Of all the supporting actor in a drama series nominees, Michael Emerson stands alone in a unique way: His character on "Lost," Ben Linus, is the man everyone loves to hate. "When they tell me they hate me, they do it so gleefully. They love to hate me," said Mr. Emerson. "They're delighted by their fear and hatred of me. It's kind of cute, really."
On Sept. 16, we'll learn whether the hatred of Mr. Emerson's character fueled an Emmy victory over his competitors, William Shatner of "Boston Legal," T.R. Knight of "Grey's Anatomy," Masi Oka of "Heroes," Terry O'Quinn of "Lost" and Michael Imperioli of "The Sopranos."
It wouldn't be the first time Mr. Emerson has been honored for playing a hated character. In 2001, he won an Emmy as guest actor in a drama series for his performance as the murderous William Hinks on "The Practice." "The award for my category came at the very end of the evening" at the Creative Arts Emmys, he said, "and I was sitting there getting glassy-eyed and beside myself with nerves.
"Then they made an announcement during the commercial break that they were going to be cutting off acceptance speeches twice as quickly as they had done earlier in the show because they were running behind," he said. "I had a little something prepared to say running in my head, and it was now twice as long as the time limit was going to be. So I was sitting there barely paying attention, trying to edit my remarks, God forbid I should actually have to climb the stairs and make them. Of course, I was busy processing that when my name was actually read, and I wasn't sure I'd properly heard it. I looked around and my wife was staring at me and said, 'You better go up there.'
"Climbing those six steps or whatever they were was one of the hardest things I ever did, because I was just so conscious of the chances of embarrassment if I stumbled or fell down or passing out. But I got up there ... and I said something, but I was relieved there was a statuesque blond lady there to steer me off the stage or I might have wandered around up there for hours," he said.
Ironically, winning that Emmy isn't all happy thoughts for him. "My memories are forever tied up with 9/11, because we flew home to New York and I had the Emmy in my lap -- which will never happen again in the history of aviation. It was the night of Sept. 10, 2001," said Mr. Emerson. "We just left the bags in the living room and fell asleep, only to be woken by the phone the next morning with friends calling to say, 'Turn on the television.' That colored everything. That whole fall season of 2001, it's like I sort of forgot that I had won this thing. You just stop thinking about the concerns of your career. Your little victory just didn't seem worth discussing. It was a unique season, one that I'll never forget."
On July 19, when this year's Primetime Emmy nominations were revealed, he wasn't paying attention. "I had forgotten the date. My wife and I had just returned from Barcelona the night before, and ... it just sort of slipped my mind," said Mr. Emerson. When his agent called with the news, "There was much jubilation around the apartment."
Masi Oka, a first-time Emmy nominee for "Heroes," also was overjoyed to be selected. "I would have never guessed in my wildest dream that this would happen to me on my first major role and in the first year," said Mr. Oka. "It is such a unique role and I'm blessed to even be part of this great project. Above all, I'm really happy the show got nominated, and I am quite proud of that."
While Mr. Oka plays a beloved good guy on "Heroes," Mr. Emerson's role is darker. As on "The Practice," he gives Ben a creepy malevolence that belies his looks. "They are physically cast against type, and maybe that's the point of it; maybe what people respond to is the tension between the deeds and the package the deeds come in," said Mr. Emerson. "It's like a trope in our culture, isn't it, when people do heinous things and they interview the neighbors on the evening news and they say, 'I can't believe it; he was such a mild-mannered man. He seemed like such a nice, quiet person.' We should have learned long ago to worry about the nice, quiet ones."
On "Heroes," Hiro is very straightforward with his emotions. Much of his lovable character was in the script. "He's very appealing to me because of his enthusiasm. He is a kid at heart, a wide-eyed adventurer, who never gave up on his dreams," said Mr. Oka. "As we grow older, in societal pressures, we tend to let go a lot of our childhood dreams, but Hiro never did, and it came to fruition. He immediately embraced it with passion, optimism and goodness."
Mr. Emerson had no clue when he was cast that Ben was the manipulative schemer he's become. "There really wasn't any back-story, and there was never really any discussion about the character or how he fit into the story. I dropped into it as a guest player, sort of by the seat of my pants," he said.
"But I guess they suspected I had some qualities that were right for it, and my instincts were good about the playing of the part, I think. In a case like that, the things you don't know, you don't try to tell. I tried to keep it in a neutral mode, and the ambiguity of my playing him turned out to be the key to the character," he added.
Ben's future is as much a mystery as the rest of "Lost," and Mr. Emerson is as curious as viewers to see what will happen next. "I have no idea, of course. I hardly knew how the season ended," he said. "There were secret scenes in it -- all that stuff between Jack and Kate -- that we weren't privy to. Those were blank pages in my script. I had to watch the broadcast finale to see how the show ended."
Is it possible that we'll find out it was Ben in the coffin in "Lost's" finale? "I don't know. I thought maybe it's John Locke, because as it stands now, Locke is sort of an outsider, but I don't know. That's a tremendous mystery and I haven't a clue. It's someone that Jack cares for but no one else does. Who could it be? The show is loaded with those subliminal clues and puzzle pieces, and none of it's accidental. Those guys are brilliant. I can't wait to see the puzzle pieces come together."
Like "Lost," "Heroes" is putting puzzle pieces together and enthralling viewers. The comic-book series was an immediate hit for NBC, and "to have it nominated in our freshman year is quite a coup," said Mr. Oka. "It's fantastic and a testament to the entire writing staff, cast and crew."
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