By Gerald M. Gay
Filming “Lost” in Hawaii is no day at the beach, according to actor Michael Emerson.
“We shoot so much outdoors,” Emerson said in a phone interview from his New York City home. The 53-year-old plays the castaway drama’s über-villain Ben Linus, leader of the island-dwelling “Others.”. “We shoot in the jungle, the mountains, often at night and in the rain. You have to deal with sunburn and the bugs and doing take after take, running through a jungle full of roots and holes. It is impossible to escape without some bumps and bruises.”
That being said, Emerson is champing at the bit to get back on set to film the remaining eight episodes of the hit ABC series’ fourth season. Production was halted after the first eight due to the writers strike.
Emerson shared his thoughts earlier this week on the strike, his bad guy reputation and the new season.
Have you ever been to Tucson?
“I have not. The desert parts of America are really attractive to me, yet they are parts of the country I have not visited. I haven’t been anywhere in the Southwest beyond Southern California.”
How has the writers strike affected you?
“It provided sort of a long holiday break in December. I was mainly occupied with socializing and shopping. We also traveled a bit to see family and stuff. Some of the initial charm has worn off at this point. Now we are thinking, ‘What is our next move?’ I’ve involved myself back in the New York theater scene to the extent that I can, doing readings, going to plays, auditioning for stuff that might possibly happen in the future.”
What is your stance on the writers strike?
“I think most people in the acting profession side with our fellow creative artists, the writers. But they have to dig in now or get something hammered out or everyone will be left in the dust. The corporations don’t want to give up any kind of money or control unless they are absolutely forced to. Having said that, I hope the negotiations are in good faith and I hope we don’t read a book 10 years from now that says that the whole thing could have been settled easily, except for certain personalities.”
How did you end up on ‘Lost?’
“As you know, my beginnings weren’t that auspicious. I was hired to do a guest spot. A three-episode arc or something. It came to me as an offer. I didn’t have to audition for it. This is very unusual in my career. I think someone in charge had seen my work on ‘The Practice.’ I had done some work on that show 5-6 years. I think they thought I had the right quality for this pivotal character that they were going to introduce.
“My original thoughts on Ben were that he was going to be a character that was best played mysteriously or ambiguously. He would be in a neutral gear and let the audience impose what their imaginations might allow on him.
“I flew to hawaii in Jan. 10, 2006 and the next morning I was hanging from the tree in a jungle.”
Are you happy with where they have taken Ben?
“I am. I really trust the writers on the show. I’ve grown to admire them. I like the books and culture that they cycle into their work. I like the complexity and symbolism of what they do and how they make a mystery of the show. I don’t think I could think of anything half as good as the stuff they come up for me every episode.”
What’s your favorite part about playing Ben?
“I like that the situations he finds himself in are usually super-charged. I like when there’s a face-off, there is a lot going on. The danger level is high, the stakes are high. It doesn’t mean the scenes get played loudly or violently. Sometimes the quietest scenes are the most dangerous ones. I’m lucky enough to be in scenes that I would say crackle. Nothing is better than being in scenes that crackle. whether it is TV or the stage. That is the place you want to be.”
How about the hardest part?
“It is hard for me to be so far from home. I’m there for eight months to work. I’m also a married person. I have a life and a circle of friends on the East Coast of of the continental United States. I do lose track of my life sometimes.”
As a viewer, who is your favorite character on the show?
“I watch the character Juliet very closely. Elizabeth Mitchell has a cool calmness about her. She is more mysterious and more dangerous than Ben in a way. I can’t tell what her agenda is or what camp she will ally herself with. I like the quiet, quirky way she plays her scenes.”
You managed to squeak out eight episodes of the new season before the strike hit. Is it right back to work when the strike ends?
“I think ABC’s official position is that we will finish this season, if we can. As you can probably guess, there is a point somewhere beyond February or early March at which they’ll just have to throw in the towel and wait for next year.
“It would be a drag. Even though I’m on the show, I am still a fan of the show. I like to watch and I’m interested in the story. I am eager to know where this season is going. I feel like someone came and tore the script out of my hands when I was only halfway done with it. I’m curious to see where they want to go with it.”
Do you get recognized a lot?
“I do. It kind of depends on how I’m dressed and what glasses I’m wearing. But people do recognize me. They are usually kind of funny about it. They tend to treat me formally because the character is so formal. They like to pretend they are a little bit afraid of me. It is cute. People call me Mr. Emerson and keep their distance.”
What can viewers expect from the new season?
“We’re going to have that added layer of the flash-forwards, which is going to be explored in a lot of interesting and dramatic ways. Everything is going to be ramped up this season. Our show used to be about the battle between two camps of people. Now there is going to be a third cast, a group of new characters coming in that the audience will get to know.
“These characters are eccentric, dangerous, mysterious characters. It is going to force new alliances among people who were previously enemies.”
What do you think of the addition of the flash-forwards?
“I thought it was a stroke of genius. I have never seen Matthew Fox as excited as he was for that. He said, ‘Now the show has come into its own, its true promise.’ I think that’s true. With this third dimension of time, the show becomes more complicated and more adult. We are going to see that life after the island hasn’t been all happy endings. The world of compromise and regret goes on.”
And what’s in store for Ben?
“Ben is separated from his resources. He is a miserable, beaten up mess. He is being dragged around the jungle on the end of a rope. He has no warriors or weapons. What we get in Season Four is Ben winging it. He has to improvise now and live by his wits.”
Where would you like to see Ben go?
“As I said before, I have this naive notion that eventually Ben will be re-contextualized. We will find Ben was more heroic than we thought. I think it will be good. Our writers are so crafty. They very rarely give you anything at face value. They’ve gone to great lengths to make it seem like Ben is some sort of terrible manipulator. I wonder if there is going to be more to it than that.”