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Lost – Michael Emerson on playing bad

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Lost 6.04 - Michael Emerson, Yunjin Kim and Zuleikha Robinson
Ben (Michael Emerson), Sun Kwon (Yunjin Kim) and Ilana (Zuleikha Robinson) © ABC
Lost Season 6 - Michael Emerson
Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) © ABC

From the moment Michael Emerson joined the cast of Lost in 2006, his character Benjamin Linus has been an enigmatic presence. As head of The Others, a group living on the island that Oceanic Flight 815 crashes, his journey has been circuitous and dramatic.

In the final episode of season five, he was taking orders from Oceanic passenger, John Locke (Terry O’Quinn), well … we all know now it wasn’t Locke! I spoke with Michael Emerson last month at the TV Critics Association about his amazing journey.

When you started you were the leader of The Others on the island, now Locke has taken over – that’s a tremendous arc of change for your character, was that hard for you to do?

Lost Season 6 - Michael Emerson
Michael Emerson at the 2010 Winter Press Tour © ABC

All of what made Benjamin great or a leader he carries inside him and still does, so there wasn’t much – it wasn’t an acting demand to make that change, I really do play the scripts as they come and I don’t ever even think about the big arc. Your question refers to a large arc that I’m not conscious of in my day to day work.

What’s your take on Ben’s relationship with Locke in general?

They’re like black and white, they’re constantly circling around each other’s center of gravity, they’re great foils for one another and mirrors for one another, and I’ll be curious to see how I’ll answer that question when we end it.

Is it hard to prepare a role when you have no idea where the show is going?

Working on Lost has upset most of my previous ideas about actor preparation. It’s actually better, working on this show, to be in the dark, just groping around a bit, and it’s nice not to be burdened with the secrets, trying to play the future before it arrives. Those things just get in the way.

Can you talk about the Charles Widmore character, played by Alan Dale; do you think there should be a showdown?

I think it’s really juicy and I love playing scenes with him, theirs is one of the great confrontations in the show. Of course, you haven’t seen the last of that collision of wills.

Lost 6.04 - Michael Emerson
Ben (Michael Emerson) goes in search of help to further his cause © ABC

Is there a key to playing a character that we see as bad, but maybe you don’t see as bad?

I don’t know if there’s a key, the writers take care of that, but I try to keep it simple, play in the middle, play in a neutral or ambiguous palette and let the audience draw their own conclusions. It’s a load of fun. It’s the best kind of acting I think is to play mysteriously, for the audience to be interested but unknowing.

At the end of this, what if it turns out he’s the hero of this whole thing?

I’ve always thought that was completely possible and may yet be. We’re more than half the way to the end of this season and I have no idea how things work out. I thought surely when we started work on season six that I would be able to see the path to the end, but I’m still thrashing around.

Is Matthew Fox the only one who knows how it’s going to end? He keeps saying he knows.

People have always thought that Matthew knows the end. I don’t know what they base that on. I don’t know whether he does or not. I certainly don’t know. How would he ever prove that he knew it once the world sees it, unless he tape-recorded something, dated it and put it in a safe deposit box?

Lost 6.04 - Michael Emerson
Ben (Michael Emerson) © ABC

Have you thought how you’d like it to end?

I trust our writers who have a so much larger imagination than I do, whatever I come up with it is usually faulty and insufficient.

What has surprised you most about your character?

I’m surprised that he’s been on the show this long and is still as interesting as he is.

What will you miss about playing him?

The ease and comfort of knowing that you already have the character solved, so you don’t have the anxiety of creating a character every day you go to work. I can put on the clothes and I’m pretty much ready to play Benjamin Linus. I don’t know when I’ll ever have that kind of ease in my work again.

Lost 6.01/2 LA X -  Michael Emerson
Ben (Michael Emerson) © ABC

Can you talk about how this has changed your life, or do you feel it has?

I’m a person that absorbs things slowly, so I’m not sure I fully get what has happened to me. Probably when the show’s over and I leave Hawaii, in retrospect I’ll see the thing for what it is.

Talk about winning the Emmy Award?

It was really exciting and dizzying, and you feel both validated and unworthy, it’s a lot of conflicting emotions.

Were you surprised?

A couple of times I let myself hope for it, and then not getting it I thought, ‘Oh I should stop wishing.’ As soon as I gave up hope then it came to me, but I suppose a lot of things work that way in life.

And one time you were up, Terry O’Quinn won it.

Yes, I was so delighted, it just seemed like the most natural, wonderful and deserved thing. I never felt more wholeheartedly in support of a choice for an award than his win at the Emmys that year.