If you find him a bit scary, Michael Emerson understands. When he played a serial killer on The Practice, “people would scream and run the other way,” the actor, 64, exclusively reveals to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. And after watching him on the plane-crash mystery Lost, “they’d get upset if they saw me on the same flight.”
His role as a man whom he calls “a pure villain” on the upcoming CBS thriller Evil is unlikely to change matters, but that doesn’t bother him one bit. “I like characters with strong agendas,” Michael admits. “And the more hidden from the audience they are, the better I like them!”
When he’s not playing bad guys, Michael enjoys married life with his wife of 20 years, The Good Wife actress Carrie Preston, 51. And he says their bond has only grown stronger. “People say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but we are less enchanted with separation now than we have ever been,” he says.
Closer caught up with the Iowa native to talk about his new limited SundanceTV mystery series The Name of the Rose, how he finally found success (at 42!) and much more.
Scroll below to read our exclusive Q&A with Michael!
How did you get involved with The Name of the Rose?
It’s a wonderful novel that I read when it first appeared, because I’m kind of a history nut and I’m also a mystery nut. I read that John Turturro was going to be starring in it and I thought, Oh, that sounds like fun. Why can’t I be in it? Lo and behold, I got the part. I didn’t know that it filmed in Rome until I got the job. It was an amazing project.
Your pilot for Evil was just picked up by CBS. What’s it about?
This one has to do with demonic possession, with an X-Files–type detective duo where one is a believer and one is a skeptic.
What was it like winning Emmys for The Practice and Lost?
It’s wonderful, but at the moment it happens, it’s a little out-of-body. I don’t like to not know which way is up. You think, Did they say me? Luckily I have a wife who’ll say, “You better get up there, honey.” [Laughs]
Have you had any crazy fan encounters?
Lots of them! In Honolulu, shooting Lost, a couple from New Zealand told me that I had ruined the show for them, and two days later I saw them and they told it to me again!
What was your big break?
On the stage, it was playing Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency. I was in my early 40s, and from that time on, I’ve been a working actor.
You’re talented. Why did it take so long?
There’s something to be said for having been a little boy in a little town in the Midwest in the ’50s and ’60s. But after I went to college in Des Moines, I moved right to New York City, which was a big dirty beast and kind of knocked the wind out of me. I didn’t know how you got to auditions or how to find representation and things like that. I ended up walking away from it and became a magazine illustrator for about 10 years.
What happened to get you back into it?
I fell into a romantic entanglement and was convinced to move to Florida [by my first wife]. That didn’t work out, but my bridges were kind of burnt. It was like, “I am high and dry in Jacksonville, Florida, and I have to start over — I may as well do what I want.”
Why didn’t things work out?
We were too young, didn’t know ourselves well enough and found out that our callings were going to draw us apart. But the good side of it is that it made me realize that I had to take care of myself. I had people in my life that thought acting was too childish, so I let myself be swayed by that.
What did you do for work?
To spend your day potting plants or on a ladder painting a house was humbling and meditative in the right way.
How did you meet Carrie?
I would do plays in Little Rock, Jackson, Montgomery, Atlanta, places like that, and I knew her brother, who’s one of the best Shakespearean comic actors I’ve ever seen. He said, “My little sister is coming down to play Ophelia.” And I thought, “It’d be great to meet John’s sister. I like John so much.” I was so charmed by her voice, I could listen to it all the time.
That’s sweet. What happened next?
I just made myself useful. I offered to drive her places, I’d bring treats from the country like wildflowers. I guess she took to me as well, and at some point it became unthinkable that we would not be together, and I followed her back to New York City.
How romantic! What’s the key to lasting so long as a couple in Hollywood?
I think both of us being busy is a good thing, but also to have sympathy with one another, to be tender with one another, to hold each other dear and be able to ride out the disappointments and stresses of work. We used to have a rule that we had to see each other before six weeks passed. Now it’s more like two weeks.
What’s your life like today?
Our work involves travel and drama, so our idea of a vacation is to sit still and be quiet for a while. Two years ago we moved to [NYC’s] Chelsea. We have a poodle-Chihuahua rescue dog named Chumley, like that old speakeasy in the West Village. We’re fortunate that Carrie’s siblings live in NYC — we have dinner every Sunday with all of them.
Nice. Any life lessons you’ve learned?
Be kind to yourself. Just try to turn off judgment about yourself and others as much as you can, and turn off your competitive feelings, ’cause they will just eat you alive.
Do you have any regrets?
That I didn’t find my way earlier in life, so I gave up on my dream, maybe too soon. But it has worked out, and I believe that in the arts, it’s not a race. I had a chance to live a little bit, become a more confident adult, not worry so much about people’s opinion of me and not be so frightened of the world. I’ve done work to be proud of, and I’ve had a happy ending!
For more on Michael Emerson, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!