He might play one of the creepiest characters on television, but in real life, Michael Emerson is thoughtful, affable and endearingly intrigued with Ben Linus, his sinister 'Lost' alter ego.
And he's not alone: Ben is one of the most talked about, love-to-hate-him TV villains of all time, and his latest plot to get the Oceanic 6 back to the island from which they fled is revealing more of his devilish, multi-layered mind game each week.
Emerson talked to AOL TV exclusively about getting the island back on track, watching the show on TV to fully grasp where it's headed, who he enjoys acting alongside and why a scene involving cereal sticks out in his mind as a favorite. -- By Maggie Furlong
1. When you get a line like "That's my lawyer," do you get direction on how to say it, or is that all you?
I just like to fiddle around with delivery, you know. Sometimes in the gravest of circumstances, a more nonchalant reading of a line turns out to be entertaining. [Laughs]
2. Ben Linus was only supposed to be on a few episodes. At what point did you realize that he might be sticking around?
Well, there was a point in the early going where it occurred to me one day, "Wow, wouldn't it be crazy good if I was actually the leader of the Others. That would be so unexpected and cool." And I mentioned it to a director -- this was in one of the early episodes when Sayid was still beating up on me -- and the director said, "I can't discuss that with you." [Laughs] So I thought, "Oh, something's up here."
3. What's it like signing on for a gig knowing that you'll have to endure numerous torture scenes?
Luckily I had no idea! One day -- January 10 of 2006 -- I flew to Hawaii and the next morning I was, you know, hanging from a palm tree. And people had said, "Oh, 'Lost,' great show … it's rough work though." That was the word in the acting circles. And it's true -- it has been rough work. But very rewarding. I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's a great character and I love the way they write my part; I love the scenes that I get to play.
4. People really have latched on to Ben Linus … why do you think that is?
It's so nice! People, I guess they respond to the sort of ambiguity of the character. And they invest the character with power and foresight and a certain kind of wit and almost superhuman management skills … [laughs] … which is fine.
5. Did you ever think that your character would get to have a moment as emotional as last season when his daughter, Alex, was executed in front of him?
No, I never dreamt that that would be a way that they would provide a turning point for the character. It was surprising and shocking -- even in the terms of real life, you're stunned to think that Tania [Raymonde], who plays Alex, is not going to be here anymore to do scenes with. I'd had that kind of real-life sadness about it, and then the sort of pace and shock value of the actual execution kind of took the breath out of you. It was a hard scene to play too -- I was looking out a window of an interior set at a tape mark on the wall. They shot Keamy and Alex days later in an outdoor location. So I didn't have that to play off of … I just had to conjure that in my mind as a kind of imaginary image and go with that.
6. Do you have a favorite moment that you've gotten to play on the show?
Wow … in the whole of my tenure? Goodness. I do enjoy the moments of wit, or the moments of sort of nonchalant delivery. I loved that breakfast scene that I had with Jack and John Locke in season 2, where I ate cereal. That was a fun scene to play because I think that was the first scene I ever played where I understood that Ben had all the cards in his hand, and that he was a prisoner in name only. It was sort of an exhilarating dynamic, to be held but to still be running the show sort of. It was kind of great.
7. Is there any cast member you haven't gotten to act alongside much yet, that you're hoping to have more scenes with?
I always long for more scenes with Richard Alpert, because I get along with Nestor [Carbonell] so well, and I think his character is just chilling and strange and compelling. I'll also be happy someday when Ben has scenes with Miles [Ken Leung]. Because Miles … he's kind of a wag, isn't he? He's kind of a smartass. It'd be fun to have a little duel of wits with him, if he thinks he's so smart. [Laughs] ... Miles is very much on everyone's mind because there's a storyline going on right now in the filming that he figures very prominently in. So you've got a big dose of Miles coming down the pike here! You're gonna go back in time with Miles, which is delicious, to see what he used to be like. Oh man, it's so great. [Laughs]
8. Do you think Ben considers himself a bad guy or a good guy?
I don't think he thinks about it much -- he thinks of himself as doing the best job he can with limited resources, and he's very consumed by his mission, his battle, his quest -- whatever it is that he needs to get done, he believes in it. I think he believes too that he's a good guy, that he's ethical. He has lapses … he's made some mistakes, and some of them are kind of grievous. Sometimes he can be quite childish and snippy ... he doesn't do well when he's thwarted. He sort of reverts to a not very well-socialized teenager. There's something in him that is frozen in his youth, but maybe the storyline means to explore [that]. We are going to revisit Ben's youth this season, and we're going to revisit certain scenes we've seen before, but framed in a new way -- new perspective, re-contextualized. Ben's mom [played by Emerson's real-life wife] hasn't yet been called upon to appear. But I'd say that possibility is still out there.
9. Do you feel like you have to watch the show when it airs to fully understand what's going on?
It's made so much more clear in the telecast -- I mean, you read the script and it's dizzying. The script says, "Now we're in 1954." "Now we're in 1978." And it's hard to keep that all straight. You just have an overall sense of the blurring … we're just bouncing around. But seeing it on TV, they illustrate it quite well. They do the best they can to let us know where we are, and why. And … it won't go on forever.
10. So have you been able to sort of step back and decide what you think will happen? Could Ben's return to the island with the Oceanic 6 possibly be the end of that flashing?
I don't think it works the way you describe -- but that's good, that's logical what you said, that their arrival would be the fix. I think the fix and their arrival are unconnected, even if they did coincidentally happen in something like the same timeframe. That's assuming that there is some … I'm talking about a small fix, not a big fix. This business of things being unhinged in time and space … that's … that's ongoing on some level. Hmmm … we're kind of talking about things we shouldn't be talking about. [Laughs]
11. You've played quite a few very disturbed individuals -- are you drawn to that type of role, or is it just a coincidence? And are you ever worried you'll be typecast?
It's just some kind of accident. I never thought about it before I did it. It's not the thing I would've steered toward or have chosen. I enjoy the playing of villains -- I enjoy playing any kind of character that has a kind of complex psychology, and these kinds of characters have that. It's sort of a freak of how I got started in television, and how people have continued to sort of seek me out for that type of playing. It wasn't a tone that was ever part of my repertoire on the live stage, and it hasn't really been my movie tone either. It's just sort of what they have wanted me to do on television. I'll have to figure that out a little better when 'Lost' is over, and see if there is some new tone to be explored in future TV work.
12. How do you imagine life changing when the show ends after next season?
I have a lot of things in my life that I didn't fully know or absorb while I was in it. I tend to perceive a thing better in hindsight, so I'm sure there's going to be a lot of nostalgia in me, for the time spent in Hawaii, for the time spent working on the show, for the people I worked with and the relationships I had. But at the same time, I think I won't be the only one who will be relieved to return to North America, to pick up the life I had before my 'Lost' adventure, and not be always traveling, and not always be five time zones away from loved ones and all of that. Like everything else, it'll be the end of a sort of golden time, but hopefully set the stage for equally compelling projects.
13. Are there shows that you watch and think, "Man, if I wasn't on 'Lost' …"?
I was always really jealous of 'Deadwood' -- I like period, and I like what a language program it was, how many different kinds and colors of antiquated English speech there was in it. At the other end of some kind of scale, I'm a great admirer of 'The Wire.' People always say, "Well what do you want to play?" And I never have a good answer, because the best things you play always come out of left field, completely unpredictably. The best roles I've played -- the top 10 -- are roles I was unaware existed before I got them; I wouldn't have thought to ask to play something like Ben. I mean, who knew? So, now it's sort of an article of faith with me; I'm going to sit back and wait and see what comes around on the wheel of life and hope that it's equally compelling. [Laughs] It's all wheels … wait till you see!
14. Where do you keep the Emmy you won for your guest role on 'The Practice'?
My Emmy sits on a metal and glass stand, in the corner of our tiny little dining area in our apartment in New York. It's in kind of a shadowy place, but that's all right. It catches my eye every so often. There is a note of tragedy attached to my Emmy, because it flew home on my lap on the night of Sept. 10, 2001, and before I'd even unpacked it the following morning, we had this earth-shattering tragedy in our city. The whole mood of celebrating it or that achievement sort of went out the window, and has never sort of fully returned. It is also a memento of that time and those events. I never got that day where I sat there and looked at it, and held it in my hand and fully absorbed the fantastic-ness of it. But it's there.