Michael Emerson Interview: Emmy Award-Winning Actor Talks "Arrow" and "Mozart in the Jungle"
Image attributed to Jean-Claude
Two-time Emmy Award-winning actor Michael Emerson is known for his roles as Harold Finch on the CBS science fiction crime drama Person of Interest (2011-2016) and Benjamin Linus on Lost, a show that contained elements of supernatural and science fiction and originally aired on ABC from 2004 until 2010. He portrayed serial killer William Hinks on The Practice and Zep Hindle in the first Saw film in 2004.
Emerson can currently be seen in season six of the CW’s DC Comics superhero series Arrow as the sinister Helix leader Cayden James and is set to recur also in the upcoming fourth season of Amazon’s comedy-drama series Mozart in the Jungle. Emerson is married to actress Carrie Preston (Claws, True Blood).
"I have stuff with Gael and with Lola Kirke and a wonderful actress that plays Mozart’s sister. She was in Indecent on Broadway, which was a brilliant show. Anyway, there’s a whole bunch of cool character players, and there are guest appearances by a whole host of respectable classical musicians. So that’s fun. I was in a party scene with Joan Jett for heaven’s sake! I mean, one hardly knows what to say to Joan Jett except, 'Pleased to meet you.' (laughs)"
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael, you’re a very busy man these days! Let’s discuss Arrow first. Why were you interested in the role of Cayden James?
Michael Emerson: Those producers, I think, had seen me on other shows, and they thought I might make a good fit as a villain on their show. We’ve talked a couple of times over the last couple of years, and I said that if the timing was right, I was available. They were willing, so I started my commutes to my job in Vancouver. It has been good though. It’s a really nice company. I’ve got to say that Canadians are, on average, really pleasant people. They’re very nice.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You play a computer genius similar to the character of Harold Finch from Person of Interest, but Cayden James is a bad guy.
Michael Emerson: Yeah. He’s the bad side of a Mr. Finch coin, you know. He’s like Mr. Finch’s evil twin.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does Cayden James have any redeeming qualities?
Michael Emerson: Sure (laughs). Like all good villains, he’s brilliant, persistent, and has a sense of humor. He’s just completely amoral and has no empathy for humankind. Other than that, he’s good company. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He has already tried to destroy the Internet. What can you say about his future plots to take over the world?
Michael Emerson: His personal mission, I believe, is more than just electronic. I think he means revenge on Oliver Queen whom he holds personally responsible for the death of his child.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will there be a cliffhanger for the midseason finale airing December 7?
Michael Emerson: Oh, there’s what I would call a kind of a semi-cliffhanger, which is probably appropriate for the middle of the season. But it’s not the end of Cayden James. He goes on into the second part of the season. I guess episode nine is the one you mean. Honestly, I cannot remember what we did in episode nine. It’s terrible. But I go in and play these scenes and stuff, and then I sort of erase it from my memory and get ready to play the next ones that are coming down the pike toward me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Then you have to switch gears from a villain to an eccentric classical music collector for Mozart in the Jungle (laughs).
Michael Emerson: (laughs) That role on Mozart in the Jungle is just such good fun! It really takes me back to my theatre days when I mostly did comedies, and I was often very silly, very flamboyant and goofy. I just love doing it. It’s such a fun role, and it’s good occasionally to be theatrical and bust out of your mold or do something that the audience does not associate with you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What can you tell me about Morton Norton?
Michael Emerson: Well, he’s a wonderful character. He lives in a big, spooky old mansion kind of like The Addams Family house, and he has room after room of ridiculous classical music ephemera like fingernail clippings, cigarette butts, a half-eaten bagel, all attached to a famous composer, conductor or musician (laughs). I don’t know how to describe how he presents himself. He’s obsessed with the renaissance composer named Gesualdo. He grooms and dresses himself as if he lives in the 16th Century. I shouldn’t say much more about that except that you’ll know Morton when you see him (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who have you worked with on the show?
Michael Emerson: I have stuff with Gael and with Lola Kirke and a wonderful actress that plays Mozart’s sister. She was in Indecent on Broadway, which was a brilliant show. Anyway, there’s a whole bunch of cool character players, and there are guest appearances by a whole host of respectable classical musicians. So that’s fun. I was in a party scene with Joan Jett for heaven’s sake! I mean, one hardly knows what to say to Joan Jett except, “Pleased to meet you.” (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does Morton Norton play a musical instrument?
Michael Emerson: I don’t know. We’ll see. I’ve only done a couple of episodes. I know that he conducts his own personal choir who are also his posse, and they go off to parties. He and his entourage arrive as if they’ve just gotten out of a coach, and it’s the year 1599, you know (laughs). So it’s all just very silly, but it’s a lot of fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you play a musical instrument, Michael?
Michael Emerson: When I was a schoolboy, I played clarinet in the orchestra, and I played drums in the marching band, which was good fun, but I wouldn’t exactly call it music. I admire people that can really play, and it is fun to be on a show that is so much about music, but so much also about other sillier things. It’s great.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Had you ever watched Arrow or Mozart in the Jungle ?
Michael Emerson: I had seen a couple of episodes of Arrow, and I liked the look of it. I like the art direction of it. They create a very detailed, tangible, dark world there. I like that kind of thing, kind of Dark Knight Returns kind of feeling, kind of a superhero noir. I hadn’t really watched Mozart in the Jungle, but probably it’s good that I didn’t because I just came in and gave them a very large and flamboyant take on a character, and they seemed maybe a little surprised, but with any luck, their surprise turned to delight. I can only hope (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you doing any theatre work?
Michael Emerson: I did a play in New York City over the winter. It was a beautiful play, but it was very dark and sad, although it had a load of laughs in it. But ultimately, it was quite sobering and sad.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A dark comedy?
Michael Emerson: Yeah. You might call it that. It was a good experience, but it was a little bit shattering in terms of mental health and physical health for that matter. It was kind of rough, so I’ve been taking a little time off to do TV, which is a little easier.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you want to be a series regular again?
Michael Emerson: I’m sure I’ll see some scripts for pilots this coming winter. I auditioned for a few last year, but nothing was really right, and that was okay with me, I think. I was kind of happy to take a little break after two consecutive network series that were so all consuming. Those network shows shoot so many episodes and take up such a big chunk of the year and of your life. So I’ve been happy since Person of Interest folded. My wife and I bought an apartment, and it has given me the time to get furniture and get things just right for us. After being here about a year, we finally feel settled.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I spoke with your wife a few years ago when True Blood ended.
Michael Emerson: She’s super busy, too. She’s like the busiest girl in showbiz.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recently guest-starred on her show Claws?
Michael Emerson: Yes, that’s true. I’ve had a good year of extremes as a character guest player (laughs). I played a dangerous, southern hippie drug lord (laughs). I had a beard and long hair, wore Birkenstock and a tie-dyed t-shirt, and I got killed at the end of the scene. It couldn’t have been more perfect. It was good fun though.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you recognized on the street from your Lost days or for Person of Interest?
Michael Emerson: People come up to me all the time. I just went uptown before we talked. I went to shop for some shoes, and I took some pictures with people on the subway platform and a couple of others on the street. It’s always fun to try and figure out who’s a fan of what show. Like, is it a Lost type fan or is it a Person of Interest type fan? Then sometimes if it’s a young person, they’ll surprise me and go, “I loved you in Saw.” You know, the first Saw movie, which I’ve been trying to put out of my mind for 13 years (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you and Carrie binge-watch?
Michael Emerson: Let’s see. We’re big Westworld fans. We’re binging on Mind Hunters right now. It’s good. It doesn’t go quite the way you think it’s going to go. It’s not like on the trail of one particularly murderous serial killer. It’s about the invention of the term “serial killer.” It’s based on the real life exploits of the FBI Unit that was formed to look into these murderers who do it in sequence. They called them “sequence murderers” at first, and then they switched it to “serial.” But it’s a good show. Jonathan Groff is in it, and he’s a New York actor that we’re friendly with. He’s great. Anna Torv was the lady detective on Fringe. She’s in it. It’s an interesting show.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you and Carrie into the political activism scene these days?
Michael Emerson: We support a number of friends and acquaintances who are very politically active, demonstrating and such. We don’t tend to show up ourselves. It just would complicate our lives quite a bit, but we read the paper together every day with chagrin and try to hold on until the tide changes or until the tide turns.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Arrow and Supergirl executive producer Andrew Kreisberg has been suspended by Warner Bros. amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment. I assume that won’t affect the future of Arrow.
Michael Emerson: Oh, I don’t think so. He’s not somebody I ever met. He was the mobile producer that sort of oversaw all the various DC Comics shows in Vancouver. But I think he hadn’t had much contact with the Arrow company for a while because they had other newer shows that needed more attention. So I don’t know him and have never met him. These are interesting times we’re living in, and this is the tip of a very large iceberg. So we’ll see how things develop.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Anything else coming up for you?
Michael Emerson: No. My wife is in cahoots with a couple of writer friends of hers to put together a humorous television pilot, and I think they have the idea that they would like me to work on it if it ever comes to fruition, so that gets batted around and talked about. It’s fun. Other than that, I’m just going to glide through the holidays.
I have heavy work on Arrow between now and Christmas. But after Christmas, I’ll have an open schedule and a chance to do some reading and look at some scripts, I guess. I’m really looking forward to going down to New Orleans because Claws starts filming the first week of January. Carrie will be living down there, so I thought I would just go on down and be her personal assistant for a little while.
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