What attracted you to Falling Skies?
I was itching to get back to work and I had four scripts on my desk. So I put it to my eight-year-old son: do you want to see your dad be a policeman, a lawyer, an insurance investigator or an alien-fighter? He said he’d like to see me run around with a machine gun.
Were you worried about playing an action hero?
It was a daunting prospect. I remember somebody asking me in an interview years ago if I would be interested in playing Jason Bourne. I laughed: I didn’t think anybody would want to see me run around with a machine gun. It always stayed in the back of my head that I had reacted like that. It bothered me.
Did you prepare for the role?
I did eight sit-ups and four push-ups. Then regretted it when I showed up on the first day: oh s**t! You want me to do what?
You once gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dog in ER. What was the biggest challenge filming Falling Skies?
Nothing quite as humiliating. It was a physically arduous shoot, the antithesis of ER, which was a very contained show – by and large, we worked every day on stage 11 on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California. Falling Skies was mostly night work in winter in Toronto. It was cold and wet and we were filthy.
Steven Spielberg is billed as executive producer. How involved was he?
His fingerprints are all over it. He helped shape the script, cast it and he showed up on set for the pilot. He was over here shooting War Horse when we filmed the rest of the series but he watched the dailies and made suggestions. I believe he’s in the editing room right now making final changes to the finale.
And the aliens?
Oh yes, he helped design the aliens and spaceships, naturally!
Is this the first time you’ve ventured into sci-fi?
Yes, unless you count Donny Darko. It’s not the genre I go to first but I grew up watching Star Trek, Star Wars and reruns of the original Doctor Who because my father was a huge fan. Now a cameo in Doctor Who would be kind of cool to have on my filmography…
Is it true you were burnt out after ER?
I wasn’t burnt out on the character. I was burnt out because I had a son in 2002. He was born on a Monday and I spent 15 hours at work on Tuesday; 16 hours at work on Wednesday; 17 hours on Thursday; and 18 hours on Friday; and held him for the first time on Saturday. I went back to work the following Monday and, for the first time in nine years, I looked at my watch and thought: there’s some place I want to be; it’s not here. It was a grind.
Do you regret playing Dr Carter for so long?
ER was an all-consuming universe but I don’t have a single regret. It gave me some of the greatest friendships I have and afforded me one of the rarest commodities in an actor’s life, which is the financial security to pick and choose jobs for factors besides the paycheck.
Do you keep in touch with the original ensemble?
If I don’t see Tony [Anthony Edwards] for three or four years at a stretch, we pick up right where we left off when I do. I keep in regular touch with Eriq La Salle and Sherry Stringfield and I still talk to George [Clooney] now and again.
We all went through an incredibly life-changing experience together so the bonds that we forged are for life.
So if they brought the show back, you couldn’t be tempted?
In the pilot, Anthony Edwards’s character, Mark, applies for a job at a very posh hospital but confesses that he really likes the job he’s in now. The older doctor replies: “Mark, ERs are a young man’s game.” When I look back at the hours we worked and the things we did without even batting an eye, I don’t know that I could do it now. It is a young man’s game.