Emmy Award Winner Michael Emerson Discusses “Arrow” and “Mozart in the Jungle” and Shares Some Great Advice

Michael Emerson is back on our television screens this season in not one, but two series that are sure to delight fans of his work. He is certainly a favorite of ours here at Nerdophiles and we were delighted to get the chance to interview him.

If you have missed seeing him on the small screen after Person of Interest was cancelled you will want to check out his current appearance on Arrow as Cayden James and his future appearance on Mozart in the Jungle as the quirky Morton Norton. 

We had the chance to sit down and talk to him about both of these roles and solicited a little bit of advice at the end.

It’s really cool to get to do an interview with you. I’m a big fan of your work, Person of Interest is one of my all time favorite shows.

Oh thank you!

And I really enjoyed your role in Wakey Wakey this last spring.

Oh did you go to it? Oh that’s so cool.

Yeah, I did, it was phenomenal.

Thanks for checking that out. It was a hard play, but it came off well I believe.

Switching a little bit to your current TV appearances, right now you are on Arrow as Cayden James and will be on Mozart in the Jungle as Morton Norton.

(Laughs) Yeah.

It is great, did you have any input on the name or was that decided before you signed on?

That was already decided. It is a funny name and he is a funny guy. It was so much fun. You know, I’ve been in a lot of dark, serious, sinister work for quite a few years now and it was so nice to just break free of all those shackles of realism and just be something off the charts flamboyant and silly, it just did my heart good.

To wear silly period costumes and have an odd voice, it was just delightful. It was the tonic I needed. You can imagine, I had come off of all these years of dark and desperate television roles and that play, Wakey Wakey, although it has a good sense of humor, ultimately it is kind of dire and sad, to come off of that and to get a role like Morton Norton, it was just what I needed.

That’s wonderful. Did you watch Mozart in the Jungle before you got the part?

I didn’t really know about the show. I had read about it and knew it had won awards and I have looked at it a little bit since then and I like the show. I like its sense of whimsy, I like the oddball New York City, there’s a lot about it that’s appealing to me. That whole uncharted world of the private lives of classical musicians in New York City, I just think that’s a fun world to play around in.

Yeah, and it has quite the cast. Who all did you get to act with and how was it?

I mainly work with Gael (Garcia Bernal) and Lola Kirk so far, but I did some party scenes where they had famous, (laughs) famous musicians who were at the party. It is a very improvisational show, so you know, you just have to, when you’re mingling in the party scene, think of things to say to these people (laughs again). It was really quite interesting.

That sounds like a great experience.

I mean what do you say to Joan Jet when you go up to her? I’m very formal so I go, “How do you do? I’m Michael Emerson.” And she goes, “I know who you are!” (Laughs)

What’s that like to be recognized? You’ve been doing acting for a while now but do you still get a little bit of that, “Oh my gosh, someone recognized me,” whenever someone does?

I still do kind of, even more it startles me! It is not on my mind, but I’ll be bopping around town to go buy milk or shoe shopping, I mean today a guy took a bunch of pictures on the subway platform at 86th St and I thought, “Okay, well this is a different life than I expected to lead.”

And it’s fine, and it’s fun, and I still enjoy talking to people! Because, you know, when people stop you it means they like your work and they like the show that you’re on and I’m always happy to talk about shows.

Have you ever noticed anyone trying to covertly take pictures of you?

Oh god yeah! It happens on the subway a lot. You know, people are making out like they’re fussing with their makeup or their teeth, but they’ve got their phone right up in front of them, so sometimes I’ll just look down if I laugh or put my hands over my face (Laughs).

Oh my goodness, and that’s so interesting to me because I always think when I’m on the train that I should look up and see whose on, but I’m too busy trying to avoid looking at people!

It’s good to be busy, but sometimes when I’m by myself, I think part of that actor’s instinct is to study people, so a lot of times I’m busy looking around and I forget that my face is better known than most of the other kids on the car. Sometimes I look at people who are giving me that “oh my god” look and I think, “Oops, I should have brought a book.”

Switching to Arrow

Arrow!

Yes, you’ve gone from computer-mastermind-good-guy in Person of Interest to computer-mastermind-bad-guy with your new role in Arrow. What has the role been like for you?

He’s like the anti-Harold Finch. I don’t know what I thought it was going to be because we had talked a while about how this would be something different and an unprecedented character on the show and then it turns out – and I don’t know if it is them or me – but the way the dialogue is written, it is very Finch-y.

You remember how Mr. Finch was kind of formal? How he always refers to people like Mr. Reese, so this character is a bit like that too. Of course he’s evil, he’s a full on bad customer. He’s hellbent on death and destruction, but I just thought it was interesting and I thought, well, I could try to erase all memory of any other tone I’ve played, but it would be impossible and fruitless effort so I might as well go along with, well, what would it be like if Harold had a different experience of life and turned into (laughing) a super villain.

So with that in mind, this might be a silly question but I’m curious, if Cayden James and Harold Finch had a “hack-off” who do you think would win?

I think, well, Harold Finch would prevail because at the end of the day he is a humanist. His motives and his mission is so much greater that surely the gods, if there are any, would smile upon him and let humanity have the win.

I like that, and of course I would be rooting for Harold. So, what drew you to the role of Cayden James? Did they approach you, did you approach them?

I think my representatives heard from them. They pitched a character and stuff, there was a time where we, where I was not available to work on the show and then suddenly I was this year. I thought, “Oh, this would be fun to try a full one genre undertaking,” you know? Also, I kept running into a friend and said, “I think I’m going to do this part on Arrow.” And they said, “Oh, my kids love that,” and I liked the idea of being on a show that young people like.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been on shows, well, I suppose Lost had some teenage followers but I’ve never been on a show that catered to ten or twelve year olds. So I thought that was a fun idea to, you know, be on a show that was painted in bolder and simpler strokes maybe. Where good and evil was a little plainer, which I think it is, but then you get on the show and realize there are always shades of gray, and then there’s superpowers too.

Are you much of a fan of comic books? Did you read any of the comics either before or after you got the role?

No, I don’t believe my character appears in a sanctioned comic version of the Arrow saga. I think it is possible, there’s such an interplay between the DC comics, that some characters created for the TV shows would one day be pictorialized. You would know better than I if it works that way.

Yeah, it makes me think of the way Person of Interest was turned into a comic, so I’ve seen some of the superhero shows make comics based on the show. So they will sometimes do a series where they are playing with the universe that the show puts out. You might!

You would know better than I if Cayden James ever showed up in the comics.

I don’t think he has, but his story line, themes from that come out of the original comics.

Yeah, that sounds right.

How would you like to be written into a comic?

Oh, I like comics! During the time I was on Lost and Person of Interest sometimes friends would send me obscure comics from other countries where either Ben Linus or Harold Finch had been incorporated into them. I was always flattered at how good the drawing was, you know, because I used to be an illustrator before I was an actor. So anything that ends up in graphic form I’m really interested in.

I always felt like Person of Interest was always kind of a live action comic book because the characters had such set looks and the cutting, for example of the fight sequences and chase sequences, it was so fast it almost could have been done in a series of still pictures. It would have translated well into, well maybe someone has done it, I haven’t seen comic versions of Person of Interest, but it sounds like there are some around.

But no, as a kid I didn’t really read these types of comic books. I grew up in such a tiny farm town in Iowa that I don’t think there was a way to get comic books, at least not that I can remember anyway.

What I did read at the library were graphic novels, like those [Adventures of] Tintin books by Herge, you know the French detective boy? I loved those, and our little town library had about twenty of them and I would read and reread them because the artwork in them was so damn great. I still love them.

What’s been your favorite experience on Arrow so far?

In general I’d have to say it is fun to be stone cold sinister, so I like the stand-off I have with Stephen Amell. Facing off like someone is going to get hurt real bad here, the stakes are high, a bomb is about to go off or someone’s life hangs in the balance, I love those sorts of scenes.

In a comic book show like this the scenes are so much more explicit, it isn’t “kind of” like a life-or-death standoff, it is a life-or-death standoff and your enemy has a mask on and a big bow and arrow – so great! [Laughs] So you suspend your disbelief a little bit and say, “Okay, I’m in this world now,” so it is on, lets play!

I did have a question, Cayden has said multiple times – twice now – he says this line, “Your generation is so impatient you should savor the anticipation”-

Yes, I said it twice in one episode!

Is that hinting at something, or is it something the writers just tossed in there?

I think it is just him acknowledging that he is older, wiser, and more patient. It is suggesting that that’s how he will beat them. “You haven’t a chance with me because you’re too impulsive; I’m playing a long game here, even though you’re not sophisticated enough to realize that you’re already out maneuvered” – that’s how he thinks.

How is it being back in front of computers and being a hacker again? I know in other interviews you have said that technology is not exactly your forte.

No. We have a scene in an upcoming episode and it was like I went back in time. I’m in my lair, surrounded by monitors, working solo at a table with a keyboard and I’m talking to people who are other places. It was like, “Alright, step back, we’re in Finch-ville here, I’ll show you how this goes.”

When I was watching some of the episodes I definitely had some flashbacks to Person of Interest, especially when Cayden is communicating with Laurel because those exchanges hit some of the same notes except Cayden is just evil.

You’re right, it is all in there, it is like they watched that show. I know they watched that show. You can just feel it, can’t you? And sometimes, I don’t think it is my imagination, they are dropping an occasional easter egg in there that hardcore POI or hardcore Lost fans will enjoy privately.

I have one final question for you. I am a notorious collector of advice. I enjoy hearing people’s perspectives – what’s the piece of advice you’ve ever received, or what’s the best piece of advice you have to give from your own experience?

I have had good advice, though I don’t know if advice is the word. I have had people express faith in me in my life and it made a huge difference. When I was taking a weekend course years ago in illustration, I went to my instructor – a German woman – and I said, “You know, I hate my day job, I’m going to go out and try to do this,” and she said, “Ya-ya, you should, you are ready, you go do it,” which was, I guess, the thing I needed to hear at that time.

What I say most, mostly to young actors, is be patient because God knows I had a long journey to get to where I am now in my career. It is best if you don’t think about it as a race, you have to go about it at your own pace. Be patient and be forgiving of yourself if every audition isn’t a home run. If you love the craft it will take care of itself eventually but you may have to wait for a while. So, patience.

That’s very good advice.

I think it is true of everybody’s career really. The media, we’re presented everyday with young earthshakers in the media. “This rising star,” “so-and-so came out of school like a rocker,” all that stuff and that’s great if that’s your narrative, that’s cool.

But it might not be your narrative, so what are we to do? You shouldn’t give up. You just have to accept that that’s not our narrative and we’ll have to go a different route.

Excellent. It was wonderful talking with you – thank you.

Don’t forget to check out Michael Emerson in Arrow as Cayden James and in the upcoming season of Mozart in the Jungle as Morton Norton! Thanks again to Michael for sitting down for an interview. 

Interview has been edited for flow and clarity.