Imagine how Jack feels waking up to that voice, calm and menacing telling him what to do. Now imagine hearing that voice on the phone. Michael Emerson, who plays the lead "Other" Ben Linus on Lost, called for a phone interview. At least I knew he wasn’t going to make me operate on him. At home in
CraveOnline: What are you allowed to tell us about Lost?
Michael Emerson: Well, they’re not all that strict about it. What it boils down to is I generally don’t know that much. I may be a couple of episodes ahead of the viewers in terms of storyline but most of the big story secrets that people are keen to have exposed to them, I’m as keen as they are to try to find out.
CraveOnline: But with the hiatus, you must be several shows ahead.
Michael Emerson: It’s true, you’re right, we are about five episodes ahead of the viewers at this point.
CraveOnline: And you’re not in
Michael Emerson: The whole company took about a two week holiday break but filming resumes on Monday morning.
CraveOnline: So you’re still at work?
Michael Emerson: Oh yeah.
CraveOnline: On that second island, do you miss the cast you worked with last year like Naveen Andrews and Terry O’Quinn?
Michael Emerson: Yeah, it’s funny, working on a show with as large a cast as we have here, your work gets sort of compartmentalized. There’s still about half the cast that I’ve never had a scene with but I have missed working with Terry. I think there might be something coming up where we get to do some scene work together.
CraveOnline: So they really keep you separate?
Michael Emerson: Well, it’s just the sort of logistics. As everyone lives in a different part of the island, you only really see the scene partners you’re working with on a given episode.
CraveOnline: Do they still do Wednesday night dinners hosted by whoever has that week’s flashback?
Michael Emerson: Now, I haven’t really heard of that as a tradition but it did happen once. The fourth episode of this season where Sawyer and I went up on the cliff, Josh did have a party that evening and we did watch it. It was kind of fun. But that’s by no means a regular thing, or maybe it’s not anymore.
CraveOnline: That must be old hat now.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, probably, and people are coming and going so much and living so distant from one another that maybe it just got to be impractical.
CraveOnline: Will we see Ben’s flashback?
Michael Emerson: That would be a really interesting flashback, wouldn’t it? I don’t think there’s one coming soon. It would have to give away so much backstory, not just about him but about the island and the origins of all these miracles and mysteries, they would have to think carefully about it. But yeah, that would be a heck of an episode when and if it happens.
CraveOnline: We left with you on the operating table, so are you in bad shape when we come back?
Michael Emerson: Yeah, you’re going to come back in mid-operation I believe and it’s not going to be pretty for a while.
CraveOnline: Is there a makeup apparatus for that operating scene?
Michael Emerson: The head of the makeup department, Steve LePorte, built this amazing prosthetic out of latex and other unknown materials. It looks so real, it’s complete with rubber veins and nerves and a latex tumor. It has plumbing inside it so that blood can well up in there. It’s amazing.
CraveOnline: At the end of season two, Ben said you were the good guys. Are you disappointed Ben has become a villain?
Michael Emerson: Oh, I don’t know that he’s any more a villain than he ever was, to tell you the truth. I’m still holding out hope that when the details of his real mission are revealed, we’re going to think he’s a little more heroic than we have.
CraveOnline: I believed him and I’m waiting for that big switcheroo.
Michael Emerson: At the very least, I think he meant what he said. Now, whether his point of view is skewed by his life’s experience or not, I don’t know but I think he believes himself to be a good man and he’s under some pressure. He’s fighting some kind of war. I can’t tell exactly what it is but he has a terrible responsibility I think.
CraveOnline: Were you offered lots of villains after Saw?
Michael Emerson: No. After Saw, I did a lot of theater and I don’t tend to play villains on the stage. So this is sort of the first sort of questionable fellow I’ve played I think since Saw. But I have to say, in my TV guest work, I tend to play dangerous people. I’m not sure why that is.
CraveOnline: Maybe the only guest roles are as suspects on crime shows?
Michael Emerson: I think it’s true. You’re more likely to be a villain if you’re a guest player on a cop or lawyer show, that’s true.
CraveOnline: Are you comparing TV to theater more than film to theater?
Michael Emerson: Acting for the camera is a little bit of a different animal than acting in front of a live audience. They’re both sort of the same principals, pretending to be a character but they sort of operate on different frequencies, and the work process itself is so completely different that you have to learn a set of behaviors for both those mediums.
CraveOnline: When you were offered Lost, was it for an extended season?
Michael Emerson: It was just to have been three. So I thought it was a good job but I certainly had no idea that it would turn into the job that it has turned into.
CraveOnline: When did you know it was expanding?
Michael Emerson: Well, they kept just adding on. I kept not being able to go home and then somewhere near the end of this season, I began to get the feeling that I might be asked back for a complete season as a regular. Sure enough, that’s what they did.
CraveOnline: In the beginning, did you just play as Henry Gale or did they tell you had a secret?
Michael Emerson: There was no character meeting or sort of directorial discussion about that to tell you the truth. I played it sort of by instinct and for whatever reason, I think my instinct was right. He looked to me on the page to be an ambiguous figure and I would think when in doubt, leave the audience guessing. It’s a little more fun for everybody. So that’s the way I went with it on my own and I think it’s what the producers and writers were interested in.
CraveOnline: Is it harder to keep a Lost secret or the ending of Saw?
Michael Emerson: Oh gosh, I don’t know because as soon as anyone saw the movie Saw, they also saw the ending. It’s much harder with Lost because the story goes on and on and people have time to track you down or catch up to you on the street or whatever and they have 100 burning questions. So yeah, I don’t remember anyone asking me what the ending of Saw was going to be.
CraveOnline: No one knew it would be a big twist.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, it was a heck of a twist. To me, that was one of the best things about that screenplay was it had a really good ending. They are clever fellows, aren’t they?
CraveOnline: What’s your Lost theory?
Michael Emerson: Well, I don’t know. I have thought right along that Benjamin Linus and his people are rebels or renegades or freedom fighters of some sort and that they are at war with whoever the real powers were that built and control the island. But I don’t have a lot of evidence for that either. That’s just sort of a feeling I have. I do feel like there are worse people out there than the others. I don’t know if worse is the right word. That implies a sort of value judgment. Maybe I should say there are scarier people out there than the others.
CraveOnline: What’s your favorite fan theory?
Michael Emerson: Somebody recently told me that their theory was that the island was an alien zoo. How about that?
CraveOnline: Even I haven’t heard that one.
Michael Emerson: That was new to me too. I thought I’d heard all of them.
CraveOnline: You mentioned people asking you questions, did people start coming up to you after Saw?
Michael Emerson: I got my sort of first real taste of being picked out on the street when I played a serial killer on The Practice. I played a character named William Hinks who maybe or maybe wasn’t a serial killer. It seemed to catch people’s attention because that was another good storyline, and another sort of ambiguous character.
CraveOnline: How is life on
Michael Emerson: Well, it’s slower and quieter than the life I know in
CraveOnline: Do you have time to enjoy it since you’re working there?
Michael Emerson: Yeah because even on a heavy episode, I’m unlikely to work more than four out of the eight days it takes to film. So I have a lot of weekdays off and we always have weekends off so there’s a lot of down time.
CraveOnline: Do you have a permanent home there?
Michael Emerson: No, my wife who is an actress too, her name is Carrie Preston, she’s a little bit too busy to hang out in Honolulu so she tends to stay in Los Angeles while I’m in Hawaii and we sort of shuttle back and forth between those two towns whenever we have time free. But
CraveOnline: Does the regularity of series at all compare to theater?
Michael Emerson: Working on a play is so regular, so sort of ritualized. It’s every day, it’s eight times a week, you know where you have to be at suppertime. Every day of your life is a preliminary to your work of the evening when you’re in a show. TV is a little more like the way the rest of the world works, but it’s still spotty because you may or may not be in an episode or you may have a day’s work or five. It may be in the morning or it may be in the night. It’s still sort of fly by the seat of your pants a little bit for television. And the script’s not written very far in advance. I’m supposed to work Monday and I don’t have the script yet. Sometimes everything is sort of very last minute.
CraveOnline: How hard is that for you?
Michael Emerson: It’s not too bad because having spent all these years in the theater; I’m a pretty quick memorizer. So it’s fine. As long as I have the script the night before, I’m sort of ready to roll. It’s not like I have to come up with a character that I’ve created out of whole cloth. I already know how to play this guy so it’s kind of show up and know the lines after a certain point.
CraveOnline: Were you surprised Saw became a phenomenon?
Michael Emerson: I was. It was done so quickly and so cheaply, sort of on a wing and a prayer. I don’t think anyone dreamed that it would be the hit it was.
CraveOnline: Do you regret letting them kill you in part one?
Michael Emerson: No, because the shooting of that film was so difficult and so rough physically, that I was sort of glad to put that one behind me. It seemed like every scene I had was a scene of combat or wrestling or shooting or running or driving. We were going fast and cutting as many corners as we could so it was rough. I had some aches and pains for a while after I was done for that one.
CraveOnline: Do you ever feel there’s a Saw element in some of those compound scenes in Lost?
Michael Emerson: Yeah. There is kind of, isn’t there? Interesting, yeah. I can see that. I feel like I’m on the other side of the equation compared to where I was in that scenario in Saw.
CraveOnline: Is Matthew Fox as intense in person as he is on the show?
Michael Emerson: He takes his work very seriously I would say. And he is I think just enough of a method actor that he feels like if the day contains scenes of great intensity that it might be wise to show up in a sort of state of intensity. So he’s ready to work when the camera roles.
CraveOnline: How do you keep such a calm demeanor?
Michael Emerson: I’m not really sure. I just tried to be a good listener and I think Henry/Ben is a very careful person and he doesn’t need to fly off the handle ever or betray his inner feelings because he’s a great planner. I think this is one of the things that makes him kind of interesting is that he’s colder than the average person and maybe Americans are just, that sort of gets Americans. I think underneath it all we’re very sentimental people and we’re most comfortable when people are emotional. Although we tend not to like our heroes to be emotional, there’s something about a cool demeanor that gives people pause.
CraveOnline: Has this gig opened any more doors for you?
Michael Emerson: I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I started work on Lost just a year ago and it’s all the work I’ve done. I’m not available until the summertime for anything else. I guess we’ll see. I would think I’m a little more visible than I was a year ago, so maybe some other work will be easier to come by than it had been previously.
CraveOnline: So you haven’t lined anything up?
Michael Emerson: No, I haven’t. I’m just sort of waiting to see what develops. It would be sort of jumping the gun. Films, I don’t know if they plan things in detail that far in advance. I’ll have to see. And then there’s a possibility, I might have enough time to do a play. That might be fun.
CraveOnline: Would you rather go back to theater instead of on camera?
Michael Emerson: I’m anxious to get back on stage and I hope that I don’t have to wait too very much longer to do it. It’s just the place I feel most comfortable and I don’t want to let it go too long without being revisited.
CraveOnline: Would more people come to a play following you from Lost?
Michael Emerson: I suppose if the show is up and I’m still in it, I suppose they might use it in a publicity way. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not to tell you the truth.
CraveOnline: Are you worried about the season finale, that they might kill you off?
Michael Emerson: I suppose it’s a possibility. I think every actor is sort of aware that none of his jobs are going to last forever, so I think every sensible actor has it in the back of his mind, "Don’t get too comfortable in this one." So I don’t really know. It would be fun to do another season, if any of the producers are out there listening.
CraveOnline: When do you go back?
Michael Emerson: I fly day after tomorrow [Friday, January 9] to
CraveOnline: Have you enjoyed your vacation?
Michael Emerson: I’m having a great time in
CraveOnline: What shows did you catch?
Michael Emerson: I went to the first part of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia last week and I’m going to another play tonight. The Scene at Second Stage that stars Tony Shalhoub and Patricia Heaton.