PHILADELPHIA — When Steven Spielberg's aliens launch their latest attack on Earth on Sunday in TNT's Falling Skies, Noah Wyle will be there to meet them.
Not as John Carter, the young medical student we first saw 17 years ago in ER, but as Tom Mason, a widowed history professor who finds himself second in command of the 2nd Massachusetts, fighting the invaders and struggling to recover his captured middle son.
Time flies when you're on TV, but for Wyle, two days shy of his 40th birthday when he visited Philadelphia earlier this month, it might feel like warp speed.
It wasn't, he insisted, about turning 40 — "I'm ready" — but about playing a guy whose oldest son (Drew Roy) is old enough to be fighting beside his father.
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"He's playing 17, but he's 24," Wyle said of Roy.
"There are times when I say, 'Doesn't anyone think it's ridiculous that I'm playing this kid's father? How come nobody's saying it's ridiculous that I'm playing this kid's father?'" joked Wyle, whose own son and daughter are 8 and 5.
When ER began, "I was the boychik," just 22 and playing a character maybe a year or two older.
On Falling Skies, whose initially familiar post-invasion scenario — think The Walking Dead sans zombies — gradually deepens into something more intriguing over a 10-hour first season, Wyle is undeniably one of the cast's grownups.
That was probably part of the appeal to Wyle, who, after 11 seasons as a regular on ER didn't need the money and wasn't necessarily looking for another series.
"Eighty hours a week on a soundstage isn't the best way to parent," he said, so after leaving the show, "I took a few years and did a few small parts in movies and dedicated my energies to my little theater company in Hollywood and was very much an active dad." He has been artistic director at the Blank Theatre Company since age 20.
Starring in TNT's The Librarian movie series, he developed a relationship with the network, where programming exec Michael Wright "would send me all the pilot scripts that they were thinking about putting into production. And he's got exceptional taste. There were a few temptations over the years, but really, I read this script and I had this real itch to get back to work. It was a good fit."
He also has given a little thought to Hollywood's fascination with alien invasion.
"Whenever you introduce an exterior threat to the planet, it's really the only chance you have to unify all the humans on the planet, let them transcend prejudices and petty differences."
Plus, there's "this idea of the reset button being hit on civilization," he said. "The Gospels, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution — whatever the template for the new civilization's going to be, these guys are going to be the ones framing it," he said. "So what do you keep and what do you discard? What was good and what was bad? I thought it was a really interesting theme."
And the enemy one character calls "cooties" might look familiar, but Wyle promises surprises. At one point, "we as characters have to radically redefine our assumptions about what's been happening all along because we misread it completely. And it's pretty cool."