Comic-Con 2011: Jonathan Nolan, Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, and Taraji P. Henson Talk PERSON OF INTEREST & the Creepiness of Modern Surveillance

     July 26, 2011


I’ll come right out and say it: save for How I Met Your Mother, CBS’ television slate rarely offers anything that catches my attention. As a result, I was completely caught off guard by how much I enjoyed the pilot for its upcoming drama Person of Interest. Starring Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson (Lost), and Taraji P. Henson, the series follows John Reese (Caviezel), an expertly trained killer who teams up with a scientist (Emerson) who has created an algorithm that is capable of predicting crimes before they occur. While the series pilot leaves more questions than answers (check out Bill’s review and panel recap by clicking here), it is also features solid writing, convincing performances, and some top-notch action sequences. In short, I’m looking forward to checking out more when the series debuts this fall.

All of this in mind, during the series’ press day at Comic-Con, I had the opportunity to discuss the show with series creator/executive producer/writer Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight) as well as the aforementioned cast of Caviezel, Emerson, and Henson. During the interview, each cast member talked about their respective character while Nolan touched on his writing approach and the strangeness of modern surveillance techniques. Hit the jump to check out what they had to say.

person-of-interest-cbs-01Question: First off, Taraji, congratulations on your recent Emmy nomination (for Take from Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story). Can you talk a little about how you first heard you were nominated?

TARAJI P. HENSON: Thank you, thank you. You know how I found out? On Twitter. I was asleep because I was working on another project and I got home around 6am and I was dead to the world. Then, my phone starts buzzing and going crazy and I see all of the Twitter notifications saying, “Congratulations!,” and I’m like, “For what?”. Finally, I cracked open one of the notifications and see it’s for the Emmy nomination and I’m like, “It’s Emmy time?”.

Now you’ve got an Oscar nomination and an Emmy nomination. You’re well on your way to the elusive EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).

HENSON: That’s what everybody is telling me. I wouldn’t mind being an EGOT (laughs).

So, tell us a little about your transition to television from your film career and how it has been going for you thus far.

HENSON: I’m not really big on working in television. I know the money is good, but that’s not why I do what I do. So, it had to be something really special. Then, when you get a phone call from Jonathan Nolan and he tells you he wants to work with you and write for you, that’s like a no-brainer. And then with J.J. Abrams’ stamp on it, you can’t go wrong. That man knows his audience. I call him a man of the people, like I don’t see him tucked away in his house in the hills. I see him out mingling with people. He knows what people want to watch and what they want to see.

Michael, what can you say about your character, Finch, that isn’t necessarily seen in the pilot?

EMERSON: Yeah, I think he’s a good man, probably a shy one. He’s a computer genius and a billionaire, but not the one who was a spokesperson. He was always the one spending late nights in the lab and didn’t care to address the stockholders meetings and stuff. Someone else took care of that and now I think he’s maybe uncomfortable in having to take on a leadership role, especially a private one as a vigilante. I think he’s conflicted.

How do you approach Finch?

EMERSON: Well, I’ve been assured and I’ve convinced myself that the character I’m playing is heroic and a good guy. I know I used to say that about Lost but that’s completely different (laughs). Forget all about that.

person-of-interest-cbs-tv-showHow about you, Jim, what would you say drives your character, John Reese? Why does he accept Finch’s proposal and what is his motivation in doing so?

JIM CAVIEZEL: Well, at the beginning of the show you see him in a long beard not really giving a damn about what people think of him and he’s headed toward a place of hopelessness. He’s very self-reliant and he’s done some things, violated some things, and that runs deep in him. He’s looking for a purpose and, maybe he doesn’t know it, but that purpose would be justice. Going right back to being a bully-killer since he was a young guy. My thing that I’m bringing to it is a sense of believability. You know, I remember watching in a golf movie and saying to myself “That guy doesn’t play golf. He’s portraying one of the best golfers in the world and that’s a terrible swing. I don’t believe he’s a golfer.” It’s the same thing in this that every move that’s done, it has to be so real that anybody that was in the special forces or anything would believe it.

But, that also comes from something Jonah implemented in the show where you see this little piece in there, and that’s why he is such a brilliant writer, is he is like a samurai. The spirit of what that is, for these guys, it says something. That one man could walk right in a room and size the room up instantly. I saw that also in the Clint Eastwood movie The Outlaw Josey Wales where they said “Josey, how’d you know?”. A guy like that walks in a room and knows right away what’s going on. He sees things that people aren’t even looking for. I just marveled at that. That they could size a room up instantly.

Taraji, can you tell us a little about your character, “Carter?”

taraji-henson-image-5HENSON: What I know about her so far is that she’s a good cop. She wants to get the bad guy. She’s a good, clean, by-the-book cop. She served two tours in Iraq, so there’s some complications, some darkness there that I’m sure the show will get to at some point. I’m hoping that they make her go undercover a lot, you know, while she’s chasing her person of interest. I just, I gotta be open, because you know with television you don’t get all of the character in the fifty pages like you do with a movie script. With a movie script, you know everything about your character.

Maybe by episode twelve she is a villain?

HENSON: Exactly. You never know so you kind of just have to stay open. I’m kind of excited and scared at the same time. I like to be scared. I don’t like feeling like “Oh, this is going to be a walk in the park”. If I ever get to that place, I’ll just stop acting.

So how do you handle not knowing the exact trajectory of your character?

HENSON: I trust Jonathan. I trust the producers. I really do. I trust the writers. I trust them, admire them, and admire their work. They hired me for a reason, so I know they’re going to use me.

How much have they told you about the character?

HENSON: Basically what I told you. They keep saying, “We got great stuff for you!,” and I’m like “Okay, I’m waiting here”. She’s basically like the character in The Fugitive. The cop chasing down the fugitive, that’s basically her.

Person-of-Interest-logo-cbsQuestion: Jonah, when you’re developing and writing a show obviously you have a specific audience in mind. I’m wondering, having watched the pilot, whether in terms of age or whatever demographic, who are you writing for?

JONATHAN NOLAN: I always write with the same audience in mind. The audience is kind of me. I’m basically trying, in anything I’m working on, whether it’s television or film, I’m trying to come up with the film or show that I always wanted to watch. I don’t think you can guess what people will really like. You have to come at it from a more natural place and then kind of hope that your taste is shared by enough people to keep going.

J.J. Abrams is kind of a master of paranoia and your work too is often dealing with ideas of paranoia. Is Person of Interest pursuing these same themes?

NOLAN: Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in themes of memory, paranoia, and revenge. With this one we get to explore the ideas of the modern surveillance state and the sort of steady creep of that into everything. You know, when we went to go shoot the pilot in New York we started to realize how many cameras there are and how many ways the government now has for keeping an eye on all of us. It’s kind of getting a little strange. The show has a science-fiction aspect to it, but it’s closer to reality than maybe we think it is sometimes.

Can any of the rest of you talk a little about the social commentary on the show?

MICHAEL EMERSON: Well, it seems to me that it will be a show where you will go in thinking “Oh, here’s a piece of science-fiction” and then, after a while, you’re going to have the creeping sensation that it’s not fiction at all and that everything that so fantastical that we’re talking about in the show might actually already exist and be in the hands of who? The government? Google? Someone else without a name? So, I guess it lives on the cusp of science and science-fiction.

HENSON: I’ve always believed in the Orwellian or Big Brother tones of the show. Especially now, with camera phones and, you know, iPad’s and cameras at stoplights, it’s like I just want to drive around with a bag on my head because I just feel like everyone’s watching. You never even think about cameras on ATM machines. You walk by that, you’re being watched again. So, literally, I’m very paranoid about that because people can hack into your computers. On my iPad, and I’m quite a fool for this, but I use Post-It notes to cover up the camera. It’s just weird with that little eye there and sometimes it’ll be green and I know I didn’t turn it on. It’s very spooky.