Fringe Oral History: Dual Universes Open Up a New World Of Possibility

TV Guide

In the second part of our farewell to Fringe, producers and cast discuss the introduction of the parallel universe, which opened up the world of Fox's sci-fi drama to new and exciting possibilities, including a new set of characters with names like Walternate and Bolivia that fans would — gasp! — actually come to love in the end.   

Fringe Oral History Part 1: Building the world of "science fact"

TVGuide.com talked to stars John Noble (Dr. Walter Bishop, Walternate), Joshua Jackson (Peter Bishop), Anna Torv (Olivia Dunham, Bolivia), Jasika Nicole (Astrid Farnsworth, Kick-Astrid), Lance Reddick (Phillip Broyles, Alt-Broyles), Blair Brown (Nina Sharp, Meana), Seth Gabel (Lincoln Lee, Linc), series co-creator J.J. Abrams, executive producers J.H Wyman, Jeff Pinkner and Bryan Burk and Fox's Chairman of Entertainment Kevin Reilly about the bumpy road to the series finale. This is the second in a four-part oral history. Check out Part 1 here.

Fringe's Season 1 finale left fans with their jaws agape: Olivia had unknowingly traveled to a parallel universe, where the World Trade Center still stood.
J.J. Abrams:
The parallel universe was always part of the conceit of the show. It was something that we knew about at the very beginning when we did the pilot. Of course, you never know exactly how until you get to that section of the series when you have to actually reveal it.
Jeff Pinkner:
As soon as we started up on Fringe, we came up with this idea that Peter was from an alternate universe, which we referred to as our Hatch. It was the great mystery of the show.
Bryan Burk:
It was something we were going to reveal much, much, much later. This is always the balance when you do a television show. When do you reveal things and when do you not? On Lost, the Hatch was one of those conversations. J.J. was like, "And they find a hatch," but the question is, do they find the hatch in Episode 2? Do they find the hatch in Episode 10? Or do they find the hatch at the end of Season 1? The Hatch literally and figuratively opens up so many new possibilities that the whole show will take a turn when they discover that Hatch. The parallel universe is the same thing.
Pinkner:
The studio, from their point of view, were really, really, really trepidatious about introducing new characters, let alone a new world. And all they constantly wanted to know was, "OK, what's happening with our characters?"
Kevin Reilly:
I was like, "What are you talking about?!" Seriously. They started talking about a parallel universe in Season 1 and I was like, "No, no, no. No parallel universe. Please don't do parallel universe." And so they said, "No, no, whoa. We're going to get there down the road." So I can tell you the parallel universe was on their mind, I believe, from minute one. I think they just put it away to not scare me for a while.
Burk:
Funny. If [Reilly] was nervous, you would not have known.
Pinkner:
By the end of the season, when we finally had the confidence from the network and the studio, we were able to acknowledge this alternate universe, introduce William Bell, played by the spectacular Leonard Nimoy, and we can really start to delve into the mystery of The Observers, and the personal stakes that this show has for Olivia and obviously Walter and Peter. Everything started to click.
Burk:
We were all sitting around and we said, "We need to go forward. We need to open up the doors and let everyone in." That was kind of the reason why we did it. As you know, it completely changed what the show was from Season 1 to Season 2.
Pinkner:
Most importantly though, schematically it enabled us to tell the story about what a man, Walter in this case, was willing to do, what he was willing to risk, what lines he was willing to cross in order to do the most human, non-scientific thing of all, which was save the life of his son. This is a man who was largely, purely driven by his mind and his imagination, who had to make this choice because of his heart. And as a consequence, he destroyed the world. What was great about it was, we created this whole new world, but largely it was in order to tell this very personal story.
J.H. Wyman:
It was [Arrow's] Andrew Kreisberg who thought of the image for the Twin Towers. I was sitting around and it was in my office and I said, "We need an image that's iconic. What is it? What is the image?" And we were all pitching and Andrew just said, "Hey man, what about the Twin Towers?" and everybody went "Oh, yeah," and then everybody went "Oh no, wait."
Josh Jackson:
I don't know that we've ever had a better visual or a better cliff-hanger.

Fringe Video: How will the final season end?

Inside the World Trade Center was the office of William Bell (Leonard Nimoy), a character who brought out both the best and worst in Walter and Nina.
John Noble:
When we heard Leonard was coming on, it was almost unbelievable, because this man is the icon of the genre. One of the great icons of television actually coming on our set was amazing. As he and I worked together, we found that, fortunately, we had an incredibly good chemistry. We became really great friends. So it couldn't have been better, really, for me, and when he does come back, we always look forward to it.
Blair Brown:
It was absolutely wonderful that they got him to come on. I didn't ever really know that we were going to get to that kind of sweetness and tenderness in our relationship. I love that it was as tender as they made it, because in a funny way I kept thinking of Walter, William and Nina as this weird triangle of information. And of course, the irony is, I never got to work with Nimoy one single time. We only once played a scene where he was on a television set and I was watching him, and that was as close as we ever got. And so it became truly the love of my life, because I could make up whoever he was. I never even met him.

The parallel universe also introduced Seth Gabel's Lincoln Lee, who would become a beloved character in both universes.
Seth Gabel:
It was actually super-intimidating for me because I was just coming off Dirty Sexy Money, where I played Jeremy Darling, an immature kid. To then read as Lincoln Lee and try to conceptualize actually being a leader of an entire FBI team in an alternate universe that's never been established before, it was incredibly intimidating. But the challenge of it was a welcome one. Fortunately, when I showed up everyone was really helpful and welcoming. What was great was I was able to quickly establish a team rapport with Kirk Acevedo and with Anna Torv. 

That rapport with Olivia in the original universe initially made fans worry that Lincoln was there to be a foil for the relationship between Olivia and Peter.
Gabel:
I anticipated that fans would worry that the Lincoln character was trying to take Peter's place, so I made it a priority that when I did press, I made it clear that there was absolutely no way anyone could ever replace the Peter character. When we were working, I tried to find ways to not have that character be redundant in terms of what he brought to the show, but actually provide a different point of view into the Fringe universe so that there wasn't any kind of overlap and the need for Peter still existed, because they knew he would come back.
Anna Torv:
I think what was interesting is that I had been playing with Seth for so long, I'd been playing with his alternate character and also with my alternate character, so when we started working together on this side, it was very strange because it was still this familiar person except the interaction and the dynamic was so completely different between our Olivia and our Lincoln.

That was a clear sign that fans loved the dynamic between Peter and Olivia, something the producers didn't initially plan, though it came as no surprise.
Jackson:
I mean, you have a leading man and a leading woman in the show, and a certain portion of any audience is always going to want that to happen — and a certain portion of the audience is not going to want that to happen. So that doesn't really surprise me. I think the reason that they went toward that is they felt they just had to raise the stakes between these people. As they wanted to start writing away from Walter and Peter, they had to have another emotional bond that was at the center of the show, and that became the next most natural place. Getting past the will-they-or-won't-they drama, which was so central to the Peter-and-Olivia story for the last two years, I've actually really enjoyed. I always prefer the idea of Fringe as family drama, not Fringe as love story between two star-crossed lovers. We have moved past all that and have a more grown-up version of the relationship. You know that they're rock-solid. They've made the commitment to each other. Crazy, terrible things have happened to them, and they're still trying to find their way through together. I like that. I think that's an interesting story.

Most of the cast now had to portray two different versions of their character.
Pinkner:
We got to do what you never get to do in television, which was introduce new versions of our main characters. It provided fantastic acting opportunities/challenges for many of our actors. It was a great playground just for imagination.
Abrams:
We didn't quite anticipate, at the beginning, how much time we'd be spending over there. That was a really fun thing to see them pull off.
Jackson:
When we first introduced the idea, it was a germ of an idea, and I think it developed into something else going into Season 3, which is where we really started to make those jumps across. The idea was, "Why don't we, instead of just teasing it and toying with the idea that it's there, let's just do it. Let's just go over there!"
Torv:
That was thrilling when that whole thing happened, and when we really made the decision to go over there for a bit. It was a different show. I remember especially in Season 3 when we would go over and we'd do alternate episodes in the alternate universe and then in our world, you'd walk in and it was new sets, I love working with Seth and Kirk [Acevedo] and that whole little trio. It was like a totally different show and also a really fun energy and a fun dynamic. I would be interested to see what that show would have been like and how that would have progressed.
Noble:
We've had the opportunity to step out and literally play another character, albeit with the same subjects and the same backgrounds. I think it was an enormous gift. I think probably more striking was the difference that Anna attempted to bring to Bolivia [the writers' nickname for the alternate-universe Olivia] from Olivia. I remember thinking, "Oh my God, that's amazing!"
Torv:
I just loved her.
Noble:
I loved playing Walternate, and one of my favorite scenes still is when the two men were together and just talking to each other. I have a very soft spot for those scenes.
Lance Reddick:
That was exciting for me, partly because Broyles was so much more in the field of action. One of the reasons why actors are drawn to the theater is because you get to do so many different kinds of characters. One of the traps in doing film and television is playing the same thing over and over again, so the opportunity to get to play basically five or six different characters, even if it's the same person, in a series is really great.
Jasika Nicole:
I think that alt-Astrid was perceived as being so very cold because she wasn't as emotionally available as this Astrid was, but it turns out that she just has a different way of communicating how she feels. I always knew that she was a good person. She was very dedicated to her work, and she didn't have time for socializing. Whereas the Astrid over here, I think the purpose of her is to be a caring individual, somebody that the other characters could open up to at various points in the different seasons.
Brown:
Yeah. I never asked if Meana [the alternate-universe Nina, who was very mean] was good or bad. I never asked because I didn't want to know. I wanted the mystery myself, because I thought it was much easier to play. It was interesting when I played Nina when Meana was pretending to be Nina, I had to be so careful that I wasn't going to give it away, because I wanted to leave clues. And it was like, no, the point is: No one should know! So sometimes ignorance is really helpful. If you just don't know, you can't ruin it.
Pinkner:
Ultimately Josh got to play different sides of himself too, though not in the same vein as our other actors did.
Jackson:
I am my doppelgänger. [Laughs]

Naturally, filming became more difficult once universes figuratively collided.
Gabel:
The logistics of shooting two different characters is pretty crazy. There will be times where you're acting with a green screen, there will be times where you're acting with a model that looks like you from behind and there will be times where you're acting with nothing but air. I was fortunate because I was able to watch Anna Torv do it before I had to do it, so I learned from her trial and error. Anna pretty quickly came up with the strategy of recording her own dialogue and then playing it back while she was acting so she could actually react to herself giving her the cues and that's something right away that I realized that I liked.
Torv:
Well, you have to do that because you're matching timing to takes. You at least had an idea of what you were going to be playing.
Gabel:
It can get a little confusing because you forget which one you are at the moment and a lot of times the makeup change and the costume change can take a long time, which in some ways takes you out of it, but then in other ways allows you to just focus on that character for that moment. You're constantly jumping back and forth in your mind and trying to figure out how you're going to play your reaction to what you're about to say to yourself.
Torv:
It just gets easier as you go along. It was a learning curve for us all. I learned that when Seth had all of his stuff.
Gabel:
It can be logistically confusing, but ultimately when you see it put together, it's really rewarding.

Fringe's final season is a 13-episode feature film

The parallel universe also offered an opportunity to kill off characters without losing a cast member, something producers insist they never considered throughout the earlier seasons.
Wyman:
If it's a ratings boom you're after because you have to kill off a character, I think that's cheap. I wouldn't entertain that. I think that the reasons why we went over to the other side and introduced doppelgängers were for a very, very sound creative reason. I would never do a flashback unless it was for an absolute reason. I would never tell a story in the future unless it's for an absolute reason. I wouldn't kill anybody unless it's for an absolute reason, and I just never really had the reason. These characters have come a long way. So in, say, Season 3, when they were sort of going through all these things, I couldn't just kill somebody.

Of course, what the producers couldn't foresee, but certainly hoped, was that audiences would end up loving the alternate universe, which made it all the more disheartening when the bridge between the universes was eventually closed.
Nicole:
That was a really clever decision for the writers to make, to introduce this alternate universe where you're not rooting for them, you're rooting for the universe that you know. The universe that looks like yours, the one that's relatable to you, the one that we've been with for a couple of seasons already and then you start seeing all these other characters and they behave so different.
Noble:
I really take my hats off to the writers for that, because at the time we started off with the universe, I remember saying to people, "This is such a challenge to get people to actually not treat your character as the enemy."
Torv:
Because we committed, it meant that the audience was then able to commit knowing that this wasn't going to be a waste of their time.
Noble:
We were aware that slowly, slowly people started to say, "Well, perhaps they're not so bad." I thought it was a major achievement for the writers.
Gabel:
I was surprised. I knew that the alternate universe was definitely something cool, but I was always concerned that people would think that we were infringing upon Fringe and that we were possibly taking away from a version of the show that they had liked. So when people were embracing it, I thought, "Okay, this is great." We're able to actually provide an expansion to the story and have it still be a part of the Fringe universe, if you will.
Nicole:
The more you got to see the characters in the alternate universe the more you realized that they have their hopes and their dreams and their fears and their worries and their happy moments and their sad moments and they, it's just not black and white. They made a lot of sacrifices and in a lot of ways we were the bad guys, not us specifically, but our world. That's when you got to see "Oh, man. These people aren't bad. These people are real people that have their own problems that they're going through."
Noble:
And they're still there, in Fringe history. I know Anna really misses Bolivia. She really loved to play Bolivia. And Walternate's there. I can resurrect him any time I want to. I think it was time to leave and concentrate on the original universe. Had we been going for another season they may not have done it.
Pinkner:
Yes, there was a moment when we decided to close the bridge, where we were on a conference call with Fox and Warner Brothers and Shana C. Waterman [Vice President of Current Programming] from Fox said that when she read that script, she actually teared up. And we lovingly said, "See, these are the characters that you didn't want us to introduce in the first place, and now you're crying because we're saying goodbye to them." You know, it was an experiment that could have gone wildly wrong. Their caution made us work harder. So it was validated.
Reilly:
Yes. But I was also getting different feedback too. There were a lot of people that felt, "Oh, I liked it better when you weren't in the other universe. When are you coming back?" But again, this is a really talented group, and I knew they'd bring it around, and they did.

Fringe's final season will pay off big for longtime fans

The show's adherence to creating science that was almost true — in addition to playing many roles — made it a considerable challenge for the actors.
Noble:
There have been episodes that I've thought were stretchy. Obviously, the writers want to keep this scientifically viable, even though it's on the edge. And there were a few where I went, "No, I don't think so." Not too many, by the way, that were a little bit too far out. I approach it with a sense of humor. But I love it when our science is not so far off the absolute cutting edge of science.
Jackson:
As John and I have said over the years, it's like a knitting circle up here [in Vancouver] a lot of the time, trying basically to guess what the next couple of steps are going to be. We would never really know from episode to episode, and often the scripts would come in quite late, so you're on the day trying to absorb a lot of information and then pondering what the possible outcomes of that could be going forward. So I don't know that I was ever really tremendously caught off guard by an individual Fringe event. I was completely in the dark for nearly everything that happened on the show up until moments before we were doing it.
Gabel:
I've been essentially along for the ride and I'll have discussions with the writers, but I enjoyed not knowing because so much of the show is about the unknown and these people that then face the unknown. The biggest surprise for me was my wife [Bryce Dallas Howard] had just had a baby up in Canada and then seeing that I had a whole episode where there was a lot of doppelgänger stuff, where both Lincolns were going to be in there. I was like, "Oh, no. I've had no sleep."
Brown:
There was one time I remember Anna and I were playing a scene in her apartment, and it was the time when Meana was pretending to be Nina, and we both looked at each other and just said, "What's going on? Where are we, who's doing what to whom, who knows what?" A lot of times in the [fourth] season we had to really just sit down for a second and say, "Okay. What do I know, and what do I not know?" because it is stacked so densely, that there were times that we were all just very confused.

Check back for Part 3 of our four-part series, in which the cast and producers discuss the most polarizing Fringe story line (bye-bye, Peter) and how the show's passionate fans kept it alive.

Watch the trailer for the series finale below:

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