Michael Emerson Interview: "Evil" Star Talks Chaotic Third Season
Image attributed to Michael Emerson
Michael Emerson is best known for his roles as Benjamin Linus in Lost, serial killer William Hinks on The Practice, Harold Finch on the CBS series Person of Interest, Cayden James on Arrow and Zep Hindle in the first Saw film. He has won two Primetime Emmy Awards and been nominated for three others.
Emerson can currently be seen as portraying Dr. Leland Townsend in the Paramount+ supernatural drama series Evil, which premieres its third season on June 12, 2022. In addition to Emerson, Evil features Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, Aasif Mandvi, Kurt Fuller and Christine Lahti. Emerson and actress Carrie Preston married in 1998 in her hometown of Macon, Georgia. They met while he was performing in a stage production of Hamlet in Alabama.
"Every season, we learn a little bit more about him."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Michael, let’s talk Evil!
Michael Emerson: Okay (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: For those out there who know nothing about Evil, please tell me about the show.
Michael Emerson: It’s a sort of a mystery horror show. It follows the adventures of a team of investigators employed by the Catholic Church into things that cannot be explained scientifically or psychologically like magic or possession or that kind of thing. Along the way, they encounter a lot of problems and people or non-people that cannot be explained away conventionally. So they're always in the gray zone between the real and the magical, spiritual, diabolical? (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Did you audition for the role of antagonist Leland Townsend?
Michael Emerson: Unusually in my working life, this one came to me as an offer. They said to my agent, “We’d love Michael to look at the role of Leland.” I read the pilot script. There wasn’t a lot of Leland in the pilot script. But I saw what he was up to. I saw how he was placed in the narrative, and I thought, “Oh, this could go to some interesting places and be a lot of fun,” which it has turned out to be. I felt confident because of the pedigree of the project. The Kings are amazing writers and amazing storytellers.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Evil may differ from other horror shows because it’s both creepy and funny.
Michael Emerson: Yeah. I think their mission was always to entertain, and some of the work, some of the storylines, are satirical in a way. Even people with power for good or evil are sometimes silly or clumsy or make mistakes. My character, in particular, has a sense of humor besides him being a terrible and dangerous creature. It’s just fun. I feel like comedy is one of the things I do well, and in a way, I’m doing it on this show.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you told everything about Leland in the beginning, or is that just gradually unfolding even for you?
Michael Emerson: It’s just unfolding. We never spoke about the character or where it was going or the arc of it or anything. All I know about this show is from each new script I get. Sometimes, I scratch my head, and I go, “Oh, really? We’re doing to do that?” Sometimes, they make me do things I never dreamt I’d have to do or do again in my working life, like sing songs, do silly dances, do feats of athleticism and gruesomeness (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of gruesomeness, was filming the exorcism scenes difficult?
Michael Emerson: Well, it’s not so hard to find the place where those behaviors might come out of you. But to do it over and over and over again, 20 or 30 takes of a lot of howling, crying and channeling strange voices and projectiles coming out of my mouth was really hard physically, I would have to say. It was plenty weird, too. I mean, I’ve never before been asked to projectile vomit. It was purple oatmeal, which meant that at the top of each take, I had to load up with as much purple oatmeal as I could hold in my mouth without inflating my cheeks, and then somehow get to the point where it comes blasting out of me (laughs). Oh, my gosh, if I don’t see purple oatmeal ever in my life again, I’ll be fine.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That would give anyone flashbacks of Linda Blair and split pea soup (laughs).
Michael Emerson: Oh, God, yes.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How has Leland evolved from the first season to the second season?
Michael Emerson: The audience’s familiarity with him is what has evolved because with each passing episode, more and more is revealed about him, what he’s up to, who his comrades are, who he works with, his overarching agenda, then just his day-to-day playful maliciousness. All of that we see. But we also get that he kind of enjoys being a character who is articulate and interesting in a sometimes humorous way. He’s brave in a way and seems to enjoy his work.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Whatever that may be (laughs).
Michael Emerson: Whatever that may be, and I don’t even know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will we ever find out?
Michael Emerson: Every season, we learn a little bit more about him. We know some details, if they’re to be trusted, about his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, and being a kind of a loser who played in the marching band, those kinds of biographical details. He describes, in the first season, how he came to make his own personal bargain with the Devil. But I don’t know if we can take him on his word on that, and I don’t know if we’re to understand it was actually that easy. So he continues to be a mystery. In a way, it’s better to play that character against a sort of mysterious backdrop.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: They’ve had Sheryl (played by Christine Lahti) do some really strange things in season two. Then there’s the matter of a creepy doll (laughs).
Michael Emerson: Yeah, and there’s nothing creepier than those kinds of dolls (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: She is involved with Edward, who is played by storied actor Tim Matheson. I can’t remember anything he’s played before that compares to this role.
Michael Emerson: Right. We have the feeling Edward is up to some terrible things. I don’t know what he is. Is he a human being? What kind of contract has he made with the dark side and like Leland, how is he so busy every day? How does he get around from place to place? It seems like magic (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What can you say about season three?
Michael Emerson: It picks up the very next minute from the ending of season two, leaving us a little bit breathless and wondering what’s really happening or going to happen between David and Kristen, and that’s going to be developed in a really interesting way. If I had to put it into three words, I’d say, “No clear boundaries,” in season three. We begin to wonder about everybody that’s an essential character, David, Kristen, Ben, Leland, Sheryl, Sister Andrea, the priesthood. There’s a lot going on. Everybody’s missions are spinning outward and upward, and it’s hard to tell whose doing any good anymore (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of the priesthood, Leland did not want David to be ordained.
Michael Emerson. No, and I’m not sure what that was all about. They have a history, and it’s not particularly clear. Leland did something terrible to someone that David loved long ago. So I would think that David would have the grudge. But Leland is invested in diminishing David, making him doubt his own faith, proving to him that it was all bogus, that there is no goodness and that he should team up with a smart guy like him and have more fun.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is it fun for you to play a masterful manipulator and evil villain?
Michael Emerson: Oh, those are the roles you want to play. For me, I’m a character player. I’m not sure how to play straight all the time, you know, in earnest like a soap opera kind of good person or tender-hearted person that’s sometimes confused. I don’t get it. I like the strategies of a villain. I like the lies that are told, the theatricality of it. It’s like having my stage career, but it’s in front of a camera.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In contrast to Leland, Harold Finch (Person of Interest) was a good guy.
Michael Emerson: Yeah, he was. Person of Interest lived in a dark place. That was harder to play. I would think there wasn’t much celebrating in Person of Interest unless on the rare occasion where they save a good person’s life or succeeded in bringing down a villain. The show just had a dark landscape. Between that worrisome business of artificial intelligence and just the general surveillance state that is a reality in the world now, it was troubling (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So Finch was harder to play than Leland?
Michael Emerson: It was, I would say. I had some hard work and a lot of long days. We shot long seasons, you know. We were doing old school, 22-23 episodes a year. So you’re crawling on your hands and knees by the time you get to the 22nd episode.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You grew up in Iowa and played in your high school marching band, so tell me how you decided that acting would be the career for you.
Michael Emerson: I was always a small kid with a funny voice with kind of an odd look. So sports were never going to be a thing for me. I looked around to see what would be most fun, and I ended up doing plays in high school. When it came time to go to college, my parents had never been to college, so they didn’t think anything of what I chose as a major. I said, “Theatre.” They said, “Okay. Sounds good.” Fortunately, I didn’t have family members telling me that I needed to be practical.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I know that you attended college in Alabama. We’re from Montgomery and living in Birmingham now.
Michael Emerson: Yes. I took my graduate degree at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And that’s where you met your wife.
Michael Emerson: I sure did. Our first stay-over date was in Birmingham. We drove up there one Sunday night, stayed in a hotel and went to a movie (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was it love at first sight for you and Carrie?
Michael Emerson: I think it was. She had been talked about to me. I had known her older brother for years, and when he said his little sister was coming down to do the play we were doing, I thought, “Oh, well, I must go out of my way to be hospitable to her and make her feel welcome.” Then I liked her. I liked how she looked, and I particularly liked the sound of her voice. So I started following her around trying to make myself useful (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) It appears that it worked. Do you still have fans that want to talk about Lost?
Michael Emerson: Oh, yeah. Lost never goes away because with each passing year, some kids grow up to the age when they can watch it. So there are people just now who are experiencing Lost, streaming it, you know. It’s always fun, although my memory of it is growing a little more faint. I really should go back and watch the series again, but it’s such a time commitment.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Michael, do you have any other projects coming up?
Michael Emerson: I’ve reached that age where I’m not that interested in being super busy. I’m doing the voice of a villain in a superhero animated series. It’s a Superman thing. They write a new episode every month or so, and I’ll maybe have a couple of hours of vocal work to do on it. Other than that, we got a little place in the country upstate. It’s one of those ramshackle country houses that needs a lot of attention, so we have a long to-do list upstate. But it’s pleasant.
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