From the moment he first arrived on screen claiming to be an innocent balloonist marooned on the island, Benjamin Linus has been an unstoppable force on Lost. While normally depicted as a cold and calculating villain, it now seems that Linus is the only character who can bring the Oceanic Six back to the island, saving humanity in the process.
Playing this complex and captivating character is Michael Emerson, a stage actor who made a name for himself on television by playing serial killer William Hinks on The Practice. We recently caught up with Emerson to talk about the complexities of Lost, the lighter side of Benjamin Linus and having microwavable food thrown at your head.
How did you get into acting and when did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
I got interested in it when I was a kid. The earliest memory I have of an urge to be on stage was I saw a kid that went to my church doing the school play at the high school and I just thought he was so great and so charismatic. I thought, “If I could ever be half that cool, I would want to do that.” So I studied it as an undergraduate in college and then I lost track of it for a long time. I fell into another line of work – I became a magazine illustrator and I did that all through my 20s. I didn’t become an actor again until my middle-30s. So I’ve come back to it late and I guess I’m still trying to make up for lost time.
Was acting something that you just couldn’t let go? What made you decide to go back to it?
I knew that my life would be in the arts and I had skills and sensibilities that lent themselves to the theatre or the graphic arts or what have you. But the longer I pursued the graphic arts, I realized that I was happy to be pursuing a creative field, but I wasn’t enjoying the process of it very much - the lonely hours hunched over a drawing table, the solitary nature of it. So I was glad when I got back to the theatre and I realized that the same set of tools could be brought to bear but in a somewhat more celebratory and social work setting. I felt that I then found the best of both worlds. So the theatre seems to work fine for me.
One of your first big television roles was playing serial killer William Hinks in The Practice, which earned you an Emmy. What was it like playing that role and how much of an impact do you think that character had on your acting career, including Damon Lindelof and Carlton’s Cuse’s decision to cast you as Benjamin Linus on Lost?
It was the first character of that sort I had ever played, whether it was on stage or in front of the camera. As you can see, it has colored all of the work I’ve done subsequently on TV for sure and possibly in the cinema as well. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It was a departure for me. I had always played mostly comical characters previous to that, but now that sort of positioned me into the “damaged and dangerous” kind of category, which is fine with me.
They continue to give me interesting characters and certainly Ben is a great and complicated and mysterious and wonderful undertaking. But it’s a type of playing that I wouldn’t have predicted would be my meat and potatoes and I wonder if there will be more of it in my life or if I’ll find a way into some other sort of type of character.
Lindelof said in interviews when Sayid captured Ben and first introduced the audience to your character, the plan was always to have Ben eventually revealed to be the leader of The Others, but the writers had a “trap door” in place to have Ben end up as just another Other in case the actor who played him wasn’t working out. When you were originally cast for that three-episode arc, did you know that was the case?
No, but that was my sort of intuition. Look, when you take a guest spot on TV, every actor sort of has that tiny kernel of hope at the back of his mind that you’re going to play this character so well that they’re going to figure out a way to keep you and that happened for me on Lost. And then, in hindsight, you say, “What was the dynamic of that exactly?” And I think it is just as you described – a sort of an onscreen screen test. They had written this character. They thought they liked it, they thought they would do things with it, but they were going to wait and see how it played out. Luckily it played out well with me with my portrayal, so they kept me in it and they ran with it. It was a kind of an audition that I passed and I’m glad to have passed it.
At what point did you start to get the sense that Benjamin Linus was going to be a big deal on the show?
In the early going, I don’t know, in the third or fourth episode that I was in when Sayid was still pressuring me to reveal my secrets or who I represented or who I was working for, it came to me one day, “Wouldn’t it be a neat twist if instead of being some henchman that I was actually the guy in charge?” And I actually mentioned it to a director on whatever episode it was and he said, “I can’t really discuss that with you.”
And then I thought, “Well, if I’m not on to something that’s true, I’m on to something that should be true or would be cool if it was true.” It turned out it was true.
So did you decide to play the character like that at that point?
I always played the character sort of the same, which was give up as little as possible, play it as earnest and let the business of who he was or what he was up to be a contract between the writers and the viewers.
Lindelof said that what sealed the deal for him and Carlton Cuse was the way you delivered the line “You guys got any milk?” during the chilling breakfast scene with Locke and Jack.
It’s the first time we see how cold and calculating the character can really be and your delivery of that line is perfect. Ben has had many more bone-chilling lines since then and you have a tendency to deliver his more disturbing lines perfectly calm, which makes him creepier than if you were adding inflection to his voice.
Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?
How did you come up with that? How did you decide to deliver his lines without any emotion?
I learned it on stage, where I learned everything that I do as an actor. I have played some villains, Shakespearean villains like Iago, and I learned that something that scares an audience is when the subtext of a line reading does not match what the line says. In other words, if someone is inappropriately cool in a hot situation, it unnerves the audience. They’re suspicious. To say the right words, but in the wrong tone is a good tool. It sends a signal. It suggests to us that this person doesn’t think like I do. Either this person is warped or crazy or this person is up to something.
With Ben, you certainly get the impression that there is a lot going on below the surface and that he’s constantly up to something.
And I think that’s an important effect to achieve in our work, at least with a character like Ben. One of the things the audience longs for is a sense of a character’s inner-life. And if you play a character that gives up little, then you want to suggest or promise that it’s not because there’s nothing to give up. It’s because they choose to keep it to themselves. It’s much more interesting.
When Ben was first introduced, it seemed quite clear that he was a villain on the show, but as the story has unfolded, we’ve become more sympathetic to him. The scene last year when Keamy killed Ben’s daughter in cold blood right in front of his eyes was truly heartbreaking and it showed just how vulnerable and human Ben actually is. Do you think of Ben as a villain? Do you think that as he says he is, he’s actually one of the good guys? How do you see the character?
I probably view him a little more sympathetically then most of the people who watch the show, but partly that’s craft and partly it’s that I really think he’s a more ambiguous creature than some people do. I think it’s entirely possible that he ends up being one of the heroes of the show because we don’t know what the stakes are for him. We don’t know who he’s fighting and for what. Maybe if we knew, we would admire his steadiness and his relentlessness.
And he definitely thinks that he’s right.
That’s certainly true. That’s safe to say. Ben believes pretty much everything he says and he’s not much of a liar really. He’s a manipulator, but he doesn’t tell that many lies. And he really hasn’t hurt that many people, in the present day at least.
We saw his honesty again in last week’s episode when Jack attempted to defend him and Ben admitted that he hired the lawyer who was attempting to prove that Kate isn’t Aaron’s mother.
Ben is nothing if not practical. He’d already gotten what he needed from that play, so why hide it? It’s a new deal now, they’re on the docks. So we need to talk frankly and they need to know the score. Or at least the part of the score that Ben is willing to reveal.
But this business of Ben becoming more complicated and less patently villain, that’s part of the whole mechanics of the show in general. The show started out to seem like a very simple story and as it’s gone it’s grown in complexity and ambiguity, as have most of the characters. All of those stereotypes seem to be in Lost to be broken down and reconfigured and recontextualized. And they’re great at that.
Your character has had some truly memorable interactions, particularly Locke, Jack and Charles Widmore. Do you have a favorite actor to work with on the set? Is there a particular character that if you see Ben has a scene with him you really look forward to it?
When I see that Terry [O'Quinn] and I are on the call sheet together, I know that it’s going to be a good day’s work. It’s going to be well played and it’s also going to be a fast and easy and lighthearted day because I think the Ben and John Locke scenes are brilliantly written and their dialogue or their dance is near the heart of the story of Lost. And we just work so well together. We’re of similar ages and similar craft and similar attitude about our work, so they are effortless days, they are carefree and the product always seems to turn out great.
Ben is definitely in Locke’s head, which is always great too.
Yeah. Well each of them is the nut the other cannot break somehow. They’re like irritants to each other and yet brothers in some strange way.
Earlier this season, you got a Hot Pocket thrown at your head when you spooked Hurley. How tough was it to keep a straight face during that scene?
Well, we did a lot of takes of it as you can imagine trying to get the Hot Pocket right. Some of them were too dry, some of them had way too much pizza sauce in them and they blew up like all over the place, so that was hilarious. Then it takes 10 minutes to get your straight face back on. But yeah, it was an interesting evening’s work. And, of course, they cut my deadpan response, which was: “Now that’s just a waste of a Hot Pocket.” (Laughs.) Which I thought was a classic downbeat Ben dry read, but they cut it.
They give Ben a lot more funny lines then the audience ever sees because that’s the first thing they’ll cut of Ben is when he’s being funny.
That’s too bad because he actually is a very funny character.
He’s very witty, I think. (Laughs.)
There are countless websites devoted to analyzing Lost and coming up with theories about the show. As an actor on the show, do you try to figure out what it all means or do you just focus on the script in front of you and focus on that day’s work?
We do both but like the viewers we’re sort of watchers of the show too. And as readers of the scripts, we’re continually trying to figure out what’s going on, where it’s headed or “Does this mean what I think it means?” We have those discussions on the set. Some people are more interested in that than others. I mean, Jorge [Garcia] is always a good one to talk about “All right man, where’s this thing going and what do you think?” because he keeps track of all of the most bizarre theories about the show and he’s also a sharp reader of the script. He can sort of read the mind of the writers a little bit, so sometimes he has a great idea of where a thing is leading.
Which is interesting too since the writers have said that his character a lot of times stands in for the audience – that he is used to represent what the audience is thinking.
He is. He is us if we were in that situation. Bewildered, bemused, out of place, ill-equipped, all of that. He’s an earthling amongst aliens.
Your wife is a huge fan of the show and she even played your mother in a flashback episode. Does she try to get inside information from you about the show?
No, she tries to get me to shut up. She’s a purist, you know? She doesn’t want to know anything before she witnesses it in the official and legal telecast. So I have to kind of be quiet. I’ll come home and say, “You’re never going to believe what I did today.”
And she’ll say, “Shut up! Shut up!”
Obviously, you don’t know what the writers have in store for your character or the show next season, but how would you like to see Lost end and how would you like to see things end for Ben?
I don’t know that Ben will end up being any different when this is all said and done than he has been right along. It may be that Ben is unchanged. We may just, because of circumstances that the writers create, we may just come to see him differently. The change may be in the viewer, not in the character.
The end of the whole story, the final conclusion – I hope it’s sort of contextual. I have a feeling that it’s going to be a thing that was in plain sight all along. I hope that it’s a thing where we go, “Oh my god, I should have known. It was there all the time. How did I not get that?” I hope that’s the note that we feel at the end of it all.
If anyone could pull that off, it would be the writers of Lost.
It’s going to be something where there’s one more dimension to the events we’ve witnessed than we thought or than we dreamed. Something that repositions everything. And I think these are the guys for the job. They’re deeply experienced and deeply read in science fiction and fantasy and horror and comic books. They are structurally brilliant. So if you can depend on anyone for an ending that means something, I think it will be these guys.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Lost airs Wednesday nights on ABC, but you probably already knew that.