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May 17, 2010

Geek Out! Michael Emerson reflects on 'Lost'

Posted: 08:10 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From sci-fi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it, you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this interview if you haven't seen the most recent episode of "Lost!"

Now that we have some sense of where Jacob came from - albeit only a vague one - "Lost" will return for two more episodes and hopefully answer some questions about the mysterious island, time travel, timelines, and more. We certainly have not seen the last of Benjamin Linus, nor do we know whose side he's really on anymore.

CNN's Geek Out! chatted with Michael Emerson, who plays Ben Linus, about his experience on the show. We're told he'll have a larger role in this Tuesday's episode than the last two, in which he didn't appear at all. Although the audience feels some sympathy for Ben now, who knows how long that will last?

CNN: Did you know when you first came on "Lost" that you would be a major character?
Michael Emerson: No, thank goodness I didn’t know. It would have made me so nervous. I think I could have possibly screwed it up. As it was, I had no more nerve than you would normally have going to a strange show and doing a guest spot. I was only going to do a few, and then come home. I think I only packed for a month when I first went out there. Now it’s four and a half years later.

What did you think when you read about the alternate universe in the script?
Emerson: Like usual I said, "Well, how does that work, and what does it mean?" Then you start thinking, is it more real than the island narrative? Is it less real? Are they both equally real? Is one some kind of fantasy or dream, or possible alternative in the mind of the creator? You know, it’s still hard to know what a lot of things mean on the show. But also very exciting to me as an actor to get to make an entire second character without leaving the show of 'Lost.' He’s Ben, clearly, but a completely different version of Ben and that was one of the chief pleasures of the final season.

How would you describe the difference between the two Bens?
Emerson: It’s the same Ben but a different complete palette. The Ben of the island is in vivid primary color, and Teacher Ben is in more muted color, more like the real world.

So, he has many of the same impulses, but in a much different amount. So, he has some ambition, but it’s a much smaller ambition. He has some sense of manipulation, but it’s a much milder, a much lighter version. That was what was fun about playing the flash sideways.

Did anyone tell you what the flash sideways meant at the time?
Emerson: No! No one tells you, but then we don’t really ask, either. For years, we’ve been doing this show, and mostly we just do it on faith. I don’t have to know exactly what it means to play it, if you know what I mean. I just show up, do my work, basically play it straight on the day, and then when I see it broadcast, a lot of times, then I’ll figure out what its meaning or context is. But sometimes not even then.

Was there anything scary or weird to you in the show?
Emerson: Sometimes they would shock me by making Ben more villainous than even I imagined. The massacre of the Dharma Initiative was a shock to me, and the strangling of John Locke was a shock to me, but those are great episodes too, and memorable work. So, I perform whatever they write, but sometimes you think, “Wow we’re really going there? OK. Here we go.”

Do you feel your character is inherently good or evil, or in a gray area?
Emerson: He’s definitely in the gray area. He always was, but it’s even grayer now, I think. We’ve reached a place where I think he has a lot of audience sympathy at this point. It may not be permanent. But right now, we’re so much more familiar with him, and he’s definitely not the scariest creature in the show. At this point. (pause) Heh heh heh.

Is there anything you wish your character had done on the show?
Emerson: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s been really complete, and full, and consistent, and I’m very happy with the way Ben is resolved at the end.

Tell us about a funny moment while filming.
Emerson: I will always love the scene where Hurley and I shared a candy bar on a log in the rain forest. That was hilarious. We still talk about it because we keep analyzing it as if it were a comic bit, and we feel like it’s missing one beat to make it truly funny.

What's a portion of the show you're particularly proud of?
Emerson: I’m happy about the scenes where Ben … when the unhappy child in Ben reveals itself. When he gets angry or defensive or loses his customary control. There aren’t many of those kinds of moments. When Ben, for example, kills Jacob, that’s a place where all his adult civilization, he loses it for a moment. And the unhappy teenager … some part of Ben is frozen in development at a young age and never matured, and I like that about the character and I like playing it.

Do you feel like your classical acting training helped you on this show?
Emerson: Sure. I think that having done classical work is always a help. I just think it gives you … it’s a skill set. Once you’ve done that hard work of trying to crack open and illuminate difficult language, then contemporary language seems easier, and you can bring those more highly tuned skills to bear on texts that might not ordinarily seem exceptional, but you may be able to make it exceptional.

How was it having your wife on the show with you?
Emerson: It was fun. I love working with my wife [Carrie Preston, who was in "The Man Behind the Curtain" in Season 3], and it was unique to have her be in Hawaii working on the same show. We didn’t have any scenes together because she was playing my mother, so she had to give birth to a little baby me. It was kind of strange, but it was fun to go to the set, and she’d be clocking out, and I’d be clocking in. It was so crazy to go, "Hello honey, how was your day?” in the middle of this jungle.

Did you do research for your character?

Emerson: I always felt I had instinctively a grasp on this character. It wasn’t that much work to find how to play Ben Linus. But again, I was glad that I have played villains on stage. You play a part like Iago in Othello, and that gives you some ideas about the function of villains in drama, and how they tick, and what makes them exciting for an audience. It was useful that I had the stage background that I do.

Are you friends with other cast members?

Emerson: I hang out a lot with Terry [O’Quinn] and with Jorge [Garcia]. Jorge throws a lot of fun parties at his house so I’m over there a lot. And Terry and I –we’re such a happy acting team that we just get along famously. We’re of similar age and similar background, and I have enjoyed my collaboration with him.

Any plans for acting after Lost?
Emerson: I don’t have anything lined up yet. Something will come, I assume. I’ll be happy if I can do some theater work this year, probably New York, I don’t know what it will be or when. I’ll continue to audition for movies, maybe I can get a little part in a movie some day, and that would be fun.

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Matt   May 17th, 2010 9:42 am ET

Such a deserved Emmy...this guy is amazing. The show would not work without him.

beth   May 17th, 2010 10:15 am ET

i so want to see him in a series with terry o'quinn!!!! they are fantastic together! i have loved watching ben these past six years! as much as i hated his character, i loved him too!!! lol!!!

Alex   May 17th, 2010 10:17 am ET


Jennifer   May 17th, 2010 10:27 am ET

*sigh* – It's palette, not pallet. Emerson is talking about the character as an art medium, not a wooden crate in a Home Depot.

Linda   May 17th, 2010 10:46 am ET

One of the BEST actors of our time!!! Looking forward to what you do next of luck to you!!

David   May 17th, 2010 11:03 am ET

Michael Emerson plays Ben so well, he one of the reason Lost is enjoyable to watch. He is the guy you love to hate. Every time someone is beating him up I think you’re not hitting him hard enough. He is a super villain. I will miss him and the show.

Lubiana   May 17th, 2010 11:10 am ET

Ha ha Jennifer- the infamous typo strikes again!

Jan   May 17th, 2010 11:20 am ET

What Matt said ... Emerson is an amazing actor, and his scenes with Terry O'Quinn are especially fine.

By the way, CNN editors, it's "palette," like the artist uses, not "pallet" like in shipping freight.

Doc Pugh   May 17th, 2010 11:34 am ET

I see Michael Emerson as Riddler in the upcoming Batman movie.

V   May 17th, 2010 11:51 am ET

Cant wait to see what you do next Mr. Emerson

Lost Waste   May 17th, 2010 12:01 pm ET

Ben is not a villain....the entire Lost production staff is with coming up with this garbage.

Jeremy   May 17th, 2010 12:04 pm ET

Ben (aka Henry Gale) seems to be at his best when his face and shirt are covered in blood.

Travis   May 17th, 2010 12:25 pm ET

Good news everyone! They changed it to palette.

Adam   May 17th, 2010 1:09 pm ET

@ Doc

Emerson as the Riddler would be a good pick.

Hahah   May 17th, 2010 1:34 pm ET

@ Doc Pugh – I see Sheldon Cooper from big bang more as a Riddler type guy. Just my opinion though.

It's really too bad the series is ending this week, i'm not goign to have anymore heavy hitters to look forward to. I mean, Flashforward has been great and has Dom (Charlie from lost) and the lady who plays Penny. I always remember how much I hated Bens character in season 2, and he's really twisted on me in strange ways, that i feel for him but still hate him, but not in the manor that I wanted him off the show, he fits the part really well.

Tim Lee   May 17th, 2010 1:53 pm ET

I loved the Ben character. One of the truly enjoyable parts about it was the ambiguous nature of Ben. Rather like Harry Potter's "Snape", Ben is neither good nor evil – he is a conflicted, multi-dimensional person – albeit with strong negative traits (ego-maniacal, ultra-ambitious controlling...)

I think this is what makes Ben's redemption in both time-lines so compelling. If we truly hated him (like the ruthless mercenary Martin Keamy) we would not care about his redemption.

jdg321   May 17th, 2010 2:12 pm ET

Hahah – sorry to inform you but flashforward has been cancelled now too.

mandi   May 17th, 2010 2:59 pm ET

@Tim Lee

That's what I love about LOST. I think EVERY character is ambiguous. Neither good nor bad.

okthen   May 17th, 2010 3:00 pm ET

Ben has always been one of the most intriguing characters on the show, it's a testament to the acting ability of Michael Emerson. What a delicious role, devilishly handled, and wonderful to watch evolve. It's a great achievement for sure, i wish him all the luck out there. But really people, the riddler? my god, he would be wasted in such a role.

Janet Jones   May 17th, 2010 3:37 pm ET

The actor who has achieved notoriety as Ben Linus has also achieved notoriety with a much smaller audience who has seen him perform on stage. I am a devoted fan who sees Ben Linus as character that the writers intended to be a small role for a few episodes, until they realized what a gem they had when they cast Michael Emerson.

Michael Emerson played Oscar Wilde in "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde". This was pretty much a one man show, with a small ensemble supporting cast. This play started in a non-profit theatre off-off broadway, and moved to a commercial theatre to extend the run. I was fortunate enough to see it twice. Once, when it first arrived at the Minetta Lane Theatre, and again, when I heard the show was near the end of its run, and I couldn't resist seeing it once more. Emerson is an amazing actor. The New York Times review called his performance "stunning". As the play progresses, he transforms from a quick witted and confident genius to a vulnerable broken man who doesn't seem to understand how he got there. He was fascinating to watch as he moved through the multifaceted personality of such a well known individual. Soon after, he appeared in the Iceman Cometh on Broadway (starring Kevin Spacey). Another fine performance from Emerson.

I have watched Lost since Season One, but probably would have lost interest long ago if it weren't for Emerson. I even watched "Saw" just to see Emerson's small part in that awful film (sorry, not my taste!).

So, in response to Linda, yes, I agree... one of the finest actors of our time. I very much look forward to seeing more from him, and am very excited that he sees in his future more theatre work in NY!

ace   May 17th, 2010 10:30 pm ET

Michael = Ben = Lost.

Tim   May 18th, 2010 9:01 am ET

*sigh* Jennifer, does it make you feel superior to others to critique a spelling mistake? Phonetically, it's good enough. You get the point of the quote–to nitpick the spelling just showcases your snarkiness. Yes, it's that your opportunity to feel important for a moment? If so, you failed.

Tim   May 18th, 2010 9:04 am ET

Rob: You'd imagine wrong. He is a very funny and nice guy, and that would easily come across during a casting interview, thus dispelling any notion from producers that he doesn't belong in any roles other than creepy. His personality would demonstrate that he is capable of more than one character-type.

Bob   May 18th, 2010 11:09 am ET

@Tim – You get my vote for the snarkiest jerk on this blog. Multiple people pointed out the spelling error, and Jennifer's comment was funny. The written word is meant to be READ, so phonetics aren't important. Are you the CNN Editor who missed the error in the first place? You sure are angry over a clever (and correct) observation; perhaps some therapy is in order.

Vladimirovich   May 18th, 2010 11:11 am ET

Yeah, I don't think michael Emerson needs to really act to play somebody like Ben. He has a weird quality to himself, as a person. He merely has to play the actions written by the writers of Lost, and voila, he seems evil and twisted.

Brand   May 18th, 2010 11:26 am ET

He's one of my favorite actors anymore after watching LOST. I hope we see him in lots more shows to come.

John   May 18th, 2010 12:06 pm ET

@ Jennifer ... Since you seem to enjoy having things nitpicked, I should probably mention that pallets and wood crates are two different things.

Kate   May 27th, 2010 8:58 pm ET

Loved his work on lost. Would definitely like to see him in another series!
Good Luck Michael!

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