'Evil' Star Michael Emerson Keeps Playing Sinister Characters, And He Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way [Interview]

When you speak with Michael Emerson, you spend the the first few minutes of your conversation marveling at how...normal he sounds. If you've seen him as Leland Townsend in Evil on Paramount+ or as Benjamin Linus in the medium-shaking masterpiece Lost, you're just waiting for the other shoe to drop. For him to talk you into a sinister plan. To construct a terrifying scheme before your very eyes.

But Emerson laughs more than the people he plays on TV. He's thoughtful, clearly thinking through each answer before he gives it, measuring every word. And he's more than happy to keep playing weirdos and creeps, telling me during our interview that he doesn't even know how to play a "soft-hearted" character.

On Evil (whose second season is currently streaming on Paramount+) Emerson plays Leland Townsend, one of the most chilling villains on television at the moment. Is he a literal vessel of Satanic power or just one of the most organized psychopaths in TV history? The show hasn't made that clear yet. And Emerson himself doesn't know. But he stands as an ongoing obstacle to the show's leads, a trio of investigators working for the Catholic Church to prove and/or debunk supernatural mysteries. He's one of the few actors who can make hulking co-star Mike Colter look positively small in a scene, using his voice and his voice alone.

I recently spoke with Emerson about his work on Evil, how not knowing his character's truth helps his performance, what it's like to act alongside a giant demonic goat, and yes, that famous "You guys got any milk?" scene from Lost.

But before we get to all of that: Emerson recognized my area code, so we broke the ice chatting about Austin, Texas, where I reside. And where he's spent a few fun nights.

So I've got to ask, because I am a Texan, how do you know Austin?

My sister lived there for many years and we had more fun per night in Austin than any city I've ever been in.

That sounds about right. It's a great place to meet artists. I know so many actors, filmmakers, musicians down here. Was that your experience?

Yeah, it's true. It's coming on as a sort of a film center. There's a fair number of movies and webisodes and stuff being shot there now. I know a lot of actors are there and they have agents and everything. They're all crewed up in Austin.

But you're here to talk about Evil. I think Evil is terrific, and I think it snuck up on people. With the first season, it seemed a little quiet at first and suddenly, overnight, Evil became the show everyone is talking about. Was that your experience?

Yeah. I don't know what happened. It may have something to do with it streaming on Netflix during the pandemic. I think that helped. It helped find an audience and sort of cement an audience for it. But I'm not sure. I'm like you. During the first season, I thought, oh, cross our fingers. Because this doesn't seem to be the most natural fit for CBS primetime. But here we are. We're still here and I guess we're going to do a third season. So, something's working.

I feel like Paramount+ is the right home for it. A lot of the people who would embrace what Evil is see CBS and they have a picture in their mind of what a traditional network produces. Whereas, they see a streaming show and they say, "Oh, that's exciting."

Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I think it's always risky to change... What do I want to say? To change platforms or to change networks. But I think this worked in our favor in a couple of ways. Partly that a lot of people have come to the show streaming and also because the rules of the game with a streaming network are more liberal than we ever had with CBS. So suddenly it can be a little more profane, a little sexier, a little more violent, all of that. I mean, we've recorded to add profanity [laughs].

Yeah, I've definitely noticed the language! Have you personally recorded any ADR profanity?

Yeah, a couple of lines. We were always saying fricking this and fricking that, and now we're doing it right.

It feels right for a show that deals with this subject matter. It feels right to be able to say "fuck."

Yeah, let's not soft pedal the dark side of human nature, certainly in linguistic terms. So, let's just go ahead and tell the story.

Absolutely. Whenever I recommend Evil, I say it's like a version of Hannibal you can watch with your parents. That perfect combination of Law and Order and grisly horror. Were you are Hannibal fan? Did you watch that?

Yeah. Hannibal's a great show. And I think your characterization of ours is apt. It's soft enough for... I mean, I have teenage nephews and they cover their eyes at some places, but mainly from being scared, not from being sensory overloaded. So, I think you're right. I think that's correct.

I think being scared is a good thing. I mean, growing up, I loved shows that felt just beyond the edge of what I should be watching. I think Evil rides that fine line. I think there's going to be a lot of kids who watch it and feel like, oh man, this feels just wrong enough to be exciting.

Yeah. I think it works on a horror level because they're careful with it, but it's good. I think it's truly scary sometimes. And often it's intellectually scary. It's like, oh no, what are they trying to get this person to do? Or what are our dilemmas? Like you have a bad seed child, what do you do about it? Or we get to see a character, like my character, out there encouraging people to make terrible choices.

The writing on Evil is so good because you can tell me Leland is the scourge of hell, literally full of satanic power. Or you can tell me he's just a psychopath who has a grand plan. And both of them feel incredibly valid. And both of them, depending on your belief system, feel very real.

I agree. It's a nice edge. A nice kind of blurred edge there. It's fun to play. And I don't even know what the real deal is, but we're having a blast with it.

I wanted to ask you about that. So [series creators] Robert King and Michelle King have not sat you down and said, "Hey, here's the endgame for Leland, here's the truth." You're putting yourself in the hands of the mystery right now?

Right. I wouldn't have it any other way. But no, we never sat down. We never once talked. I never had one of those meetings. I said yes to the show cause it sounded good, I got the pilot script, here we go, I shot it, and we were off to the races. And not really a word was said.

How is that different from Lost? Even though they're very different shows, I feel like they both revel in the mystery. What's the communication like with the Kings versus Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse?

Hmm. I think they're a lot alike. In that, my loop of communication with the writing room is the same. The longer we're at it, the more they know my voice or my toolbox, and the more they write toward it. And then they send that to me, and then I deliver that back on the dailies that they see, and that's our conversation.

I recently had a really good conversation with J.K. Simmons, and we talked about the ending of Whiplash and how he had to play more than one possible reading at once. And I love the idea of the puzzle, for you as an actor, of playing ambiguous. Because so many actors need to know their motivation, whereas your motivation is "who the hell knows" by design.

I think ambiguity is the way to go. I think that's the best tool I have. I think it's the best tool that a lot of actors have. Which is not tipping your hand. And why would you tip your hand, there's no hand to tip. I don't know where it's going. I don't know if I'm Satan's cousin or a sociopath. It's a little hard to tell. So, it's just like on Lost, because the same questions applied there. It's like, what is this? What is this really? Where is this going? What's your agenda? I never had answers then. Which I was glad of. And the same is still true. I don't have answers, I don't know where it's going. So it frees you up in a way. I don't have to keep track of narrative line or ethical lines or anything like that, I just show up on the day and try to speak the scene in an interesting way.

One thing I think is especially true this season is, for a character as despicable as Leland, you're really funny on the show. I cackle a lot just watching your scenes. Can you talk about finding the humor in your scenes, which are always so dark?

I mean, I think I'm in a comedy in a way. I do think it's in the writing and I don't mind sort of pursuing it that way. As long as I kind of stick to the tone of the show. I don't want it to get antic, but he's different. So why should he not be different than these other sober normal people? Why can't that contribute to that kind of fearfulness of him?

The first season saw you and Katja Herbers sharing so many scenes, and you guys had such a great hateful dynamic. But this season, it's you and Mike Colter a lot more. And I just love it because watching you drain all power from a man as physically intimidating as him... it's just such a fun dynamic.

It is good. And because David is Leland's primary target. Why? I don't know, they have some history that's never been completely filled in. But it's just Leland's mission that David is not going to hold on to his religious fervor and become a proper priest. But we'll see. There's a lot more episodes.

Yeah. Personally, I'm hoping in season 3 it will just be you pestering [Aasif Mandvi's] Ben for the whole season. Finding ways to destroy the lives of every main character one at a time.

Ben, whose name he can't even remember. I like that.

I have to ask about one scene from season 1. I was already enjoying the show, but I became a lifelong fan when you're talking to somebody in your office and it cuts to a wide shot and there is a giant goat demon just sitting there.

It was terrific. And I didn't lay eyes on it. That's Marty [Matulis] inside that get-up. He plays the demon George and all these other fearful characters, but I hadn't really seen it until I walked in and I thought, oh, shit, look at that. The only way to get through that scene is to play it like it means nothing to you. Like you've seen him so many times, he's such a bore to you. It's like, I'm a teenager and he's my bossy dad. And I'm so over him. And completely take the magic or glamor or terrifying-ness out of it. Which then helps it to be [laughs] something really weird.

I love how Evil can be so mundane until it chooses not to be. The way it mixes these moments in. It's just a delightful surprise. Are the scripts as surprising to read as they are to watch?

It's really good writing, everybody knows that. It's better than we even think when we read it, in the playing of it. Then it gets twice as good. And then, when they edit it right with effects and music and all of that, I'm always amazed at how briskly horrifying the show is. Everybody's really doing their job on this one.

So often, procedural shows have a house style. There's a comforting familiarity to how they're shot. Whereas you watch Evil and every moment feels different and wrong, from the score to the performances. Everything about it is just really coming from a different angle.

Yeah. The ground is not firm beneath your feet on this show. Something can be terribly wrong in a heartbeat.

In my experience with you as an actor, you appear out of nowhere in The Practice, then Lost, and then Person of Interest and Evil. But before that, you worked for a long time on stage, right?

Oh yeah. Yeah, I spent years doing classical plays and stuff all over the Southeast. That was my training. And I did the New York Stage for a long time before I got a break on television.

Is there a lot of crossover when it comes to working on stage and television? Is the dynamic of a TV show similar to stage in that way, in that you feel like you're part of an ongoing troupe?

Oh, sure. On some of them, I think, acting is just acting. It's a skill set, it's a way of bringing a text on the page to the light. I mean, there's differences between how you prepare a role on stage and how you prepare one for the TV, but they're analogous certainly. And it takes a bit of adjustment. Stage actors come to me and say, how did you make that change to work in front of the camera? And I say, you know, it's not really rocket science. It's just a question of degrees. It's just being, I would say, slightly more still and letting the audience come close to you rather than you coming to them. But that's the thing you can learn in a couple of days. And I find it reassuring to for the camera now, because there's a safety net of, you know, cut, let's start that again. You can always fix it. It's not quite the high wire act. The stress level at the beginning of a two-hour show on live stage, where you just...if something goes wrong, you have to find your way through it. And that's some of the most terrifying moments of my life, I've had on stage.

After all those years of honing your craft onstage, you're on Lost and audiences love you. That turns into five years on Person of Interest and now Evil. People call you to offer jobs now, right? It's got to be gratifying transition. 

Oh, it's true. It's great. And I mean, I'm happy that I've reached a point where the work I've done already kind of is an advertisement for what I might do again or in the future. And people just trust that I'm going to find my way. There's a thing that I do, I can't even characterize it, but they like something about my voice or the way I sing a part. I don't know, the choices I make, whatever it is, I'm happy with it. And I really enjoy the work I'm doing on TV now.

Do you ever wish you could get cast as the rom-com lead? Just be happy and smile and get the girl in the end?

No. I would be at sea in those kinds of shows. I'm always looking to do more character rather than less. I'm always looking to assume character. I don't know really how to play regular soft-hearted guys. I guess if I got the right part, maybe I would find a way to do that, but I'm a character man. I always say something a little bit extreme, sometimes sinister, sometimes pitiable, but a verbal character generally.

I'm glad you say that because I can watch you play various degrees of unsettling weirdos for the rest of my life.

[laughs] Okay, that's good.

I have one more question. When I told my colleagues I was interviewing you, one immediately said "Can you please ask him about the "Do you guys got any milk?" scene from Lost? Do you remember the scene I'm talking about.

Oh yeah. Oh, of course. It's on my video reel.

I think it's one of the absolute best scenes in all of Lost. And it's just the camera on you, watching as you speak about a very sinister hypothetical situation.

I don't recall there being a bunch of direction about it. It was cramped quarters in that tank and, who was there? Terry O'Quinn and Matthew Fox. I really do think that's a reveal of his antic, mischief-making character. To tell the truth, to confess what his plan is, as if it's a joke. It was a good time. I think people laugh at the takes, but in the moment I'm not thinking, oh, this is a success or not. I'm just thinking, is there a better way to do this? Because I know it's a great line, I know it's a punchline, I guess, of a sort, but the tone of it has to be just right. It has to be theatrical enough to land and yet plausible coming out of the mouth of the character. It's timing, honest to God, it's timing. How many beats, or quarters of beats, or fractions of beats, do you wait to let that line out? Anyway, it seemed to work.

It does. We're still talking about all these years later. It's an incredible window into that character's arrogance. 

Yeah. It was terrific writing, I have to say. That's some good writing. When you give your villain a shaggy dog story, that is on one level terrifyingly plausible, and then you let that go on for awhile, and the twittering string music in the background is making the hair stand up on the back of your neck, and then he pulls the rug out... It was good construction.