It’s not easy to typecast actor Joshua Jackson. Known for three major roles — hotshot skater Charlie Conway in The Mighty Ducks movie trilogy, lovable underachiever Pacey Witter in Dawson’s Creek and enigmatic FBI consultant Peter Bishop on Fringe — he is equally comfortable in indie and studio films, and 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. (You can read Part One here.)
The father of your Fringe alter ego, Walter Bishop, is this wonderfully bizarre character. How hard is it for you to keep a straight face when he’s doing something like performing an autopsy and directing Astrid to make custard, or investigating a death in a restaurant and commenting on the seemingly delicious soup where the victim’s head landed? How hard is it for you not burst out laughing?
The great news is you don’t have to. When Walter is having these delusions or these inappropriate moments, you don’t have to keep a straight face. The story allows for us to react as humans would, and particularly Peter a lot of times is in the position of being the audience member. To an extent he’s still the skeptic. I don’t think there’s a reason for us as actors playing these characters to react exactly as you would [in real life]. Even if you knew Walter, some of the things he says are funny and are just so absurd. Part of what is funny about that is the reaction that he elicits from people around them. This guy has no concept of the world.
You might say about scientists what people say about artists, that we have to be a little bit tweaked to do what we do. That there’s something about us that’s a little bit off. I don’t why that is, but in a way it’s true about many artists. That comes to light particularly when you date someone who’s not involved in the business or your art and doesn’t really get it.
I think to do anything that has any pretense of being an artist, you have to be passionate, and occasionally that requires being obsessed. If you’re trying to have a relationship with somebody who doesn’t understand or appreciate obsession, it’s going to be very difficult to explain.
Is your fiancée understanding of everything that you do?
Diane [Kruger] is also an actress, so we have the opposite problem, where we both get obsessed and don’t leave the house for a couple of days. It has to be engrossing. It just has to be. There’s too much good and too much fun and too much interest to be mined out of what I do for a living or what she does for a living to not be obsessed with it. There are just a lot of people who don’t enjoy themselves period. I find that people who have that type of baggage, it doesn’t matter. They can be flipping burgers or running companies — if you’re a naturally dyspeptic person nothing is going to make you happy.
If you weren’t an actor, what do you think you would be doing?
I have no idea at this point. I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. That’s two thirds of my existence.
Getting back to Fringe, Fox believed in it at the outset because they gave you longer episodes, meaning fewer commercials, during the first season. This season you’re not getting that, so you have to cut back on the content every week. But you were given a good edict at the beginning by receiving extended episodes.
There’s movement afoot, whether or not it happens fast enough, but the television business that existed when you and I were growing up is over. It’s finished. There’s a bit of the chicken little feeling in our world of, “Oh my God, it’s the end of storytelling.” That’s not true. People still want to have engaging stories told. It’s just that either the format or the media through which they are distributed, or perhaps just the distribution method, are going to change, and right now my show exists in the in-between time. I actually applaud Fox for doing what they did [in 2008] with “Remote Free TV”. They’re trying out new things. I don’t know that the advertising model works anymore. The audience is broken up amongst a bunch of different things, and truthfully the Standards and Practices for network television are extremely silly and also limiting. Just quality wise you look at cable shows, and they just beat the pants off of network television; also because we do 22 episodes and most cable shows do 13, so you take more time in crafting each one. So things are changing, but storytelling is not going to go anywhere.
One of the problems with the network television format is that you have to have little cliffhangers at the end of every act, which can be as short as a few minutes. Cable television shows are allowed to grow and expand a little more easily because many of them don’t have all of those commercial breaks.
That’s an interesting thing that you’re touching on because it doesn’t work great for straight drama because we no longer have faith in audiences to be able to pay attention through a two-minute break. Truthfully. If you go back and watch Columbo, that’s a procedural show, but it didn’t have a cliffhanger before the end [of every act]. They ran to the end of the scene, it faded to black, cut to Pepsodent commercial, cut back, the scene goes on. We live in an era where we feel like we have to pander pander pander to the audience, but something like Breaking Bad or Mad Men is the answer to that. We have to do our job and make the stories good and the characters compelling, but if you make something on the assumption that people are plenty smart to figure something out, you’ll find an engaged audience. Mad Men does not have a huge audience. It has a very loyal, small audience. Breaking Bad is the same thing. It is a great show. It does not have a gigantic audience, but it has an incredibly passionate, small audience who trusts and believes in those stories. I think Fringe is on the way to having that really passionate audience that just wants to watch it because they believe that these storytellers satisfy their desire for a well told story. That’s what we’re aiming for on our show.
There are a lot of idiots out there, and people tend to call television the “Idiot Box”…
That’s bullshit. That’s terrified people who don’t have a better answer — the people who make decisions like that [think], “Make it for the masses because people are dumb.” Bullshit. The masses are not dumb. Not even my generation, but the generation that came behind me are so media savvy they smell a rat in a second. They’re not stupid at all about storytelling or about the complexities of storytelling because they’ve grown up saturated in media. They know all the tricks and know how it’s done. So if anything the people making the shows are stupid, not the people watching the shows. It is a copout to say that I made something too smart, people are too dumb to get it. You know what? If you’re not a good enough storyteller to explain your story, then it’s not a good story.
Sometimes there are shows like Hack that have what seems a hokey premise — in that case, a disgraced former cop turned cab driver who helps people in need — and make it compelling thanks to a great lead and smart stories. That’s a talent.
That’s a huge talent. That is the P.T. Barnum skill. That is why people like J.J. [Abrams] are so richly rewarded for what they’re capable of doing. They take stories that are hokey by their very nature — or popular, however you want to term it — and Star Trek is the first example of this. I watched it in France, and within the first ten minutes most everybody was sniffling, if not outright crying, because you introduce these characters in the most intense, heartstring-pulling moment you can possibly imagine. A father, in the moment when his son is being born, sacrifices himself to save his wife and child for the greater good of all mankind. You can’t go any bigger in terms of scope than that. And he takes Star Trek — which is a wonderful sci-fi show but by its very nature hokey — and this futuristic ideal that died in the Sixties, then recapitulates it into something that a broad audience can understand and tells the story in such a compelling way that lots of people who wouldn’t naturally be able to enjoy that, enjoy it. And that’s what a popular storyteller does.
By the way, did you learn to skate for the Mighty Ducks, and can you still do the deke?
The triple deke, my signature move? Of course I can! It might’ve been a couple of years since I broke that particular one out, but I’m sure I could still pull it off. It’s not really all that technical. I learned how to skate better for the movie. I went to a hockey camp, so I was a much better skater when I came out.
Would you ever consider doing a Dawson’s Creek reunion?
[laughs] The children of Pacey?
Or the love children of Pacey? You never know!
How long has that show been off the air? Six years? In five or six more years you could get away with it. I could have teenage children.
Would you find that interesting?
We can’t do a reunion show with the original cast because we killed Michelle. So that’s off the table. [But] if they created the next generation, I would love to come back and play a broken down, fat, drunk version of Pacey. Joey left him. Her life was going places, and his restaurant failed, so he had to move back home and is working as a line order cook. [laughs] I’d like to believe that everything worked out for them because at the end of the series they left him off on such good stead. I think times got tough for Pacey after the show went off the air.
If you could do a superhero movie, which character would you play and why?
The one that’s out there now, but I didn’t get the job, would be Green Lantern. I’d love to play the Green Lantern. But then you have to choose which era of Green Lantern. They’re doing Green Lantern, but Green Lantern is three or four different guys. I’d have to think about that.