Michael Emerson has appeared on Broadway in The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey and Hedda Gabler opposite Kate Burton. Off-Broadway and regional work includes plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Friel and LaGarce at The Roundabout, Arena Stage, McCarter, Huntington and many other theaters. His film credits include The Imposters, Playing by Heart, Straight Jacket, Saw and The Legend of Zorro.
Emerson also played a number of damaged or sinister characters on programs like The X-Files, Law and Order, Without a Trace, and The Inside. In 2006, Emerson became a regular on the ABC series LOST, playing Benjamin Linus, a role for which he won an Emmy.
Currently, Emerson plays Harold Finch on Person of Interest. Last season ended with a cliffhanger that saw Harold, John, Fusco, and Root in a desperate firefight with Samaritan’s thugs. In this one-on-one interview Emerson reveals his thoughts on Person of Interest and what viewers can expect from this riveting series now in its fifth season.
What attracted you to the role of Harold Finch?
Michael Emerson: I liked the atmosphere of the pilot episode. It was dark and desperate and urban. I liked its noir quality. I also liked that it was a Jonathan Nolan script, and that J.J. (Abrams) and a strong company was behind it—guys that were going to get something done. And the fact that it was being shot in New York, because I was hoping to be home.
Are there aspects of the character that you imposed on Finch that go beyond what’s in the script?
Emerson: It’s possible that I made him more disabled than he absolutely had to be. It’s also possible that I made him funnier than he had to be. But I take all my cues from the script. So I don’t think I’ve imposed much. I think the writers watch their performers, day in and day out, and they see what their strong suits are, and then they write at it a little bit more.
Finch and his team have thus far been protected by the all-seeing eye of the Machine. How vulnerable will they be now?
Emerson: They’re very vulnerable with the Machine offline and with Samaritan in effect taking things over. There’s nothing to stop Samaritan now. Life goes on seemingly normally, but that’s because Samaritan hasn’t fully figured out what its own agenda is. If it ever does go on a mission, it will be dangerous beyond our wildest dreams.
Finch seems to be struggling with rehabilitating the Machine – its “genie out of bottle” potential for destruction. What powers will Finch give it in its rebirth?
Emerson: That’s what the first part of Season Five is all about: How to revive the Machine. To make it again what it used to be, and whether that’s even possible. And if it is possible, what should be changed? Maybe the limitations and boundaries he put on the Machine were ill advised in a world where it has to do battle with a totally unencumbered super intelligence. So that will be a source of philosophical conversation and conflict between Root (Amy Acker) and Finch.
Do you think the show’s construct of Samaritan portends a dystopian future where privacy and even one’s personal safety are in jeopardy?
Emerson: Yeah, that is the suggestion. I wish it weren’t so plausible and real. But it appears to be.
Season 4 had 22 episodes, Season 5 has been cut down to just 13. Will Season 5 be the last season?
Emerson: It might be the last season with CBS. I don’t think it will ever shoot that long a season again. I think whatever the future holds, it will be 12 or 13 episodes.
So things will be tightly compressed?
Emerson: Yeah, I think, in a way, it’s a plus for the writers who won’t have to spin such long narratives. Or indulge in so many digressions. There will be a greater sense of compression and momentum and I look forward to it. And on a personal note, I’m grateful I won’t be shooting out in the snow in January, February and March.
I had the opportunity to interview your wife two years ago and she said she was the computer expert in the Emerson house.
Emerson: (laughs) That is so true. I must ask her a question or two every day about the simplest kinds of things. Like, “Honey, if I press this button, is that bad?”
So do you have computer consultants that work on the show to keep you up to speed on all the latest technology?
Emerson: I think the writers are voracious readers of cutting edge technology. And each of the writers has someone in their world that they call. We also have an in-house IT staff that handles all the computers you see on the show—the different ways they work and the different things that appear on the screens. There are a lot of smart computer people working together on this.
You were a magazine illustrator in New York for many years. Do you still practice that art?
Emerson: No, I don’t really draw any more. Whatever it was that was satisfying by doing that is now being fulfilled by acting. Or maybe better to say that acting is just another variety of illustration.
Where do you hope the Finch character will go in this new season?
Emerson: That’s a good question. I don’t want to see him destroyed. But at the same time, I can’t really envision the happy ending where he walks away from all of this. I don’t know where he’ll land.
Switching gears a bit, how did you develop the character of Benjamin Linus in Lost? And was the character preordained by the script or did you alter it in some way?
Emerson: I kind of showed up and played what was written. It started with a guest spot on a couple of episodes. I hadn’t any kind of long-range strategy at all when I started it. In hindsight, I think it was a kind of working audition, where they were seeing what might happen if they put a face and voice to the threat of the island. But I guess they decided my face and voice were about right, so they kept me around. I’m more of a reactive actor. I’m not a guy that goes to the writers and says here’s a cool idea I think we should explore. I like my cool ideas to be kind of micro ideas—more like lifting an eyebrow or placing the emphasis on a particular word.
So what’s next for you? Any film or TV projects down the line?
Emerson: In a world where I don’t have Person of Interest on my plate, I would be happy to do some more stage work and remind myself what a joy that was. I haven’t been on stage for 10 years.
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