As the mysterious Locke on ABC’s suspenseful “Lost,” Terry O’Quinn glories in his rich role.
Locke, of course, was stranded on a tropical island with dozens of other passengers after their jetliner crashed in the opener. Since then, he has emerged as the series’ mystical patriarch, a shamanic presence living his back-to-nature dream after a lifetime spent as a clerical schlub. Or is he just a nut job acting out a long Wild Man Weekend? Or a psycho ready to blow?
Don’t ask O’Quinn, who “Lost” viewers first met planted on the beach silently gazing out to sea. While the camera rolled, “I tried to think of heavy things: ‘What does this mean?’ That’s what I thought. And ‘What the hell do we do now?”’
Months later, he is still not sure if Locke is sinister or noble, delusional or divine — or all the above. And he was as surprised as anyone by perhaps the series’ most electrifying episode. Locke, in a flashback before the flight, was revealed to have been a paraplegic. Then, seen in the present on the beach, he rose, almost biblically, to his feet: Somehow he was healed!
“I didn’t even know that I had been handicapped until we shot that episode,” O’Quinn says with a laugh.
What he does know is that “Lost” is a genre-busting smash (by turns thrilling, spooky and tantalizing) that, from its September premiere, had critics agog and viewers snagged. (It airs 8 p.m. ET Wednesday.)
He also knows that “Lost” is steady, challenging work for a journeyman actor who has waited 30 years for this kind of break.
A rangy man with a shaved head and a where-have-I-seen-that-guy? kind of face, O’Quinn has been around plenty. Films include 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” the “X-Files” feature, “Old School” and (in the title role) 1987’s horror classic “The Stepfather.” He has been on Broadway, and his scads of TV appearances include recurring roles on “JAG,” “The West Wing” and the spy series “Alias,” which was created by J.J. Abrams, the mastermind of “Lost.”
But as 2004 began, O’Quinn and his wife, Lori, had logged “a couple of years from hell.” An actor who has chosen never to live in Los Angeles and long ago took his leave from New York, “I was at home in Maryland, no work, nothing going on. I told Lori, ‘We gotta toughen up. We can fold, or we can lean on each other and play the cards that were dealt us.’
“Then J.J. called about ‘Lost.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it’ — not a strong negotiation stance.
“He said, ‘You won’t have a lot to do in the pilot, but it will develop into a more satisfying role.’ I said, ‘I’ll still take it.’ I counted my blessings, and Lori and I flew to Hawaii.”
On “Lost,” O’Quinn joined an enormous cast of featured regulars who also include Matthew Fox (as a sexy doctor), Evangeline Lilly (a dishy jailbird), Dominic Monaghan (a rock-star junkie), Jorge Garcia (a fat guy who says “Dude” a lot), Naveen Andrews (a terrorist?) and eight others. In all, there are supposedly 48 refugees trying to gain rescue and, in the meantime, forge some semblance of a civilized community.
Good luck. Desperation and conflict keep these castaways at odds. Spectral beasts and island cohabitants stalk them. And everyone, it seems, has secrets — secrets to which even the actors aren’t privy until each script arrives.
Otherwise, O’Quinn reports, the show’s producers “don’t tell anybody much about what’s going to happen, or has happened before. But I don’t have any problem with that. I go on what I’ve got. It gives me the freedom to play things the way I want. Then, if they want it another way, I do it another way.”
The series is filmed on Oahu, with five or six of each episode’s eight shooting days spent outdoors, often at the beach location on the island’s north shore.
The pilot was shot there a year ago. Then filming resumed July 15, which happened to be O’Quinn’s 52nd birthday.
Revealing his bent for numerology, O’Quinn notes that five and two equal seven, and that July is the seventh month, then reels off other instances of seven looming large in his life.
“I told Lori, ‘Things are at a crossroads. And if “Lost” isn’t the crossroads, it’s the bridge to the other side.’ I believe in fate.”
Fate has been mighty good to “Lost” so far. But even a believer like O’Quinn has kept his head: “I’m always being the old warrior, telling everybody, ‘Don’t buy a house. Let’s be patient and see how it goes. Do good work — that’s all.”’
A native of a small town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, O’Quinn fell into acting in his teens, then, as his college graduation neared, “I didn’t want to look for a real job. So I decided to see if I could make it as an actor.”
Riding lessonsHe met his wife-to-be a few years later, when, appearing in a play in Baltimore, he learned he was cast in Michael Cimino’s Western epic “Heaven’s Gate.” With a sudden need for riding lessons, he tracked down Lori, an instructor on her family’s farm outside the city.
Then, when his play closed and he ran out of money waiting to be summoned to Montana to shoot his scenes, he struck a deal with Lori’s parents to muck stalls in exchange for a room and more lessons. Three months later, in September 1979, he left to do “Heaven’s Gate.” In November he and Lori were married. “Heaven’s Gate” was a legendary disaster. But they’ve been together 25 years (which adds up to seven).
Now, with their two sons off at college, “I feel like we’re back to how we were when we first got together,” O’Quinn says. On Oahu, they rent a house in the hills “with live boar outside our window and cocks crowing in the morning. It’s paradise.”
On the most recent “Lost,” Locke declared that “Everyone gets a new life on this island.” And that maybe includes the actor who plays him, a long-familiar face who might at last be a star.
“It would be nice to think about more doors opening, to be able to pick and choose roles,” O’Quinn freely admits. “But I’m not anxious to go anywhere else right now. I could do this for a while.”
By his reckoning, at least seven years should be a Locke.