By ROBYN SHANKS
From the shores of Hawaii, where he filmed Lost for four years, to the grit of NYC’s five Burroughs, Michael Emerson has a knack for playing mysterious characters in fascinating settings. On his new show Person of Interest, Emerson plays Mr. Finch, a mysterious computer nerd with millions of dollars and the ability to see crimes before they happen.
We chatted with the native New Yorker about the similarities between himself and Finch, working with JJ Abrams (the show’s executive producer) and why TV is so hard for him to wrap his head around.
Q: Did you have concerns about joining a series with conspiracy theories in it that are kind of similar to another show you were on not too long ago [Lost]?
Michael Emerson: You know, that didn’t even really occur to me until after I signed up for it. But, it just shows you the part of an actor’s brain that consciously, or subconsciously, gravitates to certain kinds of material.
Q: You went from filming on the beaches of Hawaii in Lost to working in Manhattan. Has that been a tough adjustment?
M.E: I feel like I’ve jumped from my second favourite island to my favourite one, because Manhattan is where I’ve lived for many years. The idea of being able to go to work in the town where I live and then go home and sleep in my own bed at night, it’s really appealing.
Q: What is Finch’s back story to you? How much of that has been told to you?
M.E: They dive right into that in the second or third episode. That’s going to be one of the overarching mysteries of the show, for both Reese and Finch. They will very slowly go all out of the back story of how they came to be damaged.
Q: When so much of the character is steeped in mystery do you know where it’s going and you’re playing to that? Or, are you often in the dark about the character?
M.E: Just as I was on Lost, I’m not sure where things are going. No one has ever taken a meeting with me and said, okay, keep this under your hat, but here’s how you got the way you are. I can go along day by day acting the scenes and I can make my own guesses about—or speculations about how we came to be in these circumstances, but it’ll be fun when it’s finally revealed. We’re working like we did on Lost; where we get each new script the night or the night before it starts shooting.
Q: Are there any similarities to Mr. Finch and yourself—do you put any of yourself into him as a character?
M.E: That’s a good question. I think the character of Finch, if you left out the scientific genius part and the crippled part and the mystery part, there’s a little bit of me in there. I do like to dress up and Finch is a smart dresser. You’ll see as it goes along. And, I think of myself as a precise person and I think he is too, and he’s verbal; he’s certainly that.
Q: Can you talk about how the relationship between Finch and Reese evolves over the next several weeks?
M.E: Well, it’s a combination of gamesmanship between the two, and the sort of the beginnings of a grudging warmth or appreciation between them. In a course of many episodes, they are going to live through some hair raising adventures together, and come to depend on one another and know one another a little bit better, even though they are a terribly odd couple.
Q: How did you become involved in this show? Was it a connection with J.J. [Abrams]?
M.E: When Lost was over, I thought, ‘Oh no, does this mean that I don’t get to work with these cool writers and producers that I have this relationship with now?’ It’s like I was part of a theatre company and I wanted to do the next show. I said to them, ‘You surely have all of these fabulous projects in the works. Can you tell me about a couple of them?’ [Person of Interest] sounded so awfully good. I said, ‘Let me read that,’ and I was praying they hadn’t already cast someone in the role of Finch. So yes, I’m still part of the J.J. Abrams reparatory company.
Q: You have said that the reach of TV worries you. You had done theatre for so long but only until you did TV were you really recognized…
M.E: I still don’t really know what to make of it. The reach of it is intangible to me. I can’t look out there on Thursday nights and see 13 million people. When you’re on stage, you have a sense night after night if you played to 500 persons or 1,000. You can absorb that number and it seems organic to you. If someone sees you on the stage, they’re looking at your whole body and they’re listening to your voice, but they’re not looking up your nose like the camera does. People have a great advantage over me on the street. They have studied my face for hours and I don’t know them. So, we’re kind of out of social balance and it leaves some kind of strange or mystifying energy.