Athletics not really an option for actor Michael Emerson as a kid growing up in Iowa, the after school activity left him was the Midwestern tradition of speech and debate. He’d enter state and local contests and eventually got involved in drama clubs before deciding to study theatre at Drake College. Devoid of any real practical knowledge on pursuing the discipline, his move to the tougher New York City of the 1970s really knocked the “wind out of him,” and forced him to quit. Meandering down south as a retail worker, he eventually became an illustrator but burning enough bridges in the field by the mid 80’s left nothing in the way of re-pursuing acting. He started doing community and university acting and took better stock in his dream by attending graduate school. His craft improved, a stage role in The Trial of Oscar Wilde put him on the map and an Emmy for his guest role on The Practicepaved the way for appearances on the X-Files, Law and Order and his breakout role as the evil Linus on Lost. But now juxtaposed across that axis between good and evil in his portrayal of the crime fighting, computer genius Finch on Person of Interest, Emerson never judges the characters he plays to bring them to life.
Michael Emerson: Goodness and badness – that’s the province of the writers and the perception of the audience. It’s a contract between them. The actor just goes in and plays it as steady and plausibly as he can. Then you try not as the actor to make it whether this particular line or action is good or bad. It’s just a question of following your motives and trying to accomplish the things your character is trying to accomplish.
Times Square(TS): Tell me how “the machine” works on POI.
ME: It’s a huge complex computer system of sophisticated servers. It’s like what the NSA doesn’t want us to think they have. It can tap into the traffic of emails, cameras, cell phones and all that. And because that’s more data that can be picked apart, there’s some sophisticated software worked in there that recognizes patterns of conspiracy. So in the show, the makers of the machine have given it to the government, but have kept a backdoor in which the machine tells them that a person is about to be involved in a violent crime as a perpetrator or victim.
TS: Is such a thing feasible?
ME: It’s really feasible, and it appears that this prism system that has been in the news is a version of what we have in the show. It may not be as far reaching, but it’s the same principal, and it’s the line between domestic and foreign surveillance that prevents the government from doing it.
TS: On the show, you walk with a limp. Can that cause real physical problems.
ME: No but you’re right to ask because you have to be careful how much you play it out and that it doesn’t give you a problem.
TS: Your co-star Jim Caviezel – this is a good looking guy. Can he walk down the street without women throwing undergarments at him?
ME: He is easy on the eyes. The strong silent type, and that’s hard to find for a role like Mr. Reese. I can’t think of any other guys that can do what Jim is doing, which is being someone who shows nothing but things are going on inside. Then to be plausible as a weapon’s and combat expert - we lucked out when we found him.
TS: So Finch is this character who fakes his death to not only keep the machine from being used for nefarious reasons but to protect the love of his life. Does your wife ever say, can’t you be more like Finch when you don’t feel like taking out the garbage?
ME: (Laughing) No. I think she’s happy that I leave Finch at the studio. But he’s a smart, self sacrificing guy, and I think she feels I’d make similar sacrifices on her behalf if we were in any of these highly fictional circumstances.
TS: As fans, if we love a show, we can’t wait for the next episode. Do actors get the same way in anticipating the next script?
ME: On our show, it’s not a given that every story has a point of uber story or mythology. Mostly we do stand alone episodes, but I’m happy that we do have an over arching storyline about the ownership and command of the machine and the forces aligned against us. Now we’re adding this new aspect where the machine is sentient in a way, is capable of movement and able to choose its own friends. I think a great development, and that’s largely what will pursue in season three.
TS: How about anticipating scripts on Lost?
ME: Lost was such a puzzle. We used to sit around and try to figure out where it would possibly lead or end and we never came close.
TS: How did you feel about how Lost ended?
ME: It was an extraordinarily difficult show to wrap up, because of the way the narrative spun out and exploded in all directions. How do you strangle that at the end and bring it all together? Well, you bring it back to the center and the start, and I was gratified by the ending. I also liked that it wasn’t laid out on a plate for us. Just as the show had always been open to interpretation so was the ending. I probably thought about it as hard as any of the regular viewers did, because we weren’t privy to the thoughts of the creators. So in the end, I thought they had honored what they created and found it uplifting and moving.
TS: Person of Interest is shot in New York. What do you like about that?
ME: It can be complicated and chaotic because you can’t control the streets. On the other hand, some of the locations are breathtaking - on the tops of office buildings with views of the river, fabulous art work and architectural design. It’s always interesting.
TS: Given that you quit acting and have gone onto such success, do you ever think, wow?
ME: I often think how did I end up here.
TS: When does season three begin?
ME: Tuesday, September 24th, 10PM
TS: Thank you. Nice talking to you
ME: You’re welcome. Have a good one.