Lost's Ben Linus talks to us about his connection to The Island.
by Matt Fowler
February 24, 2009 - It's not often that we here at IGN TV get to march into the heart of darkness, but this past week I had a chance to speak with the winner of IGN TV's Top Villain of '08, Benjamin Linus himself – Lost's Michael Emerson. Linus is a complex character, but he's also been our "constant." Because Ben always seems to know more than he's sharing, we as an audience are able to put our faith behind a show that's filled with secrets. The fact that Ben seems to know what's going on sets our hearts and minds at ease whenever we find ourselves getting overwhelmed with the "unknown." Michael Emerson's performance, which manages a tremendous balance between petty jealousy to irreverent malice, is definitely something that brings us back to the show each week. Even if we do wind up, occasionally, wanting to beat his character in the face with a large piece of plywood.
IGN TV: I just wanted to give you a "heads up" before I start here that most everyone in our office, myself included, are complete Lost fanatics.
Michael Emerson: Oh, well then they must have had a good time Wednesday night, I thought it was a pretty good episode. IGN: We had a great time. And now speaking directly to what we saw on Wednesday night, we got to see Ben battered and bloodied again. You'd gone injury free for a long time, but now you're back to the Ben we remember. Emerson: (laughs) Oh, gosh. I sort of had a vacation from it for six episodes, but now as you can see I'm a punching bag again. It takes longer every morning in make up when you've got to apply all the bruises and bleeding. We're back to that old drill and the more ragged clothing. It sort of feels like we're going back to the thing that I know best.
IGN: What kind of things are you allowed to know, an actor, headed into a scene? I know that it's good to keep the audience in the dark about certain elements, but what about the actors? When you filmed that scene with Ben acting frantic, covered in blood and on the payphone, did you know what had just happened to Ben?
Emerson: No. I didn't actually. And it was the cause of some speculation on the set. "Wait a minute. I'm beaten. Who beat me? And for what reason?" But, you know, I could speculate. I had a pretty fair idea of what my secret, last minute mission was. You know, before I had to get on the plane. So it's an outgrowth of that, clearly. IGN: What is it like, from an actor's standpoint, to head into scenes where you might not know the set up or the outcome? Emerson: Actually, I suppose it might seem like it would be a problem for some people. But I started the show as a guest actor not knowing what the heck was going on, and I find that, as I've gone along, that that's still the best policy. In a way, I'm happy not to be the keeper of the big secrets and I'm happy not always having to gauge my performance toward some secret future development. Or some secret past development. It really just makes it easier if I just show up on the day and play the scenes straight.
IGN: This season's big development is the big and daring bellyflop into the realm of "Time Travel." It's now a show about time travel. How did that sit with you? Was that something that you knew was coming?
Emerson: Every season the writers inject a new, sort of, device. Or a new level to the storytelling. Previously they've done flashbacks and then flash forwards. I wasn't sure what they were going to come up with for this season, but I knew it was going to be something big because it is every season. And this one seems to be logical. Now that they've unleashed the forces of the space-time continuum than it seems natural that we should start bouncing around in there.
IGN: You're probably not aware of this, but you were voted, here at IGN, the top TV villain of '08 in our Best of '08 feature that we ran before the holidays.
Emerson: Oh, that's nice! Thank you!
"IGN: Ben is definitely someone with bigger plans and a bigger picture in mind. When you play him, do you see him as an evil character?
Emerson: No, I don't really. I don't think of him in terms of good and evil. But even if I did I would not think of him as a villain. We don't really have solid evidence of that, and maybe it's partly my nature to just think of the character as free floating on the scale of good and evil. And I'm not sure where the writers mean to go with it. I mean the writers love teasing the audience a lot with my character. Making them fear him. Making them worry about his plans all the time. And depending on which part of which season you're looking at he might come off as very villainous or perhaps very sympathetic. I think they've made him rather sympathetic lately and for all I know, they mean to wrap it up in a very heroic manner. I think the jury is still out on Ben. Although it's safe to say that he's manipulative and deceptive when he needs to be. Ben might say "well, if you knew what I had to get done, then it justifies my means."
IGN: It's a given for us that Ben mixes lies with the truth and is a master of manipulation, but I think what tipped the scales for us and what got Ben the IGN TV award was his little throwaway lines. Like when Locke said, "You just killed everyone on that boat?" And Ben said, "So." Or even from this past week's show when Jack asks Ben about what might happen to everyone else on the plane, and then Ben said, "Who cares." The nonchalant attitude towards the deaths of others sealed the deal for him in our eyes.
Emerson: Oh yes. (laughing) Every season they seem to give me one of those moments where I seem like the coldest human being on the planet and that was one of them.
Emerson: That seems to be where we're at right now. In fact, I made a mental note to myself this week that Ben may not be a General after all. He may be a Captain. There seems to be this upper tier of people who understand the mechanism and they seem to be jealous of one another and then they're sometimes outright violent with one another.
IGN: What is Ben's attraction or attachment to The Island specifically? He mentioned that it's a place "where miracles happen" but we also know that he doesn't seem to give a damn about people. So it would be safe to assume that he might not even care about miracles.
Emerson: I think the full answer to that is unknown. Not just to the viewer, but to me as well. Because the answer to that question is tied in with the end reveal of the series. With the whole conclusion, I think. I can say that the force that The Island represents is the most powerful force in the world and therefore he who controls it, controls many other things. But I think it's more than the quest for power. His attachment seems to be more personal.
IGN: You're almost done filming this season, aren't you?
Emerson: Yes, they're just finishing up number fourteen I think. So just three more.
IGN: What's it like knowing that Lost is headed for a definite conclusion after one more season? Is this the right time for the show to end, or could have seen it going on longer? Emerson: I think it's a great and bold stroke on the part of the writing staff to say, "Okay, we're not going to milk this thing. We're not going to run it into the ground. We have a plan. We have an outline and we're going to finish it in this many episodes." It's certainly good for the show. It's revived the momentum of the playing and of the writing on the show. It also sort of gave an electrical shock to our audience who got to become a little more engaged all over again. I just think that for me as an actor, you hate to see a great thing come to an end, but it's also been really hard work and it's been somewhat lonely work because it's shot so far from all my friends and loved ones. Family. The world of the theater. You know, the life I had before Lost has been on hold for more than three years. It will be nice to come back to the mainland and pick up where I left off.
IGN: Well, we'll miss the show, of course, when it leaves. But we'll also really miss Ben and your performance.
Emerson: Thank you. I really enjoy the ambiguity of the character. I think it's not only fun to play, but I think it's true. It's true about life. The villains in our lives are not such obvious villains. They're subtle. And you're never quite sure if you've seen what you've seen. Or heard what you've heard. I like that. I think the playing of villains is the most fun an actor can have. It reflects the truth about humanity, which is that we all have a little bit of villainy or corruption in us. But we're also very good at hiding it and that's what the playing of villains is all about.