In 2001, he won an Emmy for playing the perversely charismatic serial killer William Hinks on The Practice. Apparently, perverse charisma is Michael Emerson’s calling; he’s since earned two Emmy nominations playing the prevaricating and perversely charismatic cult leader Benjamin Linus on Lost—a character that was never intended to be full-time, but, as viewers have come to learn, there’s no denying Ben Linus. Emerson talked with Michael Alan Connelly about the new season.
What’s changed for Ben in Season 5?
He now operates in the other world, off the island. He is less secure and less well fortified, so he has fewer resources. The stakes of his activities may be higher because of the desperation factor, and the quality of having to improvise. He’ll carry on what seems to be his calling or his life’s work or his war, whatever it is—I’m not sure exactly what it is.
That makes two of us. Do you feel the show loses any power now that the characters are off the island?
I think we had a smaller definition of the island than the writers meant. When the island disappeared, everywhere became the island. They’re playing around with the island as some kind of portrait of a thing, but not the thing itself. Wherever we go, it goes also. [Laughs.] Boy, that’s kind of a squirrelly answer. Maybe this is a better overarching image for the season: There’s a great push to reunite—to try to put things and partnerships back together that have fallen apart.
The Others stole away to a place called the Temple. Will we be seeing more of them and learning about the Temple?
Yes and yes. I think we’re going to find them to be less malevolent as time goes by.
If you could get the writers to answer one burning question, what’s at the top of your list?
I’d ask the same big question everyone has: What’s the real deal? Where are we really?
Ben is often reading or quoting authors. Do you take the time to read the books he does?
There are no accidents in the world of props on Lost—the books are carefully chosen. This season, there’s a scene where I’m reading Ulysses by James Joyce. It’s on my winter reading list.
You came to the show late. Did you fit right in?
Not really. It’s a tight-knit cast. The show has generations of actors—I think I’m the third generation, which is Ian Cusick, Elizabeth Mitchell, and me. We hang out a bit; ours is a more shared experience, not being one of the original lovable Lost-aways. I’ve had a solitary time in Hawaii [where the show is shot], which is consistent with my character.
What TV shows do you watch?
Battlestar Galactica, which, like Lost, balances science fiction, adventure, and metaphysics in a good way. And I was thrilled by Deadwood. I love shows where language isn’t just a medium of communication. Deadwood’s was more brutal than any I’ve heard on TV, but it was also more lyric.