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Athletics not really an option for tv actor Michael Emerson as a kid growing up in Iowa, the after school activity left to him was the Midwestern tradition of speech and debate. He’d enter state and local contests and eventually got involved in drama clubs before deciding to study theatre at Drake College. Devoid of any real practical knowledge on pursuing the discipline, his move to the tougher New York City of the 1970s really knocked the “wind out of him,” and forced him to quit.
Meandering down south as a retail worker, he eventually became an illustrator but burning enough bridges in the field by the mid 80’s left nothing in the way of re-pursuing acting. Emerson started doing community and university acting and took better stock in his dream by attending graduate school. His craft improved, a stage role in The Trial of Oscar Wilde put him on the map and Emmy for his guest role on The Practice paved the way for appearances on the X-Files and Law and Order. On his way, Emerson’s breakout role as the evil Linus on Lost had the Iowa native found as an acting staple. But now juxtaposed across that axis between good and evil in his portrayal of the computer genius Finch on Person of Interest, Emerson never judges the characters he plays to bring them to life.
“Goodness and badness – that’s the province of the writers and the perception of the audience. It’s a contract between them. The actor just goes in and plays it as steady and plausibly as he can. Then you try not as the actor to make it whether this particular line or action is good or bad. It’s just a question of following your motives and trying to accomplish the things your character is trying to accomplish,” he says.
The Machine’s Government Surveillance is not Science Fiction
On the other hand, he now must cater character motives to an inanimate costar that has a mind of its own “It’s a huge complex computer system of sophisticated servers. It’s like what the NSA doesn’t want us to think they have. It can tap into the traffic of emails, cameras, cell phones and all that. And because that’s more data that can be picked apart, there’s some sophisticated software worked in there that recognizes patterns of conspiracy,” says Emerson.
But Finch has a fail safe to help keep the government at bay. “The makers of the machine have given it to the government, but have kept a backdoor in which the machine tells them that a person is about to be involved in a violent crime as a perpetrator or victim,” he reveals
Either way, he reiterates the science over science fiction. “It’s really feasible, and it appears that this prism system that has been in the news is a version of what we have in the show. It may not be as far reaching. But it’s the same principal, and it’s the line between domestic and foreign surveillance that prevents the government from doing it,” says Emerson.
TV’s Hottest Actors for Different Reasons
However he takes his character’s handicap in stride and does so in his own best interest. “You have to be careful how much you play out the limp, and that it doesn’t give you a problem,” he says.
His costar Jim Caviezel plays it straight up and makes for more than good scenery. “He is easy on the eyes. The strong silent type, and that’s hard to find for a role like Mr. Reese. I can’t think of any other guys that can do what Jim is doing, which is being someone who shows nothing but things are going on inside. Then to be plausible as a weapon’s and combat expert - we lucked out when we found him,” Emerson boasts.
But Emerson leaves character at the door and doesn’t feel like his wife expects expects the type of self sacrifice that Finch exhibits. On the other hand, if he had to answer the call… “I think she feels I’d make similar sacrifices on her behalf if we were in any of these highly fictional circumstances,” he asserts.
As such, the episodes take both the long view and the short fall. “It’s not a given that every story has a point of uber story or mythology. Mostly we do stand alone episodes, but I’m happy that we do have an over arching storyline about the ownership and command of the machine and the forces aligned against us,” says the TV series star.
Looking forward, the plots won’t stay put. “Now we’re adding this new aspect where the machine is sentient in a way. It is capable of movement and able to choose its own friends. I think a great development, and that’s largely what we’ll pursue in season three,” says Emerson.
The New York City backdrop remains the same and presents complication and chaos. “You can’t control the streets,” he says.
The reward is there too. “Some of the locations are breathtaking - on the tops of office buildings with views of the river, fabulous art work and architectural design. It’s always interesting,” says Emerson.
Reflections on Lost
The same goes for his previous association as a series’ actor. “Lost was such a puzzle. We used to sit around and try to figure out where it would possibly lead or end and we never came close,” he remembers.
As for a wrap, Emerson sat well with the ending - despite criticisms from certain corners. It was an extraordinarily difficult show to end, because of the way the narrative spun out and exploded in all directions. How do you strangle that at the end and bring it all together? Well, you bring it back to the center and the start, and I was gratified by the ending.
The Lost villain also felt the ending followed suit with the rest of the presentation. “I liked that it wasn’t laid out on a plate for us. Just as the show had always been open to interpretation so was the ending. I probably thought about it as hard as any of the regular viewers did, because we weren’t privy to the thoughts of the creators. So in the end, I thought they had honored what they created and found it uplifting and moving,” says Emerson.
The awe and mystery of Lost happens also extends to the unexpected journey he’s taken as an actor and means a pinch is usually part of his day. “I often think how did I end up here,” he concludes.