How ironic that Michael Emerson calls for a tamer world. As the is-he-bad-or-not antagonist in ABC’s mind-game-playing “Lost” and in the very first “Saw” flick, the last thing you imagine the guy most know as Ben Linus saying – and so tenderly – is: “There’s a sweetness in the movie, I think. But I don’t think it’s too much sweet. I think it’s just sweet enough.”
The creeptastic-character actor, currently in Honolulu shooting “Lost” (the fifth season premieres on Jan. 21), is referring to his latest indie stint, “Ready? OK!” Here, he’s Charlie New, the white to Ben’s black: A soft vest-sporting gay man who helps a single mother, Andy Dowd (played by his wife Carrie Preston), accept her gender-bending son.
Screening at the Reel Pride Film Festival at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 16, at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, the tale of a 10-year-old boy, Joshua, wanting nothing to do with wrestling and everything to do with cheerleading is familiar to anyone who was that out-of-place kid. Emerson, who chose Shakespeare over ball-kicking, was.
“It’s hard enough to grow up in America and live up to all the sort of imaging that our culture has on us,” he says, reflecting on his small-town Iowa upbringing, “and to be different in any way is sort of a burden.”
He’s living proof that artsy children don’t always turn out to be queer – something Preston, who also co-produced the film, praises in “Ready? OK!”, where Joshua is never labeled as homosexual. Just different.
“There are a lot of people who watch our movie who think that Josh is gonna grow up to be straight – and there are a lot of people, obviously, who watch it and think he’s gonna grow up to be gay,” she says. “But it’s more about letting him be who he is.”
The motif’s familiar to Preston: She played the loving but weirded-out sister to Felicity Huffman’s transgender character in self-discovery-themed “Transamerica.” She also popped up again as Huffman’s mom-hating sibling on “Desperate Housewives.”
“I’ve made a career playing Felicity Huffman’s sister,” she laughs.
That’s not entirely true. As mom to Emerson’s eerie Ben Linus, she made a cameo on “Lost”; she’s Arlene, a red-headed waitress, on Alan Ball’s HBO series “True Blood” – and she’s got more queer creds to her name than she does as Huffman’s sibling. She starred in the 2004 comedy “Straight-Jacket” and directed “29th and Gay,” about a gay man who’s met life’s dead end. Emerson had parts in both. And they’re married?
“Both of us live in a sorta predominately gay world,” Emerson says, adding that they share a parallel culture, including a fondness for theater. The day we chatted, Obama was named president-elect and it seemed likely California’s Prop. 8 would pass (and it did). Both Preston and Emerson (he celebrated Obama’s win the night before with the “Lost” cast – and some champagne) are passionately fuming about the ban on gay marriage.
“The one thing that I continually miss in American culture – whether it’s in politics or what-have-you – is the sense of, let us be gentle with one another, let us be easy, let’s stop the yelling and pushing,” he says.
In that respect, Charlie New is a clone of Emerson. And that’s why when asked, if he had to play matchmaker, which “Lost” survivor would fit his amiable gay character in “Ready? OK!”, he has to really consider this.
After much deliberation, he simply answers: No one. “Charlie would do what Charlie does: He would make good conversation, and be a good social companion to everyone, but keep to himself.”
Emerson’s played gay before – as Oscar Wilde in a late ’90s off-Broadway production of “Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde” – but he’s especially humbled to be part of “Ready? OK” – which was shot on a shoe-string budget in 18 days. James Vasquez, who’s worked with Preston on past projects, wrote Charlie New – an already-self-accepted character who’s there to help others, an attraction for Emerson – with the usually-sinister actor in mind. Emerson was flattered. “It’s another one of those examples of how you don’t have to have all the money in the world to make something meaningful and to have a proud experience doing it.”
His wife took pride in the film’s resistance to be just another dime-a-dozen coming-out story: “The little boy is actually OK with who he is,” Preston says. “This is not a movie about a coming-out process or a kid finding who he is. The kid is who he is from the beginning of the movie to the end; it’s everyone around him that we’re watching. A lot of gay movies want to do the former.”
The dramedy’s matriarch grew up as a strict Catholic, so she envisions her son’s future to be filled with bullying, hardships and hate. Preston’s aware of these realities, but also – because she grew up in an accepting household – would be thrilled to raise a gay kid.
“We’re incredibly queer-friendly over here in the Preston-Emerson household, obviously,” she says. “I make gay movies that you can take your mothers to.”
When she’s not Felicity Huffman’s sister, that is.
6:30 p.m. Nov. 16
Main Art Theatre, Royal Oak