When it comes to Lost, it’s never easy distinguishing between rumor and fact, so despite fans’ claims that Michael Dawson was returning to the show, it was mere speculation until the official announcement at the TCA press tour last month. Actor Harold Perrineau says he knew he’d be called back one day, but because the producers never reveal any plot details — even to the cast — he had no idea when exactly that might be.
Now that he knows he’s heading back to the Island for Lost‘s upcoming fourth season, Perrineau talked to EW.com about the level of secrecy at the show, who he thinks was in the coffin in last season’s finale, and how suddenly landing on TV’s A-List was a bonding experience for the cast.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You did the pilot for CBS’s Demons rather than come back for the Lost season 3 finale, and then the show didn’t get picked up. Was it your choice to do it like that?
HAROLD PERRINEAU: That wasn’t necessarily my choice. They hadn’t worked out what was going on at the end of last season or for next year — not that they didn’t know what they wanted to do, but they still had to write the scripts for it. I’d waited around for a while, but I have a family so I went out [to Los Angeles] to get a job just in case. Then I got a job, and then [Lost] wanted me for the [finale], and I was like, Ugh. I always knew the character would do something, but I didn’t know when. So while they couldn’t answer any questions too early, I couldn’t wait too long, and that’s how that got juggled around. Then Demons didn’t get picked up, so I was available for the next season [of Lost].
So the show keeps everything a real secret, even to the cast?
That’s what I was telling everyone during the first two years: We really don’t know until it happens. I think people thought we were lying, but that’s the total truth. We just don’t know. Most of the time it works out for them. Most people are available; we all want to be on the show, but in that instance it didn’t work out.
Did you know since you left that you would come back?
The idea was [Michael] was coming back, because he didn’t die. [He and his son] jumped on a boat. So the question was always how and/or when he’d come back.
Have you ever worked on another project with this level of secrecy?
Never. And while it was really fun in the beginning, it gets a little like, Uhh, what am I doing? You really have to stay on your feet creatively, so when the scripts come you can find some way to make it as interesting and current and filled with as much stuff as you can, having just read it a week earlier. So, because I’ve been gone for a year and have no idea what has happened, I’m already gearing up to make a bunch of choices so I can fit all of that into whatever they have him do. You have to be really creative, and that’s kind of fun, figuring stuff out.
Is it just that they don’t want to chance having any leaks so they don’t even tell you guys what’s going on?
That’s exactly what it is. I understand they have enough people who leak information and put it online, so when stuff happens, it’s not such a big surprise, and if it’s not such a big surprise, the show isn’t as interesting. I think that’s part of the reason they don’t talk about it too much.
I guess it makes it easier on you, because you can’t even slip up and accidentally say too much given that you really don’t know.
Listen, the first year? Pressure, pressure, pressure, from my family and friends. ”What is going on?” ”I really don’t know.” ”COME ON!” Screaming at me. So yeah, I’m glad I don’t know, because Jeez…I’d just be like, ”It’s a black smoke monster, OK?!” [Laughs]
So you kind of left your agenda semi-open, but not completely because you had to work.
Exactly. I came [to L.A.] and did a bunch of movies, and then when that slowed down — because I like to keep working — that’s when I went and got the [pilot].
What movies were you working on?
I did 28 Weeks Later and two other movies that haven’t come out yet: One called Your Name Here and another one called The Gardens of the Night. I did those earlier in the year, and then I did a voiceover for the Garfield cartoon. They’re doing an all-animated Garfield movie. Then, recently, I just finished one called Ball Don’t Lie. One or two of those will probably hit Sundance. They’re all pretty small indie movies.
At Comic-Con, you said you thought there was a good chance Michael was in the coffin in the season finale —
I actually didn’t say that. People asked, ”Who’s in the coffin?” So [producers] Carlton [Cuse] and Damon [Lindelof] looked at me and said, ”Well, Harold, who do you think is in the coffin? So I made a joke about how the whole time I actually thought Michael was in the coffin. But my wife told me how online [she read] about how Jack showed Kate the article in the newspaper about the person who died, and it says that the person in the coffin who died was from New York and that the only person he left alive was his teenage son, which led me to believe, and I guess led many other people to believe, that it was Michael who died. He’s from New York, he has a teenaged son — depending on how far forward that is. That whole flash-forward thing, we don’t fully understand yet.
NEXT PAGE: ”[Ending the show] is a much better idea than the show being a really big hit and then they have to keep it on for 10 years and suddenly we see episodes about Sawyer and, like, the spoon he made”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Have you been watching since you left?
HAROLD PERRINEAU: I saw the finale and a couple of shows throughout the season, but not the whole season.
Were you aware of the audience’s backlash during the first half of last season?
I heard that people were not so excited because they had to explore the things with the Others, and they didn’t really want to see that. They wanted to get back to the original cast. From what I understand, they actually had to do that to move things forward. It’s just another chapter in their overall scheme. But yeah, people seemed pretty pissed, and I noticed they didn’t get nominated for any awards. People seemed really pissed off about it, but it was just a thing they had to do. It’s like reading any book. Every once in a while you might read a book and you love it all the way through. But a lot of times you read a chapter and you’re like, Whatever…and then you get to the next chapter and it gets better. So how this is unfolding, they’ll have to take the criticism, take the hit, and keep moving on. Hopefully, the entire book of it will justify everything that’s gone on before.
What do you think of their deal to do a final three seasons with a set number of episodes per season?
I think that’s an excellent idea. It’s a much better idea than the show being a really big hit and then they have to keep it on for 10 years and suddenly we see episodes about Sawyer and, like, the spoon he made. Ya know what I mean? [Laughs] I think it’s much better, because they’ve always said they had an idea of how long the show would go, so I’m glad they’re going to just do that and finish telling the story. I mean, it’s great to have a job forever, but this kind of job, it had its own thing going, so you can’t really consider it like you consider most television shows.
Of course, money steps in when a show is as popular as Lost, so I guess it’s to ABC’s credit that they decided not to keep on milking it indefinitely.
Yeah, I’m sure they wanted to keep it going forever, so you’ve got to give them some credit for letting the creators do what they wanted to do.
Do you walk down the street and have people walk up and yell at you because Michael seemingly turned on everyone?
I did right after it happened. People were pretty pissed off about it. But then they kind of calmed down. They were like, ”Well, he got his kid back and he’s gone.” Then they started watching the third season, and they forgot. When I come back, they’ll be pissed still or they won’t. I don’t know…. While I felt really bad about it, I always thought, He had to get his son back. What do you do? If I had to get my daughter back, I would do what I had to do. He even shot himself. The way they set it up, it was just a moment. He had to get [Ben] out, and he had to figure out how he could do it before [Ana-Lucia] comes in and kills him. How do you do it? That was a pretty good set-up.
When does shooting on the next season start back up?
In the next few weeks.
Do you live with your wife and daughter in L.A.?
Yeah. After the show last year, instead of coming back to New York, which is where I’m usually living, we figured we’d stay out here. There’s a lot more work out here, and as it turns out, we’re going back to Hawaii.
So you’re bringing the family with you to Hawaii.
Everywhere I go.
I’d imagine it’s easier than having to fly back all the time.
I don’t think it’s that bad. We have a few cast members who do that. I think Emilie De Ravin and Naveen Andrews fly back and forth. But we go together — my family loves Hawaii.
Have you talked to anyone at the show since you agreed to come back?
Oh yeah, I’ve talked to a bunch of folks. I spoke to Daniel Dae Kim, who knows I’m coming back, and Josh Holloway and I have spoken. I was hanging out last night with Maggie Grace, who used to be on the show.
Did you get tight as a cast?
It became a lot like that until people started to find their way on the island. The first year or so, we only had each other, so we became close. The show became a huge phenomenon — nobody expected that. It was strange, but we all understood, because it was happening to all of us, and that made us a lot closer. We lived on different parts of the island, and as we became more ingrained in our communities, we didn’t hang as much as we did that first season. It just became regular, and people come and go, which changes things a lot, too. But we all sort of bonded forever because of that [first season].