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NYCC 2011: Michael Emerson, Jonathan Nolan Discuss 'Person of Interest's' Future

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Oct 20, 2011 | 10:50am EDT

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Michael Emerson Person of InterestLast episode of CBS’ J.J. Abrams-backed series Person of Interest finally left us with a decent cliffhanger, signaling that the series’ serialized drama side is much stronger than its procedural veil. It’s something many Abrams fans were concerned about – the series has the new king of Sci-Fi’s stamp of approval, it’s written and created by The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (brother to the famed director of both those films), and it involves Ben Linus (or Michael Emerson if you live in reality) returning triumphantly to the small screen. It has the “pedigree” – as Emerson called it when we had the chance to speak with him and Nolan during New York Comic Con – that breeds grandiose expectations of complicated mythologies and backstories. But when we asked Nolan, he had a definitive answer: we’ll get there, he promises.

Part of the reason our expectations are so high is that we’ve seen part of this combination before. We were hooked by Emerson’s first appearance as Henry Gale on Abrams’ beloved series, Lost, and were hopelessly captivated by his actual character, the ever-duplicitous Ben Linus for the remainder of its run. Seeing Emerson and Abrams together again is enough to get any Lost fan’s mind reeling, so it’s no wonder we expected something similar, but Person of Interest is and isn’t in the same vein as the Sci-Fi hit. Nolan knows his television history and part of his approach to the CBS show can actually be attributed to Lost. “That’s one of the things I loved about Lost and one of the things I admired so much about Michael’s work on that show is the slow-burn approach,” he said. And that’s exactly what he plans on doing. Nolan says he does know where the show is going eventually, “And I just feel the responsibility that if you’re going to ask millions of people to sort of start engaging and caring about the characters in the story that you’d better have a pretty good idea of where it was going.”

And while Nolan may know where the story is going, Emerson is blissfully in the dark. Emerson’s character, Finch, has an enigmatic past that we’re only learning nuggets about as we move forward with the tiny bits of intel about the series’ present circumstances. It’s all a big mystery, and it seems to be that way for Emerson too. He and Nolan discuss at length Finch’s past so Emerson can better understand how to play the mysterious character, but as far as what’s coming, Nolan’s the only one who really knows. “I’ve learned from Lost to enjoy knowing nothing,” he said. “It’s great, because you just show up on the day, and you don’t have that much baggage of past or future. You just play the scenes that come. I think in a way, that helps make the show, or the character, mysterious.” He added, “Where [Finch is] going is something we’re going to discover together.”

But Emerson does have some control over his character. Both men expressed their love of the collaborative spirit of the series, Emerson especially, who was called on to create Finch’s handicap; in fact, he noted “I’m sort of the authority on my own disability.” He described his thought process in the beginning:

“Oh, good, I’m going to play a character who is handicapped.” What is the exact nature of that handicap? And is it playable for many, many hours day after day after day? So, you don’t want to do too much of an Elephant Man kind of thing. And you don’t want to contort yourself too much because then you’ll constantly need physical therapy and massage. So I had to find something that was right, but believable and logical. But also something that was easy on me, physical. So, using those parameters is how I came up with this thing, which is mainly just good posture and a neck that doesn’t move. Oh, and the one bad leg.”

And Nolan seems to appreciate the talent he’s got on set, calling it “the best cast on commercial television far and away.” And this guy has worked with some seriously fantastic actors – the cast of the Christopher Nolan Batman series alone is a bevy of talent. But one of the cast members isn’t someone whose face you’d recognize, because it doesn’t have one: New York City. Nolan notes that “America’s great city” is what allows Person of Interest to hold the weight it does. “…[We’re] sort of looking at New York City one person at a time and the idea was these people aren’t disposable; they’re forming a larger constellation of our imaginary version of New York and this cast of characters will live with the idea that some of these characters will sort of come back.” Does that mean we’ll see more of Linda Cardellini after last week’s fantastic performance? Well, Nolan wasn’t that forthcoming – it’s a mystery show after all.

Michael Emerson Jim Caveizel Person of InterestBut using New York City as the actual backdrop for a crime show isn’t a novel concept – the Law and Order series has been doing it for years (not to mention they often end up mere blocks from the Person of Interest sets). Emerson and Nolan both cite different examples that set their project apart. For Nolan, it has something to do with his affinity for characters like Bruce Wayne. He says he pulls pieces from superhero mythology to craft Reese and Finch’s world:

I think most super heros – and certainly the ones I’m drawn to – whether you’re talking about Batman or Wolverine or Spiderman, are vigilantes and they’re working firmly outside the law and they’re always running the risk of getting caught. There’s such a wonderful kind of duality to that.

Emerson adds an academic layer to that by comparing the work to Ibsen, “There is a kind of superhero-ness sort of sublimated into these characters. It’s not a thing to play; it’s fun to make note of. It’s like Ibsen’s characters are sublimated Norse gods and trolls and stuff, but they’re given an everyday form – an everyday voice.” But for Emerson the real beauty is in the idea of conmen with an actual backstory. He says that the duo is a bit like the conmen we often see in movies and on TV with one crucial difference: conmen can’t have anything in their lives, but “Finch and Reese both have real touch points, real relationships in there somewhere. They just have to come to find them.”

Of course, all character traits and pedigree elements aside, the series has one major aspect going for it: proximity to a startling reality. While surveillance is a given in this series, I doubt most audiences are aware of how realistic the show actually is – which a harrowing and intriguing notion. “[We] felt like this was sort of fifteen minutes in the future. By the time we were done with the research, and looking at the reality, it’s really not… The hardware’s in place…The show is essentially one firmware upgrade away from our present reality,” said Nolan. In fact, the series has some consultants with “codenames” and according to Nolan, “all they can tell us while staying within their own security clearance, is that we’re closer to the mark than most people would imagine.” It’s an eerie and exciting thought, and certainly one to ruminate on as the series continues its slow, yet satisfying burn.

We’ll witness the unveiling of a little more of Reese and Finch’s stories tonight when Person of Interest airs on CBS at 9 p.m. ET/PT. And I don’t know about you, but we’re pretty intrigued to see what goes down next.

Check back tomorrow for our Person of Interest recap.

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