Michael Emerson. (ABC)
It turns out that Michael Emerson, living, breathing actor, is every bit as intense as Ben Linus, fictional, diabolical mastermind. The difference, I suppose, is context. Where Ben Linus's frightening gravity is mustered to bend those around him to his will, Emerson's is more of a centeredness and workman-like approach to his craft.
Yesterday, I spoke with Emerson by phone and it may behoove fans of "Lost" to pay close attention to a man who -- both in and out of character -- chooses his words carefully.
Emerson, who says his default mode is theater work, never expected his run on the show to last this long (he's in his third season) or for his character to become so central to the plot.
"I'm really sort of grateful I didn't know or I might've been so nervous I'd have screwed it all up," says Emerson.
But there's no doubt that "Lost" could hardly get along now without Emerson's nuanced portrayal of a character who we're never quite sure about. Is Ben LInus good or evil? For the record, Emerson thinks Linus is inherently a good guy whose methodology is a little rough around the edges.
Read on to get more of Emerson's thoughts on the "Lost" mythology, Ben's inevitable encounter with Daniel Faraday, promise of an explanation to come -- finally -- for that four-toed statue and more about the rest of the show's fifth season, including this take on some upcoming scenes with his favorite co-star, Terry O'Quinn:
"Oh we have some crackerjack scenes -- epic, vintage Ben and John Locke coming up -- in ways you would never expect."
Much more after the jump...
Liz: You've taken the character of Ben Linus and made him your own creature -- beyond where the producers saw him going. Have you contributed to his development as the show has matured?
Michael: I'm on a kind of a circuit with the writers. I would never presume to call them up and give them a character idea or even a story idea. But I know they watch the dailies closely and over time they've gotten used to me and I see that the character is a better and better fit as time goes by because they're familiar now with my tics -- the way I express myself or stand or look or scratch my head. They tend to write that in more, so with each passing season the line is blurred a little bit, I guess, between my playing of the character and what is required for the playing of the character.
What evil lurks in the heart of men? Ben Linus (Michael Emerson, right) and Jack (Matthew Fox) form an uneasy alliance. (Image courtesy ABC)
Liz: So I would imagine it's getting easier as time goes along?
Michael: It does, which does not mean I get more comfortable. This season I've had a couple of alarming moments when I thought "I'm not doing any acting, am I? Or am I?" When day in and day out you play this character, it doesn't require a lot of priming on the morning of the day you work. You just sort of put on the clothes and there you are. You kind know how he ticks -- and to me that's sort of alarming because I'm used to having to craft and re-craft the back story, the interior monologue, all that kind of stuff -- and now it doesn't feel like I'm doing enough. I mean, I think I am, but it is sort of a funny feeling.
Liz: We have a big "Lost" following here at washingtonpost.com and one of our readers noticed that you -- or Ben Linus -- doesn't blink much. Is it a conscious decision to not blink or is that just Michael Emerson?
Michael: I don't think about it. I've heard people mention it before. Maybe it's something that's held over in me from the stage. It's maybe more about there not letting there be a lapse in intensity, not letting a connection be broken. Maybe. I probably shouldn't think about it too much.
Liz: A question from my colleague in "Lost" scholarship, Jen Chaney: What was it like turning the frozen donkey wheel in last season's finale? Did it weigh two pounds or was it really as heavy as it looked?
Michael: It was heavy. It needed to be heavy. We tried pushing it with no resistance and it was too easy and it's hard to fake that particular kind of effort, so we ended up having the biggest grip on the set sit on the other side of the wall -- a 250 pound man put his weight against it -- so I would have something like real work to do. And that helped.
Liz: Are there any actors that you particularly enjoy working with? I read in a recent interview that you didn't get the warmest welcome when you joined the cast. Is that right or did you want to clarify?
Michael: Oh, yes, because I wouldn't want to give that impression. When you come to a show late like I did you don't fall into the party scene of the show, you keep to yourself a bit. They've already been there for years -- most of the people on the show are family people so they have soccer practices and PTA meetings to go to. I live on a different part of the island and I'm away a lot. Most of my life remains on the mainland, so I tend to spend a lot of time away on breaks. But I get along famously and socialize with lots of members of the cast. There are many that I never get to work with, which is an odd thing about our show.
Ben (Michael Emerson), Hurley (Jorge Garcia) and John (Terry O'Quinn) in search of the elusive Jacob. (ABC)
But for me, a workday when I'm doing scenes with Terry [O'Quinn] is always a very good workday. I love the way he works and the scenes between Ben and John Locke are, I think, especially well written. And I think they're somewhere near the heart of the dialogue that is at the heart of "Lost."
Liz: Will we see any of those scenes in the upcoming season?
Michael: Oh we have some crackerjack scenes -- epic, vintage Ben and John Locke coming up -- in ways you would never expect.
Liz: Talk about Ben a little bit more. There's a big schism between people who believe the guy is just bad to the bone, pure evil and then others who believe he's an inherently good person who happens to be using any means at his disposal to bring about his goal. What's your take? Or maybe you know the absolute right answer to this question?
Michael: Maybe I'm naive or self-serving, but I tend to subscribe to that latter theory. Maybe that's the only way I can live and operate within the character. Even if the net result was to be that he's a 100 percent heinous villain, I would still have to for my purposes, my process, find the sympathetic notes in it and hold on to those to find justifications for behavior.
I think he's complicated. I think if you spoke to the writers about it you'd come away with the impression that they think of him as not a wholesale villain. I think they like right where he's at -- which is kind of a question mark. And one of the reasons they like me is that I abide by that question mark.
Liz: Speaking of where Ben's at -- will we see him make it back to the island this season?
Michael: He's certainly working that direction, but I'm not sure he's allowed to resume life on the island in the natural course of things. It may take some extraordinary circumstance for him to go back. But he's certainly busy trying to get the Oceanic 6 back there.
Liz: There's one season of the show left. Which is good for the story line, but maybe not so good for the actors who have found such great work on this show. Have you given any thought to what's next for you? Have you thought that far ahead?
Michael: I haven't. I always assume my default mode is to be a stage actor, so I imagine myself doing plays somewhere. But I'll be open to whatever opportunities come my way as long as they aren't too Ben-like.
Liz: Have you had a lot of offers for Ben-like roles?
Michael: Ben's not the only sort of dangerous or damaged character I've played on television. I've sort of had a run of those and I do continue to get offered; for example, people want to offer me serial killers and as many variations of interest as there can be within that small character profile, I think that's a thing I should best leave alone for a while. I think it's a trap you could exhaust and become over-identified with it.
I'd like to stay light on my feet and mix it up a little bit. One of the appeals of the world of theater to me is that on stage I've always done comedies and played silly characters, which is fun. That might be a good way to cleanse the palate between Ben and whatever comes up next.
Liz: Evangeline Lilly did an interview recently where she said she doesn't really buy into the whole mythology of "Lost"; that she's more in it for the relationships created between the characters. What about you?
Michael: I like the day-to-day process of this work and I'm not sure that "Lost" contains a profound or life-changing mythology, but I think the show is complex and interesting enough to merit some puzzlement and reflection in the off hours. I do enjoy it and I enjoy the way it inspires conversation and meditation in others who don't work on the show -- viewers and such -- so I don't make a study of it, but I do enjoy it. I admire and continue to be impressed by our writing staff and I think the show ends up meaning more than we thought it meant when it first came out.
Liz: Do you think it's possible that viewers read too much into the show?
Michael: We read a lot or too much into things we're passionate about or seem to speak to us. I suppose it's possible to go overboard. It is a television show, not a world religion. But at the same time, it's kind of fun and the speculative part of our show is honest and intelligent. And at the end of the day it's entertaining. And the place people find for it in their lives is rather up to them.
What I think is good about "Lost" (if I may say so), there's something there for every level of viewing passion -- from light interest to obsession -- so you don't run out of stuff even for the obsessed viewer.
Liz: Speaking of obsessed viewers -- do you get recognized on the street?
Michael: I get that more and more -- not so much in Hawaii where I live. Maybe the tourists here have other things on their mind. The tourists here are heavily Japanese and I don't know to what extent we are watched in Japan. We're watched some, but I do have a kind of easy anonymity in my adopted neighborhood here.
Liz: A few more questions here that if I don't ask them, I'll never hear the end of it from my readers.
Liz: Is Ben 100 percent cured of his cancer?
Michael: Oh, I -- yes -- there's nothing in the current storytelling that refers back to it. I don't think about it anymore. Maybe I should.
Liz: Will Ben ever meet Daniel Faraday, do you think?
Michael: I think he must sooner or later.
Liz: Well, he's already met his mother...
Michael: Yeah. Who's his mother?
Liz: You tell me. All signs point to Mrs. Hawking.
Michael: Ohhh. Yeah...
Liz: Is Nestor Carbonell -- who plays Richard Alpert -- wearing eyeliner?
Michael: No. But he has a kind of genetic beauty that is a rare thing in men or women. No, that's what he looks like when he wakes up in the morning. It's hard not to study his face and admire it.
Liz: Well you've probably just put to rest several theories about Alpert being a transplant from ancient Egypt.
Michael: Ah. Well, hold that thought about Egypt. That's all I'll say.
Liz: Will we find out what the deal is with the four-toed statue?
Michael: You are going to learn more about the world from which that statue came. I don't think we're going to see the statue again in context, but maybe. You'll certainly know from whence it is a relic.
Liz: Thank you so much for talking to us today.
Michael: My pleasure.