Many actors are lucky to become famous for one role. Joshua Jackson is fortunate to be known for three: As young, hotshot hockey skater Charlie Conway in The Mighty Ducks movie trilogy; as the lovable underachiever Pacey Witter in the long-running television series Dawson’s Creek; and now as enigmatic FBI consultant Peter Bishop on Fox’s hit show Fringe. He has also amassed a horror film resume that includes Urban Legend, Cursed and the remake of the creepy Thai ghost flick Shutter. It’s not easy to typecast Jackson, who is as comfortable in indie and studio films, on the small and silver screens.
When Jackson spoke recently to ADD, the focus was on his sci-fi, horror and comic book interests, and the conversation proved to be quite illuminating as it also shifted to the concept of being an artist, the adaptive nature of storytelling and the future of television. (Part Two can be found here. And you can read my recent story on him and Fringe for American Way here.)
Don’t you think it’s interesting that many people who become sci-fi or horror icons didn’t anticipate it because they never thought that was the path that their career was going to go on?
I haven’t really planned much of my career period. There were three distinct phases now. I’m just in the third one. The first was as a kid being in the Mighty Ducks movie and the kid movie phase; the second being Dawson’s Creek and all the movies around that time; and the third being Peter Bishop. As much as I like horror, sci-fi was more my genre. I was much more of an X-Files fan than I was a Tales From The Crypt fan.
Were you more of a sci-fi fan growing up? Were you a comic book geek?
Yeah. Those were the cultural touchstones of my childhood, comic books and hockey cards.
What were your favorite teams and what were your favorite comic books?
With hockey cards, the teams are not so important. It’s about completing the set. And comics changed over the course of time. In the beginning, just the same ones as everybody else, but Batman instead of Superman. Spider-Man when Venom came around but not before and when there was less Mary Jane, but once the relationship took over it lost me as a teenager. Then the animated stuff on MTV led me to the darker stories that were popular, such as The Maxx. And as far as sci-fi, Lord Of The Rings was the first major entrée, and then Dune. I got into Piers Anthony and Isaac Asimov and branched out from that.
I used to read an author called John Brunner, but you can’t find his books now. Most of them seem to be out of print.
A lot of sci-fi stuff is out of print. I don’t know why, in an era when comic book heroes are so popularly accepted as mainstream, that science fiction has gone by the wayside. There is so much good science fiction from its heyday, from the late Forties to mid-Seventies, that you can’t get and is just not available anywhere.
Hollywood produces a lot of schlocky sci-fi that reduces everything to hot babes, cool guns and crazy aliens. They miss the point of a lot of the stories.
What was always so engaging to me about science fiction — and the “gee whiz” is just the window dressing; the hot babes, cool guns, alien life forms or interplanetary travel — is that it’s just a parable for the life that we’re going through. Which is why I think it touches a chord so much particularly with teenage boys, because they need escapism. I’m sure teenage girls need escapism, too. I don’t know what it really is that they need to escape.
There you go. Truthfully, Twilight is something totally impenetrable to me. Well, that’s not true. I worked on Dawson’s Creek. I get it. [laughs] But young boys need to be transported into another world where it’s possible [to do other things].
In Fringe‘s season two opener, one definitive line for Peter emerges when he says to Olivia: “Walter thinks you went off to some sort of alternate dimension. Is that strange that I can say that and neither of us thinks I’m crazy?”
Right, and that’s one of those [writers’] hat tips to the audience. You’re probably sitting there going, “Come on, really? Alternate dimension?” We understand that it will take a second, but it’s okay, come with us along this journey, and we promise it’ll be rewarding as we go. Even if I wasn’t a sci-fi fan, the thing I like about working on Fringe is that everything in our world is possible. If the writers can dream it, we can do it. It has been an interesting journey for the first 30 stories in, and it should continue to be a very interesting place to work hopefully for the next couple of years.
How much do you know in advance? How many episodes down the line do you know what’s happening in the story?
As far as individual cases, whatever is happening that week, I find that out week to week. The writers give you broad strokes of understanding of what the stations of your character are for that week. But the individual specifics I find out weeks before you do.
I’ve interviewed cast members from Lost, and it can be frustrating for them sometimes because people are asking them questions that they just can’t answer because they don’t know or sometimes don’t want to give away any spoilers. I imagine there’s a similar quandry for the folks on Fringe?
We face a bit of the same problem. I don’t want to ruin the fun for an audience member about where the mythology is going, the changes for each one of the characters and who survives and who doesn’t. But it’s less dire for us because if I tell you that we have a kidnapping episode, that’s not going to reveal too much about what’s happening in the future. If somebody on Lost says so-and-so gets kidnapped, that unravels an entire year’s worth of storytelling.
Were you actually in The Changeling, the 1980 horror film with George C. Scott?
I guess technically I was in it. My mother was location manager or an A.D. on that movie, and they needed a “kid in a pram,” and I had just been born. But I don’t think I was actually on camera.
That’s my favorite haunted house movie and one of my favorite horror movies of all time.
Really? My mother did work on it, so I’ve got some connection to it. I got a great education from mother.
I assume that while you were growing up she told you many great stories about the business?
I got a lot of great stories from her growing up, and the most valuable thing she was able to give me as I was starting out was [delineating between] people’s perception of what a set is — the Hollywood glitz and glamour idea — and what a set actually is. They’re very, very different things. I’ve certainly seen it over the course of my 20 years of doing this, that most people when they show up and are green have no idea what the job actually entails. Having a seasoned professional like my mom being able to say, “Okay, when they say hit your marks, this is what that means. When they say everybody to one, this is what that means. When they say we’re going into penalty…” Just somebody who can give you the inside information so that when you show up the first day you’re not panicked.
These days, because digital technology has made it easy for anyone to create something and think that they’re a photographer or videographer or musician with little effort, people have no concept of how much time actually goes into making something of quality.
I think that while the democratization of media is a good thing — and this is true of professionals as well as for laypeople — the scarcity of the resources sharpened people’s minds before, and I think that’s part of the reason that so much of what we do now is bad. The things we can achieve are light-years beyond what we could do 10 or 15 years ago, even when I was on television the first time. Not that Dawson’s Creek had much [in the way of] special effects or action stuff, but just the things you could dream of on TV were not even in the conversation, and the things that we can do on Fringe — if we can dream it we can do it, essentially. But in this world where digital technology makes the editing process simpler, easier and more expeditious, you take less time to think out the shots, how it’s going to be cut together and the look of the show because there’s this idea that you can just fix it later. And that is a problem.
Also, if the stories are good it doesn’t matter how great your effects are. d I think it’s become an overriding issue in Hollywood. They think that by throwing money at something they can fix it. I’m hoping we’ll enter this era where the pendulum swings back the other way, and effects are used when they are needed and that you don’t notice them as much, rather than having these movies that bombard you with image after fantastic image that don’t actually serve any purpose.
And also, just like cotton candy, it loses its flavor after a while. You need to take the time to set up the story so when that characters are in that dramatic position it means something. If you don’t give a shit about the people on camera and the story’s not compelling, it doesn’t matter how many worlds are blown up or how many nuclear explosions there are, then it’s just a video game. I think there’s a bit of a theme park idea in effects now. If you look at something like District 9, which is using the best of the state-of-the-art but using it almost casually, that to me is when special effects become really cool. When it’s not the centerpiece of the whiz-bang. That will always look dated because the next year the next super cool thing will come out, and you will look back at that and be like, “Whatever.” Once you build a world where these fantastical things exist, then you’ve really achieved something with the special effects. Then you’ve heightened the experience and expanded the universe where that story takes place in.
In Part Two, Joshua Jackson talks about Walter Bishop and Fringe, making better television, his fiancée, if he would ever return to Dawson’s Creek and which superhero he would like to play.