Michael Emerson on Playing a High-Tech, Vigilante Crimestopper

Michael Emerson, who won a strong fan following for his portrayal of Ben Linus on the TV show, “Lost,” is coming back to television this fall with “Person of Interest,” which like “Lost” is co-produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot production company.

In the new show, which premieres Thursday, Emerson plays a shadowy billionaire named Mr. Finch who recruits a former CIA agent (Jim Caviezel) to help him prevent violent crimes from happening in New York. A police detective who served in Iraq (Taraji P. Henson) catches a whiff of their vigilante mission and is on their tail. The pilot, written by Jonathan Nolan, made “Person of Interest” one of fall’s more anticipated new dramas, and landed the show the Thursday night time slot of 9 p.m. ET.

Speakeasy caught up with Emerson to discuss his new character, his co-star Caviezel and his former “Lost” castmates.

How did you prepare to play Mr. Finch, a shadowy billionaire software genius?

I did a lot of the stuff that actors traditionally do. I looked at computer geniuses on YouTube and I read a bit about the surveillance culture and government surveillance espionage. But there wasn’t really, for me, a lot of good reference material out there from which I could build the character. Add to that fact that I didn’t build the character of Benjamin Linus that way either. I see now that what I’m tending to do is build these characters scene by scene. By rattling around inside each scene, seeing how it ticks, how I can make it most gripping or interesting or dramatic, and then as I go along I can occasionally step back from it and then say oh, this is something that is characteristic of this fictional person.

For example, the limp that Mr. Finch has, was that written into the script?

There was language in the pilot, the first draft I read, that said Mr. Finch: a man wounded in body and psyche. The suggestion that he had some handicap. So that’s a thing I had to spend a lot of time thinking about. I thought, what if I do something too contorted or too physically challenging and then the show is a success, and then I end up having to do that thing, whatever it is, for years and years? And spend a fortune on massage and physical therapy. I thought, let me be proactive and figure out my own handicap before we even start shooting. I played around with some things and I pieced together two little disabilities into one larger disability, and I think that they’re not only effective but they’re actually healthy to do for the most part, so that it won’t kill me over the course of many years.

How is your chemistry with Jim Caviezel? Much of the show rests on the relationship between your two characters.

We get along very well. I think we make a good team by being such different kinds of actors. Between the two of us we make a kind of vigilante odd couple. It’s in the writing too, but it’s also in the way we two actors approach our parts. It makes me wonder, and I think will make the audience wonder, how can these two men share this mission? How will two such different persons ever get along well enough together to survive this very dangerous work they’ve undertaken? I think it creates a nice kind of friction.

Do you keep in touch with other former cast members of “Lost”?

I stay in close touch with Terry [O’Quinn]. I talk regularly with Terry and with Jorge [Garcia]. Jorge and I got to be pals on the show. He and Beth housesat for us for six months in L.A. when the show was over and we were in New York. I like to hear what they’re working on. I’ll be curious because Jorge is still very much part of the Bad Robot family, he’s doing “Alcatraz” in Vancouver and he’s working for Liz Sarnoff who’s just a delightful writer, so I’ll always want to know what’s going on upon that end of the J.J. universe


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