Michael Emerson may have been a late bloomer in terms of an acting career but he certainly made up for it by creating some very memorable characters, probably the biggest being Benjamin Linus from the groundbreaking TV show Lost. Recently, we had the chance to talk with Michael about his career, including his newest projects Arrow and Mozart in the Jungle.
Was acting something you always wanted to do or did that interest develop over time?
Michael: I guess when I was a little boy yes, but I had other interests as well. I was obsessed with archeology for a long time but once I got into high school and started doing things like drama club, I felt so at home doing that and found it very fulfilling. It was so much fun it just seemed like the thing for me, although when I got out of college and moved to New York and thought about being an actor, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I ended up being a magazine illustrator for about ten years before I found my way back onto the stage.
You did a lot of work in theater early in your career. Was it a conscious decision to move into film and television or was that one of those happy accidents?
Michael: Yeah, it wasn’t something I had a big ambition to do, honestly. When you start to get some attention on the stage then your agent will field some offers, like little guest spots on TV and stuff and so I started to do that and it worked out. I enjoyed the work so I sort of let it carry me wherever it would, there wasn’t a lot of conscious planning to it but good parts came around and for the longest time I would take whatever was the best part, regardless of what medium it was. I’ve had good opportunities on television and it’s been a good and interesting body of work and also a good living, which is not always the case in the theater.
I really enjoy it when television shows make me stop and think and Lost really hurt my brain in all the right ways. What was that experience like for you, both in playing Benjamin Linus and being on the show itself?
Michael: (Laughs) It hurt my brain as well. It was a weird and wonderful experience and there was a bit of overlapping. I often felt as an actor, I was stranded on a mysterious island in the middle of a great, blue sea and wondered what had happened to the life I led before that, was it still out there and what sorcery had brought me to this point. It was a good job and a lot of fun and sweeter for being so unexpected. To go out for a guest spot and then be taken on as a regular, that’s like every character actors dream, that you’ll just act your way into show based on your performance.
After Lost you jumped back into what turned out to be another long running series in Person of Interest. Was it hard to commit to another series after Lost or were the character and the show just too good to pass up?
Michael: The pedigree of the show was really good and the script seemed so strong, it was like a shift of gears. I liked the super duo, righters of wrongs kind of storyline and the urban noir setting. That all appealed to me and knowing that Jonathan Nolan was behind it made me think this could have real possibilities. I didn’t think, and I probably should have, about how hard the work was going to be and how long it might go, but you never think about that. You never think oh, be careful what you do as a pilot because if it goes you go with it, for as long as it goes. It was hard work, I’d have to say Person of Interest was harder work than Lost was, a little less romance about it but part of that was geographical. It was wonderful to work in New York City and I swear, we shot in every neighborhood in the five boroughs, so we got around.
It was great to see you join the cast of Arrow this season. What was it that attracted you to the role of Cayden James?
Michael: Well, the producers had called and thought they had a really good use for my particular tool set. It sounded interesting and I liked the idea of doing a show that had a young audience, which was fun. I also thought the show was stylish, I’m kind of a fan of style and it certainly has a visual style, the art direction is cool, costumes, make up, all of that, I found it really interesting. I thought this could be a fun kind of experiment without having to make it my life’s work, to kind of come and go as I have been doing for the last few months. I get to have nice, juicy scenes with good players and then go home and watch them when they air and think that’s so fun. It’s the kind of show I never dreamt that I would be on.
As an actor, do you prefer working with ensemble casts like the one on Arrow, or is there something to be said for working in theater, where many times you find yourself alone in the spotlight?
Michael: I’m attracted now to the idea of not carrying a show, not being the lead, that kind of thing. I do like the ensemble work, sometimes I worry that if you’re in every scene of every episode you run the risk of wearing out your welcome with the audience. I’d rather show up a little less and be a little more mysterious, a little more exciting.
Arrow seems to have a group of actors that get along very well together. Did you find it easy joining the club, so to speak?
Michael: Yeah, I did and I’ve never been on a show where I’ve been part of a gang of villains. As we go along you’re going to see Cayden James is the focus of an army of villains and all these guys playing villains are the sweetest, best read, best storytellers, it’s just a damn good group. I want there to be a cable talk show, you know, TV villains roundtable that just holds court on whatever comes our way, I think that would be a lot of fun.
Arrow has a much darker tone than other CW shows. Is it more of a challenge of playing a character in this environment or is it simply a case of being bad is a lot of fun?
Michael: No, I’m happy with a dark environment. I would not know how to play a villain in a less dark environment, I don’t think. It’s about right, it’s always night, it’s always in dank, corroded, industrial spaces. It’s punishing physically, people get real injuries so I think that is the kind of superhero universe I would like to operate in.
Now you said you never saw yourself being on a show like Arrow. What has surprised you most since you joined the show?
Michael: It’s fun, you go on this show and here’s this well-oiled company that doesn’t think anything any more about super powers or throwing a glowing ball of electromagnetism that could knock somebody through a wall. It’s just so matter of fact to them while you’re looking on in amazement and because they are no longer amazed at these developments, they take every script that is brought to them and they know how to shoot that stuff very well. They have the best stunt team I have ever seen, crazy good stunt work on Arrow and wild, new-fangled apparatus for making people fly distances through the air and all that kind of stuff, it really is quite amazing.
I love the description of your character on Mozart in the Jungle, he sounds wonderfully bizarre. Could you tell me a bit about your character and how you came to be involved with the show?
Michael: Somebody called and asked if I could come play this character and I said yes, but then when I read it I thought oh my god, they may have made a mistake. This character is really out there, really flamboyant and that’s what I’m going to bring so I hope its ok! It was kind of my dream come true, people keep saying, well what do you want to play next and I’m always embarrassed to say well, I want to wear funny clothes and speak with a foreign accent and I’ll be damned if both my wishes didn’t come true in this character. It was great fun and a chance to stop being subtle and just go for it, be a flamboyant, outrageous, goofy character so it was great for me, so much fun.
Was the musical aspect of both the character and the show something else that caught your interest?
Michael: Well yeah, that is cool, I mean the whole idea of the show is a cool idea. It’s this fantastic, New York setting and it’s all about intrigue and romance and goofiness in the world of classical music and I just think that’s something that I’ve never seen before on television. There’s a particular kind of whimsy to the writing of the show that’s to my taste at least, I enjoy it. You have to kind of figure out when you’re doing it, what the real style of the playing should be in such a show. How broad can you go, how real does it have to be because you don’t know what your character might have to be, a more serious player in some future episode so you can be flamboyant and silly but still here on planet earth so you can shift gears later on if required down the line. I hope there is a down the line for me on that show because it was a lot of fun playing it and there’s some cool characters on that show and cool actors playing them.
Being an actor, can you appreciate the drive and determination of musicians, like the ones in Mozart in the Jungle?
Michael: I shouldn’t compare crafts but theirs is a highly technical undertaking. It requires a kind of dedication and private practice that most actors don’t bring to the game. Not only are they very admirable but they also have to cultivate showmanship, so they’re musical technicians and performers.
How would you say things have changed in the acting world, from when you started to where you are now?
Michael: I think I’m an example of this, I believe it behooves an actor in this day and age, where there are so many platforms, so much content, you should be prepared to split your time between the stage, television, film, gaming media, there’s so many different things to do. Not only that, you should be prepared to do all of those things ahead of time, should the opportunity arise. There was certainly no talk when I was an undergraduate about camera, how to play to the camera or what to do in that kind of setting. It’s given so much more weight now in acting education, which is smart.
Besides Arrow and Mozart in the Jungle, do you have any other projects coming up?
Michael: I’m not engaged currently to anything. I’m always ready to accept and offer or hear a good idea from somebody. My wife and some of her friends are working on some pilot scripts and they have some ideas about what I can do in them. I’m sure one of those will get off the ground one of these days. I’m enjoying bouncing around between projects so if I did another series, I think it would be nice to do one that wasn’t so all consuming, like network. It would be fun to do a series that shot ten or twelve episodes a year rather than twenty two.
I want to thank Michael for taking the time to talk with us