PaleyFest | CBS’s ‘Person of Interest’ Evolves With the Machine
John Reese works best alone, but now that he’s a team player, the former CIA operative will need to step up his game.
Person of Interest creator and executive producer Jonathan Nolan joined the cast of his hit CBS thriller Oct. 3 at PaleyFest: Made in NY, speaking on a panel devoted to the adventures of Reese (Jim Caviezel) and his billionaire partner, the enigmatic Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson). The series follows the two men who use a high-tech surveillance system called The Machine, an invention created by Finch to identify crimes before they happen.
The Machine has evolved over time, just like the series itself; Interest, now in its third season, has just added two more series regulars in the form of Sarah Shahi as deadly agent Shaw and Amy Acker as computer hacker Root.
“We have the best cast on TV, and it keeps getting better,” Nolan told moderator Matt Roush of TV Guide. “The fun of it from the creative perspective is that when you add one new character or two new characters, you’re adding five or six new relationships. For writers, that’s great to sink your teeth into. How does Fusco [played by Kevin Chapman, also on stage] interact with Shaw? It gives us that much more of a challenge.”
Shaw in particular has a direct impact on Reese, who’s mostly accustomed to solo missions. Now, Shaw serves as something of a “sparring partner.”
“It takes a huge relief off my back, I’ll tell you that,” Caviezel said. “It’s a very difficult show, the amount of hours. But we couldn’t just bring anybody in. We had to bring someone in who was very, very good — and they found her.”
Shahi said she’s thrilled to be on board as a series regular. Before playing Shaw, her only real experience with stunt work “was running in five-inch heels.” These days, she’s a full-on terminator.
“It’s been a lifelong dream. She kicks ass. I’m in love with her,” Shahi said. “To work with these guys, my A-game is demanded of me. I’m learning so much, and I’m so grateful.”
Acker, meanwhile, plays the somewhat-unhinged Root, a hacker with a close connection to the evolving Machine. She thinks of people as “bad code,” and often refers to the Machine as “she.”
“It was one of the themes we wanted to explore in the third season: If you’ve created a higher intelligence, it would have complicated relationships,” Nolan said about the Machine’s growth through the Root character. “There’s no reason an A.I. would have a conception of relationships like humans do. We wanted to anthropomorphize its views on relationships through Amy’s character.”
“I like that the Machine is talking to me,” Acker added. “[But] it’s interesting, because I’m not a computer person. I can barely check my email. I’ve had to do research. Sometimes I get lines where I’m like, ‘What the heck is she talking about?'”
Not everyone is thrilled about the new regulars — not in the world of Person of Interest, at least. Finch, in particular, is uneasy about the addition of Shaw and Root to his inner circle.
“It worries him because they’re unknown factors,” Emerson said. “In a way, it makes his role slightly more comic, in that he has to take chances all the time now. Now he has operatives who are unknown quantities, and he just has to roll with it, because the numbers keep coming.”
Also worrisome for Finch: the Machine itself, now beginning to take on a life of its own. “He’s like a parent of a teenager who is a bit mystified by his offspring,” Emerson explained. “Not much it does seems impossible to him, but sometimes, there are surprising combinations of behavior. … But there’s love there, and he’s going to go along with it.”
“We always presented the show as science fiction,” added Nolan, speaking to the real-life parallels between the Machine and modern-day surveillance techniques, “but it’s always felt that it wasn’t as far-fetched as we imagined, unfortunately.”
As the cast and the central mystery grows, so too does the structure of Person of Interest. Still, even as Nolan and his writers expand the show’s mythology, there’s a need to keep the stories somewhat self-contained.
“I always loved … shows like The X-Files, which could tell an entertaining story with a beginning, middle and end,” Nolan said. “There’s a great tradition from The Twilight Zone onward, trying to tell a compelling story in 43 minutes.” At the same time, these stories, when taken altogether, join together to create “a larger and more compelling universe, one episode at a time.”
As the panel opened up to audience questions, an attendee asked the cast about their experiences shooting in New York City. “On any given week, you’ll have 25 people coming up to you from different parts of the world to tell you what they think of the show,” Caviezel said, adding with a grin, “Most of it’s good.”
Nolan said he would consider setting the show outside of New York City from time to time, joking, “If New Jersey comes up with a tax credit.”
Emerson was asked about how he maintains his rigid posture and limp as Finch. “I knew when we did the pilot that I was going to be a handicapped character, and I better choose my handicap carefully,” he said. “I picked something that was easy to remember and not very torturous.”
“Sometimes, it’s hard when we shoot flashbacks to earlier in Finch’s life,” he added. “When someone says ‘action,’ my instinct is to get all crippled. I have to remind myself that I’m healthy in flashbacks. It’s an interesting challenge.”
On the subject of flashbacks, Emerson revealed there are actually scenes that have been shot but not aired. “It’ll be interesting stuff when you see it,” he teased.
Later, a fan confessed she watches each episode of Person of Interest at least three times. “I always pick something up the third time that connects it to future episodes I wouldn’t have picked up if I hadn’t watched it again,” she reasoned. She asked to know how far in advance Nolan and his writers are able to plan their stories.
“Some of it’s luck, and a lot of it is planning,” he replied. “But you don’t get a lot of time [to write]. … You just have to jump in and go. There’s no room to be precious. You have to get out of your headspace and think through these problems.”
Finally, an attendee hailing all the way from China asked the panelists if they’ve ever encountered “crazy fans.” Chapman quipped, “No crazier than the people we work with. Do the writers count as crazy?”
As if on cue, the fan came up to the stage with presents for Caviezel and Emerson: posters and cookies, among other gifts. Caviezel gave the lingering fan a hug, then turned to the rest of the crowd.
“Any other countries?” he laughed. “Come on down!”
Person of Interest airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.