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Undergoing a Sea Change on Prospero's Isle
I was broke a year ago," the actor Terry O'Quinn said recently. "And I fully expect to be broke again."

Something in Mr. O'Quinn's prophetic tone did not invite contradiction, though for now he's flush. Since September, Mr. O'Quinn, 52, has appeared on "Lost," ABC's hit drama, as one of that uncanny show's most uncanny characters, a Prospero figure named John Locke, like the Enlightenment philosopher.

In the first episode, Locke survived a plane crash that left him and dozens of others marooned on a tropical island, where - as if ordinary man-versus-man perils weren't enough - an obscure, seemingly supernatural menace also resides. But the island also abounds with opportunities for redemption and courage, and Locke, a freshly healed paraplegic, now professes that everyone receives a new life on the island.

The island has also given the actor new life. During a career in film characterized by critical praise (for "The Stepfather," 1987, and "The Rocketeer," 1991) and notable missteps ("Heaven's Gate," 1980), Mr. O'Quinn became recognizable in solemn television roles - many of them martial - on dramas like "JAG," "The West Wing" and "Alias." ("Alias," like "Lost," was created by J. J. Abrams.)

But the character of John Locke is a radical departure from the admirals and generals that were becoming Mr. O'Quinn's stock-in-trade. A onetime clerical worker with Outward Bound-style fantasies, Locke has distinguished himself as the island's mastermind, a step ahead of the others in their journeys of self-discovery. "He may well know more about other people than he knows about himself," Mr. O'Quinn says.

Locke's efforts to reform the young men on the island, and thereby win adherents - he broke one of an addiction, another of a twisted fixation on his sister - also border on sadistic.

The unpredictability inspires Mr. O'Quinn, who sees it as Locke's defining feature. "I don't look forward to the day when someone says, 'This guy's a good guy,' or 'This guy's a bad guy.' I won't accept it."

Ambiguity is power, potentially, for an actor - and the power has come as a revelation to Mr. O'Quinn. "That's the gift that they've given me on this set - the time to explore the depth. Some actors get it when they're 12; they feel strong enough. But some of us feel, as functionaries, that we don't really have the power. We're not important enough on a set, or to throw our weight behind something, because we don't feel we have the weight. That's terrible. I let myself be that way for way too long in my career."

So how does the once-fearful Terry O'Quinn become the fearsome John Locke?

"When I wake up in the morning, and I don't feel like I have anything special to offer, it used to scare me," Mr. O'Quinn explained. "But now I show up at work, get dressed, get some breakfast, and go to makeup - and 30 minutes later, I will look different. A sharpness. When I come in, I can be myself, and kind of dull of sleepy. But as Locke, there's sharpness, depth, something that comes alive in my head, behind my eyes."

Mr. O'Quinn, who recently auctioned off property in Maryland to live full time with his wife in Hawaii, where the series is filmed, has increasingly given himself over to Locke and his sharpness.

"This person can't be a weak sister. And the actor who plays him can't be. He can't let himself be pushed. I remember when we first started, coming on the set and thinking, I'm going to be consciously aloof to protect myself, to protect the character. Until I know where he stands, and where I stand. I'm going to keep my distance. I got more comfortable, but I still find myself keeping aloof - out of respect for the character."

© 04/2005, Virginia Heffernan, NY Times