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Person of Interest star Michael Emerson stopped by to chat with Parade about growing up in a small town in Iowa, his Lost legacy, his days as a magazine illustrator in New York City, the benefits of being married to a fellow actor (Carrie Preston), and more.
You play Harold Finch on Person of Interest. What do you enjoy most about this role?
I like that Harold Finch is a language role. That he speaks well and has a particular way of speaking and I like the challenge of the technical material, the jargon that he uses. I think it’s funny.
Finch is a software genius. Are you much of a tech guy in real life?
No I’m not. It’s a shameful confession that I have to make, but I don’t do well with electronics. In our house, my wife Carrie is the electronics genius and needs to help me almost on a daily basis with simple things like email and going online shopping!
Have you picked up any tricks and tips along the way as Finch?
Well, I’ve picked up some paranoia along the way. I’m very conscience now of surveillance cameras. I’m very conscious of where my cellphone is at all times and the ease with which it can be hacked or bluejacked and that your whereabouts your habits your location can be in the hands of someone else.
You’ve played some intense characters over the years. How do you come up with your character’s delivery?
I tend to think of the character’s I play musically, like they are an instrument and there is a score to be played and I’m allowed to determine the grace notes or I’m allowed to determine pitch and melody on my own. I think of what is the most possible unexpected delivery of a line or tone of a line. And sometimes that has interesting results.
Does that stem from your theater career?
I think I would have no success in front of the camera had I not been on the stage for so many years because the stage is even more about language than the camera world is, and your job as a craftsperson is to find interesting ways to deliver lines that may or not be beautifully written. It helps if they are.
Where did your love of theater come from?
I suppose like every little kid, I liked make-believe and dressing up. Luckily, I never set it aside. And then when I was 10 or 11, I saw some kids at the local high school do a play and I was dazzled by how funny and glamorous they were. God only knows what it was like if we saw a video tape of it now — we might be horrified — but there was a boy that went to my church and he played the insane uncle in Arsenic and Old Lace and I became his fan for life. I thought if it was possible to be that cool and funny and glamorous doing anything that I wanted to do that as well.
What were you like in high school?
I was a skinny, little loud mouth with glasses!
What was it like growing up in a small town in Iowa?
I grew up in a tiny little farm town in Iowa. Toledo, Iowa. And I had a good upbringing. It was a quiet, safe place. Middle America. It really was. My parents still live in Iowa, I make it back there.
What was it like making the transition from Iowa to New York City?
I went to undergraduate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and that was a great culture shock. Moving from my little town to the big city of Des Moines. I was so homesick and anxious about it all. Eventually, you get caught up in your work at college and you forget about that, but then it did kind of knock the wind out of me when I moved from Des Moines to New York City in the middle ‘70s when it was a tougher, grittier town. I didn’t know how to begin an acting career. I had been taught how to act, but not how to engage in the business of acting, so it was all I could do to get a roof over my head, so I lost track of that dream for many years. I became a magazine illustrator until my mid-thirties when I found my way back to the stage.
What did you want to be when you were little?
I don’t think I thought about being an actor until I was 15 or so. I think before that I used to read a lot of books about ancient civilization and I think I thought I wanted to be an archeologist. I think I do still want to be an archeologist! I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to make the break properly, but I always thought that would be so great to dig around under the pyramids or go into the jungles or look for lost civilizations.
What do you remember most about being on Lost?
Working on Lost was kind of like being a character on that show. The characters were on a remote island in the middle of the sea and I as an actor was on a remote island in the middle of the sea, cut off from the life I had on the mainland. It was rare that I got to see Carrie and a kind of lonesome undertaking, kind of solitary, so there I was. There was a lot of overlap between the fictional character I played and the life I was leading in the playing of it. You know, running around in the jungle and standing on the beach looking at those sunsets and you think this doesn’t seem like my real life at all! Its kind of wonderful, but where is everybody?
If I ever missed an episode of Lost, I was lost! Did the show ever confuse you?
Oh sure, constantly! In between takes, I would sit around with Jorge [Garcia] and Terry [O’Quinn] and try to figure out what the heck was going on and where could it possibly lead. As if the writers were sending us coded messages that we couldn’t quite decipher!
Tell me about your years as a magazine illustrator.
Being a freelance magazine illustrator in New York in the ‘70s was a fun undertaking. It had a certain low glamour about it, living in Brooklyn and coming into town with your portfolio every day, like they did in the those days before electronic things. We’d come in and drop off our portfolios and magazines would have one day a week at lunch where they’d look at portfolios, and if they saw something they’d like they might call you up to draw a picture for them. I did that for many years and it was fun. But then after awhile, some of the novelty and glamour wears off and then you’re left with this solitary, time-consuming grind at home making these pictures and it didn’t pay all that well, so eventually I thought there must be a better way.
Do you still draw?
No, it’s funny. People seem shocked and disappointed when I say I haven’t touched a pencil to paper to draw in many years. I guess whatever satisfactions I got from illustrating on paper; I now get that same kick by illustrating characters personally.
Your wife Carrie Preston is also an actress. Is it helpful to have a spouse who is also in the entertainment business?
The conventional wisdom in showbiz is that you should not marry another actor, but who are you going to meet and fall in love with? I mean, most of the crushes your ever going to have as an actor are on other actors because you think they’re so damn good. I had such a crush on my wife and we have a happy marriage and I think there are many things to be said for your spouse being in the same line of work. They fully understand the big events, the traumas, the disappointments, the insecurities. They know what it means to have an opening night, to be rejected at an audition, to have things fall through and also conversely to win an award or something like that. So it’s good, we are compatible in that way and can support one another.
What are some of your favorite shows right now?
We watch The Good Wife, partly because it’s a really good show and partly because my wife has this crazy good recurring character on it. We like moody, violent mysteries like The Killing. And we are big fans of Elementary. We watch my show, not that I enjoy watching my own face or hearing my voice coming out of the tube, but I need to keep up on it, it’s a good refresher. That way, people don’t stop me in the street and say, ‘What the heck were you doing in that episode?’ and I don’t even know what episode they’re talking about!
What can you share about what’s in store on Person of Interest?
Right now, there is more Lost-ian paranoia then there ever has been, and I hope it will pass, but we have big stuff coming. The kind of earth shattering developments in character narratives that have to be guarded like state secrets! There’s a lot of high security protocols with the handling of the scripts and certain scenes are given to you on the day that they shoot and scripts are being printed with faked characters and events in them now, so that God forbid anyone should get a hold of one they would be confused as to what’s really going on. I’m hoping that I’ll get it all figured out because obviously my security clearance is not high enough for me to be on top of everything coming down!