‘Lost’ actor grounded in frugality

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Spotlight: Michael Emerson

The old saying “Do what you love and the money will follow” has taken a lot of hits for being far too naive for the real world of work and finance. But for actor Michael Emerson, an edited version of the adage — “Excel at what you love and the money will follow” — seems to be working.

At a glance
Name: Michael Emerson
Hometown: Toledo, Iowa
Education: B.A., theater, Drake University; M.F.A., University of Alabama/Alabama Shakespeare Festival
Career highlights:
  • 2009 Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, for his role as Ben Linus in ABC’s “Lost.”
  • 2001 Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, for his appearance as serial killer William Hinks on ABC’s “The Practice.”
  • Film credits include “Saw,” “The Legend of Zorro,” “The Imposters,” “Straight Jacket” and “Ready? OK!”
  • Made his Broadway debut in “The Iceman Cometh.”

Not that it happened overnight. Variety magazine recently called Emerson “one of the greatest villains in television history,” and his portrayal of the creepy and cunning Ben Linus on the ABC television series “Lost” earned him a 2009 Emmy Award. But his road to fame, critical acclaim and financial success began far from the bright lights and red carpets of Hollywood.

He grew up in a small Iowa farming community, studied theater at Drake University in his home state and moved to New York after graduating in 1976. Struggling to find acting jobs, he took art classes and worked for many years as a magazine illustrator, getting work published in The Boston Globe and The New York Times. After winning a role in a Jacksonville, Fla., production of “Othello” in 1986, he spent the next five years doing theater work around the South, supplementing his acting income as a landscaper, carpenter, teacher and director.

He met his wife, actress Carrie Preston — who currently stars on the HBO series “True Blood” — during a production of “Hamlet” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Ala. He returned to New York and saw his career finally take off with a 1997 lead role as Oscar Wilde in the off-Broadway play “Gross Indecency.”

Bankrate.com spoke to Emerson about his attitude toward making, spending and looking after his money.

I’m told that you are down-to-earth and frugal in your lifestyle. Would you agree with that assessment?

Yeah, I think I am. It’s a function of having spent most of my grown-up life without much funds, so I’ve just always been in the habit of living fairly frugally.

What’s an example of how you’ve maintained a simpler life, or of the kinds of luxuries you’ve chosen to forgo?

I have been off and on a New Yorker all of my adult life, so I never had to own a car or pay for car insurance and repairs. I was also one of those New Yorkers for many years that it was just ingrained in me that I would take the subway and not take a taxi unless it was some kind of incredible emergency.

Has that attitude helped you in the years since you’ve become famous, to sort of keep your feet on the ground and maintain your financial security?

I think that having spent so many years with the wolf at the door, I’m leery of a sense of comfort or complacency. I always feel like I’m just a heartbeat away from having to look for work again. So even though Carrie and I are more prosperous in the last couple of years than we ever have been, we’re not going crazy and buying things.

In show business, it’s such a feast-or-famine enterprise, and it would be wrong to think that today’s prosperity turns into tomorrow’s prosperity. Today’s prosperity may be a freak, so it wouldn’t be prudent to get too comfortable with it. We tend to put a lot of money away for the proverbial rainy day, and I’m a great believer in rainy days.

Do you have any business interests?

No, I haven’t a sideline — a restaurant or an enterprise of any kind outside of the enterprise of being an actor.

“I think that having spent so many years with the wolf at the door, I’m leery of a sense of comfort or complacency.”

Do you tend to take a hands-on approach to handling your own finances, or do you have a team of trusted advisers that you rely on?

Because our money affairs became so complicated in recent years, it was impossible for me to take care of it solo, but we haven’t gone the route of full-on business management either. I like to see the checks come in, and I like to write the checks that go out. I like to have some tangible idea of what we have and where it is. But we do ask for and get help. We’ve needed it; I have been grateful for it, and I think it’s money well-spent.

Do you have your own philosophy about what it takes to achieve and maintain financial success?

I have to tell you that I don’t think often about financial success. I think about what I need to do to make my work the very best. It may sound fatalistic or passive, but I have always thought that money, in a way, would take care of itself if I did my work well. I mean, this is a person who works in the arts talking. But I made a mental trade-off. I’ve always tried to go where the best script was, not where the best paycheck was. I have taken short-term losses in that respect, but I think that in the end, it paid off better that way. It paid off more slowly and more unpredictably, but I think in hindsight — and a lot of financial thinking is hindsight — it was the best policy.