Playing Benjamin Linus on Lost earned him an Emmy, but actor Michael Emerson’s off-screen wit and tireless artistic dedication truly make him a star
Michael Emerson arrives early for the photo shoot at a studio in Kakaako with plenty of paraphernalia. There are linen slacks with a collared shirt and matching vest – everyday wear for this man, who always looks polished – an Oxxford tuxedo, and an Emmy statuette cradled in bubble wrap inside a large Tiffany bag. The Emmy he won in September for his work as the inscrutable Benjamin Linus on ABC’s Lost remains in the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, actress Carrie Preston. When an actor wins, he gets to keep the award (a veritable weapon with wings that resemble the point of a knife), but he does not actually own it. This explains the death grip award-winners keep on their prizes, which are almost impossible to replace. But Lost co-executive producer Jean Higgins has been kind enough to loan Emerson her statuette from the show’s first-season triumph in the category of Best Drama Series.
In the makeup chair, Emerson laments the turn of events on the upcoming sixth and final season of the hit series that airs in 230 countries.
“I was just starting to get good-looking in the show!” he jokes about his much-abused character, who enjoyed a brief respite from beatings. Instead, he will return to lengthy pre-dawn applications of abrasions and filth.
Writers and executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were familiar with Emerson’s 2001 Emmy-winning turn on The Practice, as well as his extensive theater rÃ©sumÃ©, and have said they wrote the guest role introduced in the second season with him in mind. Rough work, other actors warned the New Yorker of the outdoor series filmed entirely on Oahu.
But really, he thought, how hard could it be?
On his first day of shooting, he found himself hanging from a tree with an arrow in his back. And it only got worse.
But his riveting performance inspired the writers to make his character permanent and pivotal. Four years later, he says, “it’s been the best part I’ve ever had on the screen.”
Fellow Emmy-winner and castmate Terry O’Quinn, who plays John Locke on Lost, believes Emerson’s addition to the cast has elevated everyone’s execution.
“Michael is, for me, the ideal scene partner,” says O’Quinn. “He is creative, aware, responsive, considerate and prepared; in short, he is a professional in the best and truest sense of the word. He both enhances and relishes the work of his fellow actors – the better they do, the happier he is. I think we lift each other, and I always look forward to my days on the set with Michael. I’ll be very sorry if we don’t work together after Lost.”
Dressed in the tuxedo he wore to the Emmys, Emerson strolls into the studio, where the photographer apologizes for the mess. Emerson chuckles. “I think you’re used to working with fussier subjects than me,” he says. The youthful-looking 55-year-old seems utterly comfortable until it’s time to pose for pictures, be “the Emmy winner” and engage the spotlight without a character to play. He moves in response to the photographer’s instructions, and for a time withholds the warm, broad smile that illuminates his face,
as though subconsciously monitoring his behavior to ensure that it never approaches gauche or inappropriate or immodest. Kissing the statuette? Out of the question.
This Midwestern lack of pretension is perhaps one reason why he grapples to interpret what it means to win an Emmy – his first in three nominations for his work on Lost. When it happens, you can’t process anything beyond whether the announcer read the wrong name or if you will trip on the stairs or if the microphone is too low, he explains.
“You’re really out of body,” Emerson says. “The volume of your social interaction doesn’t allow for digestion. You can’t fully absorb what the honor is. You’re too crazed at the moment.”
For Emerson, the best part of the evening came when he and Preston arrived home after the HBO soiree, made popcorn, changed into their pajamas and debriefed for the next two hours.
Months later, he’s still not sure if the award will alter his career. “I guess it’s good,” he says simply. “It’s great on your rÃ©sumÃ© and great on your bookshelf, but the work, I think, comes differently. Yet it does require that you find a way to place it correctly in your life. How much is appropriate pride? How much is appropriate celebration?”
Dwelling on it goes against his humble upbringing. “I know it’s a pain when people affect modesty, but we Iowans tend to put those things behind us, roll up our sleeves and go on to the next thing. And not make too big a fuss over ourselves,” he says.
But he also worries that dismissing it is potentially disrespectful. Who wouldn’t want to be honored publicly by his peers? After much consideration, he offers an intimate analysis.
“When you think about the Emmy award you’ve just won, you see that it has a community meaning and a personal meaning,” he observes. “It is a heady thing to know that the whole television industry has opened its door and embraced you. But even more potent is the feeling that you have been validated in your craft – that your hope of success was not misplaced or silly. It quiets the little voice that comes around sometimes and whispers ‘fraud’ in an actor’s ear.”
Regardless of awards, the impending end to the longest acting gig in his life signals a cardinal shift. The cast and crew feel like family to him.
“To be on a series is such a marriage; it demands so many commitments,” he says. The isolation and shooting schedule have precluded his doing any other kind of work for the past four years, making the series even more central to his current existence. “It will be a big upheaval when April comes. I’ll have to figure out what to do with all the things I’ve collected since I’ve been in Hawaii. And I also have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. So that’s kind of daunting.”
There is one comfort, however. Preston is a regular on HBO’s True Blood, another series with a fanatical fan base. “I’m comforted to know that come May, at least one of us will be employed,” Emerson says.
Though fans occasionally approach Emerson on the street with trepidation because he plays the character with such conviction and skill, in reality the only traits he and Ben Linus share are a sharp, clever wit and an articulate turn of phrase. Poised and polite, Emerson possesses the gift
of easy conversation and a charming, self-deprecating sense of humor positioned alongside the urbanity of an artist in New York City, where he has resided since the mid-1970s. His affinity for the big city has encouraged him to seek a similar type of cultural stimulation, whenever possible, in Honolulu.
In New York he filled his free time with play readings and audio book recordings, for which he has earned award nominations. In Hawaii, with bursts of work taking every minute of his days (and many nights) mixed with breaks when he is not prominently featured in an episode, he makes an effort to involve himself with the local community in a way that’s reminiscent of his life in New York. Whenever he gets the opportunity to be onstage – in performances for Honolulu Theatre for Youth or reading The Story of Babar with the Honolulu Symphony, for instance – it re-ignites his passion for performing in front of a live audience.
“Whatever happens is irretrievable and uncorrectable,” he says of stage work, “yet it always startles me how at home I feel.”
Symphony conductor Andreas Delfs noticed Emerson’s mastery, accomplished with no rehearsal following a hectic day on the set. “I have never seen a performer as intuitive and creative as Michael Emerson,” Delfs says. “‘Babar is a lovely but quiet and sophisticated piece that often fails to engage the audience. With a few ingenious touches – a light French accent, a slightly wicked sense of humor, an easy but liquid pacing – he brought this piece to life like nobody I have heard before. He was so impeccably well-prepared and is such a consummate professional that it felt like we had done this kind of thing many times before.”
To be sure, opportunities in Honolulu are fewer than in New York, so when unscheduled time presents itself, Emerson claims to be a great “fritterer.” However, much of his free time in the coming months will be spent entertaining a stream of out-of-town friends who have nearly frittered away their opportunity to see Oahu with a television star as a tour guide.
To stay fit for his physically demanding work, he swims laps in the pool of his Waikiki apartment complex, often walks to his destination (as every good New Yorker does), and hikes trails on Oahu, sometimes with co-star O’Quinn. In quiet moments, Emerson is an avid reader, and occasionally acts out scenes (to the delight of any listener) when describing his latest tome.
He returns to his linen pants and vest for the final few pictures in the studio, then settles into a folding chair to eat a sandwich and chat with the crew about the journey that brought him here. “I had no business moving to New York when I did, but I got through it,” he recalls. Achievement is rarely attained without sacrifice and setback, and Emerson’s career has been no different.
After growing up in Toledo, Iowa, he studied theater and art at Drake University in Des Moines. The struggle to break into acting led to employment in retail and magazine illustrating. He quips that he didn’t know why he thought it would be easier than acting, but “somehow the rejection didn’t feel so personal,” he says of his drawings. The career fostered a strong work ethic, which he brought to acting when he returned to the stage in his mid-30s. He plied a number of trades in Florida and in the South – acting, drawing, directing, teaching – before deciding to enroll in the Masters program at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He tried his luck in New York City again, and eventually got a break in Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde. More notable stage roles followed on and off Broadway. He also appeared in a number of films, including Saw, a horror flick that has spawned five sequels. When asked about the filming experience, he says simply, “I’m glad I survived it.”
Now that he has attained some level of financial success, he and Preston eschew expensive toys in favor of “ease and convenience,” especially when traveling to see each other and family members. And whenever they are in New York City, they treat themselves to shows.
But where it might seem logical to indulge, he doesn’t. Ironing and cleaning? He finds these tasks therapeutic.
Christmas also is a simple affair. The holidays typically are spent in Manhattan. In addition to party-hosting and miniature tree-decorating in their tiny apartment, they enjoy window shopping and walking for hours through the city late on Christmas Eve or on the night of Christmas searching for that last open restaurant or watering hole, and “seeing what life there is out there.”
Following the photo shoot, over a beverage at Starbucks, where other patrons pretend not to stare or carefully introduce themselves to shake his hand, Emerson admits that every actor struggles with the perception of fame, especially when living a fairly normal life most of the time.
“What is owed the universe for the gifts that have been given to you? I don’t know. It’s hard,” he notes.
But in the end, his conduct in and out of the spotlight revolves around one philosophy, which is why he remains perpetually pleasant and accessible. “It seems like graciousness should be the order of the day,” he says, “or just manners.”