Lost Opportunities - Popular TV series leads alum to Emmy

Terry O’Quinn’s acting career has spanned three decades. The UI alumnus has appeared on numerous television shows, including The West Wing, Alias, JAG, The X-Files, Matlock, Star Trek, LA Law, and Millennium. He also played the title role in the films The Stepfather and Stepfather II.

But the part that has earned him the most recognition, including two Emmy Award nominations and a win, is that of John Locke, a stoic and intellectual man whose paralysis seemingly is cured after his plane crashes on a mysterious island, on ABC’s hit series Lost. As an aspiring actor, the Michigan native spent three semesters studying theatre in Iowa City in the mid-1970s. David Schaal, a professor emeritus of theatre arts, lured him from Central Michigan University with a UI scholarship after seeing him perform onstage.

Although he didn’t earn a degree, O’Quinn says his time at Iowa was formative. He recently spoke with Spectator@IOWA about becoming a professional actor and what he’ll miss most about Lost when the sixth and final season of the series ends on May 23.

When did you first get interested in acting? What was your first role?

When I was at Central Michigan University, I tried out for Henry IV, Part I, and got the part of Edmund Mortimer. That’s how I got started. I wasn’t even aware, until I was three or four years in at Central Michigan, that it was really possible to get to the point where I could make a living doing it. There was no way there from here, in my mind. It just seemed unattainable.

Did you develop a love for your craft at Iowa, or did it sink in slowly over time?

I learned it at Central Michigan and at Iowa. I learned early on, when I did my first few plays, that these were my people. I knew I was home, and that only increased when I went to Iowa. By then, for better or for worse, I was an actor, and I was going to be an actor.

What stands out most about your time in Iowa City?

Using E.C. Mabie Theatre, down by the river. The theatre was my work, my job. I remember the time I had and the people I met when I was there more than the work I did. It was a lot of fun. I liked Iowa. I had a good feeling in Iowa City, and I’d like to go back there.

Have you had a chance to bond with Iowa native and Lost actor Michael Emerson [Benjamin Linus] over your shared Iowa ties?

Not so much over our shared Iowa ties, but Michael is as good a friend as I’ve made in the business. I look forward to the days that we get to work together. They wrote good scenes for us early on, and we have such a comfortable time working together. I think because of our theatre history, we have the same way of approaching the work—it’s about cooperative effort. Maybe Iowa had something to do with that. I love working with Michael, and I intend to do so again after this job’s over.

How did you break into television after you left Iowa City?

I moved to New York and did theatre for about 10 years and then I got an agent and started film and television auditions. If you’re trying to get into the business, you audition for everything and say no to nothing. The first time I got in front of the camera was on a soap opera called The Doctors, and my first film was Heaven’s Gate.

Any regrets?

No, because I did everything I did out of love or out of necessity. There are plenty of things I would just as soon not have on my résumé—there are probably only about a dozen things that I want there, that I was proud of—but they had as much to do with me learning to act as anything else.

I genuinely think I’m better at acting now than I’ve ever been, and I think Lost had a lot to do with that. I’ve had opportunities that I haven’t had elsewhere. I’ve developed the confidence to put my own ideas into practice. There are two parts to acting: one is thinking of good things to do, and the other is having the courage to do those things. The second one is harder. It’s easy to have good ideas; it’s hard to have confidence to put them into practice.

You’ve had so many recurring roles and guest spots on TV. What has been your favorite role?

John Locke. I’ve enjoyed the emotional range of the character and the fact that he’s gone from way down with no confidence and completely whipped, to someone who in fact has found something to have faith in, has a goal, and has strength and confidence. I get to play the gamut and I like it. It’s a great actor’s role.

When you play John Locke on the island, you actually seem physically larger—bigger and brawnier—and when he’s off the island, you seem smaller and more frail, especially in the wheelchair. How do you manage that?

I’m delighted that you say it, but I’ve never really thought of it. When they put on makeup and sweat and scars and you carry a big knife and you’ve got dirt and aura, it might in fact make you appear bigger, but I think that’s something confidence can do. Confidence, in a sense, is strength. Plus, I do my best to stay in shape. I exercise every day. I walk on the beach and swim a lot and try to watch my weight.

Lost is full of mythology, imagery, and classical and ancient references. Do you pay any attention to that, or do you mostly stay focused on character development and let the bloggers worry about what everything means?

I don’t know about the other cast members, but I don’t focus on it at all. I can’t invest in theories, because then I might act toward those theories. Give me a good scene to play and I’ll decide my character’s objective and how I might approach it. I get to do it with good actors, and that’s all I want. It’s up to the writers and producers to pick and choose the elements of that performance that they want to put into the show. I neither know nor actually care what course my character will take as long as in the end the audience has a satisfactory experience.

Lost is filmed on Oahu. Will you miss Hawaii?

Yeah, but I still have a place to crash here and may well come back and spend more time here. Being an actor, to me, is a gypsy experience. Wherever work is, that’s where I’ll go. As far as having homes, that’s nice, but it’s sort of a luxury.

What will you miss most about Lost?

I’ll miss playing John Locke, and I’ll miss the people I get to work with. But that’s typical in this business—you move on. As I said, I’ll stay in touch with Michael and I’m sure we’ll work together again, but I’ll miss the whole experience: getting up in the morning, going down to my corner bakery, walking on the beach, and sitting under the trees, playing guitar and singing songs with Naveen Andrews [Sayid Jarrah].

Sara Epstein Moninger
with Tom Snee

Photos Copyright © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc./
top of page: Bob D’Amico/ all others: Mario Perez

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© The University of Iowa 2009