepherded by super-producers Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay, will air in two-episode blocks every Sunday beginning April 28. Before the drama's debut, Wyle spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in a wide-ranging conversation that spanned his time on ER all the way through The Red Line, in which he discussed the past behavior he regrets, the lessons he's learned about swallowing his pride, why he knew it was time to leave such a massive hit show, and discovering a love of directing.

I was one of the many people who watched all 15 seasons of ER when it landed on Hulu at the beginning of last year. How did ER's streaming debut impact you?

I just did an interview earlier and they asked whether or not I had a whole bunch of new fans coming up to me who were new fans to the show because of Hulu. I think that it probably just entrenched the ones that were fans before a little deeper. I think we touched a nostalgic nerve for the people who watched it back in the '90's, who re-watched it almost like comfort food. It was a lot of, like, reaffirming nods from people in their 50s. It's not new and novel, like, "Oh my God, I didn't watch it the first time around." This is more like, "Yeah, that was good."

It was good. Is it weird to you to revisit it at this point?

It's fun, in a sense. Eriq La Salle and I just spent a tremendous amount of time together because he's the executive producer of NBC's Chicago P.D., so he's in Chicago. And I was there all fall filming The Red Line. I spent more time in the fall with him than I have in the past 10 years. George Clooney and I have been reconnecting, Sherry Stringfield and I have been reconnecting. I just got an email recently from Julianna Margulies. And I saw Paul McCrane up in Chicago because he was directing for Eriq. And Lily Mariye came in and directed for Eriq. So we're all kind of swimming in the same pool still and whenever we meet up, we never really talk about the old days. We really are forward-thinking people who are all engaged in interesting and engaging work. So this uptick in interest allowed us an opportunity to do what we rarely do, which is to talk about it: talk about how hard it was to shoot, and how much fun we had doing it, and how little of the impact at the time we were aware of because we were so sequestered on a soundstage working on the drama.

In a way, it's like getting to take a bow that we didn't really take 20 years ago because we were so invested in keeping it going and staying on message and working hard. It's a terrible analogy to make because it really makes us sound quite self-important, but I remember hearing a quotation from Neil Armstrong where he said that he felt occasionally like he'd missed out on the moon landing because he was on the moon. You have to experience the moon landing on Earth, the impact of it. I remember hearing that and thinking, huh, I guess that's sort of how I feel about it. When people talk about what it meant to them, it means something so different to me. I don't really know what they mean, but I love it. I love it too.

It would probably be weird if you saw these people and you only talked about ER. It would be strange if you were stuck on that.

A little bit, yeah. Tony Soprano had a great line where he said, "Nostalgia is the lowest form of conversation." Or, "'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation." When all you can do it talk about the old days it means you don't have much in common anymore. I'm happy to say that we have enough in common that we can talk as contemporaries.

Which is a good thing. Though I'm going to keep talking to you about the old days a little bit longer. One thing that struck me in binging the show was how things that happen gradually are much more noticeable. For example, the difference between the first, second and third seasons as ER was establishing its tone. You realize that the show helped establish what a modern medical drama looks like. If you watch a really early season one episode, you don't get the noise and chaos of the E.R. like you do in the later episodes. Can you look back on that and see its evolution?

Well, it's sort of like there's Before Guy Bee and After Guy Bee. Guy Bee was the steadicam operator that came in — his first episode that he did was [season one, episode 10, "Blizzard"]: a massive car pile-up. The whole first act of the show was just us getting ready for what's coming. The second act of the show is just an unrelenting amount of patients coming through the door. And that was the first episode that this guy came in to shoot as a steadicam operator. We hadn't used that much steadicam up until that point, especially on the pilot, which was traditionally shot. But then when Guy Bee came in — and he's only about 140 pounds — he could work this camera like I've never seen anybody ever before work it, or since. He just was honest. He brought a pace and a vitality to the show through the lens of the steadicam. We shot everything on the steadicam after that, because we could. So the look and feel that I think you're referring to has a lot to do with technology that we began to be able to use because of the talents of the operator.

When we saw the visual effect and what that gave us, then music only enhanced it. The sound was only going to enhance, and the actors and the scripts. You didn't have to be locked on to marks. We could have total free range of motion. If I needed to go get someone across the room, he could follow me, which meant I was doing a play as opposed to a TV show, which meant we could move and do the procedures like you would if you were a hospital. So we had to learn them, because you could see our hands. You didn't have to shoot everything tight. You could be in a medium shot moving around the table. It was messy and passes going foreground, background. And real E.R. nurses would be brought in from hospitals doing all those things in the background so that they know what they're doing.

What else stands out for you, when you look back at the show?

I'm so proud. We talk about inclusion and diversity in television now as being a new type of buzzword, but John Levey, our casting director, would put head shots of background actors out on the floor to make sure that he had a racial cosmology that would look indicative of what you would find in Chicago. We were really thoughtful about that. We were employing women as executive producers and writers and directors. We [helped] launch Mimi Leder's directing career.

I was incubated in this wonderful environment of diversity and inclusivity and pushing storylines that were way more progressive than anything else on television 20 years ago. It's ironic that this is the order of the day because we not only did it, but we became the most successful television show in the world doing it. You'd think it would be a replicated model. And yet, here we are.

There's also a show called The Red Line, shot in Chicago, that's a diverse show, staffed by people of color and women and people with disabilities as if this has never been done before. We moved away from something that could have worked really well, and did work well, and now we're figuring out that it's not only necessary, it's on trend.

You stayed on ER for 12 years and viewers really loved your character. At what point did you start to think about leaving the show, and why did you decide it was time?

I'm going to be so specific: Nov. 9, 2002. Owen Wyle was born into the world. It was a Thursday, and I didn't go to work Friday. I had an early call time on Monday, and I went to work, and at about 10:30 in the morning, for the first time in [almost a decade] I looked at my watch, and I looked up from my watch, and I said, "Come on, everybody. What are we doing? Let's go." And I thought, "What are you doing? Where do you want to be?" And I thought, "You know where you want to be." I just thought, I can't be here for 80 hours a week and miss this. And I quit. But I called it a divorce with visitation rights, because I didn't want to say goodbye, obviously, to the best job and experience I've ever had. And really, the family [on the show] had become more than just a surrogate family to me. I was about to make a real family that needed to take precedence.

[Creator/showrunner] John Wells had told me early on that he felt because John Carter was the eyes and ears of the audience, that he needed to be part of the closing. [The character] needed to come back and end the chapter. I knew I'd be back at some point. I didn't come back at all the 13th and 14th seasons, and then I think I ended up doing six of the 15th and final season, which was so great. Talk about closure. To not be on that show and have that show be on TV was horrible. It was like watching somebody else raise your kids. But I was raising my own, and that was amazing. I don't have any regrets. That is exactly what happened.

It was pretty unique that so many original cast members returned for the final season. Clearly you all had an affinity for the show and cared how it ended.

It was great. It's difficult to leave something that's special. So when you leave, you either leave because you have something more important, like a son, that is amazing. You go to a better opportunity or a film career like George has, or you leave angry because you're not getting something that you want and you feel like you should have more, or something's not working in your life. So there's lots of different reasons to end a working relationship, but they're not always the ones that you can live with. So to have an opportunity to come back with a little maturity and little time and a little distance and say, "Now that that's done, I'd like to come back and just enjoy the best part of this, which is the people and the character, and wrap this wonderful experience,” it gave us all an opportunity to put some shit to bed and come back and enjoy what we created and take a little bit of stake in feeling like we have creative ownership of being part of the final season.

Of all of Carter's love interests, who was your favorite?

That's a tricky question because are you talking about for the character, or what actress I enjoyed working with most?

Both!

There was something so incredibly special about the relationship that John Carter had with Makemba, Thandie Newton's character. She really brought out a side of that character that was the truest. I think he was always a WASP, born into a rich family, never feeling like he deserved his love, always trying to trick himself into bigger challenges, to feel like he was deserving his birthright, and needing the approbation and approval of somebody like Dr. Benton before he could feel like he was a man — before his own father. You know he's going to be king one day, but before he takes the crown, he's got to prove himself among that vagabonds, and the thieves, and prostitutes, and the drunkards, because they're the real people. And then he goes to Africa, his biggest challenge of all, and that's where he falls in love. So that's the best relationship for him, for the character. And I loved working with Thandie. That said, I think Maura Tierney was the best actress I've ever worked with. She just is an amazingly facile performer and I enjoyed every scene she and I played together.

I was definitely a Carter/Abby fan. My friend has a theory that if Jack Orman hadn't stepped down as showrunner after season nine that they would have ended up together.

It's funny you should say that, because one of the most interesting episodes between those characters was one of the only episodes that Jack Orman ever directed. It's true, I think in a lot of ways he was pushing for that relationship.

And finally, I just want to know —

Luca happened. Luca's what ruined it.

Damn it, Luca!

But when [Goran Visnjic] came on to the show, I had a chip on my shoulder. I had a chip on my shoulder with anybody that came on that show. I've systematically gone to and apologized to everybody over the years about being the person that I was — which was, “You better come to play, you better bring your A game. This is pro ball, blah, blah, blah.” And it was not an easy environment to work in because we didn't suffer fools. We were really hard on people, and I was hard on people that were coming into the show, like Erik Palladino or Michael Michele. Everybody had to earn their keep, in my opinion, especially poor Kellie Martin. I owe her a big apology. Goran, I [gave him grief] when he first came on. And then I realized that he was a way better actor than I was. He performed Hamlet in Dubrovnik in front of thousands of European screaming fans. He was the real deal. I hated him because I always felt like I was losing a scene to him. Alright. Let's talk about something else.

When you decided to take a series regular role again on Falling Skies, was the fact that it was a genre show appealing to you? Were you trying to do something different?

I was in a very difficult place in my life, in my marriage, and I wanted to do something very different than I'd done before. I wanted to challenge myself in a way that I hadn't yet. And so, at that time, I remember my son was like 4 or 6 or something, and I brought him into my office and I had four scripts on my desk. I said, “Owen, Do you want to see your daddy be a policeman? Do you want to see your daddy be a lawyer? Do you want to see your daddy be an insurance adjuster? Or you want to see your daddy be an alien fighter?” And Owen said, "alien fighter.” I called my agent and I said, "I'll do that one." That's the true story — he picked the one that Steven Spielberg was executive producing. He picked the one with the best pedigree. They were all fine scripts. I wanted to do something different. I was feeling a little bit lost, and it just happened that I picked the character that was lost and was trying to keep his family together in the face of an apocalypse, just trying to survive. So I inadvertently — or cosmically — backed into the role that got me through the next chapter of my life.

You can look at a career and say, "What was the strategy you employed here?" But oftentimes the job you do is where you fall when you were aiming for the job way above it. You have no idea why you're doing it. It's just the universe will tell you eventually. The only thing I can choose is a piece of material by is, “Does this move me emotionally? Does this scare the shit out of me? Can I picture myself doing this, and if not, why? Why am I so adamantly opposed to exploring this?” And that usually means that I need to do it.

You directed for the first time on that show. How did that come about? What did you like about directing, and is it something you wanted to do more of?

I liked everything about it. I think I've wanted to do it my whole life. I put it on such a high pedestal that I thought, "You don't try that until you understand everything about filmmaking first." You're like a puppet master. You want to know every string. Music and everything — staging, blah, blah, blah. So I don't know that I would have ever done if if I hadn't been nominated by the cast to fill in for a guy who fell out of the rotation.

I have always been the guy on set that goes, “You know, what we could do is this. Da, da, da, da, da. You could play with this.” I don't know my own place. But I am a very creative person and I am a very good problem solver, so I get away with it a lot because my ideas are pretty good. What was interesting about The Red Line is that I walked on to that set, being that guy, not quite understanding how much oxygen I took up or how many ideas I'm throwing out. Very quickly it was shown to me that that was not going to be welcome, that this was intentionally going to be done differently, and that my role in this was to play my part. At first, I took extreme umbrage to this, because I thought, "How can you discount my experience? How can you discount my point of view?" I have ideas that can save you time or money, that might even be creatively better, blah, blah, blah. And thankfully, before I said a word, [someone] said, "I wonder what it feels like to be on one of your sets and have a good idea and not have any room to share?" And it just took the air out. I sat there and — you don't know how much air you take up or who you step over or whose idea you just shit on by putting your idea on the table. You're so thoughtless sometimes in your effort to be a team player. You're so arrogant about how good your idea is. It just hit me. Like, "Oh." And I thought, "Maybe that's why you're here." Just shut up and watch and listen. And then, when it's your turn, deliver. Deliver better than you've ever delivered, and don't do anything else. So that's what I did.

You were coming from The Librarians, which you’d produced and directed a ton of. So I'd imagine that’s a different switch in your brain.

Totally, being in my sandbox, and I just forgot that I stepped out of that sandbox in Portland, Oregon, and not every job is my sandbox. With The Librarians, you started out doing these movies ... . Those were just for the kids.

— and then it turned into its own show.

When I think about anything, it’s for the kid in me, and for my kids. Flynn Carsen is entirely my sense of play and my sense of humor. I did the first movie because they offered it to me and I wanted to do something other than cancer and dead babies, which I was getting a steady diet of on ER, so I thought I'll go off and make these — an intellectual comedy romp — and I just fell in love with it. I am a huge admirer of Keaton, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers. I grew up on all that stuff, and I stole from everybody. I stole from Peter O'Toole. And I could, because we were making this little TV movie on TNT. And then they let us make another one, and another one, and they were so fun! Then eventually the character became this sort of wonderful, eccentric, positive person, all of these things that I wanted to jump into. Then I got to go to film school. TNT film school. They let me direct, they let me produce, they let me write, and they let me act. And I've got all these wonderful creative people to work with who can create Paris in five hours and strip it down and give me something else. We stretched a dollar so far on that show.

On The Red Line, you get to play a person who isn’t typically represented on TV, and the story is something that touches on real, topical issues in America. All of these things are obviously appealing for an actor, but as you started filming, and as you started reading the subsequent scripts, how did you feel about this story and being able to help tell it?

I've never seen any scripts coming out as consistently well-written as these were, and I've worked with some really amazing writers. This is a strange situation because episode five wasn't written when we started episode one. The stories were broken, but the scripts weren't written. We were course-correcting quite a bit as it was unfolding, because certain relationships were dissolving, certain ones becoming better. Certain new stories were unfolding that had to be incorporated into our narrative to be accurate to the historical record. So, this wasn't like all eight scripts were written, and it was perfect, and I said, OK, I see all this now. The investment was in the talent, and the promise that they'd deliver.

It was a leap of faith to sign on just to shoot the pilot. I didn't think the pilot had a chance, really, to get picked up, because I'd shot a pilot for CBS three years ago that I thought was perfect and they didn't pick it up. I understood that you could do it right and have it still go wrong. And I assumed because it's so good that this would be one of those, but the thing that this had in its corner was Peter Roth at Warner Bros. who was telling me, "I'm going to back this all the way down the line because I love it. And if CBS isn't interested, I'll take it someplace else. And I believe in you and I believe in Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss."

It also had a wonderful pedigree, these joint titans of Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay in its corner, so I thought, OK. It's not my riskiest gamble, it's just a long shot. And then it started to unfold. The show actually became, I think, the very thing CBS needs right now. It's who they're going to be in the future in TV and join the conversation that they haven't really been part of. So it just sort of worked out. There was no guarantee of that.

What is it like to know that, as opposed to a show like ER, on The Red Line you have a contained story that you’re telling in eight episodes?

You know, in real practical terms, you go to work, you have breakfast before you go. You get brought in to do a blocking rehearsal. You go back out and do makeup. You do costumes. You go to set, you shoot the first day. You shoot for six hours. You get some lunch. You shoot for another six hours. You go home. Sometimes it's cold. You're in the rain. That's the circus life. When you put them all together they become what they become. But for most of why enjoy that TV is that hard hat, lunch pail, blue collar, going-to-work-every day mentality, because there is a regularity to that. You work with the same people and you get very close with them. Twelve years is long enough to watch people die and divorce and get remarried and have children and you go to all sorts of events and become really enmeshed in their lives. And I enjoy that. I enjoy that sense of camaraderie. You don't always get that when you work on a movie, because you come together and it's one story.

You’ve done drama, you’ve done comedy, you’ve done adventure, and you’re back to emotional drama with The Red Line. What do you want to tackle next? Did you like working on a limited series? Would you want to direct more? Would you want to go back on a network drama?

Yes to all of that. I'd be interested to see how the [ending] plays and whether or not there'll be enough interest to see whether or not a second season is merited, warranted. Exploring where these characters could go from here would be interesting to me. I really felt as we were finishing — it often happens — you're just starting to figure it all out, you know? I'd like to take one more crack at that, anyway. Beyond that, I love directing. I love writing because I can do it from home and be with my kids and my wife, sleep in my own bed. Directing, you need to do all of it, which is really exciting and sort of nice. I got to fall in love with acting again by playing this part. I figured out a wonderful technique to use that was new and different and extremely reliable for me that I decided to try again on something else. I'm just looking for another challenge that has a good story and a good character arc.

This guy has a good arc. You got some really good emotional speeches too. I like when you get to do a good emotional speech.

I like to do emotional speeches too. If you ask me, honestly it's going to sound so trite, because my name is Noah, but I look for arcs. When I read the pilot script for ER I thought, "Of all these characters, this guy has got the biggest story. Because he started on the job today, which means he's got the most to learn.” So, I can stumble and drop trays of penicillin on myself for a year before I even get this guy in [the operating room]. That was great. Everybody else had to look like they knew what they were doing. I could steal all the scenes by being the guy who didn't know what he was doing. So similarly, Tom Mason from Falling Skies, he was a history professor who became this leader of a little army [fighting aliens]. And then Daniel Calder [on The Red Line], how do you rebuild your life when everything you defined yourself by is taken away? It's a leap of faith.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.