by Nicole Wolverton
Watching Michael Emerson in an acting role is like being hypnotized. There’s something . . . off about him. Maybe off is not quite the right word. Unsettling, perhaps. That his best known role has been the preternaturally calm (and slightly evil) Ben Linus on the television show “Lost” might have something to do with how so many perceive him; however, Emerson likes taking roles like Ben Linus. He enjoys disturbing people.
During a Reddit AMA, Emerson noted, “It’s always best to bring ambiguity into play, because an audience will not tolerate you long if you have no mystery. . . . The actor should find some bad habits in that character, something that makes the audience a little uneasy and keeps them watching.” Aside from the role of Linus on “Lost,” he is also recognized as Zep Hindle in the first “Saw” movie (2004) and Harold Finch in “Person of Interest” (2011 to present). I remember first seeing him in a later episode of “The X-Files,” “Sunshine Days” (2002), where he plays a character named Oliver Martin who bends reality to his will—in that case, a reality where the Brady Bunch actually exists. Yes, all riveting roles make an audience squirm uncomfortably, and yet you can’t stop watching.
Perhaps it’s that Emerson came late to acting that gives him an edge. Born in Iowa in 1954, he studied theatre and art in college and, like those with goals of acting often do, moved to New York City when he graduated. Also like many actors in New York, he couldn’t find acting work, and so he made a living working in retail and as an illustrator—his work has appeared in Psychology Today, Business Week, Barron’s, and the New York Times. He moved away from the city to Florida in 1986, the dream of being an actor all but lost. In a 2010 Vanity Fair interview, he says,
I had always wanted to be an actor, but I lost track of it. The city just knocked the wind out of me. I was from a small town in Iowa, and it was just overwhelming. I put it out of my mind for a long time. But then, as I say, when I found myself in my early thirties, divorced, and living in St. Augustine, Florida, I thought, “Well, nothin’ to lose now. Nowhere to go but up from here, so I might as well do what I please.” So I tried out for a production of Othello at a local university. Got the part of Iago. That’s interesting, isn’t it, that my first big part was a Shakespearean villain?
Yes, you might say it set the tone for his entire career.
From that point on, Emerson toured around the South doing various plays (he also enrolled in the University of Alabama’s Master of Fine Arts/Professional Actor Training program), and it was while touring in Alabama that he met his second wife, actress Carrie Preston. He returned to New York City—at the age of 40—to be with her and to try again to break into acting. Small parts started coming his way when he turned 43. However, it was his portrayal of serial killer William Hinks on the television show “The Practice” in 2000-2001 that won him an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series” and wider recognition as an actor. Then, he was nominated for an Emmy in the “Outstanding Supporting Actor” category nearly every year “Lost” was on the air; he won the award in 2009 for his work as Ben Linus; and he received a Golden Globe nomination in 2009 for that same role.
One wonders what might be next for Emerson, but it’s bound to be even more compelling to watch. After all, as he himself said, “Good actors grow in their craft as they age.”
Homepage photo courtesy Nolan Fans