Michael Emerson, whose title role in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde garnered critical acclaim, got hooked on acting at age nine in a tiny Iowa farm town. He applied himself in high school -- not in the drama club but in speech. "I always gravitated toward language," said the actor at the Minetta Lane Theatre, where Wilde's language and wit are central to his ultimate undoing.
"After studying theatre at college, I couldn't get to Broadway fast enough," said Emerson. "I thought I was too big for Iowa, so I moved to New York and found it too big for me. By the time I got a job and an apartment, my theatrical interest had evaporated. For ten years it was all I could do to survive." He ended up an illustrator. "After seeing Sam Shepard's Buried Child, which had my hair standing on end, I realized acting was something I wanted. I took classes but ran out of steam."
Moving to Jacksonville, Florida, "I did whatever I could, wherever I could in community theatre: designed scenery, acted and directed. With commercials and training films, I made half a sensible person's living."
Driving around the South in his pick-up, Emerson "became everyone's favorite non-union gypsy actor in classic repertory," he laughed. "When I'd gone about as far as I could go, it was hitting New York cold not an appealing prospect -- or an MFA program."
At 38 he joined the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and felt like "the world's oldest graduate student. They ran me ragged two years. I was immersed -- body and brain in theatre."
Emerson says he's not convinced acting can be taught. "You can train the voice and body, but how about timing? It's ingrained." He's kept acting "to get another perspective on myself so people look at me fresh."
On his New York return no one looked -- until earlier this year, "when a friend told me Moises Kaufman was looking for someone older than 35 who could walk, chew gum and do a British dialect. I'd done Wilde and read his plays but knew little of his personal life." Kaufman's Off-Off-Broadway showcase was well received. "The best we'd hoped was that some agent would come," said Emerson, 42, the same age as when Wilde stood trial, "but we rehearsed as if life and death depended on it." Good strategy, since in one audience was The New York Times's chief drama critic, whose review created an overnight smash and, for Emerson, overnight stardom.
"The press is almost embarrassing," he said. "What do you say to good actors who aren't riding the crest of such a wave?"
Since moving Off-Broadway, Emerson's done a movie and had tempting Broadway offers, which he rejected. "It's a great role and more money than I'm used to," he said. "The show's still fresh and nerve-racking. It's every actor's dream come true!"
-- By Ellis Nassour