Not so gentle Ben: A chat with 'Lost's' Michael Emerson

Michaelemerson_lost_s4_240_2 Ben Linus doesn't seem to have any inclination to return to the real world, but if he ever did, the leader of Lost's Others might make one heck of a poker player.

Because, let's face it, Ben has one of the best stone faces around. That's one of the keys to playing him, says Michael Emerson, who earned an Emmy nomination last year for playing the exceptionally manipulative Mr. Linus. Another, he says, is not to try to be creepy (even though he does it very well).

"I don't really try for any particular result or effect," Emerson says. "I think I just try to be as simple as I possibly can and keep it in a sort of cool palate."

When Lost premieres at 9 p.m. ET Thursday, Ben will find himself in a pretty bad way. The Oceanic 815 survivors decimated the Others at the end of last season, and Ben is now essentially Jack's (Matthew Fox) prisoner. He's also increasingly agitated about the freighter anchored offshore and the people on it, telling everyone that the people on the boat aren't the rescuers they claim to be. Not that many people are listening, which helps explain why, as hinted in trailers, he spends the first part of the season bloodied.

We talked about why he's such a punching bag, Ben's backstory and what to expect from the rest of the season. Highlights of the interview:

You spend a lot of the first two episodes getting beaten up.
Yeah -- it's bloody, isn't it?

What is it about Ben that inspires people to want to hit him?
I think the dread of the unknown, people's dread of manipulation. It's interesting, though, those beatings -- I've had occasion to think about it lately and I think, "Wow. Ben takes a lot of beatings." So there must be something satisfying about it. I think it somehow serves his end.

I realize you can't give too much away, but do you have your own ideas about what his ends are?
I've often said I have a possibly naive back story in my head for the character, and that is that he's the only thing that stands between the earth and annihilation. If he has a mission of that scope and gravity, then much of his behavior could be forgiven.

What's the mindset playing someone who's so cool?
He gives little away, doesn't he? I mean, things are going on, we know things are going on in his head, but he's sort of impassive. Which is what people do if they have great missions and know more than the person they're talking to.

But you always have a sense that the wheels are turning.
Yeah. And they are [laughs].

How interesting was doing Ben's flashback last season?
It was interesting, and shocking. The back story turned out to be darker than I ever would have dreamed it was. It made me wonder about my own sort of naive notions of Ben's backstory. But still, I'm sticking with it. I think those events are going to be revisited and recontextualized, and I think the sympathy-o-meter will swing back in Ben's direction sometime soon.

Can you say anything about the role Ben plays this season?
In this season, Ben is going to have to become a great improviser, because his circumstances are so diminished now. He hasn't any henchmen, he hasn't any weapons, he's been beaten to a pulp, bound and dragged around in the jungle. So whatever he accomplishes, it will be by wits alone.

For more on the show, check out Zap2it's Guide to Lost.

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