NYCC | Michael Emerson, Jonathan Nolan Spark Person of Interest
Television viewers were introduced last month to Mr. Finch, a billionaire software genius who developed a computer program that can predict the identities of those connected to future violent crimes. In Person of Interest, Finch and his field agent, ex-CIA officer John Reese, work only from a list of Social Security numbers to puzzle out the crime and how the invididual is involved — as a victim, as a perpetrator or as a witness.
Created by J.J. Abrams and The Dark Knight Rises co-writer Jonathan Nolan, the crime thriller tested so well that CBS moved CSI out of its longtime Thursday night time slot to make room for the new series.
While many procedurals would see a character like Harold Finch behind a desk staring at a computer screen, Person of Interest places the mysterious billionaire into the thick of the action, something Emmy winner Michael Emerson didn’t expect. “I’ve had to change my thinking about the character because of that,” the Lost alum told reporters at New York Comic Con. “He’s not as shy and reclusive and anti-social as I would have originally thought. If he’s able to go out there and be such a masquerade so successfully, it suggests that he’s got a – there’s something outgoing and dynamic about it and quite bold and resourceful, too.”
Finch is disabled, leading Emerson to become a bit of an expert on his physical condition as he explored how best portray that aspect of the character. “What is the exact nature of that handicap, and is it playable for many, many hours day after day after day?” he recalled questioning himself. “You don’t want to do too much of an Elephant Man-type of thing. You don’t want to contort yourself too much because then you’ll constantly need physical therapy. I had to find something that was right, believable, logical, but also something that was easy on me physically. So, using those parameters, 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.”
“Once you start doing it, it’s so funny, I’m sort of now the authority on my own disability,” he said. “When it came time to show those X-rays, there had to be some discussion about, ‘Where do you think you’re really hurt?’”
According to Nolan, part of the inspiration for the series came from a literary concept used by Kurt Vonnegut. “We took that idea from a Vonnegut book The Sirens of Titan, which has an organization in it called the Army of Mars, which is actually secretly led by privates and the lowest on the totem pole,” he said. “I just thought that inverted power structure is an obvious and interesting and important as a way for someone to be present for all of the important goings-on and keep track of things.”
Nolan, who co-wrote The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises with his brother Christopher Nolan, offered his views on the nature of superheroes, and pointed to a connection to Person of Interest.
“The golden age of superheroes was in and around the rise of global fascism and I feel like those two things were connected,” he said. “There was a little bit of wishful thinking, a little bit of looking at the world and realizing the world has spiraled out of control and become a dangerous and hostile place and wishing that some all-powerful person could weigh in decisively. I think this is a fantasy that goes back much, much further than comic books. For me, at least, this is a genre that I’ve worked in for years and loved since I was a kid and felt that aspects of it could be adapted to television. That was a part of the slightly heightened aspect of the proceedings. The common thread of almost every superhero, almost every comic book version of a superhero is vigilantism. Almost all of them, with the exception of Superman – I think my brother … is going to make a really cool film, but I kind of don’t get that character. He’s the closest to an establishment superhero that you get. Occasionally writers and artists have gotten some great material out of that conflict for him, I think most superheroes, certainly the ones that I’m drawn to, whether you’re talking about Batman or Wolverine or Spider-Man are vigilantes and they’re working firmly on the outside and always running the risk of getting caught. Trying to help people but running the risk yourself that in helping people, you’ll wind up behind bars. That was great fun, so we definitely put some pieces of that in our show, and our show is something different itself.”
Emerson added that the thriller would actually make an excellent comic series. “It only occurred to me after watching several episodes, that superhero-ness is sort of sublimated into these characters,” he said. “It’s not a thing to play, but it’s fun to make note of. It’s like Ibsen’s characters are Norse gods and trolls, but they’re given an everyday form, an everyday voice, but it’s still in there beneath the surface somewhere. I like the look of the show, too. I sometimes look at shots in our show and I think, ‘Oh, my God, that would draw so well.’ The graphic novel of this would be really cool.”
Alongside Finch in this graphic novel of a show is his partner Reese, played by Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line), whom Emerson said was a real get. “I think finding Jim is the real casting coup in the show,” he said. “I’ll go out on a limb and say you can find a lot of character men to play your handicapped billionaire-type genius, but to find the guy who can live up to that kind of quiet, action hero – there aren’t that many guys out there. That’s a short list.”
One of the characters in the show, New York Police Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson), serves as a foil to Finch and Reese as she attempts to catch them for working outside the law. Nolan compared their relationship to that of the characters from a very famous chase film. “Carter herself is a fascinating character,” he said. “We haven’t yet had a chance to explore that character, who she is and how she fits into the proceedings beyond the Fugitive model of she’s the Tommy Lee Jones to Michael and Jim’s Harrison Ford. There’s a lot more to Carter that we’re getting to. I’m just fascinated, I always have been, of characters with layers and secrets and who are chasing people who are chasing themselves and this Russian nesting doll [concept].”
While not all of the secrets and turns they’ll take have already been planned, Nolan definitely knows how the series is going to end. “To a certain degree, the networks and the studios want to get a sense, especially because there’s a serialized component to the show, that you have a sense of what’s happening to these people,” he said. “I feel a sense of responsibility that if I’m going to ask billions of people … to start engaging and caring about these characters and the story, you have to have a good idea of where it was going. I know what the end is, and along the way we have waypoints, some story moments that we have planned out. We’re about to hit one in episode nine. One of the great fun things about TV is that it’s a massive collaboration. We all build this story together.”
The executive producer also mentioned how exciting it is working in a medium where a bit part could turn into a larger concept. “A day player or a single-episode player comes on board and knocks it out of the park, we’re going to something fun with that and that’s where you start to play. That’s the fun of it,” he said. “I’ve been lucky working on a set of franchises where you just revisit characters, and that’s very rare. On TV, that’s what you do. You have a wonderful problem in the sense that you can come up with too much story. For me, I had to know where it was going from the beginning, but then you get to have a little bit of fun.”
“And we’ve had a great string of guest stars, some of whom it would be so easy to bring them back,” Emerson agreed.
“That was one of the fun things about the show, the person-of-the week aspect, which is ever so slightly old-fashioned,” Nolan said. “There’s the procedural aspect to it, which – what it does for us is … it looks at New York City one person at a time.”
Emerson later helped to illuminate the process between actors and writers to flesh out each character. “As it goes along it becomes a coded conversation between the actors and the writers,” he said. “You send them a message with your performance and they send a message back with the next script, as if to say, ‘Oh, we liked this one thing that you do, so we will honor that by including that or taking it further.’ It’s good that way.”
Part of building the story of the show and revealing the secrets is a surprise to even Emerson. “I don’t know much of either of those things. The scripts come just before you shoot,” he said. “I have an idea – I know basically how Finch got to be in the place he’s in but I don’t know the particulars. I don’t know at what rate those backstories will be revealed.”
“The show comes as a surprise to me, too,” the actor said. “I just see it on paper before I see it on the screen. It’s fun and it’s more fun because I’m not looking for it and I’m not being prepped and nobody’s spoiled it for me. In a way it’s good. Some actors might always be on the phone to the writers saying, ‘Where is it going? How are you going to develop this?’ I’m more passive that way. I’ll take it when it comes, and it’s fun.”
“At first that goes against your actor instincts. When you come up in the theater, all your training is to know everything you possibly can about the character and have a completely detailed backstory. I learned from Lost to enjoy knowing nothing. It’s freeing 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 as they come. I think in a way that helps make the show or character mysterious.”
The backstories take a flashback approach, much like Emerson’s previous series – something Nolan said he admired about Lost. “They also used flashbacks to deepen your understanding of the characters. I thought it was such a wonderful tool,” he said. “Spending time with these characters, which is fundamentally the proposition of TV, you take these people into your extended family and spend time with them. You enjoy spending time with them at a different moment in their lives.”
As to the reality of the show itself, Nolan suggests Person of Interest isn’t really that far removed. “As we got further into the project, we felt like it was science fiction at first, where we felt like this was a little bit sort of 15 minutes into the future,” he said. “By the time we were done with the research and looking at bits of the reality, it’s really not. It’s really just a question of efficient powering. The only science fiction is a firmware upgrade. The show is essentially one firmware upgrade away from our present reality.”
Person of Interest airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.