Michael Emerson is an award-winning creep, a critically lauded man of mystery, a spine-tingling scene-stealer. In short, Emerson is an actor who always intrigues.
His latest series, ‘Person of Interest’ (premieres Thurs., Sept. 22, 9PM ET on CBS), finds him giving viewers goosebumps once again as Finch, a secretive billionaire and software genius on a mission.
Teaming up with Reese (Jim Caviezel), an ex-CIA wildcard, the two use sophisticated surveillance technology to prevent violent crimes, but their brand of vigilante policing doesn’t go unnoticed by the actual police (including homicide detective Carter, played by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson).
I caught up with Emerson to hear all about his latest role, his new costars and keeping up with his old ‘Lost’ pals, too.
‘Person of Interest’ is one of the most compelling pilots of the season. Do you have a lot of faith in it because you’ve seen what happens on J.J. Abrams’ shows?
Well, I think to the extent that pedigree counts, we have a good pedigree for this show. It’s a good team. But, you know, it’s an interesting and risky business, and you just never know how a thing is going to fly. Many highly touted and highly publicized shows have not gone over the way they were expected to or hoped to, so I’m hopeful that we can live up to our press and our pilot and make a good series.
When you joined ‘Lost,’ it was already chugging along. For this, you’re in on the ground floor. Is it a different experience?
It is. I feel a greater sense of responsibility, I guess. Also, it’s the first time I’ve ever, as you say, been in on the ground floor — I’ve always come into well-oiled shows, stuff that was up and running smoothly. So this is like any TV show … it has to be put together at the beginning, and everybody’s figuring it out as we go, so it’s a little rockier and a little more uncertain. But I think the work that we’re shooting is going to be really cool.
I’m just happy for you that you finally get to be shooting close to home in New York.
It is nice! It’s nice to go to work in locations which are familiar to me, some of them in my own neighborhood. And I get to come home and sleep in my own bed every night.
Is your wife home, too?
She’s done [filming in L.A.], so we’re here and we just get to live quietly on West 55th for the next six months until she has to go back to L.A. to do ‘True Blood.’
Last time we talked, you had Jorge Garcia and his girlfriend housesitting for you all in L.A. … you might have the most famous housesitters of anyone on the planet. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s still a parade of housesitters at the L.A. place because now, suddenly, we’re not going to be there as much.
What’s it like working with a guy like Jim Caviezel? He seems like a very reserved, very serious man.
He’s a very serious actor. He brings an interesting … he doesn’t give much away, so he remains mysterious, which is good, especially good for this character. The more I watch him do it, the more I think they so lucked out to find him. He has … I don’t even know if they knew exactly what qualities they were looking for, but the quality he brings to it is kind of perfect.
And as viewers, we’re not sure about him. He’s still a wildcard. We’re really not sure if he’ll snap at any given moment, which works.
Yeah, there’s a sense of danger at all times, and an uncomfortable relationship between the two men. We’re a very odd couple! [Laughs]
With your character though, I wonder how much you brought to it and how much was on the page. Obviously Finch needed someone to carry out his missions, but the limp — did you think he needed that, or was it written in?
It was mentioned. There was some reference in the pilot script to him — I don’t remember what the exact words were — but him being physically damaged. What was it? Wounded … he was wounded from the past. I guess I just thought immediately that he had to be handicapped somehow, so then I had to set about looking for a handicap that was appropriate for the character, but that I could live with as an actor if, God forbid, this went on for a long time.
Yeah, there could be six seasons of limping.
Yeah. And if you came up with something that was too contorted, too much like the Elephant Man or something, then you would be in trouble. That’s a lot of long days to be twisted up. So the thing I came up with I think is fairly easy and safe.
Well, and it still seems like, if he’s called to or he has to, he could jump in on the action at any point.
Yeah, he does seem to be terribly mobile for a guy with a limp. I mean, he just appears out of nowhere and then disappears again. They’re kind of superheroes in a way. [Laughs]
They totally are! They’re just missing the cape and the cool names, but they really do feel like vigilante superheroes.
And people love vigilantism! I swear, when they showed the pilot at Comic-Con, you can’t imagine the roar of approval that Reese gets when he puts on that stocking mask and points a bazooka at the oncoming car [laughs], and the music is pounding — everybody was thrilled. You can feel it vicariously, the satisfaction he experiences, even though it’s fictional. It accounts for how everybody has liked westerns and action movies and all of that forever — people enjoy seeing justice done outside the glacial purviews of the law.
But we get glimpses of the law side of things here as well. Have you gotten to work with Taraji P. Henson a lot, or at all yet?
Yes. She, very soon, discovers that there’s more than one mysterious figure out there. We had a great scene in the last episode that we shot. She’s really good … it was so much fun to act with her because, boy, she’s really on top of her game. I’m loving having so many New York actors play guest leads on the show, too. We’ve had a lot of good players in here. It picks up right where ‘Law & Order’ left off, I guess.
How much more have you learned about Finch? And how much will we be learning, and how quickly?
We’re on the fifth episode now, and I’m still learning a lot as we go, because the actors reveal their thoughts about the character with each new episode they write. A lot of ideas I had or directions I wanted to go, I see don’t fit with the writers’ vision, so I’m making adjustments now, I’m tailoring my performance to suit this ever-more-detailed picture that they’re giving me. For example, you think, well I want this character to be so much different from anything I’ve played before. So maybe he’s shy, he’s retiring, he likes to stay out of the light, but you can only display so much of that note if your character constantly is madly improvising in terribly dangerous situations, not only effectively, but with gusto. Then you think, well, I guess he can’t be too much of a wallflower if this is the way he operates! [Laughs] So let’s check that … he’s out there kicking ass and taking names.
As far as the technology goes, that’s the scariest, most intriguing part of the show, because a lot of it actually exists, although maybe not to this degree. Are you learning more about that? I feel like I’d be looking over my shoulder all the time now!
Well every time I pick up the paper now, I see something about hacking or the abuse of GPS location systems, just the million ways that your life can be invaded electronically, or the ways that tabs can be kept on you. Jonah Nolan is fond of saying that when people watch the show, he wants them not to ever be able to think about their cell phones the same again. Which will probably happen. [Laughs] But you’re right — all the technology in it is existing technology. It’s not science fiction. What we’re dealing with is science fact on our show.
You’re not the only ‘Lost’ alum coming back to TV. Jorge has ‘Alcatraz,’ another J.J. Abrams show, and now Terry O’Quinn is joining Daniel Dae Kim on ‘Hawaii Five-0.’
Yeah, he’s working a lot out in Hawaii now. He’s on a little break, I think, then I don’t know what he’ll do after that … I think he has some irons in the fire, so there may be some surprising developments for Terry.
You all had an iron in the fire together before you got this show …
And I think we still do, it’s just on a back burner.
Ooh! Are you comfortable enough in the new job yet to maybe recommend friends for guest spots?
Oh, I guess I could. I’ve never had that kind of sway, so I’ve never even thought about it, but I am gonna make sure that my brother-in-law gets a general meeting with the casting people! I will go that far. [Laughs]