2015 INTERVIEW: Michael Emerson And Greg Plageman On Person Of Interest
Person Of Interest joined Bluebloods and Elementary episodes now being shown on WGN with a marathon for Labor Day coincidentally Michael Emerson’s birthday. The two gentlemen spoke to us reporters about this unique series.
Can you talk about, if this is the last season, are you guys going to be satisfied with what’s been told?
Greg Plageman: I don’t know if I speak for Michael in that regard, but as a writer here from the very beginning with Jonah, one thing we felt very adamant about was that we would be able to tell a complete story on the show.This has always been a show where, you know, every season finale felt like it could have been a series finale. And this year will be no different.
Michael Emerson: I feel the same way. I feel like we kind of wrap things up every season. And so I think we’ll kind of continue in that same vein, maybe with a hint more finale feeling. But at the same time, I think probably the writers are going to leave it a little bit ambiguous, because we don’t know if it’s the end of POI as we know it or not. So we kind of have to juggle that.
Since these shows are going to be on WGN, do you have any idea what the thinking was behind pairing these – or, not pairing. There’s three of them. But putting these three CBS shows on – in America it seems like Blue Bloods doesn’t quite fit with the other two. But, I mean, they’re good shows. But I was wondering if you knew anything about the process behind them coming to WGN.
Greg: I think it’s just a chance for WGN to come up with, you know, a thematic promotion. Those are fine shows as well. I think our show perhaps is maybe a little bit more genre, a little bit more serialized in that regard. But we’re extremely grateful to WGN for giving us the opportunity. And we’re more than happy to promote their prime crime lineup, as they call it.
I had just read that the show is also going to be on Netflix streaming for the first time. I didn’t know that, because I always watch it and I buy the DVDs. But I was wondering why it’s taken so long for POI to be on Netflix?
Greg: There’s always been some issues, you know, in terms of, you know, studio networks have their own rules, rules set by which they can allow something to go into syndication or streaming. And I think all those things kind of held up the show for a number of years. And we have to tell you that we’ve very excited about both these entities promoting the show and giving people an opportunity to catch up, because after a certain number of episodes, the show certainly does become an obstacle unto itself, in terms of people maybe not being able to keep all with all the worlds and characters and storylines. And we think this is a great, great, opportunity for the show.
Michael, if you had a choice between any other show besides yours to watch on streaming on Netflix or on your TV on demand, what would you choose to watch?
Michael Emerson: I feel like I have missed so many great television shows in the time I’ve been working on one, that I would want to do some catching up, you know. Breaking Bad, shows like that. I have to tell you that I am a big fan of Elementary, not just because we’re sharing an evening on WGN, but because for some reason that has been the show that I’ve managed to watch every episode of.
Tony Tellado: Thank you, gentlemen. It’s great to talk to you. This is a show I’ve been watching from the beginning. It’s such an excellent premise. And it’s like nothing on television is like this, which is really cool.
Michael Emerson: Thanks.
Greg: Thank you.
Tony Tellado: Kind of take us back to the beginning, as far as developing Harold Finch. For both of you, how much of his background was actually set when the series began, or was that something that evolved as the series went on?
Greg: Well I’ll certainly let Michael field that one, but I will say from the very beginning, Michael has been extremely collaborative with us in developing his character’s back story and, you know, delving into even, you know, mining all the flashbacks that we’ve gone into. And everything from his injury and his relationship with Grace on the show, as well.
Michael Emerson: It always seemed clear to me what Mr. Finch was like. I don’t think there was a lot of experimentation required. I felt right about it when we shot the pilot. I had to think about the physical handicap carefully, because I knew if the show was a success, I’d be doing it for a long, long time.But the character seemed fairly plain to me on the page, and of course it’s gotten, you know, richer and more nuanced as we’ve gone along and thought about it and lived in it and walked around with it. So it’s been, for me, a happy actor experience.
Tony Tellado: Yes, I’ve enjoyed the flashbacks to his youth, too. That was really neat.
Michael Emerson: They’re great. I really enjoy them. I love seeing the infancy of the machine. And I love seeing Mr. Finch in happier days.
Tony Tellado: Yes, definitely. Now the show for me was a procedural and the computer was just giving him the numbers and everything. But then when – the episode that changed it for me was when the machine spoke to them. Now going back in time, Michael, did you – when did you know that was going to happen? From the beginning, or was that something that kind of crept up on you?
Michael Emerson: Almost everything on the show creeps up on me. You know, we – I kind of know whatever is in the script that’s being filmed at the moment and not much more, not much beyond that. And it’s kind of the way I – it’s kind of the way I like it. I’m comfortable reacting to the scripts as they come and being focused on those episodes and not too much in the business of connecting the dots into the future.
I was wondering with all this – after playing Finch and writing about Finch for past seasons, what is it that still interests you about the character?
Michael Emerson: Yes, I guess so. Well I think because the character has been evolving over the course of four seasons, I think there’s still a lot we don’t know about him. And I’m interested in that journey, moving forward.I’m interested in the kinds of problem solving that the narrative imposes on Mr. Finch, you know, personal problems, philosophical problems, practical problems. There seems to be a fairly inexhaustible list of them, and its fun to tackle. And I don’t think we have, by any means, run out of material.
Greg: I think the interesting thing for us in terms of writing Harold’s character, Michael’s character, Harold Finch, is that, you know, there was so much – when Michael came to the show, people imbue so many different ideas on to him, because he played a villain on another show you might have heard of. But his character was never that character on this show. It was in fact a character that endeavored to do something to better the world, to help change the world. And I think it’s become a burden in some ways to him. I think it’s an extremely heavy mantel to bear, particularly when he lost Ingram and he lost so many people close to him, including, you know, a personal life. His fiancé, he hasn’t been able to see her anymore. And I think it’s become a tremendous weight on Harold Finch’s character.
And I think we’d like to explore particularly this season is, what happens when someone, you know, is able to transfer some of that burden to others, but also when something so dramatic happens that there may become a shift in the character that we haven’t seen before.
And one of my favorite episodes from this past season is If-Then-Else. I was wondering, to the both of you, which episodes stand out in your mind over the past four seasons?
Michael Emerson: Well that was certainly a really interesting and conceptual episode. I loved reading it. It was hard shooting, because there was so – it was repetitive, but with subtle differences every scene. That’s a unique experience in my television career to have shot an episode that was constructed that way.
Greg: I think it was, you know, an episode which sort of proved that this show can do, be a lot of different things. We can twist genre. It can be a straight ahead sort of number, case of the week, type show. It can be a paranoid thriller. This show, the great thing about this premise, it allows us to do so many things.
And, you know, I have a lot of favorite episodes, going back to the pilot. You know, I sort of – I loved Many Happy Returns. That was, for me, one of the first very emotional episodes where we understood more about when Harold Finch sort of first saw John Reese for the first time, as well as what happened to John Reese’s former fiancé.
So a lot of those episodes in the first season really stand out to me, because they were seminal in the sense of setting the tone for the relationships of the shows. And we’ve been able to play with a lot of them since, and we’re still having fun.
And honestly, I think we’ve baffled a lot of people in broadcast, because, you know, oftentimes people will, you know, when it comes to a broadcast television show, it becomes a certain amount of comfort food for them. And they become attached to the characters and they want that thing every week.
And then when we do things like kill off a character or veer into something a little darker terrain, it startles people in a way that I think you get away with a lot more in cable. So we’re kind of like a show that’s in a zone right now where we feel like we’ve snuck in a lot of somewhat subversive ideas into what people can view as, you know, a procedural.
And procedural’s not a dirty word for me. I grew up, you know, writing NYPD Blue and was proud to call it a procedural. But there was a serialized component to that show as well that I thought was very thought provoking. And I think we’ve endeavored to do the same.
One of the reasons I think we’re extremely about excited about this going to WGN or Netflix coming up is simply because this is a show that can have a certain amount of, you know, opacity if you don’t keep up with it, if you don’t understand what’s going on. And we’ve always been comfortable with that. We’d rather it be a show that, you know, stuck to your ribs than something that was just comfort food.
And I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s something that, you know, people find hard to keep up with, but I think availability has certainly been an obstacle. And now it will no longer.
Season 5 is going to see Finch and perhaps Root try to rebuild the machine. I actually wanted to ask, because when Finch designed the Machine initially, he installed it with a mole code. And I wanted to know whether Season 5 is perhaps going to explore Finch designing it without that mole code, if that’s what it’s going to take to stop Samaritan from winning.
Greg: Well I’ll answer first and then Michael can tell you his opinion. You know, I think Harold Finch – one of the reasons we think of the Machine as a more moral entity, at least perhaps than Samaritan, is because we know that Harold Finch coded it. And I think Harold has always had an ambivalence about the creation of a god and has never quite trusted it in the sense that, you know, if this was something that he unleashed in the world, then a heavy burden falls upon him.
He’s tried everything in his power to create something that, you know, first do no harm. And I think what’s happening now is an emerging debate with Amy Acker’s character, Root, Samantha Groves, who’s telling him that is no longer enough, that the machine that he built is in dire straits unless they change it, in terms of reconstituting it. And it becomes a sort of a center around which we based this season.
And I’m actually really excited about doing 13 episodes this year, because we get the ability to really go into that in depth and explore what that means. And I think we’re going to also see a side of Harold Finch that he’s kept at bay, because of his ambivalence about creating a god.
Michael Emerson: I think you’ve put your finger on what the big issue of the first few episodes of Season 5 is. If we are to revive the Machine — and, of course, we would like to do that — what kind of checks and balances will it include, if any? Must it be completely unfettered if it is to go head-to-head with Samaritan? Is that desirable? Where does that take us ultimately?
And it’s fun. It’ll be, you know, a battle of philosophies between Mr. Finch and Root, who has a different perspective. And that’s going to be one of the chief pleasures of Season 5.
Tony Tellado: You know, you kind of touched on it a little bit and really the show in some ways is kind of telling a cautionary tale of where we’re going now in real life with artificial intelligence and also surveillance.
If you can comment a little bit more on that and how you’ve kind of seen, as you do this show, this stuff kind of happening almost in real life.
Greg: Well I think Michael and I have been dealing with this for a couple years now where, you know, the initial questions on the show were about the science fiction premise being somewhat far-fetched. And then the next thing you know we were on CNN or going to the Smithsonian, where they were asking us, “How did you know?”
We thought everybody knew. Certainly the Snowden revelations came along. And perhaps the more troubling thing, I think, is that the collective yawn of the public in terms of knowing that the government is watching and recording everything they’re writing and saying, digitally, but voluntarily giving up their information.
And, you know, so after that sort of happened, I think what became more compelling for us was talking about artificial intelligence. And there’s a lot of really interesting people we’ve been talking to who have made us aware that we’re a lot closer to creating something like this than you think.
Interestingly, there’s another show on WGN that I’d like to watch and catch up on, and that’s Manhattan.
Tony Tellado: Yes.
Greg: Because I think the creation of the atomic bomb, if anything of an analog in history that I could look for, for Harold Finch, it would probably be Oppenheimer and the ambivalence that he had about creating something that is such a monumental existential risk in the world and what that burden is like with an understanding that if we don’t do it someone else will. And I think that that’s the most compelling thing to me about the show and about Harold and what he’s created, and what he’s going to do with it going forward.
Michael Emerson: Well I think Greg has succinctly said everything I would have wished to say. And I think that’s an interesting comparison to draw to Oppenheimer, and an apt one. I confess that when I read or hear stuff about developments at Google’s AI laboratory or something, I find it a little hair raising to know that we’re on the trail of something so life altering…or species altering.
Tony Tellado: Definitely. I’m glad that they’re doing a marathon on our birthday, Labor Day, which is…
Michael Emerson: I guess they are.
Tony Tellado: So that’s – I don’t – it probably wasn’t planned, but it certainly works out.
Michael Emerson: And I’m going to stay home and watch every one of them.
Tony Tellado: Thank you, gentlemen. And my DVR will be humming in the next few days.
Michael Emerson: Cool. Thank you.
Special thanks To WGN