By Patrick Gomez
April 26, 2019 at 07:28 PM EDT
Elizabeth Morris/CBS

Noah Wyle knew he had to be in The Red Line.

“I got the script and it was just miles above everything else I was reading,” the ER alum tells EW of the CBS limited series from executive producers Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay.

Wyle stars as Daniel Calder, a high school history teacher mourning the death of his husband, an African American doctor who was shot, while unarmed, by a white cop.

Here, the actor discusses the failed CBS pilot that led him down the path toward The Red Line, why he was excited to return to Chicago — the city where ER was set — and filming that emotional scene touted in the intense series trailer promoting its Sunday premiere.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to join The Red Line?
NOAH WYLE: I had been offered a pilot by CBS called Perfect Citizen by Craig Turk about this high-ranking government official who uncovers a spy ring operating out of the national security agency and he steals a bunch of information and leaves the country and leaks to the press and three years later he’s coming back, but half the country thinks he’s a hero and half the country thinks he’s a villain and he’s going to take a job as an attorney.

It was just right up my alley and we made a great pilot, but eventually it went the other way and the climate for making a show about a whistleblower wasn’t there at the time. But doing that pilot got my mind around the idea of doing an interesting story on network again. The very next year, I get offered another pilot by CBS and this one moved me even more. I just loved it. It seemed so timely and an interesting way to approach the subject matter — and the opportunity to return to Chicago, which has always been a touchstone city for me.

Regardless of if it got picked up, I felt like it would be an interesting and good creative experience for me. I also had the confidence of [chief executive of Warner Brothers Television] Peter Roth’s passion because before I signed on he brought me into his office and told me how passionate he was about the project. He told me I really needed to sit down with [creators] Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss and hear their passion and hear from Greg Berlanti and his passion. This felt special from the jump, and then we got there and it was a different way of working and a different type of crew and a different type of experience — and I’m better for it.

How would you describe this show to someone?
At the root, it’s the tragic story of an African American man who is shot and killed by Chicago police in a wrongful shooting and all the lives that are affected by that — his family, the officer who did the shooting. It attempts to show the ripple effect of a single act of gun violence and how these issues, which are incredibly charged, are also incredibly complex. It’s an attempt to foster a sense of empathy to a viewpoint that is not your own.

The Red Line is the train that connects the entire city of Chicago, north to south, and the metaphor is that it connects all our characters. The intent is that no matter what your point of view is — you may identify with the cop, you may identify with the grieving husband, you may identify with any of the characters — but by the time you get off the train, you have been exposed to all of them in equal amounts and hopefully just that exposure will broaden your horizon…. It’s not exactly an elevator pitch. [Laughs] It’s not an easy show. But I think it’s an important topic and it was thoughtfully constructed. It’s not dogmatic, it’s not preachy.

Was it tough to shake off the grief at the end of the day?
There are elements to acting that are extremely masochistic. We like to do things to ourselves and we like what comes out of us when we do that, and I enjoyed how awful it was to be in this man’s shoes because it allowed me to identify a certain degree of awfulness in my own life and explore it. That’s what this work is about. I’m trying to connect me to him and him to you.

I was [doing press and someone told me], “you strike me as a very sad man.” And I thought, “Am I a sad man? Yeah, maybe I am.” And maybe I’m attracted to projects that have a certain degree of sadness because they allow me to explore that side of myself. And this man’s grief, I thought, was particularly profound because he’s taking on the grief of his daughter, and the grief of the city, and the grief of a nation on this particular issue. You have to be the rock for this person to lean on, while also dealing with your own grief. The tragedy of that, I just thought, “Ugh. You couldn’t pay me $1 million bucks to be that guy.” And then they paid me a lot less to be that guy.

People are really talking about that scene between you and your character’s daughter, Jira (Aliyah Royale). Was that as intense to film as it ended up on the show?
There’s a certain station in Chicago that has no windbreak because there’s nothing up there to break the wind, which means you get a great view, and that’s why you shoot there, but it also means it’s the coldest place in the world to shoot at night in the winter. We were up there and it was like 5 degrees. And we couldn’t be in coats for 5 degree weather, we had to be in coats that were appropriate for fall. And there’s no way to get warm up there. We couldn’t bring heaters. And you have to get permission to shoot there but they don’t shut down the station, so trains are coming and going and people are getting on and off every 5 or 6 minutes. And because we were only there for a few hours, we couldn’t stop shooting. So we would keep the cameras rolling and she and I would look into each other’s eyes while 50, 60 people were disembarking around us, never realizing they were walking through a film set.

We’d let them disperse and then we’d continue the scene. She and I played that scene every single way you could play it. She screamed at me, “It never would have been you!” and I screamed at her, “I know!” and we did it softly, and angrily. I mean, we beat the f— out of each other. And when we saw the pilot, she came up to me and said, “They didn’t use any of the good takes!” And I said, “It’s okay. It’s okay. Trust them. They know what they’re doing. You can’t do that on night one. You can’t show that. You have to get them on the train and even though we went there, it’s under it all.” It takes a really sophisticated people to pull back and restrain from choices that you know are better because they don’t service the overall agenda, which is to bring people into the overall experience and keep them there for the long run. Sometimes it’s more powerful to see someone holding back tears than see them crying. More people can identify with not crying than crying.

I was particularly hooked by a sentence that Caitlin Parrish said to me when I met with them [before signing on,] which was, “We’re not interested in making grief porn. This is not about characters who are wallowing in their self-pity. This is about people who are actively trying to pull themselves up and out of their circumstances and create change.” And I thought, yeah! I need some of that in my life.

The Red Line premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

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