In CBS' "Person of Interest," Emerson plays Harold Finch, a mysterious billionaire computer genius, who creates a machine that spits out the Social Security numbers of people who will be involved in future crimes. Together with John Reese, an ex-CIA agent played by Jim Caviezel, Finch tries to prevent the offenses from occurring.
The show is produced by "Memento" scribe Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams, creator of Emerson's previous series, "Lost," which aired on ABC. For that program, the actor played Ben Linus, the witty, manipulative leader of residents living on a supernatural island, from 2006 to 2010. Linus' constant game-playing, side-switching and old-fashioned lying made him a lot of enemies, several of whom pummeled him for his actions over the course of five seasons.
Asked how lucky he feels to be part of two hit shows in a row, Emerson told United Press International in a recent phone interview: "It seems unusually fortunate. I don't know what to chalk it up to. It's not me. I can't even say I've chosen well. The parts kind of choose me. But it is a happy circumstance."
The 57-year-old Iowa native, who is also known for his recurring role of serial killer William Hinks on "The Practice," said he loves the premise of "Person of Interest."
"I gravitate to smart material," he explained. "I gravitate to the stuff that interests me when I read it and I'm a little more interested in dark, urban, technology subjects than I would have even thought I was. I liked the New York setting and I knew it came from Jonathan Nolan and I knew his track record and I knew he liked complicated puzzles and I appreciate that stuff. And, maybe without me realizing it, 'Lost' gave me a taste for puzzles and mystery. Anyway, I responded well to the pilot script. It had a good pedigree. If J.J. Abrams is excited about a thing, it's usually worth getting excited about."
So, did he worry about finding another satisfying project after "Lost" ended since the celebrated show set the bar for quality so high?
"I worried about that for a while and I was careful about what I was reading," the two-time Emmy Award winner confessed. "At some point I had to let go of it, too. I figured there might never be a role quite like that one and then to hold out for that, I'm not sure I'd even know it when it crept up on me again. So, I tried to get out of that place and just follow good writing. That seemed to work out," Emerson said.
The actor said "Interest" is a harder gig than "Lost" because he has so much more screen time as a lead than he did as part of an ensemble.
Teased about how he also gets beaten less on "Interest" than he did in "Lost," Emerson replied, "That's true and that was one of the pluses.
"Actually, that was a thing I was looking for -- less violence in my performance," he laughed, adding he was relieved when he heard Finch would be someone who suffered from old neck, back and leg injuries.
He said he remembered thinking: "Oh, thank God. Here's a guy who can't do that much fighting."
The series wraps up its first season Thursday night and has been renewed for a second run of episodes to air in 2012-13.
Emerson lives in New York with his wife, "True Blood" actress Carrie Preston.