LOS ANGELES -- When Michael Emerson used to tell friends in Iowa he was going to be an actor, "you might as well have said I was going to Oz. I don't think that was ever plausible."
Still, the Toledo, Iowa, native majored in theater at Drake University and today is one of the stars of "Lost," the hottest show on television.
A yellow brick road from Iowa to Hollywood? Hardly.
After college, Emerson tried to make his mark in New York but couldn't quite crack the market. Instead of working at a department store ("I thought there had to be something other than retail"), he took a weekend class in magazine illustration and wound up with a fairly decent career.
"But it wasn't my passion," he admits. "It wasn't me. It was a creative way to put food on the table. I felt less tender about it than auditioning."
Eventually, Emerson got his break. "I felt I'd made it when I got my first role on Broadway (in 'The Iceman Cometh'). It had taken so many years I felt it was an impossible dream."
Still, the door cracked open and Emerson was more than eager to walk through. Television work followed and then he landed a five-episode arc on "The Practice" as a man "who may or may not have been a serial killer." For his performance, Emerson won an Emmy as Best Guest Performer in a Drama. He got the trophy two days before Sept. 11.
A career boost? "At the time, there were so many more important things to think about. It didn't change my life much but it was a nice honor."
Now, the 52-year-old says, that turn in "The Practice" may have been what landed him in "Lost."
"I never had to audition for this part," he says of Benjamin Linus, the mastermind of an alternate group of "Lost" folks. "That's one of those rare moments in my life. Usually, I'm jumping through hoops and fire."
Even more surprising? He doesn't consider himself an action/adventure type. Sure, his wife, actress Carrie Preston, is a big fan of the show. But "I seemed unlikely casting for it."
Instead, the producers felt he had just the right amount of menace needed for the show.
Now, Emerson realizes this could be that "big" moment of his career. He's not taking it for granted. "It's daunting. It's huge," he says with a smile. "And to think I fell into this regular role through the back door is dizzying.
"I have nothing to compare it to...and it does come with worries. What will I do after this? Luckily, the stage will always be a place for me to go back to."
Armed with credits in plays like "Hedda Gabler," films like "Saw" and "The Legend of Zorro" and television shows like "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" and "The X-Files," Emerson isn't just this year's flavor.
As one who struggled for years (and thought it would be a major accomplishment to land a role at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis), he knows how difficult it is to be make a living playing other people.
"It's a very long game. Every career will have lots of peaks and valleys. The only hope is that you can ride it out and have some golden times that will carry you."
Surprisingly, Emerson's parents never gave him "the speech" -- "you need something to fall back on."
"They seemed to be all right with whatever it was I wanted to do. A theater degree was fine with them."
Others weren't as charitable and they'd wonder if Michael would ever make it in the business. "It doesn't matter where you're from. The American way of life doesn't view a career choice as radical as this in any friendly way. Show business only really, really counts if you make it. Anything below the radar seems a non-career to most people."
The fact that millions get to see his work is probably the most rewarding aspect of something like "Lost."
"I have nothing to compare it to. It's wonderful. It's fine. I love the work and the character's not difficult to play. He gets to be simple and earnest and other people do the reacting. I'm not even sure he's telling the truth. People who are liars, if they're any good at all, are very believable, so I don't need to play layers of truthfulness. I just have to play it like I mean it."
"Lost," the story of a group of survivors on a Pacific island following a plane crash, airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC.
SOURCE: SiouxCity Journal