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Ben's judgment day

4:00AM Monday May 11, 2009
Michele Manelis

When people meet Michael Emerson, 54, who plays the morally ambiguous Ben Linus on TV2's Lost, it's not surprising they're a little nervous. "Occasionally they're a bit worried, and tend to be physically very formal with me. They don't want to hug me. They keep their distance but they keep their eye on me because they're not sure what my next move will be," laughs Emerson.

The two-time Emmy award-winning actor, who takes centre stage in this Wednesday's episode when he summons the mysterious Smoke Monster, is conducting interviews at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel in Los Angeles dressed in a black suit and tie, unusual attire for an actor promoting a TV show.

"Well, I am more formal than most people, I think. Over the years I've done so many classical and period plays that I tend to feel a little more comfortable if I have a vest, suspenders and pants that have a watch pocket," he explains, referring to his Broadway and Shakespearean background. "But my wife has a much more hip-hop sensibility. She's quite an elegant person but she's more summery and wears colours. She's a jazzier-looking person than I am."

His wife, whom he met in a production of Hamlet, is actress Carrie Preston, 41, who has also appeared on Lost - as his character's mother. "Yes, there was some humour about it, of course. I hardly ever saw her because when she was giving birth to me, I wasn't in the scene. She'd be at work while I was at home. We were like ships passing in the night," he recalls.

Like most of his onscreen personas, in person, Emerson comes across as a little eccentric. "I'm basically an escapist sort of a person; so I read a lot of fiction. But I also read a lot of history, and I like books about Shakespeare and his era and I read the Greeks and Romans when I can. I like to read the ancients. I'm basically a backward-looking person. I don't think much about the future, and dwell more on the past," he says, which seems appropriate given the head-scratching time-travelling scenarios on the hit show.

Despite his roles in more classically cerebral fare, he regards Lost as the pinnacle of his career.

"Will there be a part that is more delicious than this one? It is crackling and filled with dangerous intimacy. And at the same time there's action. You get to play with guns and you get to fall into holes in the ground."

Emerson continues to be amused by the enthusiastic reactions from fans and, given the history of Lost, he jokes that he was a little nervous about flying to Hawaii when he first joined the cast. "It's not a show that will help anyone feel comfortable about air travel, is it? But then again, people should take comfort in the notion that when a plane crashes on Lost there are no accidents. So if you see me on a plane, don't be alarmed."

With Lost coming to an end in season six, airing its final episode in 2010, Emerson is relieved that the actors are kept in the dark about its conclusion. "The producers don't tell us anything so I don't have to worry about keeping secrets. I want it to be the kind of ending where everybody goes, 'Oh my God, it was right there before my very eyes for six years, and I never thought!'."

Adds Emerson: "As far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out as to where Ben Linus is on the moral scale. He displays some kinds of seemingly heinous behaviour but then we're not quite sure what his larger game is. Who might he be saving or protecting? I'm happy that people are in two minds about him. It may be that even when the show is completely over, you still won't know. It would be all right with me if the ending was ambiguous."

Source:  New Zealand Herald

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