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Michael Emerson on Person of Interest, Ben Linus Comparisons, and the Terry O’Quinn Show That Never Was

Michael Emerson.

In the new CBS drama Person of Interest, two vigilantes fight New York City crime with the help of a revolutionary post-9/11 surveillance system. Michael Emerson plays the system’s architect, Finch — a rogue with enough money to fund these expeditions. James Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) is the depressed ex-CIA hit man who carries them out. Each man’s past is a mystery, and given Emerson’s turn as the impenetrable Benjamin Linus on Lost, it’s impossible not to suspect something sinister’s afoot. Emerson called Vulture to discuss his new show, created by Jonathan Nolan and produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot, and began by saying, “Hello, this is Michael Emerson, calling from New York.”

Do you always start conversations like that?
[Laughs.] I realized that as it came out of my mouth, since you’re in New York too. I got in the habit of saying I was calling from Honolulu back when I worked on Lost, just so that people would be conscious of, I guess, the time difference — and I don’t know, just as a novelty.

After Lost ended, you spoke to Vulture about how you wanted to surprise people with your next role. Do you think Person of Interest will surprise people?
I don’t think it’s as big a change of taste as I probably had in mind when I gave that interview. Of course we were tired, and I thought, I’m going to let some time past before I get on the schedule of television again. I had it in my head I was gonna do stage work until the right part came along, but that didn’t work out either. I can’t very well account for the last year of my life — well, I can. Terry O’Quinn [Lost’s John Locke] and I were trying to cook something up with Bad Robot that fell under the heading of “completely different,” and it just didn’t get to the place where it could be made. We were struggling to get it written, and at some point it got put on a back burner. It was actually picked up by a certain network, and then un-picked up, and so we came to a point this February where we thought, We are really not going to work, and I don’t know when we’ll work. I would rather work than not work, so since I had a relationship with Bad Robot, I went to them and I said, “I know you have scripts — what else do you have around that you’re developing?” And they said they had this show set in New York City, sort of stylish and dark,” and I perked up when I heard that. Because who doesn’t wanna work with Jonah Nolan or stay with the Bad Robot family and work at home? This is partly a reaction having been in Hawaii for five years. To work at home and sleep in my own bed — that seemed so dreamy to me. I thought I better take a look at it. And then I ended up liking the script. So here we are.

Ben Linus was so immersive a character. Even watching the pilot for Person of Interest and seeing your character, I couldn’t help but make comparisons.
I understand. Even though we know he’s a good guy, it’s hard not to listen to ambiguities in his line readings. [Laughs.]

So do you think he’s a good guy? He’s operating independent of the police. He’s a renegade with a grand conspiracy theory.
Yeah, but he’s in that vein of vigilantism, so his motives and his mission are all aimed at justice. But I guess there’s always the question with avengers and vigilantes of whether it’s cool to operate outside the law. But that’s what gives [the show] its edge and thrill. That’s why we watched Clint Eastwood movies — a lot of that “taking the law into your own hands” methodology we appear to be very fond of in our culture.

A lot of your experience prior to TV was on the stage, where you know the entire arc of your character before you perform. And on Lost, it was the complete opposite: You knew so little about your character going in. How do you shift gears from the stage to TV? Do you write entire character bios and backstories?
I learned from Lost to turn off doing that actor homework. It never helped much, and sometimes would get in the way. If I don’t know where the thing is going, it’s better if I take it scene by scene, and let the character reveal himself to me in time. It’s funny to talk about [Person of Interest] in the same conversation where I was talking about Ben Linus — there were 90 episodes that I did [on Lost], and after a while, I wore him like a well-tailored coat. This time, I’m on the ground floor. So mainly what I’m trying to do now is be a sensitive reader of the scripts and try to predict the places they’re going. I think every actor who has ever made a pilot has some cause to regret certain choices or nuances, because they see it doesn’t hold up over time. So I’m not making wholesale decisions at this point. I’m feeling my way.

It’s interesting that you worked as an illustrator for many years before acting. Do you still draw?
No, I haven’t touched pencil to paper in years.

How do you feel about that?
I feel fine. I know it’s a thing that saddens others much more than it saddens me. I think whatever is pleasurable or satisfying to me about being an illustrator, I still get — in an even better form — by being an actor. Or you might say, “an illustrator of living characters.”

But I assume at one point, you enjoyed literally putting a thing in your hand and drawing with it.
Sometimes I’ll see something and think, There’s a fine subject for a drawing. And there was a time when I’d come back and sit down and draw it, or taken a picture so I could mess with it when I got home. I sort of miss that. You’re right, I shouldn’t be too glib about the loss of that.

Michael Emerson on Person of Interest, Ben Linus Comparisons, and the Terry O’Quinn Show That Never Was