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Goodbye to The Machine? Michael Emerson talks 'Person of Interest'

by jmaloni
Mon, May 2nd 2016 04:15 pm
Michael Emerson as Harold Finch and Jim Caviezel as Mr. Reese on `Person of Interest.` (CBS photo)
Michael Emerson as Harold Finch and Jim Caviezel as Mr. Reese on "Person of Interest." (CBS photo)

Final season begins Tuesday on CBS

Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni

As Mr. Finch tries to save his artificial intelligence, a message appears on the computer screen. "Father," it reads, as Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine" starts playing in the background.

The poignant scene doesn't last long, as a surge of electricity forces Harold to move the connection offline and into a briefcase. Moments later, Finch, Mr. Reese and Root are outside, engaged in a gunfight, desperate to find a way bring the AI back to life.

Fans of "Person of Interest" have waited almost a full year to see what follows the season finale - and what will become of the watchdogs, who, for four seasons, have used a set of computer-generated numbers to watch over the just and unjust (protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty).

Of late, they've been under attack from a new and more powerful AI, the ironically named "Samaritan," which has mercilessly eliminated human outliers for the purpose of recreating mankind.

At the heart of the story is Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson), who initially created The Machine with a hope of aiding the government in preventing 9/11-style attacks. When he realized the AI was "a tool of unimaginable power," he hid it, but not without creating a backdoor he uses to protect others.

Unable to locate or replicate The Machine, a shadow organization took charge of Samaritan and is bent on eliminating Finch and his team: "The man in the suit," John Reese, Harold's friend and a former government-trained killer (Jim Caviezel), and Root, a brilliant hacker and cunning villain turned unlikely ally (Amy Acker).

Emerson, who found fame as the deceptive, devious Ben Linus on "Lost," has masterfully brought life to Finch, a reclusive computer genius with limited mobility (he was injured in a ferry blast when it was time to turn over The Machine), and unlimited wealth - including multiple residences he's used to stash his team, his tech and his temporary charges.

Earlier this television season, the actor spoke about the final 13 episodes of "Person of Interest," which begin Tuesday at 10 p.m. on CBS. Expecting the series would conclude in 2016, he said, "I don't think you'll feel letdown. It's got some really cool stuff in it. And some episodes that are highly conceptual, which is fun."

BTS: So, you finish "Lost" (2010), which you were amazing on, and they come and say, "We've got this TV series for you." How much convincing did it take for you to return to series television that quickly? ("Person of Interest" debuted in 2011.)

Michael Emerson: It didn't take a lot of convincing, at all. I rattled around for, I don't know, a year, or more than a year, I guess, trying to figure out what to do next. And I was under contract, I guess in a sense, to Bad Robot (producer of "Lost" and "Person of Interest"). But also felt like I was part of their family - kind of part of the Bad Robot reparatory company. And I thought, I wasn't really planning anything, and then I thought, "Well, people must send scripts to J.J. Abrams all the time. There must be a pile of them there in their office."

So I said one day "Is there something over there that looks cool that I ought to read?" And they said, "Oh, yeah, we've got this really cool script from Jona Nolan. Here; take a look at it." I read it, and I thought, "Oh, this is so cool." It had a cool mood and it was also desperate and dark and (apocalyptic). ... And I knew it had to shoot in New York, where I live. And I thought, "How great would it be?" because I had been shooting ("Lost") in Hawaii for years. And that was fine. (But) it was awfully far from home and the life I know.

So, it seemed like a good fit. And I said, "If you guys ever go to put this together, I'd be happy to be part of it." And, lo and behold, that's what happened.

It was the first time I ever did a pilot. I have auditioned for pilots all my life. I could never get one. I've never been in a pilot until "Person of Interest." And I almost blew that, because I had a blood clot in my leg flying across the country about a week before they started filming. And I ended up in Cedars Sinai in L.A. for a week on blood thinners - and then I was forbidden to fly. I couldn't even fly back to New York to work on the pilot. I had to take a train. It took three days. Because they wouldn't let me go up in elevation.

So, I got to New York. Oh, they were halfway through the pilot, and I still hadn't shot a scene. I'm so grateful that they held it for me and didn't dash out and find someone else to play the part.

Michael Emerson as Mr. Harold Finch on "Person of Interest." (CBS photo) 

Michael Emerson as Mr. Finch on "Person of Interest." (CBS photo)

BTS: Having watched this show, I can't picture any other actor playing this role. What do you like about Finch? Tell me about working with the writers to bring this character to life.

Michael Emerson: I'll take the second half first. I don't really collaborate directly with writers about the character or whatever. I just come in and try to play it. I'm not the guy that wants to spend the weekend in Palm Springs and talk through every aspect of the character. I figure I'll find it after I've studied it and read the lines. I really do think that learning the lines, and learning them well - I mean, fully understanding what your character is saying - is half the battle when you're figuring out who your character is.

So, when I come into work, I kind of think I've solved a lot of that question. But then what you have is a different kind of circuitry with the writing team, and that is they write; you read what they write; you play it; and then they watch how you play it. And that's your conversation. It doesn't happen overtly, like over the phone or even face to face. It's a kind of conversation through the work. And I think that's how we evolve the characters on "Person of Interest."

They said they just watched me. And I'm flattered that they said they watched me, and watched me carefully. And they see what I vary and they pick what they think is really kind of perfect for the part, and then they write more of that.

But it took a while, I think, for us to hit on the idea of there being a sense of humor in Mr. Finch. Because there's such a gravity in their situation and the suicidal nature of it. There is some gallows humor going on and some drollery that has come to feel good to me, and to be, I think, an important element of the relationship between Reese and Finch.

Although the show has gone to such a dire place in the last dozen episodes that it's a little hard to be cracking wise, but we still do it sometimes.

BTS: From the beginning, the show has always been clever. It's always been fun to watch. But it really has, to your point, ramped up the action in the past two seasons. What are your thoughts on the direction that it's taken?

Michael Emerson: Well, I mean, I guess it's a naturally evolving thing, if you have to keep topping yourself. Once you've established with your audience one of the commodities you're trading in is a kind of a wound-up, violent - a kind of wound-up, satisfying vigilante violence - then you have to deliver on that promise on a regular basis. And you have to find new, inventive and even greater ways to accomplish it.

But I thought that was to be expected.

Mercifully, I will confess that I'm happy that I'm not really part of much of the violence of the show. I do feel like I got a lot of that out of my system on "Lost." And it would be all right with me if I was never again in a fistfight or a gunfight or any kind of fight - swordfight, you name it - on television ever again. That would be all right with me.

But they do, occasionally, find some clever ways for Mr. Finch to be part of the action. But then they give you interesting tools - like he'll do it with an umbrella. Or a frying pan. Or something like that.

BTS: I've always wondered about Mr. Finch's limp. First of all, how do you remember to do that in every scene? And second, how do you actually carry that out?

Michael Emerson: It's so second nature to me. If I was walking down the street today, and someone in a car yells "Action," I would start limping. I'm like Pavlov's dog. I can't stop it. It's actually harder for me to not limp - like when we shoot flashbacks and stuff. When we go back in time to the origins of The Machine, before the ferry bombing, and Mr. Finch is normal - you know, his neck is normal and his legs are normal - that's hard for me to remember to do. I have to constantly remind myself, "You know you can turn your head. You can turn your head. You can walk like a person."

It's really second nature. And I'm ashamed to tell you how quickly I had to come up with it. When I took that long train ride to get to New York to shoot the pilot, I thought, "OK. The next morning I have to have an infirmity. What's it going to be? And you better not make it too torturous, or complicated, because, God forbid this show is a success, if I have to shoot it for five or six years (it would be difficult)."

So, I did a thing I thought was fairly safe for the body, and yet made a strong visual impression. And no one ever questioned me about it. The director of the pilot, I think he said, "So that's what you're going to do?" And I said, "Yeah, I think so, unless you want something else." He said, "No. That seems about right." And that was the extent of the conversation about Mr. Finch's infirmity.

BTS: The season finale was bonkers. Where do we find Finch and John and Root when the series returns?

Michael Emerson: Moments later. Moments later. We're still running. We're still with the dying Machine in the briefcase running out of battery power. And all of the combined forces of Samaritan on their tail. And now, with The Machine offline, now Samaritan really does rule the world. And so, the situation is dire. Their behavior is frantic. Desperate. And the clock is ticking.

That's where it kicks off. It's really bad. And, of course, priority one is to get somewhere where there's an electrical outlet and some power and a laptop or something to keep The Machine from just burning up. Or, you know, it totally disintegrating for lack of juice. And that turns out to be no simple affair.

The first few episodes of the season are, of course, about trying to reboot - to get The Machine up and running again. Because they're kind of helpless if in a world where Samaritan now has the complete upper hand. They need the help of their own AI or it's curtains.

And, of course, that leads to a little bit of philosophical conflict between Finch and Root about what should - if, if, we can reboot The Machine - do we make it exactly like it was before, or do we untether it a little bit? Do we let it fly? Do we let it really flex its muscles and arm itself to go after Samaritan? You know, that's not a fond idea for Mr. Finch. But that's always been Root's idea, because she thinks of The Machine as a god. And she is its acolyte. She wants it to be free. Mr. Finch is more a skeptic.

BTS: Do feel as you're shooting these episodes like the story is heading toward a conclusion?

Michael Emerson: No. And that's so strange. I mean, we are now shooting the eighth episode of 13. That means there's only five more. And I still haven't got the slightest whiff of an ending coming at us. But I'm sure it's about to come. People keep saying - people, I guess, that are privy to early drafts of things - people keep saying a lot happens in episode 10. But I can't even spend any time thinking about that, because it's enough for me to try to absorb the episode at hand, and manage my scene work.

But we'll see. It could be really something cool. I mean, (executive producers) Jona and Greg (Plageman) have often said at the panel discussions that they know the ending. They haven't shared that with anyone. But, if they know what the final image of the series is, then you just connect the dots. But that's easier said than done, you know?

I think it's certain that there will be casualties. But maybe not conventional casualties, like death by violence and that stuff. Although there's valiance to do that. But there might be some more transcendental stuff. I don't know what.

BTS: Obviously "Lost" in an iconic, iconic series. How often are you asked about Ben Linus and, five or so years removed, how do you look back on that character and that experience?

Michael Emerson: Oh, it was a great experience. It was a great part. I mean, I have a TV career because of that role. And people - it seems to me everybody's current as it was then. People stop me all the time to talk about "Lost." And not because they watched it on ABC, (but) because they've just watched six seasons on Netflix. And they just finished it.

So, it's out there on so many platforms now that I don't see it going away very soon. It's kind of cool the life it has - the extended life of it. And I don't even think it went into formal syndication. It aired on G4 there for a while, but I don't think was contractual or anything. I don't remember getting checks for that or anything like that! You know, now you can get it everywhere.

"Person of Interest" airs Tuesdays on CBS.

Michael Emerson as Finch on "Person of Interest." (CBS photo) 

Michael Emerson as Finch on "Person of Interest." (CBS photo)

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