Noah Wyle on playing Steve Jobs
The actor Noah Wyle, best-known for playing Dr. John Carter on television’s “E.R,” also played Steve Jobs in TNT’s “Pirates of Silicon Valley” in 1999, a cult hit among the technorati. Fortune contributor David A. Kaplan spoke with Wyle exclusively in April 2009 on the set of “E.R.” in Burbank, Calif, on the day the series finale was being filmed. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation. Asterisks indicate breaks of time in the interview. A trailer for the film appears below.
I had apprehensions of playing Jobs in “Pirates of Silicon Valley.” TNT was really excited about me taking the part, but I had worries I usually didn’t have as an actor. I knew something about him and I had the script, but I couldn’t really get a beat on the guy until they sent me the documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds.” Then it was “Ohmigod! I’ve never seen anything like this. I have to play this guy.” I was so taken by his presence, his confidence, smugness, smartness, ego, and his story’s trajectory. He seemed to be the most Shakespearean figure in American culture in the last 50 years I could think of – the rise of, the fall of, and the return of. The truest definition of a tragic hero—but you get the ‘bonus round’ that F. Scott Fitzgerald said didn’t exist. Jobs has had one hell of a second act.
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We were under a very strict directive not to contact the people we were playing for fear that they would find something libelous in the script and shut the production down. So I didn’t. The day after the movie aired [in 1999], I was sitting in my living room and my phone with what I thought was my unlisted phone number rang.
“Noah?” said the voice.
“Yes,” I said.
“This is Steve Jobs.”
My heart started beating through my shirt. And he said—and I’ve memorized this—“I’m just calling to tell you I thought you did a good job. I hated the movie, I hated the script, I think if you had spent a little more time and a little more money and maybe a little more attention to detail, you could have had something there. But you were good.”
And all I could say was, “Thank you. Sir.”
“Listen, we do this thing every year called the Macworld convention. It’s in New York, at the Javits Center. There will be about 10,000 people there. And I think it would be hilarious if you came out on stage dressed as me and did the first five minutes of my keynote address. Are you interested?”
So he bought me a plane ticket to New York the next month and I went over to the Four Seasons Hotel, went up to his room, knocked on his door, and there I was staring face-to-face with Steve Jobs, and he looked me up and down from my toes to the top of my head, and smiled, “Yeah, you do look like me.”
He invited me into his room. It was just he and I. He had been shopping that day and bought me a matching pair of blue jeans and a black turtleneck sweater and matching round eyeglasses. He’d written a sketch for us to perform the next day at Macworld. I’d put my hands together in a kind of Jobs-like silent-prayer pose and then launch into his keynote. And then a few minutes into the address he’d come storming onto the stage and say, “Wyle, you don’t have me at all! What the hell are you doing? First I pick up my slide-clicker and then I put my hands together.” He’d say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Noah Wyle!” And then he’d kick me off the stage and take over, introducing the latest piece of Apple technology.
And that’s exactly how we did it. The first few rows, I think, could obviously tell it wasn’t him, but most others didn’t know at all. And there was this growing ripple of laughter throughout the auditorium when people got what was happening. I honestly had had no idea what to expect: I thought the whole thing might be an ambush—that he’d get me to his event and that what he said we were going to do in fact wasn’t what we were going to do, and I would somehow be humiliated. But he stayed on script and was very kind to me. You realized this is why he’s so successful. He realized very quickly he either could come out with a paragraph in a newspaper disavowing the movie or co-opt it and get me to his event and use the movie to get his own publicity. Once a week I still hear from somebody that they saw that keynote address on YouTube. Punch in my name in YouTube and this pops up immediately.
Anyway, when the event was over, he invited me to have dinner with him at a soba-noodle shop in downtown Manhattan. My wife was invited, too, along with his executive-design team. And I kick myself over what happened next. They all—I don’t want to say they live in fear of him—are certainly are subservient to his will and whim. But I had no dog in the race I felt much freer to crack jokes and engage him in conversation, which surprised them a bit. At a certain point in the meal, out of nowhere, he turned to his designers and said, “You know what I want to make?” And they all snapped their heads around and replied, What, Steve? What, Steve?”
“You know those picture frames that has my kid in his baseball cap and uniform?”
“Yeah, Steve! Yeah, Steve! We know picture frames!”
“Well, I want to make a picture frame where the picture’s not a picture, but a little movie of the kid swinging the bat and hitting the ball. Can we do that?”
“We can do that, Steve!” said the designers in unison.
“I’ll show you what I mean.”
And he took his napkin and started sketching out the schematics and he passed the napkin around the table. They all approved the design – nobody touched it, there were no changes or suggestions. The check soon came and we started to get up the leave—and the napkin just sat there on the table. I thought to myself, “I got to take that napkin” and my hand was on it, but Steve called from the door and asked, “Noah, you want to share a cab with me?” So I put the napkin down. I could have had an Edison original.
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I think we’ve only spoken one time since then. He was going to be in L.A. and he wanted to visit the set of “E.R.” But I never heard from it about it. Another time I e-mailed him that we were switching all the computers on the emergency-room set and did he want them to be Apples instead of the Gateways the producers were proposing. But I never heard back from him on that.
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I use a G4 Powerbook. I bought it myself! I didn’t even get the Mac they were debuting at that Macworld! [Wyle did the appearance for free.]
For more, please read Fortune‘s ebook All About Steve.