The two-time Emmy winner and Person of Interest star discusses overcoming nerves about performing on stage, his thoughts on being known as a character actor and the type of role he fears most.
Actor Michael Emerson
Tavis: Michael Emerson is a two-time Emmy winner, winning one of those awards for a standout performance on the hit series, “Lost.” His latest project is once again one of prime time’s most popular dramas, the new series, “Person of Interest.” The show airs Thursdays at 9:00 on CBS. Here now, a scene from “Person of Interest.”
Tavis: Somebody asked me earlier today as I was moving around town who’s on the show tonight, and I said, Michael Emerson. They said, “Oh, the creepy character actor guy.” (Laughter) Is that a compliment?
Michael Emerson: I’ll take it. (Laughter)
Tavis: You play these interesting characters.
Emerson: I have, and it’s a mystery to me how I ended up on this particular track. I used to have a life on the stage, and I usually played funny guys in those days, but somehow, I suppose because the first big break I had on television was playing a serial killer, and I had some success in that portrayal, and it has defined to a certain extent what I’ve played ever since.
Tavis: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Emerson: It’s just a thing. It can be a pigeonhole if you let it be. It’s just there. It’s a problem to be coped with and to make decisions around.
Tavis: Mm-hmm. It obviously is a compliment to your acting chops that you can go from playing a funny guy to playing a creepy serial killer. That’s a compliment to your acting, though, I would think, yes?
Emerson: I suppose. I try to think of myself as a flexible performer. I think of myself as a problem-solver. I want to go in and help the director and the writer to get the best they can out of the text they’re working with.
Tavis: The funny stuff that you started out playing that people may not have seen, given that they know you from other characters that you play – tell me about the funny stuff, the funny days, the happy days.
Emerson: Well, I used to do farce, I used to do a little clown work. I got my New York stage break in a show where I played Oscar Wilde, who was a great wit. I played Hedda Gabler’s bumbling husband on Broadway, that sort of thing. Guys that you would never be afraid of.
Now all of a sudden I’m this sinister, fearful guy. I don’t get it. I think it’s kind of funny, really, and I have to say that sometimes I feel like I’m still doing comedy. It’s just I’m the only one that knows it.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) That’s one way of putting it. Speaking of Broadway and your work there on the Great White Way, is there anything better than Eugene O’Neill?
Emerson: I don’t think so, and I can’t tell you – I will be thrilled to the end of my days that my debut on Broadway was in “The Iceman Cometh.” The preparations for the show, because it’s a huge show, as you know, and it’s a long one and has many characters, the preparations were so frantic and distracting that I think it was in our third preview performance before it dawned on me that my dream had come true.
The drunks would go out at the beginning of the show before curtain and assume the position on the floor or on the tabletop, and I was laying there one night and I thought, oh, man, this is it. This is a Broadway stage. Look out there – that’s a Broadway audience. That’s great.
Tavis: To your point about O’Neill, your agreement, at least, with the fact that O’Neill is about as good as they come, what makes him so for you, his writing, since you’ve performed and acted out his writing?
Emerson: Well, I think he’s as large a writer as any American playwright has ever been. There’s a link between the ambition of his work, the scale of it, the terror, the inner revelation. It’s part of an unbroken chain that goes back to the Greeks, and I felt that strongly playing it.
I also felt that I had fit into a chain of American players and American playing. One night, Jason Robards was backstage when I came down from the dressing room. This is a man who was probably the greatest player of O’Neill that the American stage ever saw.
To think, oh my God, here he is, he has seen this show, I’m in a play that he once did, and it was a great feeling.
Tavis: Have you ever – to your point about Robards, who obviously is an actor, have you ever been intimidated, frightened by the work? Not the persons you’re working with, but by the work itself?
Emerson: There are roles that are terrifying because they’re large or you may feel that they’re out of your line, but I’m never terrified once the actual work begins. Once you begin rehearsal, then it’s small building blocks. It’s solving little problems one at a time.
So terror is not a big factor in my work. I suppose the first time you go in and audition for – I suppose when I auditioned for “Iceman” and at my second or third callback Kevin Spacey was there, that got me nervous, and I thought, oh, it’s probably mine to lose now, but the beauty of the theater, or I’ll call it “Doctor Theater,” is once you get going – all that terror is in anticipation.
The minute I hit the light, the minute I open my mouth, then I’m in a craftable space with little problems coming my way one after another, and I can usually solve most of them.
Tavis: You going to unpack this Doctor Theater for me?
Emerson: (Laughs) Doctor Theater is the thing that allows you to finish a performance even if you just broke your arm. Or in spite of, or in the face of everything that was distracting you before the curtain went up – problems at home, bad tax report, all of those things you leave behind you when the moment starts.
One of the things I like about performing on the stage is that it is a kind of meditative experience. Time does stand still. You have no concept or feeling of the passing of two or three hours’ time. It’s all kind of one present moment, which is a kind of a description of meditation.
So I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of the theater work, and you get it to a smaller degree also in the world of the camera, though you have to be especially focused to tune out the distractions of hundreds of people with microphones and cameras and all of that going on around.
Tavis: You offered a couple of examples a moment ago, and for all I know you could have been teasing or making that up, and you may or may not choose to answer this question, but I’m curious, and I’ve often wondered. For actors, for you specifically, can you recall a specific moment, incident, play, it may have been health-related, voice or something, where you really did have to summon every bit of your capacity to get through that particular performance because something, to your word, either in performance or prior to was so distrationary for you that particular night?
Emerson: Well, health and the health of the voice is always the bête noir of any actor’s life, and as much as I have fretted over my voice in the course of my career, I realized the other day that I have never missed a performance due to voice.
Tavis: That’s wood right there, you want to knock on that?
Emerson: Yeah, I know. But I have come close, and that’s a terror. That becomes the inverse of that meditative experience I was describing, where the thing passes in the blink of an eye. Then it becomes one of the longer hours of your life.
I did “The Misanthrope” in White House once with laryngitis, and every time I got off stage I would run to the little steamer, because steam is good for the throat, and somehow I croaked my way through it.
Then you go out afterwards and people say, “Oh, I loved the show so much,” and you say, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I was in bad voice,” and they of course say, “I couldn’t tell.” So it’s a bit of a game that you play with yourself. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience.
Tavis: I’m not usually on the stage, so I don’t have that issue the way you do, night after night after night. Does the stage, do you feel the stage summoning you, calling you, in the midst of what is now a pretty good television run?
Emerson: Yeah. I regret that I haven’t an opening in my schedule to do a stage play. I haven’t been on stage in six years now, and that worries me a little bit because my idea was always that because I started late in this career that I could at least work later or longer, and I would like to be one of those older gentlemen who can still do it, who can still learn the lines and has the stamina to get up there and do the classical work. I hope I can get back to that.
Tavis: Are you at all worried that it won’t be like riding a bicycle, that you’ll never forget?
Emerson: I’m not overly worried about that. I just – I get little opportunities now and then to do readings or workshops and things, and it seems to be all right there at my fingertips when it needs to be.
Tavis: Strange question here – are there bad habits that you know that you’re learning now from all these years of television, the things that you might laugh about, or even things that might concern you, habits for television that you know are not necessarily good for the stage?
Emerson: I know what I do now that isn’t useful on stage, but I find that those occasions when I do get to perform before a live audience, that I am so hungry to perform more largely that I’m probably likely, I’m more likely to overact when I go back to the stage than to bring the smaller, narrower style of TV acting to it.
I’m anxious to bust out of that. It’s great. It’s very empowering to have the camera so close to you, so that you are absolved of the responsibility to do much.
As long as you’re thinking the thing, the camera will give it richness or life. You don’t have – well, as you know, you don’t have to do a whole lot to be playing well on TV, and yet you can’t do nothing. It must be – it’s some combination of having it going on inside your head, and then letting a little of that bleed out in little ways.
Tavis: I’m amazed at the number of people I watch from time to time on TV who are just overacting.
Emerson: It’s an instinctive thing. I don’t know – I don’t know if any kind of acting can be taught very successfully. I got taught everything else – voice, movement, periods and styles, how to walk in high-heeled shoes or wear a wig, that kind of stuff. (Laughter) But the acting itself, there are a number of schools of acting.
Tavis: So how do you learn it, then? How do you get good at it?
Emerson: Repetition, I think.
Tavis: Repetition, yeah.
Emerson: And meeting and watching others, and I think going to the theater. I thought it was – there was a time in my life when I saw many more plays than I did movies, and I think that was useful. I learned more by going to the theater.
Tavis: So with this love of theater and this theater background, how did “Person of Interest” actually happen for you? Obviously “Lost,” I suspect, didn’t hurt the success of that.
Emerson: Well, when “Lost” was over, I wanted a bit of a break. But when you come off a – it’s a dilemma, in a way. You come off a successful show like that and you don’t want to just leap into something else right off the bat.
By the same token, you can wait too long, probably, if you mean to follow it up in that medium. I fretted over it for a while, and no insanely good offers came my way for a good, long time, and I mean stage or screen or anything.
Tavis: That can be helpful at certain points in your career, if you want a break.
Emerson: It’s good to be quiet, it’s good to have a fallow period, recharge the battery, and finally this job came about because I have a relationship with JJ Abrams and “Bad Robot,” and JJ is a guy, if he says he has a thing that’s cool and he thinks it might be good for you, you would do well to pursue it, because he’s a guy whose taste I trust.
He may not hit a home run every time out, but his batting average is high and the things he likes I tend to find interesting as well. So I was intrigued by the script, I liked the style of the work, I liked the idea of it, shooting in New York City and having this edgy noir kind of feeling with a bit of science fiction, although I should call it science fact, thrown into the mix.
It just seemed somehow right. That’s a decision you make instinctively, and I thought a bit about well, how much different do I have to make this part from what I’ve become known for, and I wrestled with that for a while.
The writing of the character is different, and he’s handicapped and he’s a good guy and he has a different look. But at the end of the day I decided I would free myself from worrying about that too much, because that’s a way you could make yourself crazy, I think, by constantly gauging every moment of your work.
Trying to see, well, is that different enough? Have I departed sufficiently from what I’ve done before?
Tavis: To your point about JJ being a pretty good hitter, not smacking it out of the park every time; nobody does. But I’m curious, since you’re on the inside of this and you’re the person we’re watching, what’s your sense of what it is that we, the audience, liked so much, loved, obviously, about “Lost,” and what’s your sense of what we’re loving about “Person of Interest?”
They’re two different shows, obviously, but why – I’m just curious. From your take, why do you think we like both of these shows?
Emerson: I think JJ brings a kind of child’s sense of wonder to his work. I think he chooses his projects on some instinctive level. I think we appreciate what JJ appreciates because he appreciates mystery. It all goes back to that black box lecture that he gave once that is so much quoted.
But the idea of mystery, he never leaves that out as an element, and I think it’s kind of an unbeatable ingredient in a show that will keep you going, I think. That, and he takes care of character. Like Jonah Nolan, the creator of the show, says, “We can have the best plots, we can have the best devices, but no one will stay with a show unless they’re involved with the characters in the show.” So somehow, JJ is able to get that mix about right, more often than not.
Tavis: Let me go back to the beginning now of our conversation about the creepy character. You are one of the best character actors, if we can use that term, on television now. You take joy in that? You take pride in that? If for the remainder of your career you would be known as a great character actor, would that be enough for you?
Emerson: Oh, that would be fine. That would be a dream come true. The actors I always liked were the character actors. When I was a kid I liked Peter Lorre and Hans Conried and Sidney Greenstreet, and all those eccentric guys that had an unusual way of talking and had seemingly exotic and mysterious lives. I would be happy with that.
You asked me what would terrify me. A thing that would terrify me, I think, would be if I was asked to play a straight romantic lead, because I’ve done so little of that. I have an opportunity to do a small part in a film coming up in which I have a love scene with a fairly famous actress, and that’s going to give me some sleepless evenings before that happens.
Tavis: (Laughs) Your fans know that your wife is also a fine actress on another hit TV show called “True Blood,” so what might she say about your capacity to play a love interest?
Emerson: She would say (laughter) just do what you do. I’m sure she would say, “You do all right at home,” so.
Tavis: That’s what you want her to say. (Laughter) That’s what you want your wife to say. How did you know – you’ve referenced over the course of the conversation the beginnings of your career. How did this happen for you? How did you know that being a thespian was going to be your vocation?
Emerson: I knew it as a teenager because I found my niche in school. I wasn’t an athlete and I loved the marching band, but I couldn’t play an instrument to save myself. So drama club, and in Iowa, where I grew up, speech and debate are big things there.
Tavis: What part of Iowa?
Emerson: I grew up in Toledo, Iowa. It’s a little farm town just north of Grinnell, where my parents live now. I went to college at Drake in -
Tavis: I was just at Drake two days ago. I was just in Des Moines, yeah.
Emerson: That’s my alma mater.
Emerson: But I got blue ribbons at State for doing humorous monologues or dramatic monologues and stuff like that, and I got a real taste for it. I saw the power of it and I saw a way to extend my childhood or enjoy spending part of my life, at least, in more exotic, fictional places.
Tavis: Mm-hmm. What do your parents back in Iowa think of all this now?
Emerson: Well, I think they’re a little mystified about – because it’s how did he go from here to there? How did our boy end up in New York City doing this thing that he does for a living? I think it’s a little mystifying. My mother would say, “I always knew. This is no surprise to me.”
Tavis: (Laughs) Every mother says that, don’t they?
Emerson: And my father just shakes his head, like what the hell happened? (Laughter) I thought of it as my calling when I was a teenager, and then I lost it. I graduated college and I moved to New York City and I got knocked around a bit, and -
Tavis: Not just knocked around. You had an interesting life before this, doing illustration.
Emerson: I was one of those freelance guys. I drew pictures for “The New York Times” and “Psychology Today” and all those financial magazines and stuff.
Tavis: That’s actually pretty fascinating.
Emerson: It was good work, and what’s funny is it wasn’t any easier than had I chosen to pursue acting. For some reason, I took it less personally or something.
Tavis: But apparently, if you’re doing illustration for those types of periodicals and newspapers, clearly you’ve always been a creative person.
Emerson: I guess so, yeah. I was always – yeah, I think I was meant to be working in some creative field. I have spent parts of my life doing less creative work. It didn’t kill me, but it wasn’t as enjoyable.
Tavis: Yeah. But I take it that you are enjoying “Person of Interest” right about now.
Emerson: I am. I am. It’s a really good show. As you see from the clip, I have a fair amount of exposition to handle, so, but I think I take that as a kind of acting challenge. How do you give an audience data or information and do it in a way that seems urgent, compelling, that furthers the story?
Tavis: Part of your – I’ve just got a few seconds here to go – to your point now, part of your gift, and I can’t even describe it, is your voice, your way of speaking. Your instrument is, I think, as much a part of your acting job as anything else. Does that make sense to you?
Emerson: Yes, it does.
Tavis: You’ve heard that before?
Emerson: Yeah. But I think – to me, every actor kind of lives and dies by his voice.
Tavis: Yeah, but some voices are more distinctive than others.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Emerson: Yeah, I think mine is unusual, although it sounds different in my head than it probably does to you.
Tavis: I hear the same thing all the time. I’m on airplanes or in restaurants and people will hear my voice and recognize the voice before the face. I have yet to figure that out. After 20 years, I can’t figure that out.
Emerson: It’s funny.
Tavis: But I hear it in your voice as well. Good to have you on.
Emerson: It was a pleasure talking to you.
Tavis: The pleasure’s mine. His name is Michael Emerson, as if you didn’t know. “Person of Interest” is the show he stars in now. Good to have you on the program. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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