Jun 7, 2008

An Interview with Michael Emerson (Ben Linus/Fake Henry Gale, Lost)

Rachel Thomas, about.com

When Lost hit the airwaves back in 2004, it instantly became a mega-hit. Fans from all over the world have united with one common goal in mind -- to solve the many, many mysteries the brilliant men behind the show have created to keep fans entertained well beyond the twenty-two hours a season the show is on the air. During season two, we were introduced to the very creepy and very mysterious Ben Linus/Fake Henry Gale, played by Emmy-winning actor Michael Emerson. Fans couldn't get enough of this intriguing character, so the producers took a character only slated for three episodes, turned him into a series regular and made him the apparent leader of "The Others."

I had the very fortunate opportunity to chat with Michael about his character, his experience in theater and how he prepares to play such a creepy guy.

I found Michael to be extremely intelligent, very funny and one of the most likable actors I've ever met.

Q: You have an extensive theater background, what are some of your favorite roles?

Michael: "My sort of debut or breakthrough into being a working actor came in New York in a play about Oscar Wilde called Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde. I did that off-Broadway for a couple of years and I did it in L.A. and San Francisco as well. I'll always think warmly about that. It's the one that allowed me not to go back to my day job. I was also thrilled to do my first Broadway show, I was in The Ice Man Cometh in 1999 with Kevin Spacey. That was really a dream come true, thinking and hoping for so many years, imagining what it would be like to be on a Broadway stage and there I was."

Q: Are you still active in theater during your hiatus?

Michael: "I am - I will be, I hope to be. I feel like the theater is my artistic home. I'll be anxious to get back on the stage again."

Q: When your time on LOST comes to an end, will you pursue TV/Movies or theater?

Michael: "I expect I'll pursue a little of everything. One of the good things, I hope, about being more visible now is it will help me to get the better roles on the stage which are difficult to get."

Q: How did you land the role of Henry/Ben on Lost?

Michael: "It came, which is unusual because I usually have to jump through hoops of fire to get everything, but it came as an offer. Originally it was not to have been an important part, it was supposed to be a guest turn. I was supposed to do three episodes and then go away, but something clicked - they liked the character, they liked me, they liked how it worked in the storytelling and here I am a series regular. It came to me as an offer because I think the writers and producers had seen me on The Practice when I played William Hinks. It was a dangerous character because it was ambiguous."

Q: How upfront have the executive producers been with you about the secrets of the show?

Michael: "It never really gets discussed. The most I hear about it is when we do panels like we did this past weekend. Sunday was the winter press tour, a big ABC event where the critics can ask questions of the producers and the cast. I heard a lot of things there I would never have known otherwise. Future storylines and arcs don't get discussed. I think while there may be an outline, that outline only exists in the minds of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. It's probably best that none of the rest of us really know it. As far as the day-to-day shooting, the episodic scripts, those are sort of made up on short notice. There's not any documentation to give away."

Q: Were you a fan of the show before you became Henry/Ben?

Michael: "Yeah, ours was a Lost household. I will confess that my wife was more passionate about it than I was. She's been watching it religiously since the pilot, which she claimed at the time was the best pilot she's ever seen."

Q: Does she try to get the secrets out of you?

Michael: "[laughs] We share privately, certain spoilers, short-term spoilers. I may know something that's happening next week, that sort of thing."

Q: Where is your favorite shooting location in Hawaii?

Michael: "Well, for my personal comfort, I like shooting at the studio because it's air conditioned and you don't have to walk on pines or rocks or anything. For the beauty and majesty, there's a number of just majestic locations we work on. There was a scene in the fourth episode this third season where Sawyer and I wound up on a cliff to look out over the ocean. This was a place on Oahu called Makapu'u and it's just breathtaking. It's a little hard to stay focused on your work when you're up on a place like that. It's grueling work when you go up to those places because all your comfortable trailers and vans and trucks can't go up there, so you hike in and hike out. We ate our lunch under the hot sun, so it's sort of a rough day's work, but beautiful."

Q: What can you tell us about the upcoming season of Lost?

Michael: "February 7 we return and we're now on at a later hour (10pm EST), which I think is better because it allows us to be sexier and bloodier than it has been previously. We're in the middle of a surgical hostage drama in the operating room and it's only going to get worse before it gets better. Ben is a little bit out of commission now, which creates a sort of vacuum in the power structure with The Others. We may meet some new Others, some new and dangerous people may appear. I think it's fair to say the Lostaways aren't going to suffer the kidnapping of their friends for very much longer and there's going to be some kind of conflict coming."

Q: You're such a nice guy, how do you prepare for creepy guy?

Michael: "I don't make any effort to play the result of the character, I just try to play the text and the situations as best I can and to be cool about it."

Q: Do you think any of the fans have figured out the real secret of Lost?

Michael: "I don't think so and this subject came up at the panel discussion over the weekend. What the writers said was that there is no single, all-encompassing framework or answer, that it's a combination of elements and if you hit on one or two things, you wouldn't have the whole picture."

Q: What is the relationship between Ben and Juliet?

Michael: "They seem to have a professional relationship that's warm and respectful, they have a high regard for one another.

There seems to be a little bit of unanswered romance in the air somehow. Someone feels a little more warmly about someone else than the other one does."

Q: Do you visit the fan sites?

Michael: "I don't go on much because I'm a little bit of a lud, I'm not real good with the computer. I have a brother who is, he'll alert me to certain tidbits occasionally if they're sort of strange or exciting."

Q: Will Ben make it through the rest of the series?

Michael: "Oh gosh, I don't know. I'm a gypsy actor by trade and I tend not to have a high expectation of survival. So often in show business, it's over very quickly. I wouldn't set down roots exactly in Hawaii, although I like my job and I don't have any reason to think they don't have a good, long storyline in mind for my character. I think it's good to accept that our work is sort of transient. My guess is that there will be some very high level casualties this season on Lost."

Q: Do the writers really put as much effort into every little detail as the fans think they do?

Michael: "I think most of that stuff is intentional, I don't think it costs them much effort. I think they have fun, I think they're really bright and quick about things. I don't think they're laying awake at night coming up with that stuff, I think it just falls out of them everyday. Some of those details have more weight than others, but very little of it is just a tease. Most of them are parts of some set of images or a set of references or parallel that are informative or enriching to the telling of the story."

Q: Have you had any interesting fan encounters?

Michael: "Most of mine tend to be of a fairly predictable sort, which is that people are delighted to be afraid of me. Even authority figures, like security people at the airport - it's funny and it makes people happy to have someone who scares them."

Q: What do you know about the end date for Lost?

Michael: "I think it's still really being loosely talked about. What they spoke about was sort of abstract idea of why don't we set an end date to give ourselves a deadline so we don't meander with this show for years and years and years and to sort of raise the stakes, to know we only have this amount of time to complete it and also to signal to the audience that we don't mean to tease you forever, that we do have a plan. I don't know how many years they'll allow themselves to wrap up the story. I think they feel like they're in mid-story right now, so it's sensible as writers and entertainers to think how they might wrap it up."

Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you?

Michael: "I expect because of the character I play, I think they'd be surprised to find out how mild-mannered I am in real life."

Q: Is there anything you'd like to say to the fans?

Michael: "I hope they'll go ahead and continue enjoying the ride like we do!"

SOURCE: About.com

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