Michael Emerson: The Villains Have Become "My 'Arrow' Family"

In the midseason finale of Arrow last month, the show finally revealed something that it had been hiding in plain sight the whole time: the various baddies, seemingly vying for power in Star City and the attention of Team Arrow, were actually working together under the direction of Cayden James, the super-hacker played by veteran character actor Michael Emerson.

The reveal cast the first half of the season in a somewhat different light, as viewers can re-watch the early episodes while looking for subtle connections and motivations that may not have been clear the first time around -- and it promises a rollicking second half, where the action is bigger and Emerson gets to take center stage a bit more and stop lurking in the shadows so much.

Emerson joined ComicBook.com to speak about Arrow, his upcoming guest appearance on Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle, and more.

Has it been gratifying for you going into finally being able to talk about the character a little bit, and not just be the looming force of, "Hey, eventually you will know who I am?"

Yes. Instead of always previewing or teasing it, we can now actually talk about the details and being in the show and performing, yes. It's good. It's always better when the work is out there and people are putting it all together and thinking about whether it fits or doesn't, and if it's a contribution or not. I hope it's a contribution. You never know.

You're so new to the family. They are. They're seven seasons in, and I just show up on their doorstep one day and they threw some clothes on me and I go out and I start saying lines. You hope that it serves the larger purpose. I think it's going well. I'm having a good time. It's such a sweet company. The whole crew and the cast also are just really nice and down to earth people. It's so pleasant.

I hope they've enjoyed it and that they've had fun. They've written a good character and it brings a certain malevolent energy to the undertakings. I enjoy those dark, desperate face offs with me and Stephen Amell, making threats over a ticking bomb, that kind of thing.

It's a lot of fun. It's fun, because I guess I've been in what you might call genre shows, but never something that was purely genre, a superhero or comic book kind of narrative. It's fun. Good and bad and the villains and heroes are more clearly defined, and there's more of a shorthand about good and evil. The plots and the battles and the alliances and feuds are most swiftly and economically drawn, I guess you could say, if that makes any sense at all. It's been fun in that regard.

In the span of your long career, you've done a lot of different sorts of projects, both naturalistic and really heightened, almost stage-like settings. Is it fun when you go some place like Arrow where you can really just go broad?

Well, yes, it is fun, because there's still a theater actor somewhere deep inside me trying to get out. If you get to be a little bit broader villain, that's satisfying. By the same token, I have guest appearances coming up on Mozart in the Jungle. That is some very broad, silly playing on my part. It really was fun, because in my theater days, I was often in comedies. Sometimes I played ridiculous characters, which is so much fun. It's been a long time since I've had that feeling, so I'm so, so happy that the powers that be at Mozart in the Jungle were willing to let me just go nutso with a very fun role.

Does it also help you almost in the sense that you talked about joining this cast that's already got their relationship set and has already got their patterns set -- but your character was literally written in such a way that you've been a kind of looming, offscreen presence, so that you don't feel completely like a newcomer?

Yes, and it makes him a natural outsider. That works to your advantage on that first day, and probably as long as you play the role, but particularly on that first day, it's all right if you don't have a warm understanding of the nuances of all the other characters.

It's all right if you're a bit of a bull in a china shop and a bit of a shock, so that if your tone or your style is a little bit new or odd, maybe that's all for the good. I think you're right about that.

Now that you're a recognizable actor, is that freeing because people trust you, or is that more of a challenge because you're trying to do something creative, and you have some directors who are just like, "No, but I want that Michael Emerson in my head or in another project?"

I have not had a lot of requests to recreate something I've done before. They may have it in their head, but no one will usually say it, at least in those terms.

I have to tell you that everything I've done in the last year, I've had a lot of character parts lately, and certainly no one on the set of Arrow has referred to or cited anything that I did earlier. It would be very natural to say, "Think Mr. Finch only," or something like that. I think everybody thought we're going to do something completely different from that, and then you realize as you go along, episode after episode, that some of that performance bleeds in.

At the end of the day, I'll think, "Well, is that appropriate? Is that good?" I say, "Well, no, I don't need to be in the business of making it different just so that it has no relationship to anything I did before." You trust that it's just me, just me the actor, saying lines and stuff and inhabiting the space as a character. You have to trust that context and writing will make it different enough, at least I hope that's the case.

There are similarities that I find as I go along between Mr. Finch and Mr. James, like the formality of speech, a shared kind of sardonic sense of humor, some of those things. Maybe those are qualities that I have in my own DNA, in real life maybe. Maybe my friends would say, "Oh, Michael's very formal in his speech," or something like that. Sometimes you bring stuff to roles you're not even conscious of, I guess.

We have now seen essentially that Cayden James is the ringleader of this ragtag group of menaces that Team Arrow have been dealing with all season long. Once you are getting some face time with people who aren't just Steve or Emily, has it been fun to go around the room of super villains and play off some of these other larger than life archetypes?

Yes, it's cool. It's like an axis of evil on the show. It's fun because all these characters are so different, one from another, that they live up to the breadth and specificity of good comic characters, but it's fun and a little thrilling to see them embodied by real humans with different ways of talking, dialects, or physical carriage, different styles.

It's good that way, and I have especially enjoyed these last couple of episodes I've found where we are all together a lot, because it is such a swell bunch of smart, funny actors. We have so much to gab about between scenes. In a way, that axis of evil is my Arrow family in a way. We're all on the same boat, too. Kind of in the hierarchy of a TV cast, we are the spicy guest players.