The complete Q+A with Michael Emerson of Lost

This week in the Phoenix, you will find a condensed version of an interview I recently conducted with one Michael Emerson, the Emmy-award-winning actor who plays Ben Linus, the villainous leader of The Others, on Lost. For print purposes, I focused mostly on what he had to say about the new season - which, as you might expect, was not very much explicitly, although I'm sure fans will find plenty to chew on regardless. Our conversation was farther-reaching than just that, though, also, touching upon topics like how Emerson constructed the character, how he found out his role was becoming larger than just a guest spot, and the things about filming he least looks forward to each week. When we spoke, it was in the middle of an episode shoot, and in the immediate aftermath of some kind of explosion.

So you are filming right now? Is this an okay time to talk?
We were just shooting a scene with a huge explosion in it. They load all this wood and sawdust in these cannons and shoot them with a giant blast of smoke and stuff, and it just poured down on us, and we're all covered in sawdust.

How much more do you have left?
We are shooting the twelfth episode of eighteen, so there's six more episodes to shoot.

I imagine there isn't much you can even say about what is happening.
I know certain plot developments just because I've shot now more than ten episodes. But honestly, I don't think there are any actors on the show that would say they know what's going on or where we're heading. I thought when we filmed this final season, that I would be able to see the end coming, that things would begin to wrap up or the various threads of the story would begin to knit together. But the contrary has been true: the show just continues to tackle more and more new events. There's a whole new storytelling device at work this season. I can't tell where we're going, and how it will end is anybody's guess.

Does that make it more exciting to be there?
Yeah. It's just the way it always has been. We don't get scripts until usually the day before we shoot them, so we're always in the dark about what developments are coming. I won't say that there haven't been big resolutions of issues in the show. Bit by bit a bunch of stuff is falling into place and being explained. At the same time, new questions continue to arise. It's interesting.

What is it like to get the script each week? Are you just sitting there thinking "oh my god!"
You want to hurry up and read it because you want to see what you have to do. And you want to see if there's stunts or something terrible, or if your character does something terrible.

Something your character would know all about.
As you read it, sometimes you do go, "oh no, I can't believe they're going to do that." And you also read them and you go, "how are we ever going to film this." I have that reaction every time.

Really? Just "what have I got to do now?"
They're insanely overambitious, our scripts. We're shooting the equivalent of Raiders of the Lost Ark every twenty work days.

Was there ever a time where you saw what Ben was doing and thought "oh, well he wouldn't do that."
They have made my character at times more malevolent than I had thought of him. So sometimes I have been surprised at how villainous the writers view Ben. I always think he's in the grey zone, in the middle of things. Like a couple of seasons ago, when we flashed back and we saw how Ben had wiped out the Dharma Initiative, that was kind of a heinous deed that has only been slightly moderated by events that we've witnessed since.

After you've shot everything, is it difficult to be out in the world knowing what happens that we all haven't seen yet? Do all of the gag orders against spoilers get to you?
No, I don't worry about spoilers too much because, to tell you the truth, I'm at an age where I'm a very forgetful person, and one of the reasons I have to watch the show is to remind myself what we shot. I could give you only the faintest outline of what's in the first two episodes that are going to air on February the second. When I see it, I'll go, "Oh my god, yes, I remember shooting that." Unless I go back and read the script or something, it's all going to seem kind of fresh to me.

Do you guys try to play the guessing along with the writers when you're off set, just as we do at home?
We play the guessing game on the set. It's days like today, when we have a whole bunch of the cast together - that's when we sit around and talk about it. Especially when Jorge [Garcia, a/k/a Hurley] is around, because he's sort of the primary speculator about the storyline. But everyone does it. We're all interested in the show, and we all try to solve it to. But I have to say, none of us are anywhere near as good at it as some of the people online. And you'd think we would know more because we've shot it, but we are mystified. In the best possible way. It's fun.

I've read interviews with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse where they have talked about how they weren't originally planning on Ben becoming such an integral part of the show. How was the part presented to you when you first showed up? Did they say there was potential for the part to become something bigger?
No. Nobody ever said that. As far as I knew, I had a guest spot. I was going to do three episodes, maybe more, but I was going to go out, do my work, and then go back home.

When did you first realize that this was turning into a bigger deal?
I guess somewhere along the line after shooting five or six episodes. One day, I kind of tumbled to something. We were shooting a scene in the hatch where I was being interrogated by Sayid, and Ben was saying "I can't tell you anything, if I tell you anything, he'll kill me," referring to some shadowy leader. And the director said "all right, let's take it again, and this time, play it as if the leader is the scariest guy in the world." And I said, "well, what if the leader is me?" Just because that idea sort of came to me. I thought, "well wouldn't that be an interesting twist?" And the director looked at me, and he blinked, and he said, "I can't talk about that." And he walked away from me. And then I thought "oh, maybe something's going on here." But no one ever came out and said -- I think for contractual reasons they can't just come out and say "we'd like you to stick around." All that has to be worked out by agents and stuff. So it was not officially known to me that I was a regular on the show until the summer after that second season. I think they told me a day or two before what used to be called the upfronts in New York, where a network presents its shows, and they wanted me to attend that event, and so that meant they had to tell me why. But nobody ever let on.

Did you have a "what have I gotten myself into" moment after that?
I knew that the logistics were going to be tricky. It was a great distance from home, from my wife, from everything I was accustomed to doing, the world of the theater, all that stuff. But I was so excited about the work, I was having so much fun doing it that I didn't really fret too much about the problems it would present.

So you weren't worrying about how you'd have to go to ComicCon or anything like that at that point?
No. I've only been [to ComicCon] once. It takes a while for a character to sink in enough that they want to see you at things like ComicCon. I finally went this last time. Have you been there?

Oh my god, it's so insane. Just a crazy event. It's challenging to be a well-known character in a popular genre show like ours; you can't even walk around at Comic Con. You would be mobbed. They would tear you apart to get pieces of your clothing.

So what do you think fans should be thinking about as they approach this final season?
I think the passionate fans are going to bring to it what they've always brought to it, and that'll be appropriate. Lost will continue to do the things it's always done. There's no quantum change in the way we tell the story, but there are, like I say, amazing new developments and [an] additional narrative complication that is stunning, thought-provoking. It keeps expanding. It's like the universe, and it's always growing outward and larger. (Laughs)

Very cryptic. What do you think you will miss the least about doing this show?
Combat. Guns. The physical stuff. It's hard and you cannot avoid getting hurt.

Do you do your own stunts on the show?
Their policy here is to let the actor do it until they cry uncle, or until the stunt coordinator cries uncle. In my case, I get into it, and I forget that I don't want to get hurt until I get hurt, and then they take me out. They like me because I have a background in doing stage combat. I've done a lot of that in my day. Swordfighting, and I know how to fake punches, and make stuff look real and all of that, so they like me to stay in. And on a good day when you're having fun and you're energized, it's kind of fun to do those things. The problem is repetition: anything you do 12 or 15 times, sooner or later, you will do it wrong.

Do you think you'll do more theater when the show is over?
I would like to. It's sort of all I ever knew; it's what I always did. It's where I learned how to act, it's how I got started in show business. It's where I got all my breaks - except now I have TV breaks, that I could speak of also, but those grew out of theater. I would never have gotten a TV job if I hadn't done the theater work I did. And I'm really glad of the training. I'm glad of the discipline it taught me. I'm glad that it taught me how to take stuff on a written page and turn it into something interesting or exciting.

Have you ever been tempted to go into character as Ben in order to get what you want out of somebody or something?
No, because the character is such a fiction. It's not even close by. It's not a thing that I would slip into very easily because it's so alien to my personality. I'm really so easygoing and the most harmless sort of person. If I tried to put on a sort of "Ben aura," it would crack me up. It would just be silly, why anyone would believe that. And I still think that sometimes. Sometimes I think I'm secretly in a comedy of some sort, here on Lost, and I'm the only one who sees it.

It is a funny show.
It is, and looked at in a certain light, Ben is a funny character. He has lots of droll line readings, and he's a good one for an understatement. He's good that way. Ben has actually told jokes in scripts the past four years, but they never make it, they never pass the final edit. No one at home has ever seen some of Ben's real comic material. (Laughs).

Maybe it will make the next round of DVDs.
I wish. I don't even have good bloopers. I'm much too serious and focused in my work. Plus, because I'm a theater person, I feel like goofing off on the set invites bad luck or something. I I always feel like the gods of drama frown on people getting too playful. Then I begin to feel like something's coming up behind me.

Did Ben come from somewhere? Was he inspired by anything?
No, Ben just -- when I got this part, that was it. I didn't audition for it. For once, I got an offer. I guess they had seen some of my other work, thought I was right for it. And no one talked to me. They gave me the script. I flew to Hawaii one night, and the next morning I was hanging from that tree in the jungle for episode 2.14. And I never discussed that character with anybody. I had an intuition. And I have played villains before. I played a serial killer on The Practice about ten years ago that was well-received. But even that, I don't know why, but I just know how to play those characters. I love ambiguity. I like the danger, and the uncertainty that it creates, and I've used it in a few characters on stage. I suppose the seminal villain for any stage actor is Iago in Shakespeare's Othello. I have played that a couple of times. So that helps me to know how it works. How scary you're supposed to be, but at the same time, how much the audience is supposed to be identifying with you. A little bit captivated by you. It makes them accomplices. It puts them in a prickly position. (Laughs)

So most of the remaining questions I have at this point are of the "are we going to see this again?" variety.
You will see characters that you thought were long gone. And you're going to start to see - already we're starting to have casualties. As we get closer to the end, I guess it's obvious that not everybody is going to get out of it alive. In fact, we were talking today because there's a shocking event in the episode we're filming, and it made us all think, "Oh wow, nobody's safe on this show." Who's next, and how many are going to drop every episode from now until the end. In different, shocking ways. Now I'm thinking, "wow, how close to the end will Ben get? Will he go all the way?"

Do you guys have a pool going among yourselves about who will make it to the end?
Oh god no. That could lead to madness, hard feelings I think. (Laughs).

People will start bribing writers.
Yeah. Plus you know that some characters are safe. You know that some people are going to go all the way to the end. Jack, Kate, big people like that.

I do have a few questions about Ben's backstory, still. For example, I've always been interested in an idea of a flashback to the Henry Gale days to see him get kidnapped again, to see if there was more happening there.
I used to hope that Ben's backstory would get fleshed out more. His childhood. I always hoped that the mass killing of the Dharma Initiative would be put in a new context. I always thought that we would find that someone else had survived the Dharma Initiative massacre, and that Ben was connected to them somehow. Remember there was a doll that Ben used to carry with him - a little carved wooden figure. And I always thought we're going to go there. We're going to explain that figure. But now, we're too close to the end. Some stuff just falls by the wayside, and it will be forever a tantalizing mystery. But I'm at peace with that. I don't think we are under any obligation to answer everything. Just to give satisfaction.

I agree with that, not everything needs a bow on it.
Yeah, exactly. The show is too big and too messy, too epic, to have it all completely tidy. Important things, I think, will have a resolution.

People will have their reactions to the finale no matter what.
Absolutely. It's not going to be a cut to black or anything like that.

I think every show contains the seeds of its own last episode. So I think our last episode will not be out of character or a completely new way of thinking about things. What I always hoped was that the last episode would be one where we suddenly realized what we'd been looking at for six years, and we realized we hadn't understood it, and that now everybody needs to go back and start all over again and watch the whole series. I don't know what that would be. Some shift of the point of view of the narrative. Something we didn't know - all this time, we didn't know. But what. I'm reassured, though, that Damon and Carlton have had the ending locked in a safe since third season, I think. So the question wasn't "how do we end it," it was "how do we get there." So that's what they're struggling with now. I'm sure there is no more intense and bizarre atmosphere in show business than the writers' room at Lost. They got a lot of plates up in the air (Laughs).

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