From executive producers Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay, the eight-episode CBS limited drama series The Red Line is an emotional punch to the gut, as it follows three very different Chicago families on intersecting journeys toward healing after a tragedy. Daniel Calder (Noah Wyle) is mourning the death of his husband, an unarmed African American doctor who was shot by a white cop (Noah Fisher), and falling short on how to handle things with their grieving daughter, Jira (Aliyah Royale), while she searches for her birth mother (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to learn more about what it means to be a young black woman today.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor Noah Wyle talked about how the emotional journey of The Red Line terrified him when he first read it, aiming for the heart of the viewers, why he likes the most challenging days, wanting to be pushed out of his comfort zone, feeling humbled by this experience, working with an acting powerhouse like co-star Aliyah Royale, and the emotional ride that viewers will be taken on.
Collider: What was your reaction to this material when you got it? Did you have any idea, the emotional journey that you would be in for?
NOAH WYLE: I did, and it really terrified me.
I have to say that, while watching this, there were definitely some tears.
WYLE: I was aiming for your heart. I really was. It moved me so much, this material, that I thought I could kick the air out of people’s lungs with this part and turn their hearts into a speed bank. It’s just right there. I wept, the first time I read it, the second time, and the tenth time. I wept at the table read-through, all the rehearsals, and every take. It just was one of those things where it didn’t matter how many times we were gonna shoot it or in what order, the well was not gonna run dry on this one. I was really in the zone. It felt great, and horrible, and great.
What was the hardest day?
WYLE: I’m such a masochist that I like the hard days. I saw this interview once with Kobe Bryant, where he talked about being guilty of occasionally, in high school, ranging the score of a game to be close enough that it would allow him the opportunity to take a game-winning shot, which is a really risky thing to do, but it also acknowledges that, at that moment, he felt supremely confident that he could make the shot. I’ve always aspired to have that kind of confidence in my ability that, on any given day, at any hour, under any weather, with any cast, with any director, I could make a game-winning shot. So, I wanted that to be the benchmark on this one, for myself, that I was going to need very little from anybody, and I was gonna deliver a maximum amount of effort.
Are you somebody who can enjoy feeling confident, or are you always still questioning and doubting that, when it happens?
WYLE: I have a good friend who’s a very well-known musician, who’s written songs for 50 years, but he doesn’t write them all the time. They come in batches, and they come when the muse visits you, for whatever reason. I’m 47. I’ve got a 16-year-old, a 13-year-old, and a 3-year-old. I’m happily married, and I was ready to play this part.
So, you don’t feel that you have to be tortured to play tortured?
WYLE: I wanted to be out of my comfort zone. I wanted to be away from my wife and my daughter, which I was, so I could really focus. I wanted to be slightly uncomfortable, in the sense that I had a fairly spartan diet. I was just trying to live a very simple existence. I checked into this hotel that was under protest by the people who worked there, over a contract dispute, and they would bang these huge plastic paint cans with drum sticks and scream, “No justice. No peace. No justice. No peace. If we don’t get a contract, you don’t get the peace.” And they did it, over and over and over again, for hours and hours and hours. It’s the exact kind of thing that would make most people leave a hotel. While I’m not one to cross a picket line, I really felt it was more significant to stay there and listen to that sound of civil unrest, every morning, as my wake-up call, and to just, on my days off, live in it, as I worked on my script, in Chicago and feeling what Chicago feels. I enjoyed making myself deal with that discomfort. It was such a learning experience for me, on so many levels.
Did you surprise yourself, as an actor, in going through this whole experience?
WYLE: I just felt humbled by it all. I hope this doesn’t sound strange, but you never know how much oxygen you take up in a room. I’ve been on a few shows, in the last few years, where I’ve been an executive producer, I’ve been a director, I’ve been a writer, and I’ve been number one on the call sheet, in various combinations. I’ve had a lot of power and authority, I took up a lot of space, I solved a lot of problems, and I answered a lot questions, and I’m good at what I do. I’ve developed a confidence about being able to comment on things that aren’t necessarily directly related to the job that I’m being paid for. So, when I got on the pilot for this, in my usual, “I’m on the team, and I want to make the team and show better,” I started to offer up suggestions and felt immediately it was not welcomed. At first, I had my feelings hurt, and I got a little bent out of shape and thought, “Don’t they understand what I’m trying to do? I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” and I got in a little snit inside my head. Thankfully, some other voice inside my head said, “Don’t you think this is what it feels like for someone to have a good idea on one of your sets, and not feel that it’s their place to share it? That’s how you’ll prepare for this role. You’ll prepare by sitting in your chair and shutting up, and watching everybody do what they do. Then, wait your turn, and when it’s your turn, do the best job that you can.”
What’s it like to work with the young actress who plays your daughter, Aliyah Royale?
WYLE: She’s a powerhouse, and I came prepared. Peter Roth at Warner Bros. Television had me come in before business hours, so he could personally pitch the show to me and tell me how committed he was to seeing it go down the line, and he has been. He’s the only executive that I have that much respect for because he’s the only one, after all of these years, that still literally will call an actor in at 6:00 in the morning, roll up his sleeves, and with tears in eyes say, “Noah, we have to do this show. This one’s important.” In that meeting, he also told me, “And there’s this girl, and she’s the real thing, Noah. You’re gonna have to really bring your best game because this one blew us away in the room.” I thought, “I’ll be the judge of that.” Then, I got there, and we sniffed each other like a couple of alley cats. We knew, instinctually, that we had a lot of work to do with each other and near each other, and it was a fantastic and interesting process to get to know and love Aliyah Royale.
It’s such an interesting dynamic because he clearly loves her, but he also has no idea how to communicate with her, especially with her feeling like she’s lost half of who she is and wanting to reach out to her birth mother.
WYLE: I don’t think he’s blind to it. He’s just terrified that it means he’ll lose one more defining characteristic. To lose your husband, and then to seemingly lose your child, it’s like, “Okay, well, who the fuck am I, then?” He doesn’t want to lose anything else. So, the hesitancy is for change more than it is for this notion of expanded family. His arc is, “How do I deal with my own pain and grief, and still be a father for this child who’s hurting more than I am and who needs more than I can give? How do I redefine my notion of family to allow my heart to grow beyond what it’s seemingly capable of?”
That’s why the scene at the dinner table among the three of them is so moving.
WYLE: Aaron Carter, who wrote that screenplay, is a playwright, and that scene in particular feels like a little one-act play. Where else in television do you get handed a 13-page scene that has such a lovely build to it, and get to do so much of the exposition through the behavior of feeling territorial? All of that energy and body language was in the script, and it was so fun to play. I can’t give Emayatzy Corinealdi enough credit. One of the fascinating things about this is, as much of an ensemble as we are, we really weren’t an ensemble because all of our storylines were so fragmented. I really only worked with a couple of actors, at any given time, and rarely ever worked with some people. So, Noel [Fisher] and I don’t really know each other that well because we only had four scenes together, the whole time. Emayatzy and I got to know each other better and better, but had to go through this warming period, so I got to watch her, as an actress, show all of this unbelievable range. She’s the real deal. I’m so impressed with her, the level of her work, and her preparation and professionalism. She’s terrific.
The first scene between you and Noel Fisher, where you’re sitting across the table from him, for the first time, and you have so much that you want to say but are trying to hold back and keep from saying it, is just so emotional.
WYLE: That scene was great, but it was painful. I had a terrible flu, which I loved having that day, since it made me feel shittier. I was so ready for that scene. That was one of those game-winning moments. That deposition day, the day of the speech at the gala, and the day that I watched the videotape of my husband being killed were so cathartic. I literally went to work, every day, thinking, “This is gonna be something.”
How do you think audiences will feel, by the time they get to the end of the season?
WYLE: I’ve only seen the pilot and first episode, so I’m going off of the experience I had and what the scripts felt like, but I think that they’ll be taken on a really interesting emotional ride. Oftentimes, you can feel a big difference between the pilot and first episode because you get a lot more money for a pilot, a lot more time, and everybody’s been working on it a lot longer. But this felt like a one-two punch, so to air them [two at a time] is really smart, both for the programming of it and for the way that the narrative happens to lay itself out. It sets a really nice table for the second week, which sets a nice table for the third. So, by the time that we arrive at our conclusion, hopefully, it’ll feel cathartic.
I love how these are not just people who are grieving, but we also get to see all of their flaws, too.
WYLE: Everyone is capable of acts of selfishness, and acts of less than kindness, and all the rest of it. Life is hard.
Your character, Daniel, unexpectedly loses his husband, but then he finds out that his relationship was not exactly what he thought it was, and on top of all of that, he also hurts a friendship that’s important to him. Any one of those things would be a challenge, but they just keep piling on for him.
WYLE: Daniel has a hard time with it for awhile, but he’s not the only one having a hard time. The country is having a hard time. There’s a lovely sentiment that Daniel expresses, in that speech at the gala, where he says, “I thought my family was safe, but my husband didn’t have those illusions ‘cause he lived in the real world. Some of us, by birth or by luck, or by whatever, can live in a rarefied bubble that’s a little naive. You’re never more than one tragic moment away from experiencing what so many people experience far more often.” That, in some ways, allows the people who empathize with my character, a window into what everybody else deals with, a lot more. It’s like how Israelis think about terrorist bombings very different than Americans do. They’re more acclimatized to it, even though that’s bad. We all make mistakes. It’s about how we own them, move on from them, and try not to make them again.
I was very impressed with what I saw of this series, and I think it’s a really important story that needs to be told.
WYLE: I know. I can’t believe that they’re putting it on. There was a moment, when I got the pilot, where I thought, “They’ll never put this on. I’ll go do it ‘cause I wanna do it, even if they’re not gonna pick it up.” And then, they did.
Did it help that you knew this had producers like Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay behind it?
WYLE: Pedigree always helps ‘cause it also gives a little bit of a safety net. In terms of this being an important piece, two titans who have no common business, whatsoever, came together and offered this up as a joint production, as if they needed to share anything. I think that speaks to the coalition of talent, power and prestige that they want to put behind it to say, “This means a lot to us.” They’re not different types of artists. They share a lot of commonality, in terms of storytelling and sentiment, and they’re both activists. This was just important to them.
The Red Line airs on Sunday nights on CBS.