Michael Emerson is no stranger to being on a successful show with a complicated plot, having spent five seasons as creepy Others leader Ben Linus on Lost. On Person of Interest, Emerson applies his signature air of mystery — along with a limp — to play genius tech billionaire Harold Finch. But unlike Ben, Finch is the hero, using his skills and the Machine, the computer system he built that predicts future crimes, to track down villains with former CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel).
And as the drama continues its third season, Finch is having trouble with the Machine as it begins to reject him and must deal with hacker Root (Amy Acker), who is intent on gaining control of his work.
Emerson talked to EW about what’s ahead for his character, the mystery of the Machine, and how he handles fans who, usually unknowingly, interrupt filming in the streets of New York City:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We’re deep into season 3. Anything you can tease us about what’s ahead? Everything’s been under wraps.
MICHAEL EMERSON: On Lost, there was a great deal of secrecy and serious guarding of narrative secrets, and Person of Interest is now in that same zone of madness. We have big changes coming up in the next few weeks, and the scripts contain camouflaging and other security devices, and made up scenes and stuff, all to keep a certain set of secrets. It’s interesting and exciting, but it also feels like we’re a little bit paranoid right now and living in a security state. So stay tuned, because there’s stuff coming down the line that is so big that the producers are very nervous.
That’s funny — and the paranoia’s kind of ironic, considering Person of Interest‘s subject matter. But the show got to the surveillance state idea before the NSA news broke this year. Did the real-life case with the NSA affect the feel of the show?
I’m sure it’s affected the writers, who are no longer spinning out a make believe story and suddenly have to contend with the notion that what they’re writing is representative of something real. I think it’s opened new avenues for writers, so it’s good. It must be stimulating and exciting now that it’s more explicit, the connection between our narrative and the public one. Although it’s possible to overrate the political topicality of a scripted TV show — I keep thinking people are going to stop me in the street and go, “Oh my god, it’s so timely that you’re dealing with this thing that looks exactly like PRISM and the NSA and all of that,” but what people actually talk to me about on the street is the dog. So I don’t think it’s as much on the viewers’ minds as it is on ours.
The nature of the Machine has been a constant mystery. Do you know at all what it’s up to, or what it wants?
What does the Machine want? I don’t know what it wants, I don’t know what it’s doing, I don’t know where it is. You’ll see in the next few episodes that it’s starting to be a problem and wearing on our team, because the machine is now choosing who it talks to.
And Finch feels left out.
Yeah, but how can he fight it? What’s to be done? His creation, his child, is freezing him out a little bit.
Then let’s talk about Finch. He’s always delivering massive amounts of dialogue to keep the audience up to speed with a complicated show. How do you manage that?
I don’t try to overthink what my business is in terms of playing this character. Sometimes I think we’re a kind of live action comic book, because it’s many small frames that make up the one hour program we present. I think about that while we’re working, I try to envision how this scene will be cut, and which bits or microbits will be used and to what effect. The net result for me, as the actor, I try to keep things moving along, and if I have a long line, I try to rattle it off in such a way that it can’t be surgically shortened. The clock is always ticking on Person of Interest – that’s the one thing to be mindful of. It is sort of my job to be the teller of the exposition, so that’s a particular kind of acting challenge.
And how has his dynamic with Reese evolved?
There’s an easiness between them now. We want the audience to feel like this is a partnership, and it’s important to the story that they’re so familiar with one another that they can predict each other’s behavior. At the same time, you want to hang on to a sense of uneasiness, like the fact that their mission is probably suicidal, and they’re probably up against fearful adversaries and fearful odds.
The show films on location in New York. Do people often stop you in the middle of takes?
Oh, constantly. Fans will come up and interrupt a take of a scene. I think people like seeing us on the real streets of New York, and some of those people in the shots are citizens of the city who aren’t connected with our project. Sometimes, if we’re walking around, the cameraman may be a block away shooting with a long lens, so we’ll be doing dialogue, and people think we’re off duty. Why I would be limping and wearing those clothes off duty, I guess, doesn’t register with them, so we constantly have to start over. People come up going, “Hey, we love your show!” Well, actually, you’re in it! You’re in the show right now, you’re in the scene. See way down there, the camera? You’re in the frame.
You actually tell them that?
Yeah. [Laughs] I mean, what else can you do? We’re always coming home with crazy stories of things that happened on location.
Person of Interest airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.