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The Lostpedia Interview:Michael Emerson

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Michael Emerson is a Lost actor who portrays Benjamin Linus. The following questions were submitted by members of the Lostpedia Forums, and by members of the Lostpedia wiki, and were sent via email. The interview was posted on December 19, 2008.


M-Emerson
Michael Emerson

Lostpedia: What do you make of Ben's relationship with Richard?

Michael Emerson: One of the great mysteries of the show- Richard Alpert—love Nestor and the agelessness of his character—surrogate father/mentor but also maybe a corruptor.

LP: You seem to be a genuinely warm and mild-mannered person in real life. What methods do you use to portray a character so different to yourself, and is it difficult to do? Is there a particular person that you've modeled the character on and if so whom?

ME: Ben doesn’t require a lot of “acting”—he’s like me (or anybody) but LESS. I don’t know anyone as cold as Ben but I enjoy his focus and calculation—he has a license to be unfeeling.

LP: Following on from the last question, do you use elements of your own personality and incorporate them into Ben’s character?

ME: Sometimes acting is not about the things you already are but about the things you wish you could be. We’re all capable of almost anything—Ben is not such a great stretch.

LP: Given how attentive LOST fans are, are you and the other actors more self conscious of your performances than you are when you act in other productions?

ME: I don’t think the cast factors audience scrutiny into their work very much—the work is fairly consuming as it is. That intense attention to the show is more an issue between the writers and the audience in my opinion.

LP: Has there ever been anything the writers have made Ben say or do that you have disagreed with?

ME: I admit to being shocked at Ben’s role in the mass murder of the Dharma Initiative, but I think that may be re-contextualized in the future. I trust the writers completely and I would be uncomfortable meddling in their business.

LP: Does having cameras all around you and specific stage direction, coupled with the fact that fans study your every move onscreen, at all distract you from your objectives, subtext, etc.?

ME: Acting for the camera is all about tuning everything else out. I like the challenge of it—keeping focused and staying available for the endless repetition of scenes without being too “heavy” about it all. We tend to shoot full takes of scenes on LOST so it doesn’t seem too fragmented.

LP: Many Lost fans are big fans of your character and are able to connect with and identify with Ben despite all the bad things he has done, and for this, I find your portrayal of him downright fascinating. As an actor, how do you approach portraying such a morally-ambiguous "villain" so that he is a character with whom the audience can sympathize?

ME: There’s no great mystery or secret formula here—we pay attention to villains because THEY ARE US. I look for ways to be asocial or unpleasing in an interesting way—sometimes in ways we don’t ordinarily allow ourselves.

Ben sitting
Emerson as Benjamin Linus

LP: Since the episode "The Man Behind the Curtain" in what ways have revelations about Ben's childhood affected your performance of him as an adult?

ME: I don’t feel much influence (he remarks coldly)—it just confirms that he is a person much like the rest of us.

LP: What was your reaction to the frozen donkey wheel? When Ben turned the wheel it was a moving experience (no pun intended); one could really see the sadness in him, knowing he’d never return to the island. When playing that scene did you conjure up real emotions, and feel a real sadness?

ME: Jack Bender said to be mindful that for Ben this moment would be the end of life as he had known it. Couple that with the fresh loss of his daughter and it is a scene with huge stakes. Did it seem real to you?

LP: Your heavily nuanced deliverance of lines that might, in another actor's mouth, seem bland, has leant extraordinary ambiguity to entire scenes and episodes of Lost. In fact, this particular gift seems to be your character's trademark. Have you ever delivered a line with multiple inflections in multiple takes before the directors/producers choose the one that best fits the course of the plot?

ME: I’m a stage actor and in that world success depends on how lines are spoken. I would say it is the thing an actor is paid to do.. On Lost we often shoot a scene (or a line) a number of different ways and let the editors pick which one they like best.

LP: Most big Lost fans have their own favourite Benjamin Linus/Henry Gale quote, or a number of them, but what is yours?

ME: Ben has a choice line or two in every episode and I love his wit but I’m more attached to his sober formulation of serious questions of ethics or philosophy. Despite being a man of action he is also a man in search of Meaning.

LP: How frequently are you given direction to play a scene a certain way without knowing why Ben, with his personal history and knowledge of what's going on, would behave or feel that way, and do you have any examples of your method or thought process to compensate for this lack of knowledge?

ME: Honestly, I don’t worry about motivation or back-story overmuch. Much more important that a scene crackles or sings. Acting is more abstract that most people (or actors, for that matter) think.

LP: Having killed his own father and developed an infatuation with a woman who resembles his mother, it's clear that Ben has a serious Oedipus complex. Do you find this aspect of your character more disturbing than his murderous violent streak? And do you think the writers are suggesting that Ben will ultimately be shown to be a tragic hero like Oedipus was?

ME: I’m not sure Oedipus qualifies as a hero of any sort, but no—everyone on Lost has a problem with their father—it’s one of the themes of the show. We’re two years away from being able to judge Ben a hero or not.

3X01-KateBen
Ben has breakfast with Kate. ("A Tale of Two Cities")

LP: Do you consider yourself a 'method' actor? What steps to you take to truly inhabit a role? Where exactly do you draw your inspiration from to play a character as seemingly evil and "creepy" as Benjamin Linus?

ME: No, I would not say I was a Method Actor. I would call myself a Technical Actor. To paraphrase Ben Kingsley, I learn the lines—and when I have learnt them in a full and meaningful way I may be ready to serve the story. Every day, every scene I say to myself, “What would I do if I were in this situation?” Purely imaginary.

LP: In other interviews, you have stated that the character of Ben is really between the writers/directors and the minds of the viewers; that you just say the lines and wear the clothes. Writers write scripts. Directors frame the shots. Editors and music coordinators build the subtle effects through cuts and cadence. But what do you do that helps bring Ben to life? Put another way: how much do you choose to do in the way of speaking tone, line pacing, physical movement, etc.. versus what the director asks for?

ME: I exhibit a set of behaviors and make a set of noises that I hope an audience will find plausible, surprising, maybe thrilling. I’m a flexible collaborator in this process up to a point, but at the end of the day it is me breathing and moving and speaking and trying to lure a critical viewership into the story. There is some nuance involved.

LP: Ben sometimes appears to maintain a childlike quality which instigates his actions, and this sometimes gives birth to petulant reactions. How do you personally feel about this side of his character, and do you feel that it answers some questions about his motivations?

ME: I think it tells the truth about brilliant people I have observed. All our parts do not develop at the same rate and our amazing skills come at a price. I like the idea that Ben is socially underdeveloped. Plus, I notice more and more that grownups are just later versions of the children they once were.

TO1
The Others in Season 2

LP: Through the years Ben's character evolved and changed, at first we knew him as Henry Gale, the frightened peaceful character from Minnesota, then there was the calm and creepy Other's leader/dictator who used Jack to save his life, later we saw the cruel power-hungry side of Ben during the flashbacks of the purge, then we saw the emotional side of Ben in the aftermath of Alex's death, and then back to the cruel power-hungry side of Ben when he killed Keamy. Which side of Ben did you enjoy acting the most?

ME: What I like is that you think there are all these versions of Ben when I’ve made it a point to always be the same man. (Thank you.)

LP: Ben has been involved in quite a few action sequences; I’m thinking in particular the scene in the Sahara with the Bedouins. Do you do specific training for these sequences? Further, do you do your own stunts on the show?

ME: I wish I had more background in “Action” skills but on Lost you pretty much show up on the day and do it. I have the usual stage combat training but nothing that prepared me for the shooting, fighting and riding I’ve done on Lost. I usually do my own stunts up to the point where I’m in pain or it seems crazy to continue, but by then we’re usually finished. The work is often dangerous and I’ve promised myself to be more retiring.

LP: How have you changed your portrayal of Ben over your time on the show? I mean this as conscious choice as an actor, not so much as what the writers have scripted for your character arc. Knowing what you know now about Ben's character and history or even that of Henry Gale, are there any scenes that you would play differently if you had the chance to do them again? If so how?

ME: I haven’t really changed my portrayal (not consciously). It’s always been just me, what I knew at the moment and the scene at hand. Can’t think of a scene I’d change.

LP: What do you think is the biggest turning point for Ben's character during the span of the whole show? Do you think that has happened yet or is it still to come?

ME: The death of Alex.

3X05 BenRobe
Ben at Colleen's funeral. ("The Cost of Living")

LP: What do you think are the personal religious/philosophical views of Benjamin Linus? In the episode "Dave", while still posing as Henry Gale, he says to Locke: "God doesn't know how long we've been here, John. He can't see this island any better than the rest of the world can." But in "The Cost of Living" he asks Jack if he believes in God. When Jack asks the question back at him, Ben replies: "Two days after I found out I had a fatal tumor on my spine, a spinal surgeon fell out of the sky. And if that's not proof of God, I don't know what is." While this answer is slightly ambiguous, it reflects a different view on religion than what he said to Locke. Ben also has the Qu’ran and a book on Indian rituals on his bookshelf. So what do you make of all this? And if you want to answer, what is your personal worldview?

ME: Clearly Ben seeks Meaning and has a philosophical dimension. Like most humans (like me) he’s a little too caught up in the Here and Now to give it his full focus. Like me, he probably believes that he expresses his spirit in each day’s activity.

LP: In light of the recent S4 finale spoilers, do you feel such huge reveals (if you are unaware, Locke being in the coffin was the big spoiler that got leaked) hurt the show? How do you think the fan community should treat such spoilers?

ME: I hadn’t heard. That’s the downside of so much frenzied attention, I suppose. If the fans don’t want a surprise to be spoiled they know what to do.

LP: Do you or any of the cast members read these message boards? Are you as fascinated by the story as we are once you've seen it all put together or are you so sick of it by the time you're done filming that you concentrate on other things? Have you ever visited Lostpedia?

ME: I don’t usually visit the message boards—don’t think many in the cast do. It’s like reading reviews—no good can come from it. I do follow the story closely and enjoy speculating on the meaning of it all and where the story is going. I have heard of Lostpedia and heard it praised but I don’t pursue Lost online—I’m more likely to pursue it in conversation.

LP: How does the cast interact with one another away from the set? Is there anyone in particular that you get along with on the set, and why do you think this is?

ME: The cast is very friendly with one another—we don’t get together often because we have non-Lost lives to lead and we probably see enough of one another on the set. I feel especially comfortable with Terry—not only are we in many scenes together but we are close in age and temperament and work habits.

LP: You, and many other members of the cast, have said that you don’t know what’s coming up on Lost, and sometimes can receive a script only days before shooting it. Coming from such an extensive theatre background, how difficult was it to adapt to this change?

ME: It was scary at first but now I’m finding it freeing. A minor adjustment.

320 Ben Locke
"I feel especially confortable with Terry [O'Quinn]."

LP: Terry O'Quinn said that the opportunity to work on a show like Lost is a once in a lifetime thing and some of the younger actors might not appreciate that as you can go through your whole career and never get to be involved in something so great. Is that how you feel and who else within the cast would you say are as big fans of the show as yourself?

ME: The magnitude of Lost’s success is hard to absorb. It’s not a thing I think about too much—I have work to do that requires my attention. In one sense, it’s just one of the many roles I will play.

LP: What's your prediction for the final nature of the show: will it turn out to be more sci-fi explainable or will it be more magic and supernatural? What is your opinion of the science-fiction route the show has taken?

ME: A sci-fi angle seems likely to me—but like all really good sci-fi it will amaze and inspire. Sounds good to me.

LP: What did you think of the overall arc of season four? How do you feel the writers’ strike affected the show – was it positive or negative? Is this rapid pace - now with flash-forwards as well as flashbacks - a more compelling way to do it?

ME: I love the flash-forwarding—I think it elevates the show to something more sophisticated and something more poignant. Season 4 was a bit frantic for us but it gave the series great urgency and momentum. The only good thing about the writers’ strike was getting to be home unexpectedly with loved ones.

LP: If you could go back to the moment you were asked to play Henry Gale, knowing what you know now about the outcome of the character(s) (Henry=Ben), the extent of the obligation, the attention from fans (this being a major issue), would you say yes again? Why/Why not?

ME: I would say yes (but I would’ve been much more worried). I’m glad it came to me the way it did.

LP: You've mentioned that you aren't an outdoors-y person. Is there anything you will miss about Hawaii when Lost wraps up in 2010? Do you have any set stories you can share with us?

ME: I will miss the smells of the place and the surprising trade winds, the colors of water and the ever-changing show of light, clouds and rainbows in the Hawaiian sky. I love the ragged green mountains here and the hiking and the unusual birds. I love the sound of the Hawaiian language (like moving water) and the music of the islands. Most of all, I will miss the relaxation and the easy hospitality of the people of O’ahu.

LP: What other actor(s) would you list as having had an influence on your craft?

ME: My idols tend to be the great actors of the Broadway or London stage—actors who found ways to manage the world of language.

LP: After playing William Hinks on The Practice, you are quoted as saying "It worries me a little bit the reach and power of TV. More people saw me in The Practice than will ever see me in all the stage plays I ever do. Which is sort of humbling. Or troubling. Or both." Do you still feel the same way, especially now that there are those of us watching who interact with and sometimes even influence the show?

ME: I still feel the same. The volume and reach of TV is unimaginable, uncontrollable. It’s not human in scale.

LP: I know that there are some actors who hate watching themselves on TV: do you fall into this category? Are you very self-critical when watching your performances? And have there been any times where, when you watched it back, you wished you’d done things differently?

ME: I do watch myself—it’s often painful but it is educational. It seems in a way to be not-me. Sometimes you wish you had a moment to do over again. It is strange to see yourself from all angles.

LP: What type of books do you enjoy reading? Do you like fiction as well as nonfiction? Any particular genres that don't appeal to you?

ME: I read a lot of novels, I read classics and history and commentary. I like to let one book suggest the next. For fun I enjoy ghost stories and murder mysteries. I do not read self-help books.

LP: Which genre of music do you enjoy the most? What kinds of CDs do you like to collect?

ME: I have pretty eclectic taste in music with a leaning toward the melancholy. I like Bach and blues and trip-hop. I like old jazz and live bluegrass and old reggae and anything ancient. Garage bands, Nick Drake, Captain Beefheart, Nino Rota, etc. etc.

LP: My 15 year old son is an aspiring actor. What would you say helped develop your career the most and put you in position to land a major role in a wildly popular show like Lost?

ME: I don’t think there’s anything a person can do that would have any bearing on landing a role on a "wildly popular" series. I think you learn to love your work, learn to do it well, be patient with yourself and go where your career takes you. Fame and Fortune are not healthy goals even if they were achievable. Acting is a difficult business and luck is a big factor. (Luck and preparedness, of course.) I still think of it as a monkish calling and it demands many sacrifices and makes no promises whatsoever.

LP: How do you pick what projects you take on? What do you look for in a script (film or TV) that makes you want to do it?

ME: I let good material be my guide whenever possible. I look for scripts with strong language values—something truthful, mysterious, challenging, surprising, thought-provoking. I look for the kind of project that would appeal to me as an audience member.

LP: Since you're a veteran of the theater, I'd be interested in knowing your thoughts on modern-day interpretations of classic plays. It seems as if this is the norm these days, that no one stages a Shakespeare play without trying to update it to make it more relevant to modern audiences. What do you think of these attempts to "improve" on the master?

ME: There is no "right" period or style for a Shakespeare play. Even in his own day Shakespeare’s plays were "interpreted". They are "classics" because they continue to bear (demand, even) every kind of interpretation. They are not historical documents or time-capsules. They are poetic works whose power lives through Metaphor. We continue to perform them BECAUSE they transcend their period, BECAUSE they are miraculously interpretable. Nostalgia for some good old (olde?) "traditional" style of performance is a false notion and a misunderstanding of the uses of drama. I cringe at the idea of jovial actors in pumpkin breeches clinking pewter mugs together.(You can get that any old day at Colonial Williamsburg.) Every production of a Shakespeare play is an interpretation. There are, of course, degrees of success and failure, good shows and bad, (and there are many more bad than good) but the best productions find powerful and illuminating metaphors that reveal the text freshly and surprisingly. It may be Elizabethan or it may be Post-Apocalyptic—whatever will inspire. (Question for the questioner: In what period did Shakespeare’s company stage Julius Caesar?)

LP: As the build-up for Season 5 continues (at least, for the fans), what is it you are most excited about for the upcoming season?

ME: Each season introduces a new dimension to the storytelling—I’ll be curious to see what it is this time.

LP: How were you able to be a successful actor coming out of Iowa? Also how did growing up in Iowa affect you?

ME: I had a fine childhood in Iowa and access to lots of books. A great place to grow up but a very practical place and no future for an ambitious young actor.

LP: Working on Lost must take up a good amount of your time. When you're done working for the season, what do you do in your spare time (other than being nominated for Emmy awards)? Speaking of which, how did you react when you found out about your nomination?

ME: In the off-season I try to spend time with my loved ones and pursue my interest in theater. I was thrilled when my agent called to inform me of the nomination but I am somewhat superstitious and can’t help thinking about Mixed Blessings.

LP: Finally, when Lost is over, do you foresee going back into stage work, or sticking with television? Which of these disciplines do you prefer, and why?

ME: I’ll go where there is good material. Certainly I’ll be looking to do some theater. I’m attached to the world of the theater because of its rituals and history and because I like that it is a SPOKEN medium. It feels like both my home and my church.

Lostpedia would like to sincerely thank Mr. Emerson for giving the time for this interview.



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