STAGE TO SCREENS: "Lost" Actor Michael Emerson, From Stage to Sci-Fi

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: "Lost" Actor Michael Emerson, From Stage to Sci-Fi Michael Emerson draws on his stage experience to help create the mysterious villain Ben Linus on TV's "Lost."
Michael Emerson as Benjamin Linus on
Michael Emerson as Benjamin Linus on "Lost" Photo by Mario Perez/

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As the onetime leader of the enigmatic "Others" on the hit ABC-TV series "Lost," Michael Emerson's Benjamin Linus has become one of TV's most deliciously diabolical villains. The consummate Machiavellian manipulator, Ben has spent the better part of four seasons deceiving, scheming, and torturing an unsuspecting band of weary and frustrated plane crash survivors stranded on a mysterious, mystical island, leaving viewers perplexed, dazzled, angry and primed to hurl objects at the television set.

But it wasn't always this way for the 55-year-old Emerson. Before rocketing to fame with his Emmy Award-winning role on "Lost," Emerson had carved out a formidable career on stage, where he brought to life a series of much more cerebral and introspective characters. His theatre resume includes the ineffectual George Tesman, the put-upon scholar and husband of the title anti-heroine in the Kate Burton-starring Hedda Gabler on Broadway in 2001; a forlorn, perpetually inebriated Ivy League washout (Willie Oban) in the Kevin Spacey-headlined The Iceman Cometh in 1999; and, most memorably, his breakthrough role in 1997 as the silver-tongued aesthete-turned-disgraced laughingstock Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

Emerson says he certainly wasn't used to playing the kind of action-heavy sequences that are endemic to the adventure-cum-sci-fi epic "Lost" — from wielding rifles and sharp objects, torturing prisoners and manipulating people like chess pieces, to facing down "smoke monsters" and "moving" tropical islands within the time-space continuum.

"You have a certain vision of what your future's going to be like as an actor," Emerson muses. "I thought, I've passed the age of 50 now, I'm going to be, you know, the character in a tuxedo with a cigarette holder spouting witty repartee in plays of great language. Instead, I find myself at this late date running around with guns and torches, with explosions [going off] in every other scene. It's so crazy. On some level, it is so not me, or not the me that I was before I came here. I thought all that combat was behind me."

Terry O'Quinn with Michael Emerson on "Lost"
photo by Mario Perez/ © ABC

In fact, for his very first day on the job in Hawaii (where "Lost" is filmed), Emerson found himself wired up in a tree in a hot air balloon (where he first became known to "Lost" fans under the spurious moniker, Henry Gale). As a classically trained New York theatre actor, Emerson recounts the "disorientation" of waking up on his first day "in the middle of the Pacific, when the sun hasn't risen yet, and you're riding in a van with strangers. You go out to this jungle location, and they string you up in a tree," he says, with a laugh. "You're just trying to keep your cool and remember your lines." Despite the challenge of adjusting to the physical demands of an adventure-style TV drama like "Lost," Emerson says his background as a stage actor has prepared him to bring to life Ben's complex emotions, villainous scheming, not to mention his newfound vulnerability.

"It continues to feel like I'm in a good play," says Emerson. "I have lots of dangerous, breathless, highly compressed scenes in small spaces that give me the same satisfaction I used to get doing many plays. It's as good to me, sometimes, as doing a Pinter play or something similar, in which it's loaded with subtext and the stakes are very high if somewhat obscure. ....I've lucked out getting on a show where I like the writing and I like the situations I'm given. I have really enjoyed the scene work, and I didn't know that I would at first."

Wife-actress Carrie Preston with Michael Emerson
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Of course, fans may remember that Ben started out as a guest role slated for only a few episodes in Season 2, although "Lost" creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse must have known they had a devilish talent on their hands. After all, Emerson had turned in a chilling six-episode arc as a suspected serial killer on "The Practice" in 2000-01, which earned him his first Emmy. "It was a kind of experiment. They needed to build a bridge between the romantic adventure drama that the show had been during the first season and this more elaborate brain puzzle that they were heading toward," Emerson says. "So they created this adversary role, and they stuck me in it. I guess they were looking to see how the character worked and how I worked as the character. And in both cases, they thought it was good, I guess."

Benjamin Linus has become such a delectable TV villain because Emerson brings a quiet, simmering menace and mordant archness to the character's machinations, as well as an ability to conceal the true nature of Ben's shape-shifting motivations. Emerson says he's not exactly sure how he cultivates the air of mystery around an enigmatic character like Ben ("I don't know if I've answered it in my own mind"), but he points to a few techniques.

"It's instinctive, I guess. Sometimes I think it's just playing against the grain. Having the wrong emotional tone in emotional circumstances. Being cooler than anyone else in the room, maybe, is part of it. Or being extremely focused, which can be unnerving to people. So maybe it's a combination of those things," he says.

During his lengthy career in theatre, the actor has played enigmatic characters on stage before, including that sinister schemer Iago from Othello. "Now there's a character who doesn't have a past or a future or even context. He just is a present force for evil or malevolence. Maybe that was instructive for me."

Emerson says that he relishes the arch, sardonic quality in Ben that audiences also seem to embrace. "Sometimes, I let my mind wander on the set, and I think, 'I'm in a comedy. Everyone else is in a drama, and I'm in a comedy,'" Emerson muses. "Some of my funniest lines have been cut over the years, because they want to control the tone of the show in order to keep it more terse and frightening."

As an actor, Emerson agrees you want to maintain the air of mystery around a character, but you also need the part to be interesting and engaging, not just a cypher. His training as a stage actor has helped immensely, but he acknowledges that there's also a quality in himself that may be just a little bit, ahem, off-kilter.

"Part of what is unnerving about Ben, I think, is that he's a fairly articulate and well-spoken character, and Americans generally find that a little unnerving. He has a way of articulating himself...I'm not even sure how he does it. Maybe I'm a weird person, and it's just right for this weird character," he says, with a laugh that could stand the hair up on the back of your neck. "And you know, maybe there's something about my voice that is...a little queer. It has intonations in it that the audience is listening to and not understanding why they're listening to it. All of that is the accumulated stuff of a life in the theatre, I think, and it's useful, at least in this case."

Indeed, that life in the theatre was often a struggle for Emerson, and it took him down an improbably long and winding road, with many stops and starts. He had always wanted to be an actor, but as a self-professed small town guy from Cedar Rapids, IA, he was unsure of himself and "got waylaid through his 20s and 30s." After a brief, failed stint trying to make it as an actor in New York, Emerson moved to Florida and worked for many years as a magazine illustrator, teacher, and carpenter, among other jobs. But the acting bug always gnawed at him.

"In the mid-'80s, I found myself high and dry in northeast Florida, and I thought, well, I have nothing to lose now, I might as well do what I always wanted to do. So I started acting in community theatre in Jacksonville, and I've been working my way back towards Broadway ever since. It's been a long checkered path."

After several years "rattling around the Southeast" doing community theatre wherever he could get parts, Emerson took a major leap forward in 1993 when he decided to enroll in the MFA training program at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He turned 40 while he was in the program.

"I wanted to go further, and I felt I was good enough," he recalls. "I thought, wow, I'll be the oldest living grad student. But yeah, what the hell, I have nothing to lose."

After completing the intense program at Alabama Shakespeare, Emerson moved to New York City to do classical plays and become a working theatre actor. It took him a few years to gain traction, but in 1996, he was cast in his breakthrough role as Oscar Wilde in Moisés Kaufman's critically acclaimed new play, Gross Indecency.

Michael Emerson (seated) in Gross Indecency
photo by Jim McGrath

"I wasn't a fool — I knew that it was getting late in the day for me to be an actor, certainly an actor of note, and I was worried about what I'd chosen to do with my life," Emerson recalls. "So getting Gross Indecency, and having it be the success that it was, and getting the good reaction to my playing in it, I can't tell you the relief it was. I thought, I haven't been fooling myself. I am doing the thing I should be doing. It gave me hope and the confidence and strength to go on and do it as long as I can." With just a few more months to go before the (hopefully) revelatory final episode of Lost, Emerson admits that he's been mulling over what kinds of projects to consider after the show wraps, even if his focus remains almost exclusively on his current gig.

"The industry will want you to stay on the same track. But I'd like to mix it up a bit and take a little break from the routine of television," he says. "It would be nice if I could find a small part to do in a movie or certainly some stage work. It's been four years since I've been on the New York stage. So I'm really primed for it and ready to jump back in. It will have to be the right project, and the scheduling will be tricky. But I do think there will be exciting parts available to me and that I will be in the enviable position of getting to choose what I'd like to do next."

While Emerson admits that he enjoys the hefty, regular paychecks of series television work, he maintains that there's nothing more fulfilling for him than acting on stage. While acting in front of a camera, particularly when you don't know what's coming down the pipeline for your character, involves its own set of challenges, there's nothing quite like the frisson of live theatre.

"It's that connection to a live audience that is irreplaceable. It's the thing," Emerson says. "It is so very clear to me now that I've been away from it for a few years. It's completing that electrical circuit — a living, breathing audience. That's the payoff. And when you can get them to laugh or get them to hold their breath, there's nothing better. The sense of power is beyond anything you'll ever get as a film actor...Not to mention the sense of terror!"

As for any hints about how "Lost" will end or what's in store for Ben and the other island denizens, Emerson is, like his character, nothing if not cagey. Still, he may know little more than the audience does at this point in the game.

"We in the cast are also fans of the show," he says. "And because we don't know where it's going, we engage in as much speculation and theorizing as the people at home do. So it drives us crazy, too ... But all I will say is: Hold on to your seats!"

(Christopher Wallenberg is a Brooklyn-based freelance theatre and film journalist and frequent contributor to The Boston Globe, Playbill, American Theatre magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.)

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