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"This was a way for me to withdraw from the mad scramble of my so-called career."
"It took me off the treadmill of my former life."
"It was like being dropped into a big vat of ice water."
"The powers of evil, if you will, did not have a face or a voice until then.
"Certainly, everyone on 'Lost' is affected by far fewer than six links!"
"Some guy told me that the island was the ruins of an alien zoo."
"I think the real solution will be more science fiction."
Michael Emerson  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
March 2007

"I'm a little off my agenda," says Michael Emerson from his comfy Hawaiian villa. And no, he's not talking about getting stuck on a remote island in "Lost." A classically trained, Emmy Award winning actor with amazing character turns in film and television, Emerson looks to return to the stage as Prospero or Leer. "My agenda has always been that when I am an old man, I will be playing those classical parts." And for good reason.

In 1993, Emerson entered the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Master of Fine Arts program and began a career on stage. He went to New York and starred as Oscar Wilde in the off Broadway play, "Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde." More noteworthy performances followed, opposite Uma Thurman in "The Misanthrope" and Kevin Spacey in "The Iceman Cometh." Then, a series of high profile guest roles in "Law & Order," "The X-Files," and "Without a Trace." As confessed serial killer William Hinks in "The Practice," Emerson earned an Emmy by putting the creep in creepy. And future film roles in "Saw" and "The Legend of Zorro" cemented that reputation.

A reputation that led to Benjamin Linus, aka the ring leader of the Others, on the ABC hit series, "Lost." Deliciously manipulative and maniacal, Emerson is the big reason to watch. And in the midst of a hectic production schedule, he was kind enough to share some of his secrets and theories, not to mention Ben's devious plans for Season 3. Whether slightly off his agenda or stranded on some remote jungle island, Michael Emerson always adds a touch of class.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

One of the turning points in your career came in 1993, when you chose to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (University of Alabama). What were you doing at the time and what were the deciding factors that went into your decision?

Before 1993, I was piecing together about a half of a grown up's living out of about 8 or 10 different pursuits. One of them being acting. And I also did a low level of carpentry and a little teaching. I was still doing a little illustration, which was my previous career. But I wasn't exactly thriving on any of those fronts.

I knew that there was one thing that I wanted to do and that was to pursue a career in the classics on stage. And when I heard about this training program at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, it looked to me like that was the answer to my dreams. That this was a way for me to withdraw from the mad scramble of my so-called career and be able to focus on something that I was interested in and that I felt passionate about.

Now, it did involve some sacrifices. One of them was freedom of movement. It meant moving to Montgomery, Alabama for two years and being in the clutches of a big institutional theater for that period of time. And I mean long hours and a ridiculously heavy load between my academic work and my stage work. It was kind of overwhelming and occasionally made me feel fairly desperate. Often, there were days when I just wanted to get in my motor vehicle and drive anywhere that was away from Montgomery.

But in the end, I got through it. And I was glad to have done it because it was tremendously focused and it took me off the treadmill of my former life.

A lot of your early performances before television were comedic in nature. And now, it seems, you're on a serious dramatic streak, from "Saw" to "The Practice" to "Lost." What is it about a particular role that attracts you?

Up until this point, the thing that I preferred was to get a paycheck to tell you the truth! I've sort of taken whatever came my way.

And it's not really clear in my mind how I ended up with these dangerous characters that I've been playing in recent years. Because previously, in my life on the stage, those wouldn't have been the kind of characters I played. I usually played funny guys, as comedy was always my specialty. And because I wasn't built in the heroic, cowboy vain, I was more likely to play character turns, which were eccentrics or silly.

So, it's a little mystifying to me how I end up playing these parts that I do. Except that people like the tension between the mild mannered package and the possible danger lurking within. That's a nice kind of dramatic tension.

Who or what motivates and inspires you as an actor today?

I like to see actors do great character turns. Guys that are willing to think themselves into a part, who can handle language. I always admire an actor who can play with elevated text; someone who can do classical work and make it seem natural. Speak Shakespeare.

Even this part I have on "Lost." Ben is an articulate character. He speaks well and speaks slightly formally. I like that about him. And I also think it's one of the factors why people find him a little forbidding.

It almost seems that in a previous life, Ben would have been a psychologist.

I think he definitely has a strong grounding in psychology. That's one of his many areas of expertise, I think.

How did you land on "Lost?" What was the audition like?

For once, there was no audition process. For once, it came as an offer. And I have to say, that's really unusual in my career. But the offer wasn't as grand as the thing has played out. I was originally supposed to do a guest turn on the show. I think, three episodes, and then go away. But I think when they saw what they had, in terms of the function of this character, whether intentional or not, they had found their right villain for the show. Their right antagonist. I think they liked that and found that it was easy to run with. And they kept me around, which was a surprise.

Was there a particular role that they had seen to signal the offer?

I think they had seen my work on "The Practice." That serial killer or "might be" serial killer had some of the qualities they were looking for in this character, which was a sort of eerie ambiguity.

You arrived on the set in the middle of the series, rather than the very beginning. What was your experience like early on? And what is the experience like now that your character is more established?

Early on, it was like being dropped into a big vat of ice water. You fly to Hawaii, a place I'd never been before, get to your hotel room for the night, and the next morning, you're out in the jungle somewhere and hanging from a tree. It was kind of intense and there wasn't an orientation period or anything (Laughs). Nobody comes around and takes you by the hand and says, 'this is where the bathrooms are.' It was just getting thrown into it. And I guess there's really no substitute for that.

But you get used to it after doing years of guest spots on television shows. You get accustomed to being the new guy, the odd man out, the guy that's only going to be around for a few days.

So I take it, now you know where the restrooms are?

I do. I know where everything is now (Pauses). I know where the bodies are hidden (Sinister laugh!).

But it's much nicer now. Now it has a feeling of family. Now I'm working with friends. Now, I'm on the inside and it behooves me to be a good host when guest players come in and I can help to make them feel more comfortable and at home. Everybody works a little better if they feel welcome.

And I was certainly made to feel welcome, but my first day of work on this show just happened to be a hairy action day out in the wild. It was interesting. And I had been warned. People said 'Oh, man, I hear that "Lost" is rough work.' And they were right.

As you mentioned earlier, Henry Gale was originally slated for a handful of episodes in Season Two. What changed the producers' minds, allowing the character to become Benjamin Linus, leader of the Others?

They began to see that the thing they had cooked up was even better than they thought. They thought 'Oh, this may be the villain we've been looking for.' Because previously, there was no antagonist on the show. There were some 'murky' Others, there were some monsters, and the island itself. But the powers of evil, if you will, did not have a face or a voice until then.

But they did have Mr. Friendly, of course (Laughs).

What do you feel are the dominant themes of "Lost?"

Clearly, one of the dominant themes is atonement. Everyone on the island, all the Lost-a-ways and possibly the Others too, have done wrong in their past. And now, under these extraordinary circumstances, whether natural or artificial, they have a chance to revisit or make up for things they've done in the past. That's one of the metaphysical, spiritual themes.

There are also ongoing adventure themes, like people being tested against the unknown, against the elements, against unidentified adversaries. That sort of thing. The human spirit that is a central theme to all adventure stories. That's also present.

And then there's science fiction themes that are going to become more important as time goes by. Things like genetics, conditioning, reproduction, things like that.

Do you believe in "six degrees of separation?"

I have not personally ever seen it disproved. I mean six degrees is a tremendous amount of linkage if you're thinking in terms of the population of the globe.

It's sort of hard for me to imagine that I'm within six degrees of a yak herder in Tibet, but it may be?

Certainly, everyone on "Lost" is affected by far fewer than six links (Laughs)! I mean, there seems to be a pattern or a weave if you will, that is slowly rising to the surface and clarifying itself, of "uncanny connectedness." And this is going to pay off in a big way. For example, in the episode we're filming this week, two back-stories that we never connected in our minds before are going to collide and resolve in a huge, dramatic way.

Which episode to date has been your favorite and why? Which has been the most challenging?

I enjoyed the episode last season where Jack brings me out to share breakfast with Locke and him ("Lockdown"). I liked that because it was funny and terrifying at the same time. It was sort of Henry/Ben revealing himself or his true colors in a way.

But there have been a bunch of good ones. This season, the fourth episode ("Every Man for Himself"), where I mess around with Sawyer's head and eventually take him up on the cliff to show him the other island. That was a fun episode because it had a lot of crazy, psychological hijinks in it. But it also had amazing settings. We had to go to some beautiful places to film that. And I just thought it was metaphysical, metaphorical, it involved literature, and it was just right.

Everyone has a theory about "Lost," from alien abductions to purgatory to snow globes. What is your theory about the island and its inhabitants? Or what's your favorite theory?

Everyone on the show has heard something more preposterous than anyone else. My favorite? Some guy told me that he thought that the island was the ruins of an alien zoo (Laughs).

Recently, I read a really plausible theory in the "Lost" magazine, but I can't remember the details of it. It wasn't a single unifying theory. It had several parts to it and it made me think about things I hadn't even thought of before. It at least gave me a template for a multi-part, complicated solution to the whole set up.

Of course, a lot of the metaphysical speculation was blown out of the water by the Season Two finale, which let us know that these events were happening in the real world in real time. So it wasn't the snow globe or purgatory, although I think purgatory is a really useful, working metaphor for the show. And that it's been sort of central to the show since the pilot. Because I'm going back through and watching all of the first season now and that's present in every episode and it's a really strong one. And maybe it's stronger for being metaphorical and not practical?

I think the real solution will be more science fiction. I think something's going on on that island whether it was found or created that has special scientific properties and that there's a battle over the power that is present there.

Michael Emerson Interview (CONTINUED)



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