Across 31 episodes, Showtime’s searing relationship drama The Affair has quietly emerged as the Madonna of contemporary television; with each season, the series’ ever-thickening narrative — often told from four central characters’ alternating perspectives on the same event — twists and turns, reinventing itself (and its image) at every turn. The mix thickened following the launch of season 3, which saw movie star Brendan Fraser, after a multi-year absence from big screen roles like The Mummy, Bedazzled, and Crash, return to the spotlight in a small (but memorably sinister) role that’s firmly woven itself into the fabric of the show’s broadening tapestry.
Fraser plays John Gunther, a domineering prison guard who may or may not exist as a figment of the imagination of Dominic West’s Noah Solloway, who spent several years in prison after taking responsibility for a vehicular homicide perpetrated by his ex-wife, Helen (Maura Tierney). Released from prison as a lonely, single shell of his former self (addicted to painkillers, to boot), Noah’s subconscious turns hallucinatory, and the ghost of Gunther manifests itself as an abusive, psychologically torturous harbinger of pain stemming from Noah’s past, as we learn Noah likely took the fall not for Helen, but as an act of atonement for expediting the death of his terminally ill mother as a teenager.
“Of course the dynamic of this relationship is the prisoner and the jail guard, and only one of them is holding the key… Gunther tells [Noah] that memories don’t rely on memory; memory is, I think he used the words ‘fuzzy’ or ‘not reliable,'” Fraser tells EW of fans’ duty to look for clues about the truth amid the show’s Rashomon-style presentation of information ahead of the season 3 finale. “Don’t go off your memory, and what really is the truth, well, as I sit here today… as notions are being floated around about ‘alternative truths’… we’re in need of paying attention to what facts are and separate them from fiction.”
Read on for Fraser’s full conversation with EW, in which he discusses the Jan. 29 season closer, teases Noah’s fate, muses on what episode 9’s revelations mean for Helen, and questions who really stabbed Noah in the neck nine episodes ago.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What a season to join The Affair, right? Your character is such an interesting part of its reinvention.
BRENDAN FRASER: Sarah Treem and Jeff Reiner were keen to create a dynamic [for Noah] to step away from his humble beginnings and rise to power, only to be ensnared by his own hubris… and that’s the springboard for the whole series. When Noah physically and figuratively threw himself before the court to claim responsibility for what he perceives are misdeeds… he blended himself and wanted to take the fall for the [death of Scott Lockhart]. His motivation could’ve been any number of reasons, given the obvious ones to how they’re explored when the conceit of the show looks at the dynamic from two alternate points of view. So, how are they going to contain that guy in a third season? They had to physically put him in a jail.
The character of John Gunther was birthed to be [Noah’s] doppelganger. He is the darker shadow of who Noah is. There is a threat… the notion that we need someone who knows who we are as our evil other half, [who exists] to have us come to a reckoning. [Dominic West and I] are in the season as a two-hander, given that we interact with one another, and the question is raised: did [these things] happen [between us]? Is this for real? Is Noah’s judgment clouded by the medicine he’s taking? Is he coming unthreaded? [It’s a] little bit of all of the above, but those are all questions I had, also. I’d learn what the trajectory was with broad strokes of a 10-inch brush, and the minutia of it came down to actually shooting.
I had a positive first experience in doing episodic television in something that’s new to me. I’m used to a longer form of storytelling that encapsulates itself in 90 minutes in a feature film… With this confinement, as it were, I had to jump in with both feet, bravely, and swim with everyone as well as they were, and feel like I could mimic or do a photo negative of Noah Solloway. As I understand, there’s a lot of speculation and wonder around whom this character is… Gunther is there to, in the end, paternally help Noah realize what he has done and why, and at the same time let him know [there’s] hope. He can get it together. A complete stranger, who was a menace, sets [Noah] on a course where he can look for help, which is the most important thing you can ever advise anybody who’s having a trauma.
Gunther is largely an extension of Noah, so I assume you had to imagine yourself as Noah to prepare, correct? Where does Noah go from this point, after what we saw in episode 9, and was it intimidating to step into a TV-oriented role with such a legacy of character and emotion behind it?
I’m flattered to have been included with such a winning quartet of actors… the onus is: there’s a challenge there, as there should be, and if there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be that interested. If it ain’t a little bit scary, you aren’t learning anything new. I’m asking a lot more of [the show’s fans] to accept [this character] I’d been asked to portray, one who may seem malicious and, in moments, he is imposing, so often that I’m stopped by people who tell me, “You’re creepy, I love you!” I don’t know what to think of that.
That must be strange to hear!
I just say thank you, question mark? [lLaughs] The first three or four episodes, I was lurking in shadows and in reflections of windows and the mystery and there’s tension… how did [Noah] get that wound in his neck, and what’s up with this abusive prison guard who claims to have known him from when they were mere classmates, which, maybe that’s the creepy part….
We learn that there’s something unusual about Gunther insofar as looking beyond the rough edges; he’s actually probing, he’s asking the questions that are certainly in the narrative that Noah would be asking and is having a catharsis of fighting an uphill battle; men are prone to overcompensating in order to account for their own perceived misdeeds, only to arrive at the top of the hill to realize, you know what, the fight was all the way over there, and there’s not that many people watching me overall, because the only one I’m fighting is myself. To that end, my duty was to provide the edge for Dominic’s character to press up and be confronted by.
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Everything we see in episode 9 – including Allison’s quote, “We can’t save each other, we can only save ourselves,” is building toward the moment Gunther and Noah share in the jail cell, which justifies Noah’s self-harm, in a way. It feels like one of the first times we’ve seen Noah being completely honest with himself.
Sarah and I would swap text messages after an episode and I realized answers to the questions I wanted to ask were [eventually] revealed because there was a grand, mapped-out plan. I had to trust that they really knew where this was going. They weren’t making it up as they went along. There was a trajectory. The payoff is what’s most important… You realize Noah is traumatized; in instances of post-traumatic stress disorder, things can certainly [intensify when you’re] incarcerated… John really is an individual; he is not just an entity. Anything could have happened on the inside. I firmly believe [Gunther is] a guy who maybe enlisted to fight in the Gulf, maybe reenlisted later on… so he likely understood the world can be a very dangerous place, and he has seen things that perhaps he wants to ameliorate because he could never get out of his old town and move forward.
In essence, he really is a well-meaning social worker and, as a corrections officer, he does believe people can be rehabilitated… and perhaps, when given a second chance, they’ll learn that you cannot un-ring a bell… I only had a few moments to establish that he’s not that malicious individual… He is a father, he is a husband, he is not at all what Noah was hoping he would be [when he knocks on his door]; that’s the moment where, if we did our job right, the “I see dead people” moment happens. It happens then and there, and that topples over the last domino pieces, and we either sympathize with Noah or we vilify him, but it’s revealed to us in a way that is satisfying, and those viewers who were paying close attention along the way could go back and take a look at clues that little Easter eggs that let us know that either Noah’s not playing with a full deck of cards or something really is amiss with this upside down backwards bizarre world he finds himself in as he tries to re-assimilate his life and his family and his career.
It’s funny you’re bringing up this stuff about Gunther being a father, because the “real” version of Gunther is, again, a reflection of what Noah wants to be, after putting his own children through so much strife. I think there’s hope for Noah to regain his footing as a father after seeing a man who supposedly did such horrible things to him also being a good father. He feels he can do that, too.
The intention behind making [Gunther’s son have special needs] was not to pander or make false claims for sympathy, that’s not the point – the point is this is a family… the point was made right there when [Noah is greeted at Gunther’s door] with a light feather, not a hammer… John appears unshaven, wearing glasses, he doesn’t have the growl in his voice, he knows that [Noah] is a prisoner, he knows who [he] is, that it’s not typical for a former inmate to come looking for their corrections officer; it’s not appropriate, but he does have empathy for [Noah] when he realizes he’s coming unhinged. Yes, that’s a threat to John’s family — of course he’s going to defend his home — but, beyond that, he actually cares, and it’s a tough love thing [for Noah] to feel physically disarmed in that instance, to be given instructions on what to do now [as John tells him they] will never see each other again; now go, fly, be free… go figure out how to not ring another bell that you can’t un-ring.
It’s such a haunting and beautiful thought, and it ties into the notion that we’ve spent this whole season knowing Noah didn’t kill Scott Lockhart, but instead we learned he did kill his mother, perhaps in a more murderous way than he initially described to Allison. We now know why he saw himself in the lake, we know why his father had such resentment toward him, and we know why he felt compelled to punish himself with jail time. Is that an appropriate path to justice?
That’s a thorny question, because, depending on your beliefs, the death of his mother could have been an act of mercy or murder, or was it [Noah] expediting the natural course of the human life, which includes death? It does pose very real, very uncomfortable, life-shaping questions about who [Noah] was and the sum of his experiences allowing him to become the man he is today… this is what we all go through to realize our aspirations… we can identify so much with what goes on, whether we admit it out loud or not.
Moving forward, how do you think the revelations in episode 9 will weigh on Noah and Helen? It’s clear they’ve both sheltered separate lies, but we know now Noah didn’t necessarily take the fall for Helen, he went to prison to punish himself for his own misdeeds.
I agree. I think he also did it [for that reason]. That’s really down to how the sequence of events is crafted because you find yourself parsing apart this information. [The show uses] devices to keep us engaged and thinking about it, but it’s a constant excavation toward finding out the truth… One thing [Gunther] tells Noah — whether it is apparition Gunther or [otherwise], he keeps persisting with, “What did you do?”
Earlier, Gunther tells him, “I always find out everything. I always do.” Is this Noah speaking to himself? Is this him excoriating his own conscience, only to be given the answer when he says, “I don’t remember?” and Gunther tells him that memories don’t rely on memory; memory is, I think he used the words “fuzzy” or “not reliable.” Don’t go off your memory, and what really is the truth, well, as I sit here today… as notions are being floated around about “alternative truths”… we’re in need of paying attention to what facts are and separate them from fiction.
Season 3 of The Affair concludes Sunday, Jan. 29 at 10 p.m. E.T. on Showtime. Catch up on the show with EW’s recaps here.