You might not recognize Michael Emerson's name, but there is a good chance you're a little bit scared of him.By Bryan Reesman
While the seemingly mild-mannered Michael Emerson has spent his life working in the theater, first in the South and then on Broadway, he has recently become widely recognized through his sinister film and television roles. The man with the unnerving stare won an Emmy for his portrayal of the alleged serial killer William Hinks on The Practice in 2001; then he landed a pivotal role as one of Jigsaw's pawns in the original Saw and nabbed a humorous villain part in The Legend of Zorro. But his portrayal of Ben Linus (a.k.a. Henry Gale), the creepy leader of the Others on the hit ABC series Lost, has made Emerson a household face, if not a household name. We caught up with TV's most unlikely bad guy.
When people stop you on the street, what are their reactions?
People are funny. They have mixed-up feelings about me and the character. They like to make a great show of fear or terror, but it's sort of mixed up with a case of the giggles. They just don't know what their reaction is. They discover that they have been delighted to be frightened by me all this time, and now suddenly they have to decide whether it's the character or the actor that they're confronted with.
You're very good at playing very sinister characters, but you bring this humanity to them that occasionally elicits sympathy.
That's all the pleasure of playing a villain. I tend not to think of them in terms of villains. I just try to tune in to what they're trying to accomplish. Even with William Hinks, there's nothing playable in the evil or the amorality of the character. What's playable are things like, what does he take pride in? To be precise was very important to William Hinks. That came out in all his testimony. He forgets that he is being very precise in the dismemberment of other humans. He just appreciates his sort of craftsmanship. So if you find the positive mind-set of the character, that is disturbing to the audience and also fun to play. But I think it's really strange that I've ended up playing such sinister characters for the screen, because I'm not remotely sinister myself, and in the world of the theater, which is where I've spent most of my career, I never play anything like that. I play lots of goofy characters. I do a lot of the classics. It's just funny - the perception people have of you and the ways they'll position you.
You often play people who are not who they appear to be.
I guess the people who cast me for the camera are playing the tension between what I look like and what they're suggesting I'm capable of doing. I have kind of a harmless look, I guess …
I guess that's true. These big, rough-looking guys will stop me on the street and say, "Oh man, you are scaring me." I'm thinking, What's wrong with this picture? Guys who could eat me for breakfast are afraid of my character on the screen. People want there to be something out there that they can be afraid of, but it's contained and it's fictional.