Ben Linus plays mindgames with Quint! LOST's Michael Emerson speaks!
Published at: April 29, 2008, 2:40 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I’m a LOST fan. I stuck with it over the water-treading second season and I’ve been rewarded with a slow-starting, but excellent ending third season and a, so far, amazing fourth season.
An offer to interview Ben Linus himself, Mr. Michael Emerson, came to me early last week and I jumped at the chance. Of the cast, I’d say the most consistently growing and interesting character is Ben Linus and that’s due in large part to what Emerson brings to the character.
It was a treat talking to him, especially after last week’s great Ben-centric episode. We go into great detail about last week’s episode, so spoiler alert. Emerson also drops some very, very interesting hints about what’s to come. Veerrry interesting.
Quint: Hey Michael, what’s up?
Michael Emerson: I’m just having a nice day off.
Quint: I can imagine. You guys all went back to work right after the strike, right?
Michael Emerson: Yeah, and we have just been going at a serious rate of speed with so many endless days of running around in a jungle and fighting and shooting… Oh, my god…
Quint: Well at least it is in Hawaii. You could be doing that in some… I was going to say desert, but you were in the desert last week. Speaking of the show, I’ve been a follower since the beginning, but I saw last week’s episode and I really dug it.
Michael Emerson: Oh, good.
Quint: It must be great for you, because they are making Ben such a central character to whole story.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, they have given me a lot to do lately and it does seem like wherever the uber story is going that it has something to do with Ben and his mission and the things he knows.
Quint: I know at the beginning that it was very much set up as kind of this Locke and Jack as the central figures, but it has slowly over the seasons and especially with the reveal of last week’s episode, it seems that the bigger power struggle is between you and Penny’s father, so it’s pretty interesting, at least for fans. It must be great for you, but it’s probably also got to be a little bit of pressure since there are so many hardcore fans of the show now that if you are playing more of a central role to everything, I would imagine, as a non-actor, that there would be more pressure on your part to appease those fans.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, well you just want to keep the work good and you don’t want your character to become… You don’t want to lose mystery or ambiguity and you want it always to be compelling playing, so yeah there is a little bit of extra responsibility to keep it fresh and hot if you can or if your role gets bigger.
It’s interesting though how with each season on the show, the lens through which we do the story, pulls back a little further and includes more territory and more characters, so that the show… I don’t know if they ever actually meant it to be just about survivors on an island. I know a lot of people complain that they have sort of lost that first season blush on the show, but I don’t think they ever meant to stay there. I think that was just one look of many that and that the story was going to grow up and out and away from that.
Quint: Speaking as a fan, I think that as long as they keep the characters that everybody fell in love with in that first season, those who are left, as long as they keep them in the fold… I think that is where a lot of people were struggling with season two, because it focused so much away from all of the characters that everybody had assumed were going to be the leads rightly or wrongly, but I think that’s why the fan base has so roundly given themselves over now to Abrams and Lindelof and his crew, because they did. Now all of our characters are intermingling with all of the newer characters and like you were saying, they “keep it fresh.” I love their change up and when they started doing flash forwards.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, that was a stroke of genius, wasn’t it?
Quint: I think it’s an incredible way to keep a dynamic that everybody loves from the show without letting it go stale.
Michael Emerson: Yeah. I think it’s very fresh and I think it lends gravity and a maturity to the story now, because now we see that we are not dealing with the kind of story that has a trite ending, that this is going to be a thing more for grown ups and more about imperfect endings and things with regret; things left undone and unsaid, that kind of stuff.
Quint: Definitely. Let’s talk a little bit about some specifics form last week’s show if you don’t mind.
Michael Emerson: Sure.
Quint: Of course I’m a big sci-fi/horror nerd, so whenever the smoke monster returned and you walked out of that hidden tunnel and were filthy, I turned to my friends who I was watching it with and was like “Oh man, he just summoned the smoke monster, didn’t he?” It was great. That was great, but my favorite part of last week’s show had to be the moment when Alex was killed, because you can so clearly see in your character that you knew that that wasn’t going to happen and when it did, it was the very first thing we have seen in any of the episodes you have been in where you have been genuinely shaken.
Michael Emerson: Yeah.
Quint: I was just wondering how you approached that moment, because it was so new for your character.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, it was shocking and for Ben, he is never fully caught off guard, he’s never flummoxed or shocked really, but clearly something went very wrong and against every expectation in that moment and now he has sort of been shattered in a way. I don’t know how he is going to pull himself together exactly, but it was sweetly played by Tania Raymonde and I will miss her so much, quite afar from us having a fictional relationship, I also just like her very much as a person and have loved working with her.
I do feel a fatherly sadness at her going away and not continuing to be on the show. There are a lot of sort of fictional and real impulses at play there and Ben has to play a scene more naked or vulnerable than he is used to doing. There were many challenges for me as an actor in that episode; physical challenges with combat and horses and then getting outside of my emotional comfort zone as well. It was interesting work… hard work.
Quint: Yeah, well it was definitely your episode. You were the flash forward and what is also really interesting, I think, about the episode is it really kind of takes what has been up to this point kind of a villainous person… It’s like the more we see of him, the less of a villain he is then when we first met him.
Michael Emerson: That’s true. I was just saying that to somebody yesterday, that gradually I’m sliding towards this empathetic end of the scale on our show.
Quint: Yeah, definitely. I mean with that moment at the end when you say you are going after Penny it was like you have become… it’s weird, because it is almost like you have become an anti-hero, except everybody loves Penny. It’s a weird place to put the audience, because we feel for you and we want you to get revenge, but we also don’t want to see the people that we like get hurt in the process, so…
Michael Emerson: It creates a dilemma for the viewer, doesn’t it?
Quint: It definitely does.
Michael Emerson: Who do we support here? We know that Ben has been wronged; we have seen his pain, but now he means to take it out on Widmore by way of his daughter and what’s that deal where he and Widmore can’t hurt one another? What’s that about?
Quint: Yeah, that’s one of the talents of the show that it is able to keep posing new questions while solving old ones, so you don’t really feel shafted and that’s something that I think they have been really good about in the last couple of seasons.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, well when people say they never give anything up, that’s just wrong, they give up something every episode and then of course new questions take their place, but I think that that’s what is fun about the show, that is the landscape of this show, that of developing mysteries and puzzles.
Quint: Have you finished the season out yet or are you just taking a break?
Michael Emerson: No, we are still working. We have a lot of material at the end, I think 10, 11, and 12 are maybe done, but there is so much post work to do. So much now has to be done with music. There are way more special effects than there used to be now and now we are dealing not just with people in a jungle, but we are dealing with big boats and helicopters and all of that equipment and stuff that is all difficult to work with, so it has been challenging for the company. We have been working such long days. Finally today they gave us a full weekend off for Saturday and Sunday.
Quint: And now you are spending one of your days talking with an idiot like me.
Michael Emerson: (laughs) Not at all. You know, I actually have a lighter schedule next week. I’m over the hump. I only have a few little bitty scenes here and there to shoot before the end of the season.
Quint: That’s cool. The secrecy surrounding everything that JJ Abrams has his fingers in, especially in LOST, is well known and has almost become his trademark with his devotion to secrecy, so I was just curious how much you as an actor are kept in the dark. How much lead time do you have before you shoot, when you actually know where your character is going?
Michael Emerson: There is very little lead time. I shot a scene about ten days ago in an episode that wasn’t written until the night before and it has been like that and I don’t know if you know, but very often in the finales, there are secret scenes and again this year there are a couple. There are a couple of scenes that no one is allowed to look at until the day we film them, which I think is like May the seventh.
On May the seventh, I will go to the studio and there will be scenes that no one has ever seen and we will shoot them that day and they will rush them to LA and they will cut them and those will be the final moments of the season.
Quint: So, what is that like for you? Do you have this feeling when you are around there with all of the cast and everything, do you just get that feeling like that you know something that everybody is dying to know and that you know that you have that information first?
Michael Emerson: That will be cool. I mean, I guess I’m one of the lucky ones, because last year I wasn’t privy to the secret scene. I didn’t know that ending, that flash forward thing with Jack and Kate, I didn’t know that until I watched the broadcast. I was even present at the studio the day that they filmed it, but no one was talking about it. It’s kind of nice this year to know that at least when that day comes, I will know something that the world wishes it knew [Laughs] and then I’ll have to keep my mouth shut.
Quint: Well, what is it like from an acting standpoint? Does it make it much tougher? Do you think it actually benefits you to work on instinct and not over think it?
Michael Emerson: Yeah, people often ask me whether I need to know the larger story to play the part and luckily in this case at least I don’t. In a way, it’s freeing for me not to be responsible for too much story or thinking “Oh, how do I play this when I know that X is going to happen in ten episodes or two seasons from now?” That would just sort of clutter up my work anyway I think. I just feel free to come in and play the scene that is on the page that day and let the geniuses who run the show put it together and make the larger sense of things.
Quint: Has there ever been a moment when you have played it one way and then they have come to you saying “No, you can’t do it like that. You have to do it this way, but we can’t tell you why.”
Michael Emerson: Yeah, there have been moments like that. In the early going, before I or anyone knew that Henry Gale was going to turn out to be the leader of the others, there were sometimes these difficult moments on the set where they would ask me to do a scene… I would do a scene one way and they would say “Actually, we need it to go this other way…” We still shoot some scenes with a couple of different tones, so that they can pick what works best in the final cut.
Quint: What tone do they usually go for? Is there even a usual one?
Michael Emerson: My experience is if I shoot a scene, they will usually pick the more malevolent read for Ben. They will choose the one that makes him scarier and colder, but then they know what they are doing. They are playing with audience expectation a lot, too. It probably serves their purposes to have made Ben look evil for a spell, so that maybe someday they can then turn that on its head.
Quint: Yeah, and like how we were talking about earlier, it seems like they are laying some tracks to move in that direction, if they choose to.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, I’ll be interested to see what happens in the next season, because once again the lens will pull back and we will get an even bigger picture. It will include more space; more of the world; more other characters and stuff and the puzzle will be seen to be a much larger one.
Quint: And they have put a cap on it, right? They have announced that they are ending at a certain point.
Michael Emerson: Two more seasons after this.
Quint: It’s good. As much as I would love to see these characters keep going, like THE SIMPSONS or something, it would feel like it was forced and I like the idea that they are telling a specific story, you know?
Michael Emerson: Yeah. I think it was a bold stroke on their part and it reinvigorated us and the writing team and I think the viewers too, in a way.
Quint: Do they ever get your input on the character, now that you have lived with him for so long?
Michael Emerson: No, we don’t have that kind of dialogue, which suits me fine. I trust them and in a way we communicate by way of our work. They show me what they understand by writing the role and I show them what I understand in the playing of it and that becomes a kind of conversation and I see over time that they are very sensitive to the way I speak and the way I behave and they incorporate it more and more into the writing of the part. I’ll read a script and go “Oh my gosh, they know of that tic I have...” or a certain phrase that I will use in real life and there it turns up coming out of Ben’s mouth. It is kind of an unspoken kind of dialogue that we have between us.
Quint: I think the hardcore fanbase was really excited to see the smoke monster return and I think the idea that Ben has some sort of control over it is really fascinating. I think that that has really piqued the interest of a lot of people, especially what is coming up in the next few weeks. I know you can’t say much, but can you talk about, based on what you know, do you think the fans will be satisfied with the promise of last weeks episode? Do you think that will be fulfilled?
Michael Emerson: Oh yeah, I think they are going in to some mind bending new surprising directions. I am liking the evolving idea. Let’s say that Ben was able to manipulate the smoke monster, but on the show everything is a binary system, everything is in balance, morally balanced or economically balanced, so for Ben to make a thing happen like that, there is also a price, I think, that he had to pay. We don’t know what Ben paid yet to make the smoke monster come. We don’t know that he… “Is he allowed to do that?” and everyone who has power also pays a price. John Locke is going to pay a price. Ben has paid a price… Nothing is for free in terms of power or morality on the island and I’m beginning to see that the writers are more interested in that pattern, too, of this living ledger book system.
Quint: That’s really great. One thing that I really don’t like that I’m happy to see them avoiding in LOST is the soap opera or what they are doing in comic books now a lot where nothing means anything, where you can have a character die and it’s OK, because in five issues they will be back and the world has changed or they make this life altering decision and go “Oh, if people don’t like it, then we will just go back and it was something else or we will somehow change the rules midstream” and I like that people on LOST who have died, we can still see them every once and a while in a flashback, or at least we could back in the day, and that gave them a perfect way out, but I like that everything has a consequence and everything has rules.
Michael Emerson: Right, there are rules and there are prices to be paid.
Quint: If that wasn’t the case, then I don’t think LOST would have the fan base that it does. I think people like the fact that surprising stuff will happen, like Alex getting killed, or any number of people getting killed and that being it. Nobody is really safe. We can assume that Jack is safe now. We can assume some people who make it off of the island are safe, but we don’t know to what degree they are safe after that.
Michael Emerson: Right. They may be safe in the moment, but what’s the price tag going to be?
Quint: So yeah, it’s very fascination and I think that it has been getting stronger and stronger and I am really happy, because I have a lot of shows that I like to watch and there are a couple, like HEROES, that just kind of floundered where they had a promising beginning and just kind of floundered and I have hope that the next season will be better, but it’s good to see LOST keeping strong and without flattery intended, I think a lot of that has to do with you and Ben and what you bring to him.
Michael Emerson: Thank you. I think Ben started out as kind of an experiment where they were looking for a way to add another dimension to the antagonism of the island, so that they needed a character who had a face and a voice to go with these strange powers and it was an experiment that turned out very well and luckily I was the actor who got the part and I get to play it all of the time.
Quint: Cool, so what is coming up for you? You have shooting until May 7th and then do you have any more stage work later or any films coming up?
Michael Emerson: I had hoped to sneak in some stage work this summer and if we hadn’t had the writer’s strike, I would have been able to, because we would have finished the season months ago, but as it is, there’s not really time to do a play. My wife, Carrie Preston, is working on an HBO series in LA and I don’t want to go off and do a play somewhere and not be with her, so I’ll probably just hang out in Los Angeles with her while she is working on this series called TRUE BLOOD, the new Alan Ball series.
Quint: That’s cool.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, it has a vampire theme in it, which is kind of interesting.
Quint: That’s good. I like seeing fantasy… in this way a horror fantasy getting representation with something as prestigious as HBO can be and they are giving it the real treatment.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, the series is based on a series of pulp thriller novels and I can’t remember the lady who wrote them, but it is sort of a science fiction premise. In the very near future, vampires are able to come out of the closet, in effect, because science has invented a substitute blood product that they can live off of, so they don’t need to attack people anymore. I think there’s a sort of racial metaphor at the heart of it. What area people’s feelings about vampires and I think it’s sort of a social commentary.
Quint: Yeah, you can put any stigma, you can put the “anti-gay” sentiment that’s out there now or anti-anything. That’s what I love about the genre, that it’s able to have those messages without being preachy. It very much can be used really well to massage in social commentary. George Romero is very well known for doing that.
Michael Emerson: Exactly.
Quint: Cool, well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Michael Emerson: It was good talking to you.
” John Locke is going to pay a price.” !?!
Well, interesting. Locke will be paying a price (to be determined), Ben centers in the “secret scenes” in the season finale and the theory that the island is binary like, an evenly balanced force.
I had a lot of fun talking with Emerson and I hope you guys had some fun, too. Got a few more interviews going up this week, including one I’m super late on (sorry Harold and Kumar directors).
I’ll be back soon!