Most people don’t make widespread infamy into a personal goal, but when Benjamin Linus from Lost recently joined the ranks of Hannibal Lecter and Voldemort in an Entertainment Weekly readers’ poll of the biggest villains of all time, actor Michael Emerson couldn’t help but feel a little flattered. Now ending its fifth season, Lost has seen Emerson transform from a frightened hot-air balloonist named Henry Gale to the diabolically driven Ben Linus. In the process, he’s become a not-so-nice main character that fans not only like, but root for. With only one season left to go, Lost still has a lot of explaining left to do. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Emerson about possible plot developments, what lies ahead for him after Lost, and why he has it harder than Darth Vader.
The A.V. Club: Darth Vader and the Joker were two of the bigger names that Entertainment Weekly’s readers put higher on the villains list than your character. Do you want to talk any shit about Darth Vader?
Michael Emerson: [Laughs.] He’s a great force of darkness, I guess, but how much acting goes on behind a plastic head? I’m not sure about it. [Laughs.] It seems like his costume does more work for him than mine does for me. I should get handicap points, I think.
AVC: Your character isn’t necessarily a straight-up villain; he’s sometimes portrayed as having the best of intentions. Why do you think Benjamin Linus has been so easily labeled as a villain?
ME: I don’t know. I’m happy to live with it, but I think it’s interesting that I make these best-villain lists when it’s not even clear that I am a bad guy. I think it’s something in the playing of the part. I think it worries people when they can’t get a handle on a character. I tend to play him kind of ambiguously. There is a sinister quality to him, but I think the verdict is still out about what his position is on the scale of good and evil. To a large extent, people’s interest in the character is the mystery of the character.
AVC: Because there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, it’s interesting to watch people discuss the show and say, “Obviously this person is good and this person is evil.” In the end, Hurley will probably wind up being the major villain, because nobody will see it coming.
ME: [Laughs.] Yeah, because that’ll come out of left field. That would be the last thing anyone was expecting. I’m going to make a broad statement here and say that I think people respond to villains because people in general are more villainous than heroic. I think it speaks to the human condition. I think we all secretly understand that we have our sins and our dark thoughts, but we put a face on it for the world. When we see villains played, we sort of perk up. We go, “How’s he doing?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you worried about being typecast?
ME: It’s on my mind, and it’s something I will have to deal with. Who’d say no to a role for fear of being so popular that they become typecast? You just do your work and let the chips fall. I really do think that every time you play a role well, you are in danger of being identified with that role until the next big thing comes along. My break on the live stage was playing the character Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency. So for a while, it looked like all I would ever play was flamboyant Englishmen. But then I get a couple of things on TV where I’m a little bit sinister, and now that’s the thing I’m in danger of being forever. So I’ll have to be a little bit careful about what I pick next, and try to bust out and find another part that is such a good fit that I’m in danger of being pigeonholed.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of theater work, and you were once referred to as a stage actor who also does movies and television. Was it an easy transition from the stage to television and film?
ME: It wasn’t that easy, not so much in acting terms as in social terms. It’s an adjustment, you know, just to find your way around to those studio lots and stuff in L.A. The drill is different. It’s a different kind of working regimen. It just didn’t have all of the old comfortable rituals: the first table-reads, the meet-and-greet, all those things I’m used to; starting out at the table and gradually getting on your feet and having four weeks to rehearse the thing. Suddenly in television and movies, you’re left to be ready on the day. Your rehearsal was auditioning for the part. Now you’re ready to go on. Higher stakes, in a way. But now I really like it. I don’t think it’s a huge acting problem. Anyone with any sense can see that you just have to dial it back a little bit when the camera’s up your nose.
AVC: The show has become huge, and so has your role. But when you were starting out, was it hard to tell whether what you were doing was going to be well-received, as opposed to being onstage, where you can gauge an audience in real-time?
ME: It is a different feedback system. You depend a little bit more on a set of subtle signals from the crew, or from the director of the episode. But in your actor’s heart, you know when you’re playing well. Others may not always agree with you, but I’m always aware of when the scene is cooking or not. You have an instinct about that from years of doing scenes and plays, and I think it stands you in good stead even in the TV world.
AVC: When it comes to what’s going to happen next on the show, the cast is largely kept in the dark, getting scripts just before shooting begins. At what point did you realize that Benjamin Linus was going to be an integral part of the story?
ME: That really dawned on me gradually. As you know, I was originally engaged to be a guest player, to do a few episodes and go away, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of staying in Hawaii. The scenes I was in in the early going, when I was Henry Gale, they had a kind of ambiguity about them. There was a mystery in there, and no one could really figure it out. I remember one day, a director came to me—I had a line, Sayid was waving a gun in my face saying, “Tell us who your leader is,” and I said, “If I tell you, he’ll kill me,” and the director came and said, “That’s good. Let’s take it again, and this time, act as if the leader is the scariest person on Earth.” And I said, “Okay, I can do that, but what if the leader is me?” And he blinked at me a couple of times and said, “I can’t discuss that.” [Laughs.] And that was it. From then on, I thought, “Oh, I see. This could turn into something.” I’m like a slower factor on those kinds of issues; if even I can see that that’s a possibility, then it must be in there somewhere. And as it turns out, it was true. It was a great development.
AVC: Tell the truth, you were getting online and posting anonymously, “Who is this Ben Linus guy? He’s great! They should give him more screen time.”
ME: I wish I had the savvy to do that. I don’t go online much, and of course I don’t even have the sense to have an e-mail name that isn’t my own name, so I can never do any of that stuff anonymously. I’m hopeless.
AVC: About a year from now, you’re going to be done, and people are going to be packing up and leaving the island. Do you fear having a post-Lost depression?
ME: It will be a sad time. You know, your body just lets down. I’ve been ill since we wrapped 10 days ago. When the pressure’s off, that’s just natural. It will be sad to see this amazing chapter… It’s a great show, the show really interests me, and I’ve had so much visibility because of my work on it, it’s a great thing. I’ll never duplicate this experience. But on the other hand, it will be good to move on and embrace the unknown future and see what that holds. I will say that life will be simpler when I don’t spend two-thirds of the year in the middle of the Pacific.
AVC: But is that so bad?
ME: No, no, it’s great. I have a great time there, and the people are so lovely. Not every TV show is as welcoming and warmhearted as the Lost company. Everything’s good about that. It’s just the logistics of being so far from Carrie, my spouse, and loved ones, and the world of theater, and the life of New York City. That’s sort of my life for many years now. But I’ll go back to it.
AVC: Do you have any predictions for Ben in the sixth and final season?
ME: No, I don’t know. I wouldn’t even venture to try and second-guess Damon Lindelof. He’s so brilliant. I’m really curious to where it will go. People say, “What new angles and developments for your character do you long for?” and I say I don’t really long for any. I think Ben has a kind of constancy, that Ben’s mission remains the same. His character is rather set. I’ll be curious to see what sorts of challenges or situations they provide for me. Having said that, they may completely change the character, for all I know. [Laughs.] I don’t think so, though. I’ll be glad to be in it, because I’ll be curious to see how far into the last season I’ll survive. We’re going to have to start losing people next year.