You’d recognise the face of actor Michael Emerson. He’s starred in two major television series, playing shadowy characters in both ‘Lost’ and more recently ‘Person Of Interest’.
Often referred to as a go-to ‘character actor’, Emerson says he likes “complicated” roles and plots with “philopshical dimensions” to them. He also hopes the bad guys he plays will leave audiences pondering the (lack of) virtues of evil, rather than emulating them…
Interview by Antonino Tati
Transcription by Chris Prindiville
Hi Michael. For ‘Person Of Interest’, you’ve reunited with ‘Lost’ creator J.J. Abrams. Obviously you work well with the man. What is it about J.J.’s productions that appeal to you?
What appeals to me about Mad Robot Productions [the production house owned by Abrams] is simply that they’re just willing to hire me. I think J.J. is a cool guy, although I don’t see him on a regular basis. I do like his taste in scripts. I’d say they’re high above average for a high-powered Hollywood producer. Anything that came to me with his name attached, I’d give a serious look.
With J.J.’s productions being so big, you’d expect him to be a difficult guy to work with – and quite the perfectionist. But the opposite is often said about him in the industry: they say he is in fact easy to work. Did you find that?
J.J is a sweetheart. He’s the kind of guy who walks over to your table and talks to your Mom. He’s the really smart guy who might have had a room down the hall from you in the college dormitory. He seems to be eternally youthful and in an eternal state of excitement about cool ideas and cool stories.
Did you both sense from the start that ‘Person Of Interest’ would be such a huge hit?
I had no idea. When you take these jobs and shoot a pilot, you just hope it’s a good one and that it might have promise. But there is never any guarantee. I thought… how likely would it be that I would be on two good shows? But that is how it played out. I have to say, I’ve been very fortunate. With ‘Person Of Interest’, I liked the look of the pilot when I read it: that noir feel of it; that it was shot mostly at night in New York City; that there were good guys, avengers operating outside the law, and using extremely forward technology. All of that seemed interesting and fun to me. It also had a lot of philosophical dimensions to it, which turned out to be true.
You mentioned ‘good guys’ there. The characters start off as good guys, but there’s a shadowy backstory to each of them, isn’t there?
True. And, strictly speaking, they are vigilantes. They’re taking the law into their own hands. But a huge part of American culture has that narrative. As you know, we in America love to take the law into our own hands, so there’s a whole mythology that gets built up around that. Everything from Jesse James to Batman, we seem never to tire of it. In this case it was a nice variation on that theme, involving a plausible technology. What we thought was science-fiction when we started the series turned out to be more ‘science-fact’.
In ‘Lost’ you played an enigmatic villain; you were a serial killer on ‘The Practice’; in the ‘Saw’ movie franchise you played the evil Zep; even in ‘Person Of Interest’ there is a certain darkness to your persona. What draws you to these dark roles?
Partly it’s because I’m anxious to work! But I don’t think of them as dark or sinister, necessarily. I’m just looking for complication, and I’m looking for language. I’m hoping for roles that will have layers. And I do like a bit of mystery. I think that’s what keeps people watching. If a role is mysterious, a little inexplicable or maddening, that will appeal to me.
It appeals to audiences as well. If you go back to ‘Saw’, your character Zep was initially suspected of being Jigsaw. It’s not revealed until the end that he is actually a victim of Jigsaw rather than the villain himself. Did you like the idea audiences might suspect you to be one thing and you turn out to be another?
It’s good if there is a switch. That first ‘Saw’ script had the best twist at the end of any script I’d read up until that point. For that reason alone, I thought it was a project worth doing. I knew it was going to delight and confound a lot of audiences, and that it would be thrilling. And I was happy to be the decoy villain, as it gave me more screentime than the actual Jigsaw. That was a show that turned out to be hard work and ever so slightly dangerous. Just because it was shot very fast and there were fight scenes and stunts…
Do you have to psych yourself up to play a baddie in a series or film?
Not really. In a way, good and evil mean nothing to me as an actor. I’m just looking for psychological complexity. I just want there to be layers and some electricty in the scenes. That’s the kind of thing I relish. Perhaps I should say, I want it to be ‘theatrical’. I want to do scenes on TV that feel like something you would see on the stage.
Television has very much moved into darker territory of late. What do you think about this tendency for TV shows to get more noiresque?
There are now so many entities producing television content and trying to push that envelope, eventually they’re going to run out of territory. But for now, why not? I’m not sure I always want to go on that journey toward explicit sexuality, or profanity, or darkness, or whatever it is. But if it has style and is plausible and is well-played, then I’m in.
Do you think these dark story-lines and characters influence society and real life, or are producers taking from society and extrapolating on that?
I would be more comfortable thinking that the media – the scripted media – is a reflection of human behaviour more than a motivator of human behaviour. I’m going to hold on to that, as I don’t want that responsibilty!
Do you think there is a danger that some people might watch these shows about gun-wielding vigilantes and take the law into their hands in real life?
I hope that people aren’t getting wicked ideas from TV. I guess the jury is out on whether witnessing violence makes us more peaceful or more violent. In think generally that drama, even in the time of the Greeks, provides and provided a way to shed tension and stress, and to make us more thoughtful. In a media-drenched environment, like the one we live in now, I’m sure people are over-comfortable with the idea of guns. Anybody that lives in the United States of America is in no position to talk about the effect of media and violence on its culture, but it’s certainly worth talking about.
You brought up the history of drama. Even in the time of Shakespeare, audiences witnessed people being poisioned and stabbed on stage, and it’s not like those audiences went out and poisined and stabbed each other…
Exactly. Those audiences reacted to it and thought about it, and came away more civilised, less likely to be a poisoner or a murderer.
There’s more credibility attached to TV these days, especially compared to the past where film was the more credible medium. And actors, like yourself, are now moving back and forth between the two. Do you think this has a lot to do with the quality in script-writing?
I think that as cinema – in Hollywood, at least – has gotten to be more genre-obsessed, more blockbuster-obsessed, a lot of thoughtful actors have decided they need to move around more. I think every smart actor in America is trying to mix it up: do a bit of stage, a bit of TV, and if you can get a tasty part in some movie, that would be great as well. We have to acknowledge that there are all these platforms for the delivery of stories, and we have to be ready to work in all of them, or as many of them as we can, partly, so that we can make a living.
Do you study other areas of production – just in case you want to be a director or producer later in your career?
I was a director of plays many years ago. At some point I decided that I was too much in the business of telling people to play a role as I would play it, and finally told myself, “If you’re instincts are so good, then you just play it, just be an actor; stop trying to force other people to share your inspiration.” I know that is a narrow view, and for all I know, I might be a fine director now with that self-knowledge. But I sort of feel like I have enough on my plate as an actor that I don’t want to spread out and do those other things.
It must be therapeutic to be an actor, as you get to delve into the different aspects of your personality.
It’s a wonderful way to make a living. I suppose it is therapeutic on some level. It gives you a chance to live more than one life, or to be more than one person, during your span on Earth. I don’t know. That’s kind of a philosophical discussion waiting to be had…
What about when a part of your reality interweaves into your work? Like when your spouse Carrie Preston appears alongside you on ‘Person Of Interest’. Is that difficult, when something real enters the fantastical acting world of yours?
Everyone thinks it must be a breeze when you work with your spouse, but when it comes down to the playing I have to do double-duty as an actor: I have to first forget who she is in real life; I have to forget that I actually slept with her the night before and that we got up together; then I have to deal with her as a fictional character. So in a way it is a harder job than if it were a stranger playing the part.
‘Person Of Interest’ is up to its fifth and final season, and the artificial intelligence theme has become more of the focus…
That became the writers’ preoccupation at the end of last season. We continued to deal with the social security aspect up to a point, but then the crisis of Samitarian taking over the planet became all-consuming. With the end of mankind looming, we have to deal with that also.
That ‘end of the world’ theme was dealt with in ‘Lost’ as well. When you were growing up, did you envisage you would regularly portray someone pivotal in these ‘end of the world’ scenarios?
Everything I did before ‘The Practice’ was, I would say, lightweight and comical. I mean I had played my Shakespearean leads and all of that, but I never dreamt I would be part of the ‘sinister crowd’ in a longstanding popular narrative. I never dreamt that I would end up being a frightening character in apocalyptic surrounds.
Did you read comics and collect figurines growing up, and if so, were you more pro the villain or the superhero?
As a young man, it was all about comedy for me. I played silly and eccentric characters, guys with funny walks and funny voices and funny costumes. I expected my life as an actor to be built around that framework.
Something tells me you would suit a role like The Joker, or if you’d put a bit more weight on, The Penguin…
Yeah, that kind of thing. I tend to gravitate toward the grotesque or the eccentric. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t know what to do in a love scene, but knows what to do playing a one-eyed crippled Russian spy.
‘Person Of Interest’ airs on Foxtel’s FX in Australia.