Noah Wyle: Wyle's Waiting

ER star Noah Wyle wants a big-screen movie career--someday. But he's taking his time. Meanwhile, he couldn't pass up starring in TNT's Pirates of Silicon Valley.


Lunching with Noah Wyle in public is disconcerting. I feel like I'm being watched. Of course, I'm not, he is, but with several heads poking around corners to gaze in our direction it's the same effect. As Dr. John Carter on television's revered ER, Wyle is watched by tens of millions of people every week, and he maintains there's a difference between that kind of celebrity and the kind movie stars have.

"It's the accessibility," he suggests. "It's, 'Oh my God, that's--that's Mister Pacino.' But with me it's, 'Hey No-ah!--Dr. Carter--my leg hurts! Haw haw haw!'" As if on cue, a waitress at this Italian trattoria where Wyle is a regular comes up and busses him on the cheek. "I have to tell you," she confides, "I'm glad your beard is gone."Wyle began his fifth season on ER sporting Papa Hemingway facial hair, and fans didn't dig their preppy stud going all professorial on them. "I didn't think it was worth that much attention," Wyle says with a sigh. "But the beard did break the monotony of bringing the same guy back for another year."

Let's face it, Noah Wyle is Dr. Carter. How could he not be, playing the same character 55 hours a week, nine months a year? But the 27-year-old actor is slowly laying the groundwork for a career beyond his ER scrubs. In 1997 he starred in the independent drama The Myth of Fingerprints, and this spring, he plays Apple computer guru Steve Jobs in the TNT cable movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. Going from ER to a cable film as opposed to a big-screen film gave Wyle pause at first. "You go, 'Well, it's a TNT movie--it's hit or miss with them. Let me look at the script. Fuck! The script's good. What do I do now? Do I want to take that gamble?'"

The chance to play a hippie-turned-Machiavellian tycoon was more than Wyle could pass up. "I watched Jobs in a documentary," he says. "He was this consummate salesman, messianic leader, incredible motivator and cruel personality. I thought, 'I'll kick myself if I turn this part down.'" Neither he nor Anthony Michael Hall, who plays Bill Gates, met their real-life counterparts, per the wishes of Pirates director Martyn Burke. "The feeling was, these were incredibly persuasive men who might steer us away from valid choices for vanity's sake," Wyle explains. Not to say the computer giants weren't sort of interested in what TNT was up to. "Microsoft made a few perfunctory calls when we started," Wyle says, "under the auspices of wanting to lend a hand." The actor notes wryly, "If these guys had problems with anything they found libelous in the script, their lawyers could have shut down TNT--let alone our little movie."

How big does Wyle want his movie career to be? Around the time he was making the small ensemble indie The Myth of Fingerprints, the cast of Friends was signing lucrative deals to star in much bigger studio comedies. His own ER costar George Clooney was already donning the Batman cape and positioning himself as the next major action hero. "In a film like Myth, you're hiding in an ensemble," Wyle says. "That's how George described it to me. He said, 'You do very good work on the show, Noah, but you're in an ensemble. It's very safe. Myth of Fingerprints--I'm glad you did it, but that was a low-budget indie ensemble. Eventually you're gonna have to step up to the plate.'" Wyle contemplates this: "True in one sense, you know?"

A full-scale movie career for the good doctor is now on hold anyhow, because Wyle recently signed a three-year extension on his ER contract. I ask him if that was a tough decision. "Yes and no," he weighs. "The show is gonna go down eventually--and you don't want to be the last one holding the bag. But the writing's still solid and I'm having a blast." He admits that playing the same character day in, day out, is "a little frustrating. But you've gotta kill your 20s somehow, and I'm killing mine in a great way."

The chef sends us some hors d'oeuvres on the house. Not that we need them. Or even want them. "Oh, fantastic!" Wyle enthuses. "That's very generous. Thank you so much. Thank him for me." Our waitress comes back with a camera--she's leaving town and asks for a photo. Wyle obliges, putting his arm around her, smiling. Then a waiter wants to talk acting with him, and Wyle does so, as polite as you please. I ask him if he's always so relaxed about this kind of attention. "Uh ... depends on the day," he says. "Sometimes I absolutely love it and seek it. Other times it's inconvenient. I shun it and become reclusive."

And here's our waitress yet again. "The chef wants a picture too," she says, "but I told him, 'No--just me.'" Wyle catches my eye and mutters, "Jeez, I may have to stop coming here." Either that, or he can achieve the privileged status of a film star like Mr. Pacino, whose presence commands awe--or at least allows him relatively quiet lunches. Wyle will emerge from ER in his early 30s. Right now, he says, that timing seems fine. "That's the right age to play the good movie roles," he suggests. "Hopefully that door will still open to me. God bless Matt and Ben. God bless 'em all. My time will come."


Joshua Mooney interviewed Rachel Griffiths for the April 99 issue of Movieline.