Fans of the hit ABC series “Lost” probably don’t realize there’s a connection between Flagler College and the show’s resident bad guy Benjamin Linus, played by Michael Emerson — unless, of course, they were at Flagler in the 1980s and took a drawing class taught by the now-famous actor.
A close friend of Art and Design Professor Don Martin, Emerson has visited the campus several times to talk with students since shooting to stardom. So as this highly anticipated season of “Lost” gets rolling, Flagler Magazine asked 2006 alumnus and “Lost” fanatic Tom Iacuzio to catch up with Emerson and discuss everything from teaching at Flagler to playing a character who loves to make viewers squirm.
For a fan of ABC’s “Lost,” it’s hard not to get a chill when the phone rings and it’s “Lost” baddie Benjamin Linus on the other end. But when the chill wears off after a few seconds you realize that not only is Michael Emerson not the murderous, manipulative character he plays on television, he’s actually very polite and quite likeable.
Q: First off, congratulations on crafting a stellar character in Benjamin Linus.
That’s exciting, thank you. I’m glad he’s working for you. I think the character is really well written. I’m happy that whatever my bag of actor tricks is, it seems to be appropriate for this role.
Q: Your life has taken you many places. One of those places was St. Augustine. What brought you here?
I was many years ago married to a woman from St. Augustine. We met in New York City and she begged me to leave the rat race and move on to a more gracious climate and there I was for several years.
Q: You taught drawing at Flagler College for a while in the early ‘80s. How did that happen?
This was before I was an actor. I had been a freelance magazine illustrator in New York City where I met (Flagler Art Professor) Don Martin. He said, “Hey, we have an opening for a drawing instructor. Would you like to do it?” It sounded interesting to me and I took it and taught sort of entry-level drawing there for two or three semesters in the Art Department.
Q: What do you remember about your time at Flagler?
I remember the facility. Such a fabulous bunch of buildings. I mean what other college looks like Flagler? I remember for me that it was a revelation how educational teaching is for the teacher. I know it sounds trite. I’m sure every other teacher says the same thing, but it’s perfectly true. It’s one thing to do a “thing.” It’s another to be forced to articulate it to others. I found it to be very exciting.
Q: Your character that you play on “Lost” started out as Henry Gale and was only supposed to be around for three episodes. How did you feel when you learned that the paycheck would be a bit more steady?
As soon as I got the script, I thought, “This is a really intriguing character and he’s mysterious enough that they ought to let it run for a while.” I guess all of us guest spot actors, though, have this kernel of a dream somewhere that we’re gonna’ make such an impression in our little guest spot that somebody’s gonna’ want to keep us around.
Q: You’ve played Zep Hindle in “Saw,” won an Emmy as serial killer William Hinks on “The Practice” and now Ben Linus. Are you drawn to these bad-guy roles?
No, but somebody is drawn to the idea of me playing them. I don’t know who that is and I’m not sure whether to thank them or give them a smack. In my life on the stage, I’m usually in funny plays. It’s a little bit of a mystery to me. That seems to be what’s so interesting about the character, that there is that manipulative genius angle, but also a bit of vulnerability and compassion. Yeah, I think as season four progressed, Ben (was) being moved inch by inch towards the more sympathetic end of the scale. Something’s going on there. I’ve always maintained, sort of half in jest, that eventually Ben would be the good guy.
Q: How familiar were you with “Lost” before you were cast in it?
I was fairly familiar with it. I mean the fanatic in our house was my wife (Carrie Preston). She never missed an episode. I’d sort of catch some while she watched and I was doing dishes or something.
Q: And she wound up playing your character’s mother in your flashback episode.
That was kooky. It’s great to have your spouse on the set with you, although we didn’t have any scenes together, and now she’s a bona fide member of the “Lost” family. And I’m thinking maybe that’s not the last time we see her. Something has to be revisited there in Ben’s childhood.
Q: What lengths do producers go to prevent spoilers on a show like “Lost”?
Sometimes they go to crazy lengths. The script in last season’s finale had a secret scene. There usually is at the end of the season. But they went a step better last year. When they filmed the secret scene, they filmed three different versions of a moment in it so that even the people that were on the set didn’t know how the season would end.
Q: This past season, the show has seemed to ditch the straight flash format and has moved on to something else.
I think everything is flash now. Flash forward, flash back, flash present, flash other present. Other time zone, other geographical zone. They’ve done what they do every year, which is crank it one more notch in terms of narrative device. Every year they invent a device to tell the story they want to tell. It’s chaotic, but stimulating.
Q: What kind of reaction do you get from fans on the street?
Mostly people react to me with pleasure, but in general it’s a kind of guarded pleasure. They are happy to see this face and voice that they know belongs to a character that they enjoy, but part of them can’t fully disassociate me from the part I play. So they worry a little bit that I might actually be somewhat dangerous.