A job in Chile was beckoning the day actor John Noble got the script for Devil’s Playground, a miniseries which delves into the murky world of Catholic Church politics and intrigue. The former Adelaide Catholic schoolboy took only moments to decide.
“I looked at this script and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing, this is my childhood here’,” Noble says. “So I threw some things around so I could do it, simply based on the script.”
Noble plays progressive Bishop McNally who sees secrets, abuse and cover-ups within the church in the late ’80s. The story is based on the 1976 Fred Schepisi movie of the same name. It begins with the death of a Catholic schoolboy — and another child’s claim it was murder.
“He’s one of the good ones,” Noble says of his character.
“He knows a lot — there’s a veil of secrecy and protection in the Catholic Church. They’re like a family so if someone did err, then they would try to help them in different ways.
“The edict (to keep secrets such as abuse) came down from the top, the very top, that this needs to be covered up. It would have been the most agonising thing and it was, for the character I play, the most agonising thing to sit with, knowing this was happening and having to cover it up.”
The six-part Foxtel miniseries stars Simon Burke, also executive producer, who reprises the character he played in the original film, then as a boy. He is joined by an impressive cast including Don Hany, Max Cullen, Andrew McFarlane, Toni Collette and Jack Thompson.
Noble was delighted to get a chance to work with the iconic Thompson, who plays shrewd retiring Cardinal Neville. “He’s the nicest man,” Noble says. “We had an absolutely wonderful time together.”
Thompson says he got into his character by donning the vestments which “make you very aware of the medieval nature of the entire structure and ceremony you are involved with”.
He says Cardinal Neville, while canny and kind, “may avoid all sorts of truth in order he protect the church”.
Devil’s Playground is especially timely given Australia’s ongoing Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Noble says he feels sad for the faith he was raised in.
“I’d just like to see the whole mess cleaned up, get it out in the open, admit how horrific that’s been on a worldwide basis,” he says.
“The things that made the church really good when it was good are still worth preserving.”
These days Noble, a Port Pirie-born father of Sam, 33 (an actress), Jess, 31, and Dan, 27, is based in Wilmington, North Carolina, for supernatural series Sleepy Hollow. But he still thinks fondly of his Adelaide roots where he was artistic director of the Stage Company of SA for 10 years.
“I was so lucky to be in Adelaide when I was because it was when the money was being poured into the arts and I was part of that wave of young artists who was able to benefit from it,” he says.
For all his many roles, which include mad Denethor in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, he is arguably most famous for the morally dubious eccentric scientist Walter Bishop in J.J. Abrams’ cult hit Fringe.
“I absolutely do miss him,” he sighs.
“Walter Bishop was as much of a gift to an actor I could possibly dream of. Still if I wander around the streets somewhere, people call ‘Walterrr!’.”
Noble, who has just turned 66, says he has no plans for retirement.
“I don’t think I’d be a very good retiree,” he laughs.
“I’ll keep going for as long as I’m enjoying it. Otherwise I’ll be a grumpy old man and I don’t want that. I’d rather work. My wife (Penny) and I often discuss it. We’re so far from retirement you wouldn’t believe it.”
As to how he’d like to be remembered, Noble pauses: “I’d like to finish off my life without a bucket full of resentments of things I haven’t done. I’d like to have people say, ‘OK he did a good job, considering everything’.”
TUES, SEPT 9, 6.30PM WST, SHOWCASE;
8.30PM WST, SHOWCASE +2