Michael Emerson
Michael Emerson
In the five years since his star-making performance as Oscar Wilde in Moisés Kaufman's Gross Indecency, Michael Emerson has shared the stage with Roger Rees (The Misanthrope), Kevin Spacey (The Iceman Cometh), and Kate Burton (Hedda Gabler) and taken home an Emmy Award for his guest performance as a serial killer on NBC's The Practice. But Emerson, who's spending the dog days of August Off-Off-Broadway in the American premiere of Jean Luc Lagarce's Only the End of the World, doesn't take his recent successes for granted. He hasn't forgotten the 10 years he spent supporting himself as an illustrator while trying to get acting work in New York; this was followed by a couple of years as a day laborer while doing community theater in Jacksonville, Florida, then a two-year stint at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival while earning his M.F.A., then a move back to New York and another few years earning his living as a salesperson at a crafts gallery.

"By most people's standards, my decision to pursue acting has not been a good choice," Emerson says mildly. "I was at an advanced age before I could pay my rent comfortably, and I've had a checkered career of odd jobs along the way. But at some point, I realized that not everybody has to be on the same timetable. I don't think I had that much to offer the world of the theater when I was 21; my career required some patience for several decades, but then it worked out. By now, I'm so set in my ways that there's no chance of success spoiling me. I'm a fully formed personality."

And how: Emerson is a most erudite dinner companion, speaking thoughtfully about his taste in theater and reminiscing about his days building decks and planting shrubbery in the Florida sun. It's no accident that he is often cast in eccentric roles, including a creepy turn as a man with uncontrollable telekinetic powers on the next to last episode of The X-Files. With his enormous blue-green eyes, languid speaking voice, and funky, gelled hair, Emerson could be your nice, quiet neighbor -- or a guy you'd feel uncomfortable sitting next to on a subway at midnight. He doesn't mind playing weirdos "but I'm picky about them," he says, "because the work you do in the camera world lives forever. I have a particular look and when you're done something well [on TV], people will look for other ways to have you do it again."

On stage, Emerson projects an intensity that should serve him well in Only the End of the World, written in 1990 by a young French playwright who died of AIDS five years later. Translated and directed by Lucie Tiberghien, the play charts the homecoming of a man suffering from an unspecified terminal illness. He intends to share his condition with his family, whom he has not seen for many years, but his arrival reopens wounds and leads his mother and siblings to their own forms of catharsis. The language is poetic and repetitive and includes challenging monologues for Emerson (who plays the prodigal son) and co-stars Stephen Belber and Sandra Shipley.

"I thought the script was unique, with all the rewards and challenges of a verse play," says Emerson. "There are only half a dozen huge themes in the theater, and family is one of them. [The play] is also a beautiful and poetic meditation on life, death, and loss. One of the reasons I wanted to do it is because it's mysterious," he adds. "American culture, especially movies, trains audiences to follow formulas so that we know exactly what we've seen every time we see it. A play should be like a great painting, which bears more than one viewing. Maybe you don't get all the goods at the get-go but you're fascinated nonetheless. I would rather a play be fascinating than clear."

While other actors pine for prime-time and film success, Emerson's mind is on challenging new plays and classic texts. After Gross Indecency demonstrated his mastery of language, he moved on to challenging parts by Molière, O'Neill, and Ibsen, among others. "But I've been feeling Shakespeare withdrawal," he says. "In my two years in Montgomery, I must have done 15 Shakespeare plays, and I haven't done one since." He longs to play "the Richards, and I've cooked up a chamber cutting of Hamlet that Moisés Kaufman and I are going to toss around a little bit and see if we can come up with a fresh approach."

Stephen Belber and Michael Emersonin Only the End of the World(Photo: Bill Strong)
Stephen Belber and Michael Emerson
in Only the End of the World
(Photo: Bill Strong)
Small wonder that Emerson has a fondness for Hamlet: He met his wife, Carrie Preston, when she played Ophelia and he played Guildenstern in an Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of the play. Soon after that, she made a splash as Miranda opposite Patrick Stewart's Prospero in George Wolfe's 1995 production of The Tempest. Emerson and Preston haven't worked together since Hamlet, but he confesses a yen to play Higgins opposite his wife's Eliza in Pygmalion.

Blending their careers has never been a problem, Emerson says, "because we've both been in the middle of the road, with some successes and some dry spells. I'm more curious at how 'mixed' couples get along; I don't know how a non-theater person puts up with the highs and lows of rehearsals and techs and the disappointments and rejections. I'm so pleased to have a theater professional to come home to who understands what I'm going through. It does mean a life of more separation than the average couple might care for. Carrie works in Los Angeles much more than I do; she does a pilot every year." Their solution is to take each role and each separation a day at a time.

"I never feel complacent about finding work," he explains, "but it would make me unhappy if I became a familiar face on a sitcom for a lot of years and could never again be taken seriously in the classical roles I wanted to play. That's the dilemma for people like Carroll O'Connor and Henry Winkler. What if O'Connor had wanted to play King Lear? Success on television can become a bit of a prison."

As he dreams of Chekhov and Shaw and more Ibsen, Emerson can now look back with fondness on his lean years. "As much as I like my theater life now, there was something wonderful about the days when I was painting houses in the broiling Florida sun by day and doing community theater by night," he says with a smile. "The labor was good for the body and relatively mindless, so it gave me plenty of time to go over my lines again and again. You can get a lot of rehearsing down while you're painting a house! It's great therapy."

These days, Emerson can take therapeutic pride in how far he's come, even if it didn't happen quickly. "To grow up in small-town Iowa and find that it really is possible to act on a Broadway stage -- I still can hardly get my head around that one," he says. "There's a long gap between Des Moines and New York, and nothing but experience can help you make that transition." Talent and patience help, too.