The star talks about Michael's mindset as he tries to escape yet another prison
Michael Scofield lives!
When Prison Break returned on Fox, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) was revealed to be alive — not dead as a result of his brain tumor, or even a fatal electrocution, as The Final Break had indicated. However, Michael is now behind bars in a Yemeni prison under the assumed name Kaniel Outis, who is a renowned terrorist with ties to ISIL. Has Michael really betrayed his friends and family? And should fans be worried that Michael may therefore not survive the revival? EW hit the set of Prison Break to get the scoop from Miller himself. (Plus: Check out an exclusive sneak peek from Tuesday’s episode below.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How different is this Michael? How has he changed since we last saw him?
WENTWORTH MILLER: He’s walked a dark road. He’s always been a character that has put other people first, to sacrifice himself is part of his, “Who am I?” But in the years since we last saw him, he’s been a part of some deep, dark government funded plots and plans, and that’s left a mark on him. I think he’s a marked man, which has always been the poetry of the show, that the tattoos on his skin are reflective of his journey, his progression. I think he is tortured by some of the things that he’s seen, that he’s participated in, and the question of how do I make that right, how I wash my hands clean, much like in the first go around, is front and center. His primary goal is getting back to his family, regaining what’s he lost, what he was made to sacrifice.
As Kaniel Outis, Michael is apparently a renowned terrorist. What’s going on there?
I think he was a sold a bill of goods. He was promised if you do this thing, which may involve someone somewhere getting hurt, it is for the greater good. That’s been one of his challenges and stumbling blocks from the very beginning. In order to free his brother, he embarked on this plan that got a lot of people injured, people died so his brother could go free and the weight of that, the guilt stemming from that, I think has hung heavy on his head. When we meet him at the top of this new season, he’s a man who still feels that there are certain things that he needs to atone for, that in order to serve the greater good his hands have gotten even filthier than they had been.
How has the brother dynamic changed after all these years considering Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) thought Michael was dead?
I think we find Lincoln without a letter. I think Michael was a guiding force in his life, part of his moral conscience, which has been spinning in Michael’s absence. Michael, too, is now changed; he’s not the brother that Lincoln remembers necessarily. He’s walked some dark roads and is capable of who knows what. The question that is central, especially to the first four or five episodes: Who is Michael now, what is he willing to do to get the job done, who is he willing to sacrifice, and has his experience breaking in and out of prisons hardened him?
Is there still a vulnerability inside him?
Absolutely, I think that Michael has created for himself, specifically in terms of the Whip (Augustus Prew) character, a new family. He’s a social creature and he needs to have someone to care about and to look out for. I think that’s central to his nature, so he and Whip, they are in prison together in the prison in Yemen, do function like surrogate brothers, which is interesting once Lincoln joins the mix — that dynamic and how it’s made to evolve. But Michael has never held his son, he’s never met his child and he also knows that Sara (Sarah Wayne Callies) believes he’s dead and has for years, so the weight of that guilt is considerable even though he knows he did what he had to do; he had to make the sacrifices that he felt he had to make, he had no other choice.
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Let’s talk about this new prison. How crappy is it compared to Fox River?
It makes Fox River look like the Four Seasons. It’s got a lot more in common with the prison in Panama in the third season. It’s down and dirty and there’s danger around every corner, and that is palpable in the set design, in the way these scenes are shot. When I saw the trailer, which went online and racked up sizable number of views, I was amazed because all of that was shot in Vancouver. All of it, like we had yet to go to Morocco to shoot the exteriors that will pass for Yemen. To me, it looks like we’ve been shooting in Morocco all along so that’s fantastic.
Talk about some of the other characters in the prison.
That’s one of the interesting push-pulls about playing this character is that he’s constantly having to use people and caring for them at the same time. They’re two competing agendas. How do I manipulate this individual to get what I want, but also keep them safe? I think that Michael discovers repeatedly throughout the series the individuals that he was hoping to use simply as pawns he comes to care about and then feels protective toward. So much like in Fox River, he assembles a group of inmates, each of whom will serve a specific purpose either in the prison or once they’ve escaped, that he has to look out for like a ringleader. He’s using them, but he also cares about their survival.
Can you talk about how the show is touching on issues like ISIS and having Michael come into contact with a Bin Laden type character?
I think we have done a thoughtful job of offering up different portrayals of the men you might meet in a Yemenian prison. The writers, Fox, the cast, the producers have worked very hard to create what I hope are three-dimensional portraits so that we’re not feeding into stereotypes that don’t need feeding into, while also telling a great story, while also speaking to certain things that are alive and well in the world today. I haven’t given a tremendous amount of thought to that bigger picture, because my part is so challenging, at least I’m finding it challenging — maybe that’s being 43 and not 33 [laughs]. But Michael’s tattoos, his MacGyverying of this and that, the crawling through drain tunnels, and getting into fights, all of that has been very challenging physically and mentally and emotionally, so early on in this process, I made the decision to keep my focus micro. Part of that is just me being in survival mode. We have such a limited time to shoot these nine very full, very complicated episodes. At the moment, we’re shooting six-day weeks, 14-hour days, and if I’m not mistaken, we’ve got three or four episodes on each and every call sheet, so keeping all of that straight is really challenging in and of itself.
Does this conspiracy he’s in now have any ties to the original conspiracy?
That’s a great question. All I can say is that official government agencies still play their part. There is a through line and part of the struggle, Michael’s struggle, is that he has brought this down on himself from a certain perspective. He’s very good at what he does, he has a certain skill set and that has brought him a certain degree of attention from certain corners that seek to use those skills to achieve their own ends.
Will we go back and see Michael get recruited before his “death”?
Michael speaks to it. I’m not sure how much we see it in flashbacks, but we do give the audience enough pieces of that puzzle that they can work out how this came to be.
How much time do you spend getting the tattoos now versus on the original show?
It’s a different beast, there’s less time in the chair. The tattoos don’t cover as much of my skin, but they do cover my hands and that has provided some logistical challenges for me since once they’re applied, I can’t really wash my hands properly for 14 hours at a stretch [Llaughs].
Last time it was a blueprint, this time are they still functional in a way?
They are functional in a different way. It’s less of a blueprint and they serve a very specific purpose, which is only revealed at the very last moment.
You guys started the tattoo trend, and now you have a show like Blindspot built completely around it. Did that make you chuckle when it came out?
It did. It did and I felt for that actress [Jaimie Alexander] when I first saw her image done up in those tats. It’s an amazing special effect. I think it helped make the show, it made us pop for a season, but it’s certainly time-consuming and I can tell you that the technology has not changed today versus when this whole thing got started back in 2005.
How are you guys upping your game with this prison breakout?
I think not only do we have Michael up to his usual unexpected seat-of-your-pants shenanigans, but their escape from prison is tied in directly with and happening simultaneous to the fall of a country, so it’s micro and macro at the same time; one impacts the other. Once they’ve broken out of that prison, they find themselves in a different kind of prison — the country itself is what they need to escape from. It’s no easy task.
How are they dealing with that? Who or what will they turn to for help escaping Yemen?
Michael and those who have escaped with him are calling on old allies, some of them unexpected, like T-Bag (Robert Knepper), to help facilitate their escape, and what Michael hopes to achieve back home as far as settling old scores. But they don’t know who to trust and where to turn. Complicating things is that Michael’s identity in Yemen for this particular gig that went wrong, which is why he’s in prison in the first place, is as this international terrorist; he’s a wanted man. So even when he runs into someone who is potentially an ally, because he’s operating under this false identity, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t just shoot him on site.
Let’s talk about some of these villains and how they compare to what we saw on the original show.
I think one of the things that Prison Break has always done very well is to balance clever plotting and characterization. We’ve always had a Bellick, we’ve always had a T-Bag, and that’s what gives the show life, and spice, and depth. Because it’s essentially a western, bad guys versus good guys — who’s wearing the white hat, who’s wearing the dark hat — you want to make sure the guy wearing the dark hat is fascinating and terrifying and multi-dimensional so that your heroes, Michael and Lincoln, are pitted against the most dangerous foes imaginable. That’s something that the writers have cooked up and made a specialty of. These aren’t just paper cut outs; everyone is multi-dimensional up to and including the villains, so while I just said they are kind of tasty and malevolent and dangerous, we also spend enough time with them that we see their human side too. So maybe that parallel to a western – white hat, dark hat — doesn’t quite hold. Maybe it’s a sea of gray hats.
There have been a lot of returning faces revealed even before the show debuted. Is there a returning character that you guys are keeping in your back pocket to surprise us?
We’ve got a couple surprises in store. I actually lobbied for the return of Westmoreland and Bellick, easier said than done considering that they are deceased [laughs].
Are you really saying that?
Michael was dead, Sara was dead.
[Laughs] Right, this is a universe where nobody is really dead, but my pitch was that maybe there’s a dream sequence. But that was not just out of my love of those characters, but the men that played them. It was my hope that we’d bring back as many old favorites as possible. Some were more easily done than others as it turned out.
Michael’s been brought back before, but should viewers still worry that he could die?
No one is safe, that’s always been part of the show’s appeal. We will kill someone off; that is good TV, that does make for gripping storytelling. I will say that I appreciated how the original series ended. It felt right to me that Michael had to atone, Michael had to make things right. He had a lot of blood on his hands and it did not feel satisfying or 100 percent appropriate to me that he got to ride off into the sunset with his bride and their unborn child after all the mayhem that he instigated. Is there a happy ending this time around? Happy as far as Prison Break would define happy ending [laughs]. What does happen, where we do find these characters at the end of these nine episodes, is somewhere that feels right and earned and satisfying.
Would you want to do more Prison Break? Does this plant any seeds for more?
I wouldn’t rule it out. I feel like there’s more story there and now we’re talking about multiple generations. There are a lot of different directions that we could go, but I’m not in favor of exploring any of that unless there’s something awesome that we can sink our teeth into.
You’ve gone from 33 to 43, maybe you wait until 53 and see Michael trying to…
[Laughs] Break my grandkid out of prison. “One last break!”
Prison Break airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.