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By Daniel Holloway
Photo by Sebastian Piras
Eventually he branched out, working a circuit of regional theaters in the Southeast. He played the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock and New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Miss. He traveled to Montgomery, Ala.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Savannah, Ga. And he grew as an actor. “I reached a point where I thought, ‘I’m too good at this now to keep doing obscure plays in obscure towns,’ ” he says. “I either needed to go back to New York or I needed to get into a conservatory program. I chose the latter.”
Emerson enrolled in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s MFA program at the University of Alabama. He was 39 and looking to check out of the world for a couple of years, lead “a sort of monastic experience,” and focus on acting. “I guess I would have said then that I meant to commit my life to playing the classics, which isn’t a bad commitment to make,” he says. “It’s taken me a lot of different places.”
The Alabama program focused, unsurprisingly, on Shakespeare and classical verse. In the mornings, Emerson and his classmates would study movement, voice, and text. In the afternoons, they had rehearsals. Occasionally students would be cast in small parts on ASF’s main stage.
Emerson was something of an anomaly, being middle-aged and having years of experience under his belt. The same qualities that made him stick out from his peers also made him a commodity for the main-stage productions. “I was useful,” he says.
Alabama proved useful to him as well—and not just for the training he received. He met his wife, the actor Carrie Preston, while working in an ASF production of “Hamlet.” After he graduated, he followed her back to New York. His second run in New York didn’t start off much more auspiciously than his first. His training had sharpened his skills, and he had a wealth of experience performing in some of the greatest plays ever written. But his résumé was filled with names that no one in the city had ever heard of—Southern names.
“I thought surely, for the love of God, someone wants a grown man who can speak the verse, just to carry a spear, or deliver a message, or something,” Emerson says. “But it’s not as easy as that. I still had some illusions about that kind of thing.” Preston, in contrast, was working steadily, having already established herself in New York. (She has, like her husband, built a strong on-camera career; she is now best known for playing the high-strung waitress Arlene on HBO’s “True Blood.”) Emerson knew that if she continued to book work while he foundered, they would feel the resulting pressure. He gave himself two years to catch traction in New York, after which he would return to the South, where he still had contacts in the theater community. He and Preston would manage a long-distance relationship.
Then, shortly before the two years were up, Emerson became involved in playwright Moisés Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” then still nascent. The play draws on the three real-life courtroom trials concerning Wilde’s relationship with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. In readings and workshops, Emerson played Wilde’s attorney. But just before the play was set to open Off-Off-Broadway, Kaufman fired the lead actor. Emerson asked if he could audition for the role—and won it. He had fewer than three weeks to prepare.
Emerson drew on his training at Alabama, where instructors had drilled into him the importance of making not just psychological choices but also choices about the carriage of the body, the quality of the voice that a character lives in. He felt he had watched the previous Wilde make choices that were logical but ultimately incorrect. Emerson knew he could make better ones.
In his review of “Gross Indecency” for the New York Times, Ben Brantley, who called the play “the must-see sleeper of the Off Off Broadway season,” wrote, “[T]he Wilde of Mr. Emerson, making his New York debut, is stunning as he progresses from epigrammatic assurance to a public role for which he is no longer writing the script. By the production’s end, he is majestically pathetic, a man who is still unable to understand completely what happened to him.”
The play was a hit and enjoyed an Off-Broadway run and stints in San Francisco and Los Angeles—all with Emerson in the lead. “We got a good review in the New York Times, and we were off to the races,” Emerson said. “I guess I have made my living as an actor since that time.”
Over the next few years, Emerson appeared in enough impressive plays to make him a bona fide New York theater actor—including Broadway productions of “The Iceman Cometh” and “Hedda Gabler,” as well as “Le Misanthrope” and “Give Me Your Answer, Do!” Off-Broadway. In 2000, he booked a part on ABC’s “The Practice,” playing a man who confesses to being a serial killer but whose guilt is in doubt. The role recurred, and Emerson won an Emmy for outstanding guest actor.
When Emerson’s life-changing job came, it didn’t at first look like that kind of role. He was not a loyal viewer of “Lost,” but his wife was. “We always had it on,” he says. “Sometimes I’d be doing the dishes or something, and I’d look over and go, ‘Oh, that’s preposterous.’ ”
The part of Benjamin Linus—the villain who became one of the series’ definitive characters—came to Emerson as an offer. It was initially a guest spot. The story line called for a meek-tempered man to be captured and held prisoner by the suspicious island castaways around whom the show was centered. Eventually, the character was revealed to be the leader of the Others, the mysterious group that terrorized the show’s heroes for most of its run. Between filming sessions in those earlier days, Emerson would cool his heels in a hotel in Hawaii, where the series was shot, missing Preston and New York, and waiting to find out whether his character would survive to the next episode. Around the time of his fourth episode, Emerson realized something big might be happening.
“One day a director came to me and said, ‘When you talk about the leader of the Others, he must be terrifying to you,’ ” Emerson says. “I said, ‘Okay, that’s cool. I can play that. But wouldn’t it be a gas if it turned out that I was the leader of the Others?’ And he said, ‘I can’t talk about that.’ I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? Is that where we’re going to go? Because that could be fun.’ ”
For “Lost” fans, it certainly was, and Emerson’s career reaped the benefits. He won a second Emmy in 2009, this time for outstanding supporting actor. But he always kept one eye eastward.
“I never stopped being the gypsy actor in my mind,” he says. “I would never buy property in Hawaii or get settled too comfortably, because that just seems to invite the theater gods to pull it out from under you. I always thought of it as temporary. It was never home to me.”
Home was still New York, and Emerson settled back there after “Lost” ended in 2010. His first thought was to lay low for a time, knowing that whatever his next project was, it would be overscrutinized, thanks to the hype generated by his last job. He figured that a theater project would arise and spark his interest, and he tinkered with a pilot idea that he and “Lost” co-star Terry O’Quinn had developed. But the right play never came, and the pilot never matured into script form.
Emerson spent close to a year out of work. With pilot season nearing, he approached Bad Robot, the company that had produced “Lost,” and asked if there was anything he might be suited for. “They had this nice script at Bad Robot that I liked for a lot of reasons—not least of which was that it was set in and had to shoot in New York City,” he says. “If you start looking around at pilots, you dig deep and you find that not very many of them will be shot in New York or L.A. I had already done my time on the other side of the earth. It was important to me to have a family life again.”
The script was for “Person of Interest,” in which Emerson stars as Harold Finch, an eccentric billionaire and tech genius who has developed a machine that anticipates terrorist acts. Jim Caviezel co-stars as an ex–CIA agent who, with Finch’s voice in his ear, tries to stop those events before they happen. The character has been compared to Benjamin Linus, and Emerson admits that there are similarities. But the actor is comfortable with the overlap—which is good, because the show has proved a solid ratings draw and recently received a full-season commitment from CBS.
“Maybe Ben Linus worked so well for me because it tapped into some core aesthetic I have as an actor,” Emerson says. “I prefer mystery over obviousness. I prefer ambiguity to definition. And the only way I’m ever going to be able to put that aside is to do a completely different kind of material, probably on the stage.”
What type of material? He would love to do Shakespeare in the Park—which would bring him back to his roots in the classics at Alabama. Or maybe a comedy. “I was always a funny guy,” he says, “before I got these frightening roles.” And you know what? Emerson is a funny guy, because after talking to him for an hour, you forget that he sounds exactly like Benjamin Linus.