He’s the most menacing, manipulative character on network television.
As leader of the so-called “Others,” Ben Linus has been a constant threat and devious adversary to the castaways from Oceanic Flight 815.
But there’s more to Ben then meets the eye, says Michael Emerson, the Shakespearian-trained actor who reprised his Emmy-nominated role when ABC’s “Lost” returned Jan. 31 for its fourth season.
“I think the viewers have an incomplete view of Ben, or a view that’s not quite accurate,” Emerson says. “He may be more than this wicked monster. I think his character will be re-contextualized as the show goes on, and people will begin to regard him as someone who’s more heroic.”
That’s just speculation, though, as Emerson — like the rest of the “Lost” cast — has been left in the dark by the show’s creators on how the popular drama’s final 48 episodes will unfold.
Interviewed at home Jan. 16 as he waited out the Hollywood writers’ strike, Emerson chatted about “Lost’s” status as a pop-culture phenomenon. And yes, his telephone voice sounds as eerie as Ben’s, so imagine that voice as you read along.
Times: Greetings from Western Pennsylvania, where many of us are thrilled about the upcoming season premiere of “Lost.”
Emerson: Yes, I’m excited, too. It’s been so long since we filmed that episode.
Times: How tricky is it for you to slip into or out of character? When the director shouts “Cut!” do you immediately turn back into Michael Emerson, or do you still spend a few moments in that mysterious, creepy Ben mode?
Emerson: I try to make sure I clock out of the job. When you get to be an older actor like I am, continuing to act when the camera is not rolling can put a lot of wear and tear on you. But I’ve always admired those old-time stage actors who can play checkers off to the side until they get their cue line, and then they immediately go on in character.
Times: How much of Ben’s personality was crafted by the writers, and how much is your own input and interpretation?
Emerson: We both just winged it. They knew the person would need to bring a face to this adversity that’s faced on the show.
Times: You joined “Lost” in season two. What were your initial impressions when you first saw the show?
Emerson: We always liked “Lost” in our house. I must say my wife was fanatical about the show, so she was delighted when I got what was supposed to be just a guest part. Of course, she later got a guest role, so we’re quite a “Lost” household.
Times: What impact has the writer’s strike had on season four?
Emerson: We shot eight of the 16 episodes, so there’s half a season in the can. ABC is hoping to complete the season, but if the strike continues, I’d imagine there would reach a point where ABC would have to consider something else.
Times: The producers and writers of “Lost” already have said there are only 48 episodes left and then the show will end. What did you think about that decision?
Emerson: I thought it was a stroke of genius. It’s like a throwdown from the writers to the world. They’re saying, “We’re not here to cash out, we’re going to do this right.”
Times: What’s it like filming “Lost” in Hawaii? Being away from Hollywood and New York, do the actors get a sense that they really are castaways?
Emerson: There is that sort of feeling, yes. It’s beautiful there. And it’s a great job. But I must say it’s also a lonely job. I am far, far from home and my circle of friends and loved ones and my social scene.
Times: Before “Lost,” when people recognized you on the street what role did they remember you from most?
Emerson: They remembered me as a serial killer on “The Practice.” Although the horror movie “Saw” also has a certain following. “Saw” fans are young and often look like gang members or punk-rockers. “The Practice” is an older crowd.
Times: Have you grasped how popular “Lost” is with fans?
Emerson: “Lost” does have a fanatical global following. My wife and I were in Barcelona last year, and I was never recognized by so many people.
Times: Did you see the Internet fan chatter after the episode where Ben insisted that he and “Others” are really the good guys?
Emerson: I think Ben means that.
Times: The last time we saw Ben, he had been bloodied pretty badly by Jack.
Emerson: And there’s more of that to come.
Times: What should viewers brace for when that first new episode airs?
Emerson: They’re going to have some of their hopes dashed. And they’ll be introduced to new and even scarier characters. All those hopes for getting rescued are going to get a lot more complicated. Oh, and there will be the added treat of us operating in three different time zones now; the present, past and future. The stuff in the future is really incredible.
Times: We saw a glimpse of that in the final minutes of last season’s finale.
Emerson: Yes, that scene with Kate and Jack sets up a whole new part of the show.
Times: Why is “Lost” moving from Wednesday nights to Thursdays?
Emerson: ABC is trying to capitalize by placing us in the time slot of “Grey’s Anatomy,” which has run out of new episodes. And that also moves us away from “American Idol.”
Times: What other projects are you working on later in the year?
Emerson: I hope to get back on the stage, though with the writer’s strike I don’t know what’s going to happen. We might be working on “Lost” instead.
Times: Is it true that the “Lost” cast has no idea where the storyline is ultimately headed?