Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Interview: Michael Emerson on the Final Days of Person of Interest

Michael Emerson as Harold Finch
(photo courtesy CBS)
“Person of Interest” has been a CBS mainstay for five years. Starring Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson, this sci-fi crime drama wraps up its fifth and final season June 21. While I’m sure the ending won’t disappoint, all roads leading to the series finale are paved with action and intrigue. Will the Samaritan (the rival AI to Reese and Finch) destroy The Machine (Finch’s AI) and keep its stranglehold on the world? I spoke with series star Michael Emerson recently — who previous to this series spent five years on an island as Ben Linus on the cult phenomenon “Lost” — and he told me all about filming the exciting, and brutal, final season.

Celebrity Extra: Going into it, you knew this would be the last season of the show. Was your time with everyone bittersweet? How was that whole filming experience?

Michael Emerson: The days were just full to the brim with impossibly hard work. And always at the back of our minds we knew: “Hey, this is it. This the end.” But there was no way to enjoy the moment or celebrate it in any way because we had budget restrictions, and they were trying to shoot way more than can be humanly done in eight days.

So there we were the last night, and your dream would be, “Well, we’ll wrap at midnight, and there’ll be champagne.” But when it goes until 4 in the morning, and everybody is frozen and exhausted, and then they say, “Well, that’s a wrap!” The producers made a couple of statements, but no one had it in them to hang around and do anything. We just left it on the camera. I mean, we were aware it was drawing to a close, but what’s to be done about that? People exchanged gifts and mementos and things like that over the course of those final 10 days. But the work was brutal.

CE: Without giving too much away, how do you think the fans will react to the ending?

ME: I think that the ending is really satisfying. And you do worry about that. You think, “Oh God, how are we going to wrap this thing up?” But they, I mean, you think: “Well, what can they do? Samaritan has taken over the world.” I mean, we’re going to try to find a way for The Machine to do battle with it, but as you can see from the episodes that have already aired, it’s not looking that good. So, what cards have we left to play? It seems like a losing battle now.

And I couldn’t figure out, but it ended in a way that I wasn’t expecting. It’s not an illogical ending, but it’s great and surprised me. I kept thinking as we shot the final 13 that I would begin to see the end coming, that I would begin to see how things were lining up. I would begin to think, “Oh, this is how it is going to happen.” I did not know how it was going to happen until the final two episodes.

CE: So you’re happy with the ending, and you think viewers will be too?

ME: When I realized what we were doing, I thought: “We’re going to do that? OK.” To me it’s highly dramatic. I had a fairly important role in the finale. And I can’t think of a better way, but it also leaves a slight sliver of daylight in it where you could one day revisit this narrative. I don’t know what form that would take. I don’t think anyone currently working on this show has any plans to reprieve it or extend it or anything like that, but you never know. Ten years from now, somebody might say they’re going to do a miniseries reboot of “Lost” or something, and would I be interested? And then I’d have to think about that.

CE: What can viewers expect in the next few episodes, before we gear up for the big ending?

ME: You’re going to see in the next few episodes that we kind of go back to our problem-of-the-week format, the stand-alone-episode stuff. But the problem with the warring superintelligence (The Machine versus Samaritan) is that it’s always percolating in the background. All of our numbers now have something to do with Samaritan’s domination of the world. And the solution to that problem is only going to gel very slowly and very late.

CE: In its five years of production, “Person of Interest” attracted so many wonderful guest and recurring stars. What are moments that and who are some actors who stick out in your mind most as you look back on your time on the series?

ME: I got to work with so many great stage actors because the show shoots in New York. I remember having great scenes with Laila Robins and Brian Murray and all kinds of veteran stage players who have wonderful chops. I had a big episode with Blair Brown. She’s wonderful. There’s Saul Rubinek, who played Arthur, Mr. Finch’s friend from school who invented Samaritan. We had a couple of wonderful episodes together. And then just all these tons and tons of super-gifted young people playing warriors and hackers and misfits and assassins and all the — my God, how many characters have we had over the years? It’s so great.

Michael Emerson
(photo by Jeane-Claude)
CE: What is life normally like on the set?

ME: When people say, “I’d love to come to the set of your show,” I always discourage them, because the day-to-day work — although everybody is good-natured and there is some wisecracking and stuff — but we’re a very serious outfit. Every day we have more work than can humanly be accomplished on that day, and somehow we have to do it. I certainly am not a person who is a practical joker on the set or anything like that. It’s a really professional set. Everybody is quite serious, because they know how much they have to do and they have little time to do it.

CE: You finished shooting this past December. As the end of the series approaches, have you been reunited with any of the cast, whether for press reasons or just personal?

ME: We really haven’t seen each other. I see Amy Acker because she’s still in New York. And some people from the production team, we get together. But everybody has scattered to the four corners. Kevin (Chapman) went back to Boston, and Jim went to Washington state, and Taraji (Henson) went back to Texas and then to L.A. She was in town last week, but she came and went before I could get together with her. We haven’t done any press together. There’s been, actually, very little press. I think because CBS set the dates of the broadcasting so late that it was a little hard to come up with the huge press push for it. And they are going to burn these episodes off fast, airing two and three episodes a week.

CE: That’s good for us fans, because we get to binge on it.

ME: Yeah, it’s like CBS is feeding a binge viewing of the show.

CE: Tell me about working with Jim Caviezel. You two are so different, yet your differences brought this wonderful onscreen chemistry.

ME: It’s been good, and we made a good odd couple, I think, because in real life we are an odd couple. He and I could not be more different fellows or more different kinds of actors. The way he goes about it and the way I go about it are opposites, but we arrive at something that where the differences between us are palpable while serving the narrative of the show. We lucked out. You can’t plan to have good chemistry among your actors, but we actually do. It was a good, odd chemistry. And we didn’t tinker with it much. We really never talked about it. We just came in and did our best every day, and it seemed to take care of itself.

CE: Is there anything more you want to tell me about the ending?

ME: The ending is cool, and I have so many thoughts about it and so much to say about it, but it’s an epic spoiler, so I shouldn’t really say it. And even saying it now, it makes it sound like, “Oh, it’s the greatest ending in the world.” And I don’t want to oversell it either. It’s an ending. It’s an ending, and I thought it was a good one.

CE: You’ve acted with your wife, Carrie Preston (of “True Blood,” “The Good Wife” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding”), a few times, including multiple episodes of “Person of Interest,” where she played your fiancee. What is it like to work with her?

ME: It’s fun, but it also gives me the giggles. It’s kind of hard to play scenes with her because it just sounds goofy saying made-up words to your spouse. There’s also because we’re in the same profession, we tease each other about our work at home, so it’s a little hard to turn off the teasing. It’s extra hard because when you’re working with your spouse, you have to tune out the spouseness of her. You have to forget that you woke up in the same bed with her this morning. She has to be the character that she’s playing. That’s like a two-tiered acting problem. But we manage all right. And we even got our dog on the show, so that was fun.

CE: You landed on one hit show “Lost” for five years, then another one, “Person of Interest,” for another five. Any chance you want to go for the trifecta and star in another successful network series?

ME: The one thing I cannot contemplate is going right back onto a network series. It seems like hell. That’s too much. I don’t know how people do it when they’re on “Law and Order” for 15 years or something. My God. No, I want to mix it up a little bit and knock around a little and recharge my battery and do some other kinds of things. Maybe do a play somewhere or get some guest spots. Play some odd, quirky character that I haven’t been able to do before. Do something historical or odd. I don’t know what it’ll be exactly. And it’s nice to have enough time to maybe do an audiobook or some voiceover work of some sort. I’ll just see what comes my way.

CE: I was going to ask you about audiobooks. I saw quite a few on your credits, and I thought that must be a lot of fun but also a lot of hard work.

ME: I love audiobooks. I listen to them all the time. And I’ve done a few of them in my day. I seem to do an all right job with it. I’ll have to wait and see if any of that work is out there and if it presents itself. It’s hard work, audiobooks. It’s not for everyone. And being a good actor doesn’t necessarily guarantee success at audiobooks. It’s like a different kind of beast. And it needs a little bit of character work, but never too much. It’s funny and the pacing can be tricky.

CE: And you have to voice ALL the characters in the book, so that can be daunting.

ME: What do you do when you get to a scene where there are eight people at a table talking? And they all have direct quotes. And you have to know, well how far do I go with this? How far do I go with an old woman? How far do I go with children? Do I have to imitate the dog? It’s tricky because everything has to be managed so the story can be told, but the characterizations should be light. A really light touch. Just a sort of a suggestion. Just to help the listeners know who’s talking.

CE: With all the platforms we now have for original content — Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, network TV, cable — it must be exciting for you to think about all the choices that are out there for actors. Especially if you are cast in a summer series on one network, a winter series on another, etc., you could, as you said earlier, really mix it up with all the characters you get to play, and with a shorter season.

ME: I agree. That’s more attractive to me. I would be happy to do a series that shot only 10 episodes a year. Then you would have seven or eight months to do other things, whatever you please. You could conceivably be on two different television shows, if you worked out the scheduling right.

Michael Emerson as Ben Linus on Lost
(photo courtesy ABC)
CE: It’s so good to get the chance to interview you, because literally just last night I finally finished watching “Lost” for the first time, after binge watching it all year.

ME: Well, still, you watched in a good way. Although I have to say, you’ll never get those hours back (laughs). No, it’s a good show.

CE: Do you come across a lot of people who were a little late to the island party, like I was? And those who complain about the ending?

ME: Every day 20 people stop me on the street and go: “Hey man, you were on ‘Lost,’ right? Ah, I really liked that show, but what the hell was that ending?” Everybody wants you to give them an easy answer. And I always say, “If you have 10 minutes I can explain to you why that is a great ending.” But they never have 10 minutes. They don’t want to hear it.

CE: I didn’t have any trouble understanding the ending, but it might be because I got to watch the episodes back-to-back-to-back and not wait a whole week in between to forget the continuity of things.

ME: That’s right. That’s important.

CE: I think those of us who watched it that way are the ones who liked the ending. I can’t believe so many people were hollering about it. I would look up stuff online, and people were so angry!

ME: Yep, those people are in the majority, and that majority includes people who were writers on the show. It makes my heart ache when I see Damon (Lindelof, “Lost” co-creator, co-showrunner and co-head writer) apologizing for the ending not being better. I don’t know how it could have been better. Every show kind of dictates its own ending.

CE: I know a lot of actors don’t really like to discuss previous work all the time because they have moved on, and for them, that show is in the past.

ME: Well, with “Lost,” as we were saying, plenty of people are just now discovering it. For a lot of people, it’s current.

CE: So it doesn’t bother you to keep getting asked “Lost” questions 10 years later?

ME: Oh, no. It was a wonderful show and a show I am proud of, and it’s always thought-provoking and fun. I’ll never stop talking about “Lost.” It was good.

CE: I remember reading an interview where your wife (Carrie Preston) would get freaked out by your character, Ben Linus, and tell you, “You’d better never look at me that way,” and so on. Were there times when you’d do or say something as Ben, and you’d creep yourself out?

ME: Sometimes I’d watch the show when it was in broadcast and I’d go: “Well, sh*t. That’s really bad. He’s a really bad person.” But on the day you’re filming it, you’re not thinking of what it looks like or how it comes across, you’re just playing your character’s strategies. And you don’t really have a sense of what it looks like. I never looked through the lens. I never see daylight. So, it’s always a big surprise when I watch the broadcast of the episode. That’s the first time I actually see the stuff.

CE: You mentioned in a previous column the possibility of a “Lost” reboot, which doesn’t seem all that inconceivable when you consider the success of the recent reboot of “The X-Files,” which I think a lot of us weren’t expecting to happen.

ME: But that is also educational and cautionary. I know some people were not that excited about the recent “X-Files” miniseries. And some people might have thought it might have been better had they not chosen to do it, but you go for it. If it’s a writing team or a production team that you feel confident with, then it might be fun no matter what.

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