'Fringe' series finale: Michael Cerveris on September's return
As Fringe wraps up its universe- and timeline-jumping saga in Observer-controlled 2036 tonight, the show’s first Observer has become far more important than fans – and likely even the writers – ever imagined when he first appeared on the Fox show in 2008.
September, the once-mysterious bald man the Fringe team dubbed the Observer, played by Broadway alum Michael Cerveris, has developed into the rebel who has brushed aside his natural coding for emotionless logic in favor of the well-being of the man he now calls a friend, Walter Bishop.
Last week, after being absent for much of season 5, Cerveris returned as a September somewhat de-Observer-fied. The Fringe team learned about the part he plays in Walter’s plan to take the world back from the Observers, and they also learned about the connection between September (now known as Donald, thanks to his fondness for Singin’ in the Rain) and the Observer boy – turns out that Donald and Michael are now another of the show’s central father-son pairs.
Ahead of tonight’s series finale, Cerveris talked to EW about crafting that performance for the new, follicly blessed version of September, saying his goodbyes on the final day of shooting and how working on Fringe has more than made up for never getting to appear on The X-Files.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is it wild to think about how much your role has grown from what was originally intended to be a one-off?
MICHAEL CERVERIS: Yeah, it’s been kind of astounding. It’s true that in the very beginning I understood it as just being a one-off. Almost before I started working actually, they had already started to feel differently. Both [executive producers] Jeff Pinkner and J.J. [Abrams] – they saw September as having a crucial role to play, a role that was going to continue to play out throughout the series as long as it lasted. But you never know when people say that – no matter how well-intentioned, how much they believe it themselves – you never know if that’s how things are actually gonna play out. I certainly never could have imagined that the fate of universes and the existence of humanity was going to be in September’s, Donald’s hands at the conclusion.
What did you think when you first found out about this big shift in your character for this season?
I was just incredibly excited and grateful and flattered at the same time that they felt like the character that we had created had enough resonance and meaning and significance to be worthy of carrying this much of the story. And that they thought I as an actor could deliver what was going to be required from an emotional standpoint. And I thought it was just pretty f—ing cool at the end of the day. As a fan of the show, which I absolutely am, it’s a kind of thing that I would be watching the show and I would lose my mind because I would think that was so unexpected and so brilliant.
So do you watch the show as it airs?
Yeah. I only receive the scripts that I’m in, so on a purely practical level I need to watch the other episodes just to know what the hell is going on, but I would anyway. I was a big X-Files fan. I always lamented that I never got to be on The X-Files. This is my more than ample compensation for that. And I started this season actually knowing that we were going into the final season and that I was going to play some part in the end of it, although at that time I didn’t know what exactly. So I went back and got the DVDs and started watching back through the whole series in order. And it turns out that that was a great kind of research thing to do because so much of this season refers back to events that in some cases seemed not to be significant at the time and now are hugely significant.
Scenes like the moment in season 1 when September and the boy we now know as Michael share a glance must have been fun to re-watch.
I really clearly remember shooting that scene. The only thing I did in that episode was the one non-speaking bit where I’m walking up the hill, and he’s being driven down, and he turns around in the back of the car, and he sees me, and I see him. No one said a word to me about what the significance was going to be. I’m sure at that time they didn’t know this was what it was going to lead to. But that’s a perfect example of what happened a lot of times during the series, like when I had the line, “It must be very difficult, being a father.” So these moments like that – where I sensed that there was something significant, the writers certainly intended for there to be a significance, but nobody had made a decision about what exactly the significance was – I really enjoyed sort of trying to find those moments and fill them with meaning yet openness so it could go any one of a bunch of different directions but whenever you looked back to that moment you’d go, “Wow, that makes perfect sense now.” And I think sometimes the writers see things that I had done that other actors did too, and they would be kind of inspired by the twist that somebody put on a line, and in looking back, they would go, “Oh actually, because he did it that way, we can now make it mean this other thing that we didn’t even know he meant at the time.” So it was partly them responding to what we did and partly us responding to what is sort of dormant in the script.
But I do remember standing on that street, and I also remember it was a bitterly, bitterly cold day, but they didn’t want me to wear the hat because they wanted me to be quickly identified. I just remember it was brutally painful standing out there and watching this car drive by all day but even then feeling like, “You know, I have a feeling this is gonna be worth it.” And now I know.
As much as Donald has shed many of his Observer quirks, you can still see September in there. How did you approach these scenes to make that transition to this new-but-still-kind-of-the-same character work?
I’m glad that’s how it comes off to you because that is definitely what I was trying to do. Just having the same actor play both characters, there are going to be some similarities. But I did a lot of thinking about what things might change, what echoes there might be. That one emblematic gesture, the tilt of the head thing – I so loved that they even wrote a section about that with Windmark and Nina. That came from my dog, who actually passed away two years ago [yesterday]. She, in many ways, was the inspiration for a lot of the physicality and the way that in that relatively expressionless face you could read all kinds of emotion. And that little tilt of the head, that’s a personally prized tribute to her little tilt of the head that’s now been copied by legions of Observers and even Peter. There are things like that that maybe wouldn’t ever disappear entirely, that’s an instinctive way of trying to hear things better.
And actually we had conversations about what Donald looks like. Once Donald has hair, how does he want to have his hair? And now that he can pick whatever kinds of clothes he wants, what kind of clothes does he pick? I tried to base it on things that we knew already. Even though he could wear whatever he wants, he would be meticulous in a way. He wouldn’t be frumpy, and he wouldn’t wear cardigans. He’d want a more kind of classical line. He wouldn’t have long saggy hair. He’d take some pride in his appearance. They wanted him to be unshaven I guess because they wanted to make more of a distinction between the two characters still. [Showrunner] Joel [Wyman] and the writers wanted him to be unshaven because apparently in 2036, razors are hard to come by.
Did you and John Noble have any discussions about where Donald and Walter’s relationship would be at this point to prepare for your scenes together in last week’s episode?
Most of it John and I both just kind of played instinctively and intuitively with each other. We’ve personally and professionally developed a really close bond over the years. We had the early, early scene in the diner, and there always seemed to be a level at which [Walter and September] met and understood each other. It was different from the way Peter and September had a connection obviously and early on this seemed to be a real connection between September and Olivia but now looking back it sort of makes sense that they’re the two fathers, even though, well, Peter is a father too now, I suppose. But September and Walter bonded as men, as fathers, and I love that’s where their relationship arrives ultimately. So it was more it had an unspoken understanding of how to play all those things because Donald/September and Walter just always understood something about each other somehow. John and I just sort of understood some things without having to talk about them too much which is really lovely.
[SPOILER ALERT: This paragraph contains spoilers about the finale] The last scene that we shot was the scene in the lab when Donald tells Walter that he’s going to be the one to take Michael to the future. It was John’s last scene. It was pretty much my last scene, because I had some non-dialogue stuff after that, but it was the end of our work on the series. [Showrunner] Joel [Wyman, who also directed the finale] let us re-write a lot of it on the spot that day. We did several re-writes and revisions just on our feet as we were shooting other scenes during the day in anticipation of that because he really wanted to get it right, and he really listened to us about things that made sense, that didn’t make sense, that we felt we needed to say or didn’t need to say. It was a real honor to have that collaboration with Joel and John and I on the last scene that we would do.
What has surprised you most about the fan response to the show?
I’ve been blown away by scale and persistence of the fan response to the show in general and to September in particular. They really have taken September and Donald to their hearts. I just started tweeting this past year and get tweets from China and Russia and all over the Spanish-speaking world, all over the place. I had no concept of how far afield this show reached and how much people love it in so many different cultures of so many different languages.
You know, I wish I could say I would because I really enjoyed doing all of that stuff, but I don’t think those come along more than once. I cherish every single experience, even when there was a moment that we thought that the New York Giants’ team was going to come and beat us up because we were apparently standing in the wrong place behind their bench and they thought we were stealing plays or something. Even then – and then when I thought that maybe we were going to be set on fire when we were in the pits at the Texas Motor Speedway – those things notwithstanding, I loved that I got to do every one of those things. As much as it upset Josh Jackson that he had to be working while was out having all that fun. [Laughs] I don’t think that he’s ever quite forgiven me.
Tell me more about the last day on set.
It’s funny because I’ve ended loads and loads of plays and plays that have sometimes lasted years and years. And it’s always a mixture of pride and relief and sadness and all the rest of it, but I hadn’t ever had that experience on a series before. I guess the only series that I’ve done regulars in had ended fairly quickly and we didn’t know that we weren’t getting picked up when we left. To actually know very clearly that this was the end was different. It was really nice in most ways because you could say your goodbyes and appreciate having that experience with everybody.
It was odd for me because I have been such a back-and-forth presence. I always struggled, especially in the early years, wanting to feel more a part of the family but because I wasn’t there all the time – in some ways it was great because they were always happy to see me because I hadn’t been around so it was always nice to come back, but I remember talking to Jeff Pinkner and saying, “I feel like I’m not really part of the gang.” He said, “Well, you know, that’s not unusual, and I’m not saying it’s intentional, but it kind of works in some ways for September because he’s not of the world the same way as everybody else.” And he says – I can’t remember if it was Michael Emerson or who it was in Lost who used to complain about the same thing, that they were clearly an important part of the show but just felt like a bit of an outsider when they were on set. But over the years that sort of dissipated, so by the end, by this last year – and because I was so much a part of the story by that point – I felt more truly and fully a part of the family, the inner family over the last two seasons, and especially this past season. That was a very wonderful thing to feel, that I was very much a part of the family as everybody else by the end.
When people would finish their last scene they’d usually say a few words. There was a lot of crying throughout the day and a lot of laughter too. It was also surreal because we’d been working nights, so our days were upside down, and those last days were 17-hour days, so we were a little delirious too. It was just a really loving and upbeat, oddly upbeat thing. Everybody felt like we set out to do something that hasn’t been done like this before and we did it really well. We can hold our heads up, and this will be there for generations for people to connect with. And that’s really — you don’t always get to have jobs like that that seem to mean something to people.
You’re saying goodbye to two projects in short succession with Evita ending later this month too.
Yeah, and also Treme. This’ll be the third season that I’ve done of that, and we have one more episode to shoot of that too. So yeah, it’s a month of a lot of endings and looking forward to the next chapter.
Do you know what that next chapter is yet?
I don’t know for certain which of the things that are sitting in front of me I’m going to end up doing. Some of them are television things. Some of them are stage things. It’s part of the matter of trying to figure out schedules. I think it’ll be some vacation or just going to watch movies. Something that involves not traveling maybe. But as soon as I say that I’ll probably end up hanging out in New Orleans again for a while.
What can we look forward to in tonight’s finale?
Obviously you can’t please everybody, but I think the devoted Fringe fans – and the casual Fringe watchers – are gonna be profoundly satisfied with the way things play out. It’s packed with action and suspense and just full of emotional resonance, and it functions as a great thriller and suspense story and also gives plenty of time for all of the big, huge philosophical questions about life and what’s important and what you’re willing to sacrifice for and who you care about and what you’re willing to sacrifice for them on a personal level and as part of a community and a world. It’s satisfying on every one of those levels. Everything that you think you know is going to happen then you find out that’s not what’s going to happen and it carries on up almost to the last frames of the series. It’s one really satisfying surprise and heartbreak and joy after another.
Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome
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