It’s a cold, very early morning in October, and I’m outside a fancy hotel in New York’s Soho district, killing time until I can go inside and meet Michael Emerson, star of CBS’ Person of Interest, and Jonathan Nolan, Executive Producer of the show. I check my phone, try not to freeze, and wait for one of the other reporters to show up on the scene.
When one finally does, I enter the lobby with her and find a few other assorted writers milling around. We’re all tired, but we know we’ll be sitting down to breakfast shortly. Honestly? I don’t know exactly what to expect. I’ve been in roundtable interviews before, where writers for various outlets sit around, and get five minutes with one of the actors on a show before they move to the next table, and get asked the same questions again, and again, and again.
But breakfast is weird. I don’t know if we’re going to get the same amount of time, if we’re just going to grab a few croissants and call it a day, or what. Adding to the weirdness? It’s breakfast with Michael Emerson, who most of you probably know best as Ben Linus on LOST, and Jonathan Nolan, who you might know better as Christopher Nolan’s – director of The Dark Knight – little brother. That’s a little daunting.
Now, I’ve actually chatted with Emerson on the phone before, as he was wrapping up LOST. And I found him to be charming, intelligent, actorly… And occasionally, when he’d slip into the “Ben” voice, terrifying. Meeting him in person, though? A whole other bag of worms, which I’m sure is an expression of some sort. Not to inject more of myself into this story (it’s far too late for that), but I’ve actually been told several times that I look a lot like Michael Emerson.
In fact, when I was in the hospital with my wife, about to have our first child, an Intern kept asking me whether he knew me. I listed my credits for him, but none rang a bell. He left, my wife was in labor, I forgot about him. An hour later, the Intern returned with Michael Emerson’s picture on his phone, and said, “This is what you look like!” As it was a picture of Michael Emerson as Ben right after he’d had the shit kicked out of him, I wasn’t quite sure what to think; but I nodded politely, thanked him, and asked if we could get back to having a baby.
(As a little capper to the story, entirely without thinking about the connection until just now, we named our daughter Penny. If you watched LOST, you’ll know why this is weird. For everyone else, go watch the entire five seasons of LOST, and then come right back here. We’ll wait.)
Point of all this: I was apprehensive, and didn’t know what to expect. After a few minutes of anxious waiting, though, the chipper, friendly publicist said it was time to head upstairs. I ended up walking right behind him, as we climbed the stairs, and entered a white table-clothed restaurant in the hotel, where fashionable families were happily chatting and munching on eggs. We weren’t headed there, though, we were walking towards the back of the restaurant. The closer we got to our destination, the quieter it got, as the ambient music died away, and the sounds of laughter started to fade.
We approached the back of the eatery, and headed towards a large, glass enclosed room with large, floor to ceiling windows behind it. The publicist said, “After you,” and I walked up to the room. In that room? Nothing but a long, white table, empty in its stillness. Directly in the center of the table, sitting perfectly still, with both hands resting on either side of his plate, his back to the wall, was Michael Emerson.
Would it be un-journalistic of me to say I nearly shat myself with fear? Probably. But I honestly could not imagine a more Ben Linus (or in Person of Interest terms, Mr. Finch) way of meeting Emerson in person, and it was terrifying. I would honestly not have been surprised at this point if Emerson had turned to me, and said one sentence that completely cut through every secret thought and fear I’ve ever had.
Instead, he said hello, and welcomed all of us. And we sat down, and chatted, and had breakfast for the next hour, joined about fifteen minutes in by a buff looking, happy Jonathan Nolan.
Is this the longest, most roundabout way of saying, “Stars! They’re just like us!” Probably, but I think its important to note Emerson’s character in particular. Nolan came off like the friendliest, nicest dude ever, and I use the word dude on purpose. He sat eating a plate of berries and yogurt, chatting about the surveillance equipment used in Person of Interest, and how they haven’t had to invent anything on the show; that in fact, experts have told them that the future-tech they use is sometimes even one generation behind what the top tier spies use on missions.
Emerson, on the other hand, was casual, funny, and we ordered the same breakfast, which gave me probably a little too much secret pleasure. But he also asked for cola half-filled in a juice glass with no ice, a precise, Finch-like order if I’ve ever heard one (Note: I didn’t order that as well). And he talked extensively about developing Finch’s limp… That he needed to create a deformity that was physically obvious for the camera, but at the same time manageable enough that he wouldn’t actually hurt himself trying to do it take after take.
When asked about the origin of the limp, both Nolan and Emerson jumped on the opportunity to talk about the collaborative aspects of the show – that Emerson doesn’t actually like to know all the secrets in advance, and that leads to Nolan sometimes being able to tweak and change things based on how the actors play a scene, or ideas that come up in writing. On the other hand, Nolan was careful to mention that he does know the end game for the show. In between, there’s room for improvisation, but that its truly about these two men… Emerson’s Finch, and Jim Caviziel’s John Reese, and how they learn to reconnect with society in person, rather than just through technology.
Also, there’s a lot of technology.
Another item of interest? Unlike most shows that shoot exclusively in a studio, Person of Interest shoots primarily on location in New York City. This has caused plenty of problems, like a bystander who demanded they pay him five bucks for the right not to have him disrupt their shooting. But Nolan and Emerson both feel that it lends the show a strong subtext: Finch and Reese are two men who live in their heads, so getting them out in the open and connecting is important. Nolan added that it also, on a basic level, just makes the show look better.
As the breakfast wrapped up, and Nolan headed back to set, and the writers headed out to grab cabs or get on the subway, I realized I hadn’t told Emerson how people think we look alike, or the story about my daughter’s birth. I turned back to tell him, but he was gone… And that’s when I realized: we looked alike; we had ordered the same breakfast. I rushed to a mirror, and that’s when I knew: I was Michael Emerson.
Nah, just kidding, I just forgot to tell him the story.
In any case, Person of Interest returns to CBS with new episodes starting Thursday, January 12 at 9/8c. In the first episode back, titled "Super," Emerson (as Finch) gets all actiony, while Reese is stuck at the computer, a fun role reversal, and a great chance for Emerson to strut his stuff. And as a nice bonus for you guys, here’s an EXCLUSIVE picture from the episode. Enjoy: