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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 02/ 6/2009

Catching Up with 'Lost's' Michael Emerson

By Liz Kelly

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."

Excellent.

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.

Michael: [Laughs]

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.


For more "Lost" interviews and analysis, visit "Lost" Central.

By Liz Kelly  | February 6, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Catching Up With..., Lost  
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Comments

Whoa...sudden thought. What if the island doesn't just travel through time and space, but into alternate timelines. Like where people had 4 toes.

Because we (the viewers) really need THAT complication.

Oh, and nice interview.

Posted by: reychel | February 6, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the great interview...and the final confirmation that Nestor Carbonell does not wear eyeliner. ;)

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | February 6, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Great post! You rock!

Egypt, huh?

Posted by: memphis1 | February 6, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Awesome interview. Loved Michael's comment "It is a television show, not a world religion."
Gave me an idea...Scientology is founded on science fiction, so....Why can't Lizard Island do the same? This just fits the bill being about an island and all. Who is the island shaman??? What say you? Maybe we can dupe stars into following us and make gazillions too!

Posted by: hodie | February 6, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I'm just so happy we will learn more about the 4-toes statue :)

Michael Emerson seems like such a thoughtful guy.

Posted by: ideallydc | February 6, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Well now that Liz has talked to Ben we can never trust her again. She's just going to be doing what he wants her to do whether she knows it or not.

Posted by: spidey103 | February 6, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Fantastic interview. Given Liz's comment that Emerson picks his words carefully, am I the only one who has been going over and over the following statement: "...but I'm not sure he's allowed to resume life on the island in the natural course of things." Resume. Life. I immediately thought that for him to go back, he has to die, or convert from one state of being to another. I had visions of Ben's (Linus) take on Ben's (Kenobi) death scene, something that was necessary for his group to make it to where they needed to go. And then he comes back, in the same way that Christian Shepard, (we assume) John Locke and others who have passed on do.

Posted by: AmitDC | February 6, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Okay, yesterday we lost the afternoon post due to the Lost Dueling Analysis. Then we lose today's to an interview with a Lost person. Queen Liz, I get your obsession with Lost. But, not everyone on Celebritology shares it. I was actually dreading the start of the new season because I knew I would be losing out on celeb snarking to a tv show I never watch.

Posted by: epjd | February 6, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

but did he make her a ham dinner?

Posted by: mat00 | February 6, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

p.s. that ham dinner remark is connected to spidey103's paranoia about Liz, in case I need to 'splain

Posted by: mat00 | February 6, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

A ham dinner wouldn't sway me -- I'm a veg.

And I know ejpd -- it's been a "Lost" heavy week here. I promise I'll confine myself to Thursdays for "Lost" posts from now on (Unless I get another chance to talk one-on-one with a cast member -- or writer/producer -- in which case all bets are off.

But I do feel your pain.

Posted by: Liz Kelly | February 6, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I ran into Terry O'Quinn last month right before he went back to Hawaii to shoot the second half of the season, and he said S5 Ep 6 is the best scene he has ever done with Michael. He was incredibly enthusiastic about it - said he loves working with Michael. It's great watching the pros at work.

Posted by: jhusson1 | February 6, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

So is Michael saying that Mrs. Hawking might NOT be Faraday's mother? Now that would be a twist. Claire's mother is also in LA right now, along with seemingly everyone else in the Lost Real world...

Posted by: jerkhoff | February 6, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

In this week's episode when Ben admitted he was the one that was going after Aaron & all he said outloud was "sorry" but his face, actions & everything about him said sooooo much more.

Right at that moment I said to myself "THAT RIGHT THERE IS EXACTLY WHY THIS MAN HAS A MOTHER-FECKING EMMY!!"

Lovelovelovelurve this man & his portrayal of Ben.

Replace that "e" with a "u" & you know what I actually thought.

Posted by: wadejg | February 6, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Good job, Liz. If it had been me asking the questions, it would've been like Chris Farley on Saturday night live:

"So...you know that part on Lost where you tell Locke that you always have a plan and then you turn the wheel? That was awesome! And the part where you call the smoke monster and it kills the freighter guys? Awesome."
I wouldn't be able to stop it.

Posted by: eet7e | February 6, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with everyone here. Michael Emerson is genius in his portrayal of Ben. He says that the writers have now incorporated so much of himself into the character that it is no longer acting. Liz, that would creep me out a bit. Was it creepy? Nevertheless, I am warming up to his character and starting to consider that he is not all evil. Definitely, the most interesting character of the bunch.

Posted by: hodie | February 6, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Liz,
I absolutely love Thursdays now that Lost is back. Your dueling analysis makes Thursday the fastest day of the week, and now the interview today -- Heaven!
ep, Lost is far and away the best show on TV. You need to start watching asap!

Posted by: Iowahoosier | February 6, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Liz - Michael Emerson rocks! He is so creepy fabulous as Ben. I can't imagine him as the silly character in a play, but I would pay good money to see it!

I'm a DVRer, so it takes all my willpower not to read the Dueling Analysis or participate in the Lost Hour Chat before I get to watch. So, I just want to throw out a theory/question for next week. The O6 need to return to the island to save everyone. Everything we've seen on the show and from what I've read online has been focused around the Losties, but what about Des and Frank? Do they need to come back? Also, does Sun's baby need to come back too, as she was in utero when they left? Technically she's a Lostie and a member of the O6. But she's back in Korea with Sun's mom, not in LA with everyone else. Discuss...

Posted by: y1776 | February 6, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

What is with you people and the eyeliner?

Anyway, I heard that "Ben" was meant to be a small character originally, like Tom, but after a few episodes it became clear his acting and creepiness meant he needed to be more. Emerson sort of mentions this when he says he did not expect his job to last this long. So that tells me someone else was originally meant to be the leader of the Others. It would have to have been Alpert.

So Egypt eh? I was hoping he would say Greece or Italy. Still, close enough.

Posted by: bevjims1 | February 6, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

That was an awesome interview. He seems like a genuine guy.

Liz- I do envy your job.

Posted by: dcet | February 7, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Great interview. Anyhow for the person who commented how Michael was hired for a small role. Several times in their podcast, on the DVDs and in TV interviews the writers have said their intention all along was that Henry Gale would be found to be the leader of the Others in the series finale, and would have a spinal tumor in S3. They also had a built-in way out if he wasn't what they wanted. Henry would have escaped and never been seen again and someone else would have been hired. This was to be a big role and they wanted someone who could handle it. Think -wanting to avoid another Anna Lucia. They also didn't know if he would like moving to Hawaii etc. Damon and Carlton said when they saw the "got any milk" speech on the dailys they knew they had the right actor. Michael said he had an inkling from the script that he might be the leader of the others. His agent was contacted and the role offered. Then the role was tailored to fit him.

I just happened upon this blog but I just might stay :) So did he just let a big spoiler slip? I can just imagine Richard in Egyptian clothes.

Posted by: Maureen_in_Mukilteo | February 7, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

I saw Michael Emerson on the subway once (I live in NYC) during the writers strike. I tried, probably not very successfully, to not stare at him. It was totally the highlight of my day :)

Posted by: NYCGal | February 9, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Michael's a friend of mine and all I can say is he desrves all the praise and attention he's getting. And if you ever have the opportunity to see him on stage, you owe it to yourself to do so. He's a terrific stage actor and very funny!

Posted by: brico | February 12, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

If you change in economic terms,
You retired and opened a 'can of worms',
Whether you're in college or a 'soccer mom',
Come visit CanGagGifts.com!

Posted by: cangaggifts4U | February 12, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

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