Michael Emerson Looks to Season 5 as 'Lost' is Found

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Not too long ago, Ben Linus, the crafty and enigmatic leader of a mysterious group known as the Others, was causing plenty of grief for the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 on Lost, even going so far as holding a handful of them against their will. Then, however, the tables were turned, and during the show’s third year he became their prisoner. Ben remained a captive in season four, but that soon became the least of his worries. As events unfolded, he made sure to keep his wits about him, as did the actor who plays him, Michael Emerson.

“For me, the acting challenge in season four was finding ways to maintain the mystery of my character while allowing the viewers to get to know him a little better,” explains Emerson. “I mean, a bit more about Ben was revealed last year. We got a sense of him as a father as well as a vulnerable character; those types of colors were added to him. At the same time, we kept audiences guessing. His position on the scale of good and bad is still in question, which is great. They [the show’s writers] do a nice balancing act, and the softening of the viewers’ attitude towards Ben is going to be used, manipulated, and possibly turned against those watching as time goes on. When the pendulum swings one way with a character, they need to have it swing in the other direction in order to keep audiences off-balance.

“So I’m always happy with what the writers come up with for me. It’s been a wonderful ride and I’ve never had occasion to second guess it. I just hang onto my hat and go wherever they steer me. I’ve not had to worry about the things that some actors on a long-running TV series might well worry about, like overstaying my welcome, being overexposed, having my story line becoming repetitive, etc. I think the writers continue to be smart in how they use my character and have, miraculously, kept the viewers speculating about Ben.”

In season three of Lost , Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) and his fellow castaways were overjoyed with the prospect of being rescued by the crew of a freighter that had come to the island. Unfortunately, the boat had been sent by Charles Widmore (Alan Dale), a wealthy industrialist and longtime rival of Ben for control of the island. After Ben warned Jack and the others of the dangers they faced from the freighter people, some of them decided to go off with John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) and remain on the island. Ben was handed over to that group. Having spent a great deal of time with Locke when first making contact with the Oceanic survivors, Ben did his best to further foster that rapport in the show’s fourth year.

“Locke seems to have emerged as my character’s primary scene partner, or ally/adversary,” says Emerson. “Theirs is really sort of a layered ‘dance,’ isn’t it? Both men appear to have the other’s number in some way. Locke seems to be the focus of a great deal of Ben’s manipulative energy, and I think that was made even clearer last season. I don’t know exactly where that relationship is headed, but I feel like it’s one of the central relationships or duels of the show’s bigger storylines.

"I have to add that working with Terry [O’Quinn] has just been wonderful. We’re a good match. The two of us are of similar ages as well as temperaments and have very much the same actors’ enthusiasm. What Terry and I enjoy about the work is similar. I think we both like it when a scene becomes still, electric and fraught, and we’re caught in that ‘tense’ zone if you will.

“I always know it’s going to be a good day at work when Terry and I have scenes together. We tend to prepare in the same way and are totally ready to go when we get to the set, so the work usually goes smoothly and the results seem to be really strong. Terry will go down as one of my great collaborators in my life as an actor.”

Along with the Locke relationship, Emerson also enjoyed the chance to further explore Ben’s bond with his adopted daughter Alex (Tania Raymonde) in the fourth season of Lost. Sadly, it ended in tragedy when she was murdered in cold blood by the leader of the freighter’s mercenary team.

“I thought the storyline with Ben and Alex was a rather gripping one, and the most vulnerable reveal of my character’s interior,” notes the actor. “That was challenging to me because prior to that, Ben hadn’t been a character who required much vulnerability in the playing of it, so that was a big change. And I myself felt some of the sadness in the loss of Alex because I like Tania so much as a person as well as an actor, not to mention her character and the way she played it. I was saddened and shocked to learn that she was going. So that was something to absorb, and there was kind of actor grief, a sense of parting and of something coming to an end. It wasn’t possible to keep that altogether separate from the fictional grief of the story.

“One of the toughest scenes I did last year is where Ben is standing over his daughter’s dead body. That was hard to play and a side of him we don’t often see. We did that scene over and over, which required some major acting work on my part. It was one of those times when I needed to be good and focused. Of course, Alex’s death sets in motion the storyline of vengeance involving my character, which I believe is going to carry through many episodes.”

Throughout the four seasons of Lost, audiences have seen numerous flashbacks, as well as flashforwards, revealing events from a characters’ past or future. In the year four episode "The Shape of Things to Come", Ben wakes up in the Sahara Desert, wearing a parka and having traveled forward in time 97 days. He is held at gunpoint by two Bedouins, but soon escapes. After making his way to Tunisia, Ben continues on to Iraq, and then London, England. There, he confronts Charles Widmore and vows to kill Charles’s daughter Penny (Sonya Walger) in retaliation for Alex’s murder. Not surprisingly, filming his character’s globetrotting exploits remains a memorable experience for Emerson.

"This role has actually turned out to be more physically demanding than I ever would have expected, and sometimes dangerous because the show involves so much, including violence,” he says. “It all came together in that one episode where Ben winds up in the Sahara Desert. Between riding crazy horses, shooting all those weapons, doing hand-to-hand combat, running through an Arabic bazaar, being tackled in an alley by Sayid [Naveen Andrews] and him hounding Ben for a bit, it was just a lot every day. I thought, ‘My God, when will it end?’ Those are the things I never expected. I thought I had already reached an advanced stage as an actor where action stuff would be behind me,” chuckles the actor, “but it wasn’t to be. So I’m constantly having to adjust to this idea of being a player on an action series. It’s always fun when I see the episodes air, but on the day of filming it can occasionally be daunting.”

Ben’s unexpected trip to the Sahara Desert was the result of his actions in the third and final part of Lost’s season four ender, "There’s No Place Like Home". Using some of the technology left over from the DHARMA Initiative, he succeeded in physically transporting the island, thus hiding it from Charles Widmore’s people. Six of the Oceanic survivors, including Jack, were not on the island at the time, and ultimately rescued. Two years later, Jack has an unexpected encounter with Ben in the backroom of a funeral home and over John Locke’s dead body. Ben convinces Jack that the Oceanic Six need to go back together to the island, and take Locke’s body with them.

“That [funeral home] scene is sort of the beginning of a new post-island life for my character, and, again, for me, it took some getting accustomed to that idea,” recalls Emerson. “I’d worked on so many episodes on the island, and then to suddenly be back in the real world with a new look and a new mission for Ben was a big change. When we shot that scene I hadn’t fully adjusted to the idea of post-island life. It’s something that is explored much more in the upcoming [fifth] season of Lost, and I’m glad of that, actually. I was pleased to think that a new landscape was being offered to me as well as Ben, along with a new set of goals. I’m playing the same character, only his story is opening out a bit more. There’s just something about a freshness of locale and plan that’s so exciting. I was like, ‘Oh, boy, where will we go with this stuff?’”

As a result of a Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, Lost, like most TV series, had an abbreviated 2007-2008 season. The show’s cast and crew were back in front of the cameras last year to begin work on the program’s fifth season. The opening episode, aptly titled "Because You Left", has its U.S. premiere in this week, and it is business as usual for Emerson’s character as well as the others, but not for long.

“We pick up pretty much where we left off, but then we go in kind of an unexpected direction with the story,” says the actor. “Another of the smart things that the Lost writers are very clever at is negotiating this business of one season ending and a new one beginning. They suggest what you might call conventional continuations, and yet always use that gap between seasons to turn a corner in a way or change the length of the lens. By the latter, I mean that the story seems to open out in a new way year after year. It’s as if the lens through which we’re watching the story steps back in order to include more. Suddenly we see a larger picture, and I like how they do that. So with each passing season you might think, ‘Well, they’ve gone as far as they can go,’ but they really haven’t.”

What can Lost fans expect when it comes to Ben Linus in season five? “They’re going to have the rug pulled out from under them in a couple of different ways,” reveals Emerson. “They will begin to get comfortable looking at my character in a certain way, and then they’re going to have some great shocks. I have had some great shocks. I shot a scene a few weeks back and when I first read it I just about dropped my script. It was such a turnabout, and something I thought could not happen on this show.

“So it’s been an interesting season so far for me as an actor/craftsman, I like the craft challenges of playing out this long serialized story. I also appreciate the ways in which we as actors are challenged to be fresh, passionate and focused, and to keep adjusting our [characters’] relationships within the storyline. To both be in this story and outside this story watching it has been a real joy,” he enthuses.

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