Interview: Michael Emerson talks final season of ‘Person of Interest,’ his career and more

Here’s an interview that Michael Emerson gave to Celebrity Cafe:

It’s that time of year again – when seasons or series are coming to an end and networks are announcing their plans for the future. One show finishing its run for good is CBS’s Person of Interest, which stars Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, Amy Acker, Kevin Chapman, and until late Season 3, Taraji P. Henson (now of Empire fame).

Debuting in 2011, the action-packed drama follows the efforts of an ex-assassin and wealthy programmer to save people’s lives – with the help of a surveillance artificial intelligence that sends them identities of civilians somehow involved in impending crimes. As the story has progressed, they also have had to fight a clandestine organization connected to another, more violent, drastic and rogue AI program, Samaritan.

After the fourth season ended in May 2015, it wasn’t clear whether the show would return. But ultimately, CBS opted to bring it back for one final season – to air May 2016, with two installments a week and a shortened length of 13 episodes, rather than its typical 23 or 24-episode run.

The final season premiered May 3 and it’s just as intense and thrilling as ever, if not more so. As the story draws to an end, John Reese (Caviezel), Harold Finch (Emerson), Root/Samantha Groves (Acker) and Detective Lionel Fusco (Chapman) are fighting to save Finch’s creation, the do-gooder AI named The Machine, and to take down Samaritan once and for all. TheCelebrityCafe had the chance to speak to star and Emmy award-winning actor Michael Emerson (Lost) about what’s in store for the remaining episodes, what his experience on Person of Interest was like, and other aspects of his career and life off-screen. Congratulations on the last season of Person of Interest.

Michael Emerson: It’s a pretty good season.

TCC: When did you find out it would be the end?

ME: We found out like everything else you find out in the TV world. We found out very late and indirectly. You never know – I think it wasn’t until a year ago, it was like at upfront time when CBS would announce their new seasons. I knew like the night before, I think we found out we were not listed on their fall schedule and then you start thinking, “Wow, OK, are we gonna shoot anymore, is it the end?” Eventually they did announce we would shoot 13 episodes and it would be rescheduled. We thought it would probably be a replacement, like mid-season. But mid-season came and went and finally, I can’t even remember how I heard that they were gonna air them starting in May and do two a week.

TCC: How did you feel about it?

ME: When I heard that we were not – I wasn’t quite ready. I thought maybe the show would go a little bit longer. But we were really tired when we finished in December, shooting these 13. We had had to shoot them faster than we had ever shot episodes before. And also because season five is the finale, it included a lot of challenging scenarios. There was violence and it was gonna be hard to shoot, and then also kind of wrenching. So I was OK because as I said, I was so tired, and when I heard we were gonna shoot 13, that seemed OK to me. I thought, “Oh 13 is manageable.” I didn’t know how many more 22-episode seasons I had in me. It’s such a grind. I think 13 seems to me to be the right amount of episodes for a season on a very difficult show like ours. I think the entire TV industry is going to go in that direction – having more shows but shorter seasons and having a more jumbled schedule.

TCC: There are a lot of shows coming out like that now.

ME: The problem for CBS is how, if you’re going to decide at the last minute that you’re going to air it in May, do you want to spend the money to promote it? Walking the streets of New York every day like I do, I feel like I’m the one that’s telling the world that the show is going to return, because nobody seems to know. So I don’t know, I haven’t looked at any numbers for what we’ve done so far… It’s not gonna be the same amount as we had previously because no one knows where to find it now, but that’s neither here nor there.

TCC: How do you feel about how far the show has come and Finch has come since the beginning?

ME: Good. I think it has grown, developed. It’s more nuanced now. I think the relationships – at first the show was a very chilly show. Everyone was very serious, isolated and cryptic with one another. Now it’s evolved into a kind of family. A family of avengers with a kind of respect for one another. It seems there’s, I don’t know, caring going on and a bit of humor between them all, the kind of gallows humor people trade when they’re on a death mission. It’s been good that way. And I think the audience has gotten to see the softer side of the show.

TCC: Is there any direction the story took or event that happened that surprised you?

ME: I was surprised as we were shooting the final season. I kept thinking, “Oh we only have 13 episodes, we’re gonna start the declining action soon and I’ll be able to tell that the end is coming and how it’s coming,” but that wasn’t the case. We shot eight or nine episodes and I couldn’t tell where we were headed and what was apparent. They didn’t give it away until the last couple of episodes. That’s really when you see what the plan is.

TCC: Did you have your own vision for how you wanted the show to end?

ME: Now that I have seen it end, I think the ending that the writers came up with is a really good one, a really satisfying one that is true to the patterns the show has always followed – which is a sense of responsibility, a sense of placing the lives of humans above other considerations and maintaining liberty at whatever cost.

TCC: How do you feel about the return of the character Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi)?

ME: It’s great. I don’t know whether we’d call it a return. That episode that we watched the other night, it suggested she’s still alive, so we know that. But for the whole episode – it was such a great piece of writing – the whole episode was just a simulation, one of apparently thousands. And I don’t know if we’re necessarily to assume that she’s a) alive in the real sense that we mean, or able to get back into action or just be the same person she once was.

It’s like that short story that Ambrose Bierce wrote, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where the guy is being hanged during the Civil War. The rope snaps and he runs away and he meets a woman, and it looks like they’re gonna live happily ever after, and it turns out it was all just fantasy that fluttered into his mind before he reached the end of the rope.

TCC: How was it to have Sarah back on set?

ME: Well it was great. I mean I knew she was back, but of course I would never see her because I didn’t have any scenes with her in that episode. But it’s always nice to have one of your most dynamic characters back in the narrative.

TCC: What was the tone like on set going into this last season?

ME: It was a little… people began to count, “What are the last things?” This is the last time we’ll do this, this is the last time we’ll shoot outdoors, this is the last time we’ll shoot on a tall building, this is the last time we’ll use the subway set, this is the series wrap of the dog, this is the series wrap for fill-in-the-blank. And there are casualties along the way in season five, which you’ll see as we go along.

TCC: Did that atmosphere make it difficult to get through scenes?

ME: Again I have to say, the work of our show is so difficult. There wasn’t a lot of time for testimonials or reminiscences, or anything like that, just a sense of trying to hold on to one another a little bit longer and enjoy one another’s company since the end was near – to try to enjoy it a little bit more, which is hard on our show because the logistics of the hours were grueling.

TCC: Is there anything or any one person in particular you’ll miss most?

ME: In the course of five years you make so many good friends on the set. I have had so many wonderful scenes with Amy Acker, I don’t know what it’s gonna be like to have to go out and work with other actors somewhere else on some other thing. I really adore her. The people on set – there’s this guy, Tony Pettine, who was the script supervisor. He was my number one scene partner for that entire series because so many of my scenes are shot alone with me talking into a telephone or at a screen or a microphone and Tony Pettine reads everybody else’s lines for all those scenes. I have heard his voice in my head more than any other actor I’ve ever worked with. So I will miss him because he was just a daily presence.

TCC: Your wife, actress Carrie Preston (True Blood) appeared on Lost and then with you in Person of Interest. What’s it like working with her on a show?

ME: It’s interesting. She and I are kind of like teenagers when we’re together. We tend to get giggly about things. It’s funny to be playing a deadly serious scene and sometimes it’s hard to look at her because it makes me want to crack up, and I know the same is true for her. It’s also a little complicated acting-wise. Because I woke up with her that morning, I have to do a double acting job. I have to erase the fact that she’s my spouse from my mind and replace it with this fictional character and then I have to play the scene with that fictional character. But it’s fun. It’s so sweet to bump into your own wife in the hallway after shooting and say, “How’s it going? See you out there in about 30 minutes.”

TCC: So is it easy for you both to check intensity at the door – like when you were on Lost and she was on True Blood, those are both dramatic, tense shows. Do you make it a point to shed that weight?

ME: Oh yeah, we’re both people that clock out at the end of the day. I certainly don’t hold on to the darkness of Mr. Finch’s world. But Carrie would tell you that on set, I’m pretty serious about my work and I don’t do a lot of, there’s not a lot of chitchat or playing around. She tells me I go off somewhere. I don’t know where.

TCC: Were there any memorable fan encounters while shooting in New York?

ME: We had so many fan encounters. It was just crazy. There’s a lot of shows in New York but I don’t think any other show filmed as much outdoors as we did. We were in every neighborhood of the city and we ran into every different kind of – from paparazzi who wouldn’t get out of the screen to angry old ladies who just wanted to get to the grocery store and neighborhood activists who wanted to shut us down because they felt everyone in the neighborhood should be paid. We were driven out of a project building by guys throwing rocks and stuff down off the roof, we had to fold that day. We were shut down by the police for showing guns, all kinds of stuff. It was never a dull moment with us.

And I haven’t even touched on the problems of weather. Oh my God, shooting – the second episode in season three I think, where Root and I are walking and talking in Madison Square Park and you can see that it’s just pouring snow on us. They would have to come up with lint brooms between takes and they’d have to get the snow off our heads and shoulders before we could do another take. We were starting to look like snow people.

We would have those fan clubs, like there were organized fan clubs from China and also in Europe, and those people would come and they would stand outdoors just to watch us filming all day long. If we shot for 14 hours, they’d be out there for 14 hours.

TCC: How does that feel as an actor seeing that passion?

ME: Well you want to say – the work day is really kind of dull and not much happens, it’s mostly a lot of waiting around. I just wanted them to go somewhere warm and watch the show on TV or something.

TCC: You started Person of Interest quickly after Lost. What made you choose this for your next project?

ME: The script. I had looked at a couple other projects after Lost and nothing seemed – there was a project Terry O’Quinn (John Locke on Lost) and I were going to try to move forward but they could never figure out how to get a decent pilot script out of it. Finally, I think (the production company) Bad Robot just got tired of waiting and they put it on a shelf and forgot about it. So I thought, “Well, I can go back to New York and do other things.”

But I thought, “First, let me check in with Bad Robot.” I went to them and I said, “You must have a pile of pilot scripts around here, there must be some other one that’s a possibility.” And they said, “Oh yeah, you mean you’re interested? OK, well, here, read this one, it’s from (creator) Jonathan Nolan.” And I read it and I thought, “This is really good. It’s dark, it’s scary, Mr. Finch is a good guy but he’s on kind of a suicide mission, and it’s all really high tech stuff.” I thought that sounded great.

TCC: With Lost you were introduced after the show already had established itself. How does that experience compare to being on a show from the beginning?

ME: My experience on Lost was a bit more of a Cinderella story than anything else I’ve done. You come in late, you’re only there to do three episodes, you’re not really thinking this is gonna become a large chapter of my working life. So it was interesting and kind of romantic how it all developed and how I ended up becoming a regular character on that show and such an important one. It was nice. That was fun.

TCC: In both shows your character appears unassuming and simple, but is really very powerful and layered with secrets and motives. How do you tap into that complexity?

ME: I don’t know. It must be a little bit just me, because I really don’t think about controlling the tone of the character or anything. I mainly think about how, under what circumstances would I say these lines and how would I say them? It is kind of as elementary as that.

TCC: How do you feel about that kind of role? Do you particularly look to play characters who are complex?

ME: I think everybody is drawn to complexity of the right sort and I know I am personally interested in stories or characters or people who have an element of mystery about them. I think it’s more fun if the audience is guessing about things – “What’s he really mean? What’s he really after? Why did he say that? What’s he got up his sleeve?” That kind of stuff, I think is good.

TCC: Do you share any similarities with either Ben Linus or Mr. Finch?

ME: Well, they probably talk kind of like I do, their brains probably work a bit like mine. Each of those characters share a portion of my sense of humor and those are things about you, the real person, the actor that you can’t keep hidden forever. You can’t completely erase yourself in the playing of a role, particularly when you play it week after week after week. There’s going to be bleed over between you and the character. I’m certainly not a tech-savvy person and I’m certainly not a potential mass murderer either, but I can imagine being those things. I can project myself into that, and I guess that’s all I’m asked to do.

TCC: Do you have a preference between playing someone good or bad?

ME: I don’t worry – I never thought about Ben as a bad guy and I never thought about Mr. Finch as a good guy. They’re just smart men trying to solve a problem, trying to achieve goals.

TCC: Since you’re from a small town in Iowa, what inspired you to want to go to New York and be an actor?

ME: I knew I wanted to be an actor. That’s my undergraduate degree. The question was where to go. I went to a little liberal arts college in Iowa and the mecca for actors in that world was Minneapolis, or Kansas City, or Chicago maybe. Nobody ever went to New York. But I had a girlfriend then who wanted to be in New York and so I thought, “Let’s go, it’ll be an adventure.” It really was an adventure, but it was a little overwhelming for me and I just lost track of that original actor dream. But I’m glad that I was able to recover it later in life.

TCC: With your late start, what do you consider your first breakout role?

ME: I had a great break on the New York stage in 1997, in a play about Oscar Wilde’s trials – it was calledGross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. And I played Oscar Wilde and it ran for a couple of years. I was 43 when that play hit so that’s really the beginning of my full-time acting life.

TCC: How do you think getting into the game at that age shaped your career or informed your process?

ME: I’m not advising that people put off their successes until later in life, it’s just the way it worked for me. But I do think there were some advantages – actually a number of advantages. One is that having been a magazine illustrator for 10 or 15 years before that, I had developed a kind of craftsman patience. I was willing to work slowly and carefully and not settle for a half-good product. I also, I had lost any – by the time you’re that age if you have some success, it’s a lot less likely to go to your head. I think you’re a little more realistic about it. It’s been such a long wait and it’s not gonna turn your life upside down. You already have a life.

And having said that, having already had a life means you have more to bring to your work, probably. I don’t know what my skill set was or what part of the human condition I would be able to bring to the table when I was 22 but by the time I was 42, I had lived a little, and had some disappointments and some exaltations and some worries and some cares. And I think my human empathy quotient probably had risen in that time. I think for most people, that’s the case. So it worked out fine, and I do like to tell young actors to be patient. It’s not a race and not everyone wins the first lap or the first step, it’s a long game. I really do think if an actor is a really good, careful actor, they can’t or won’t go their whole life without being recognized or getting a break.

TCC: When you won the Emmy for Lost how did you feel? Did you think “Alright, I’m set” or did it inspire you to want more?

ME: I was just pleased and proud to have that recognition. I did not think – and I was right – that it was going to make a big difference in my career. The difference has been made by the work itself. I’m proud that I have those awards, but most of the people that you’re intending to work with – writers, directors, other actors – it doesn’t matter that much to them. You get judged based on performance.

TCC: Is there anything specific you would like to do moving forward that maybe you haven’t gotten to do enough of?

ME: It would be nice to go back to the stage, which I haven’t done in 10 years. I’ll have to see if that works out a second time. It’ll occur naturally, like everything else does – in my career at least. I can’t really plan on what will happen. I’ll know it when I see it. Most of the good jobs I’ve ever had have come completely out of left field and I could never have predicted that work. None of the jobs I ever had existed on a list in my mind before I got them.

TCC: Given that you have a background in theater and in illustration, how do you feel about staying in touch with those other creative talents?

ME: I’ve always been passionate about graphics and illustrations, graphic novels. I go to art galleries. I go to the museums a lot. I like to stay in touch with that because that used to be, for years, that was all I thought about. I wasn’t thinking about theater for quite a while.

TCC: Getting back to Person of Interest, when the show started, where did you see it going in terms of success?

ME: That’s like playing the lottery. You just never know when you’re an actor. I mean everything is so unpredictable. All that I was certain of was that the script was good and then when I saw the pilot, I thought, “Oh this is good.” It was good, but you never know. You make a pilot and you sign on the dotted line and then you think, “this may not fly and I’ll be looking for work again in a month.” But five years later…

TCC: How does that uncertainty feel? Especially in your case, coming off something as successful as Lostand starting something new.

ME: I try not to get too nerved out when – a lot of actors get very anxious when a big job comes to an end. It’s just you know, “Will I ever work again?” You get that feeling of like you’re in freefall sort of. But having been a stage actor for most of my career, you’re always unemployed. You do a play and it goes six or eight weeks and then you’re back looking for work again. So that’s just sort of the natural space of an actor’s life and you better make your peace with it or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

TCC: It’s a very high concept show, and the Big Brother/surveillance theme is something that is a very real subject of public discussion, especially when the show came out. What did you think about how viewers might respond to that?

ME: At the time when we first started, I thought this is a cool thing. It’s kind of tech edgy, it also has a little bit of a science fiction feeling, a noir feeling. But as we went along, I began to realize that we had really tapped into something more important than that – that we were not science fiction, we were kind of science fact. And we were out in a neck and neck race with the headlines of the day about surveillance and security and all of those issues. So the writers placed us, either on purpose or by accident, right in the middle of a kind of global debate, which was cool, and I don’t think they would have predicted that while they were making the pilot.

TCC: Do you think that helped the show’s popularity or were you worried it would scare people away?

ME: I think it made the show just a little more exciting and maybe a little more thought provoking. Although, I have to tell you, I haven’t seen much in print – I mean I don’t look at everything that’s written about Person of Interest – but I would have thought there would be a bit more comment on how topical we were. But a) it’s TV and b) it’s network TV, and people just don’t get as excited about those things as they do about other stimulating media that they consume.

TCC: This season has received a lot of praise. Does that make it harder to accept that it’s over? Do you think, “Well, if it’s good, why can’t we continue?”

ME: I think the fans of the show might feel that way, but it seems to me to be natural that a show with as talented a team as our show has, that when we get down to it and we’re taking our final lap, that we would all raise our game. The writing is really fine in this final season and the ideas in it are wonderfully philosophical and humane, I think. It was a pleasure in that regard. I’m always proud of the show.

TCC: Can you give any hints about what fans should expect in the remaining episodes?

ME: Oh, as I said, it gets scary. It’s gonna get really dark because there’s no easy answer to the problem of Samaritan. Something drastic is required and we see already that the machine, in simulations, the machine has no way to defeat Samaritan, so it requires a radical decision and grave sacrifice to hopefully save humanity.

TCC: What do you hope will be people’s reactions when all is said and done?

ME: I think they’ll say, “That was a great show. I wish it didn’t end, I wish it could go on but they did a cracker jack job with it and the ending was both thrilling and uplifting.”

TCC: Do you have any new projects currently in the works?

ME: No. Nothing. I’m completely in a state of… semi-retirement.

TCC: But do you want to keep acting and working?

ME: Yes. The only thing I would rule out is – I’m not that keen to jump right back into a network series. It just sounds like too much, right now at least. I would rather fiddle around and recharge my battery and mix it up a little bit more, do a little of this and a little of that. Maybe a guest spot here and there, maybe audiobook work or voiceover stuff or whatever – just do the stuff that actors do on a daily basis.

TCC: Is there anything else you’d like to add about Person of Interest or what’s next for you?

ME: No, because I have no idea what’s next for me. I’m just taking it easy, recharging my battery, looking around, going to plays, reading plays, and see what comes up next. I’ll be fine. It actually works out well in a way, because Carrie is really busy right now so it’s nice that someone is at home to hold down the fort, walk (our dog) take care of household projects that we’ve neglected for five or 10 years. It’s all good.

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