Evil’s Michael Emerson Shares What It’s Like to Play a Guy More Sinister Than Satan

Evil’s Michael Emerson Shares What It’s Like to Play a Guy More Sinister Than Satan
Evil's Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson) next to a portrait of someone he's probably not a big fan of. (Image: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)

Evil is back, and its most memorable character, Leland Townsend, is already causing mischief for its trio of Catholic Church-sponsored supernatural investigators. To learn more about what’s to come, we hopped on the phone with the actor who brings him to life: Michael Emerson, whose past credits include Lost and the late, great Person of Interest.

It’ll be hard for Leland to top all the malevolent hijinks he got up to in season one (getting a serial killer freed from prison, seducing the mother of one of his enemies, encouraging a budding “incel” to plan a mass shooting), but the show is called Evil — and there’s no telling exactly how low Leland will go. “People have cause to fear him. And that probably does his heart good,” Emerson told Gizmodo. “He probably wakes up happy every morning.” Shivers. Read on for our interview…

Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: Evil is a show about the actual devil, with characters that are literal demons, and yet Leland Townsend is absolutely the most sinister character on the show. What’s it like getting to play someone like that?

Michael Emerson: It’s great fun! He’s a mystery to me, certainly. We’re not sure what his motives are or what the long-term plan is — other than sort of devilment and creating as much mayhem as he can, getting in the way of David’s [Mike Colter] holy orders. That seems to be kind of it. But then he seems to be a fairly high office-holder in a sort of underground world of, you know, secret rituals and mischief. He seems to rather relish the stuff he does! He seems to take some pleasure in it, and he’s funny upon occasion.

Gizmodo: I was actually going to ask you about that, because even though he is definitely a bad guy, Leland often functions as Evil’s comic relief, too. What’s it like bringing that element into a show that tends to be more serious?

Emerson: I think there’s a fair amount of wit in the show all around, but I’m fortunate that I have more opportunities to display it. I guess if you’re a force of misrule, then making fun, or mockery, or blasphemy in this case, those are all just pleasurable tools for his work. Whatever it is in his childhood or his youth that has driven him to this place, he must have a sense of power and vengeance, all of that’s so good because now he can do things that other people can’t, and people have cause to fear him. And that probably does his heart good. He probably wakes up happy every morning [laughs].

Gizmodo: What attracted you to the role of Leland, and how much did you personally bring into shaping his character?

Emerson: I just play what’s written on the page. I mean, I guess there’s some interpretation involved, but I just try to let what’s written for me be the sort of parameters, or the blueprint, for the role. And then the rest is just me getting down inside it and playing around with it, really. I don’t want to say that it’s not hard work, but it’s more fun than a lot of acting jobs are because the language is good and they write him with a nice turn of phrase here and there. He’s droll. He’d be pretty good company if he wasn’t so deadly dangerous.

Leland looking very jolly in an otherwise gruesome scene from Evil season two. (Image: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS) Leland looking very jolly in an otherwise gruesome scene from Evil season two. (Image: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)

Gizmodo: Did you base your portrayal on anyone, fictional or real?

Emerson: Maybe I have seen people in my life who were bad actors but did it in a charming way — I might have sort of filed that away somewhere. But I think my experience of playing villains, whether it’s on the stage or before the camera, you can’t do a lot of mustache-twirling. You have to play the opposite. You have to find what keeps them going, and what keeps them effective. And also you have some obligation to be entertaining [laughs]. So I try to live up to those possibly self-imposed standards.

Gizmodo: Most of the time, you can assume that the villain of a story doesn’t think she or he is a villain; they believe they’re in the right even if it’s in opposition to the other characters. But do you think in this case of Evil, Leland knows he’s the bad guy?

Emerson: Yeah, unlike most of the bad guys I’ve played, or the men of questionable ethics, I think Leland gets that he’s a bad actor, that he’s a really bad one, and he doesn’t care. And that’s kind of good, and freeing for me as an actor in the role — it releases me from grey-er considerations of morals, ethics, behaviours. He can just play, sort of. Play with it.

Gizmodo: Viewers don’t know yet what Leland will get up to in season two, but I thought season one’s terrifying “incel” episode was his best worst moment so far. Would you agree?

Emerson: To me that was the scariest episode because it was plausible. Because there are vulnerable people out there who could be persuaded by someone like Leland to do something terrible. It scared me. It worried me to work that number on a vulnerable soul. That one, I thought “Wow! I hope somebody doesn’t punch me out on the street after confusing me with this character I play!”

Gizmodo: Has that ever happened, maybe not getting punched out, but someone confusing you with one of your characters?

Emerson: For some people, the line gets a little bit blurred sometimes. You know, I’ve played characters that make people nervous. I’ve had people scream and run away from me. That kind of thing. Which is flattering, in a way — it’s also kind of silly. But it’s a testament to how much they’ve immersed themselves in the story, how much they have suspended their disbelief.

Gizmodo: We’ve learned a little bit about Leland’s background — his real name, where he grew up, etc. Will we be learning any more this season?

Emerson: Not that much, I would say. We’re not gonna go back in time and meet Leland at another stage of his life or anything like that. We’ll get little bits and pieces, but I think everything [show creators Michelle and Robert King] want you to know, you pretty much already know. It’s not going to be a character like I played on Lost, whereas we go back and learn about Ben Linus’ childhood or something, [and] it mitigates our feeling about him, the character. I think Leland is going to remain a bit of a mystery, and a really bad guy — if a somewhat entertaining one.

Christine Lahti and Michael Emerson play an engaged couple that nobody is rooting for. (Image: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS) Christine Lahti and Michael Emerson play an engaged couple that nobody is rooting for. (Image: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)

Gizmodo: Since we won’t be looking back into his past, will we see Leland evolve as season two progresses? Will viewers’ opinions of him change by the end of the season?

Emerson: Yeah! Because a lot of the power dynamics, certain relationships where we thought he was in control or in charge, some of that stuff’s going to get turned on its head. We will definitely see Leland in surprisingly vulnerable situations. We won’t feel much pity for him because they’re situations he’s brought on himself, but still, he gets into some trouble. [Laughs]

Gizmodo: Leland’s relationship with Kristen (Katja Herbers) is probably Evil’s most contentious, especially now that he’s planning to marry Kristen’s mother (Christine Lahti). What’s it like playing those scenes with them?

Emerson: A couple of real pros, you know? We have a lot of fun, me and Katja and Christine and I. It’s a tribute to the writing, we go in and if we just say the lines on the page, the scenes will crackle. And Katja’s character, Kristen, has turned out to be quite an able adversary for Leland. The more she stops playing by self-imposed rules, the more trouble she can be for Leland, I think.

Gizmodo: Is that something we’re going to be seeing more of this season?

Emerson: Yeah, I think so because one of the things we explore in season two is: where is Kristen on the scale of good and bad? What are her real ethics, values? What are the things she won’t do? Are there any? [Laughs]

Gizmodo: I was going to ask something similar about Leland. Is there a line that even he won’t cross? Is there any soul left in that guy?

Emerson: I think there are probably some things that even he would quail at. Not sure I could name one yet, but I suppose it’s possible to contemplate such a thing. But he is rather immune to the normal shocks and horrors that afflict feeling humans. [Laughs] I mean, I guess he’s a human, but of a different sort.

Gizmodo: A recurring theme on Evil is scepticism. Leland, however, seems to fully exist in a world where the supernatural is real. What’s that like for him, and what’s it like playing a character like that?

Emerson: It gives the character, and me the actor, the freedom to just say audacious things. Bold pronouncements, sometimes cutting observations that are painfully true. You know, he believes that he has found humanity’s number. He’s got their number! And they’re frail, weak, contradictory, hypocritical — he at least says just what he means. So in a way, I think he considers himself as occupying a higher ground.

Leland with a buddy in a scene from season one. (Image: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS) Leland with a buddy in a scene from season one. (Image: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)

Gizmodo: You’ve touched on this a bit, but in your career, we’ve seen you play some very dark parts — an antagonist on Lost, a serial killer on The Practice, a monster-of-the-week on that X-Files episode about the Brady Bunch house. You’ve even voiced the Joker. For you personally, what’s the appeal in these sorts of roles?

Emerson: I’m attracted to the stuff that’s well-written, or funny, or poetical. And I guess most of the stuff I really respond to is characters who are ambiguous and mysterious and possibly dangerous, but also — again, characters that have a wit about them. I don’t know if it’s me seeking out the villain roles, or if it’s just the scripts that come my way, or if it’s the stuff I’m right for. You know, I’m never gonna play the hero in a Western movie or anything like that. There are certain things I’m right for. Having a particular kind of voice and speaking in a particular kind of way that I’m not even always completely aware of, I think it alarms people. There’s that vein of instinct in the American society that distrusts people who are verbal, people who talk too much or talk too well. You know, we pride ourselves on being do-ers, and not talkers. Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk, all of that kind of thing. We really cling to those ideas. And so I think for me, these kind of ambiguous or sinister roles are a good fit. They’re kind of natural for me. If the camera’s up close to me and I talk a certain way, deliver the lines a certain way, I think it could be chilling. [Laughs] I think by the same token, something in my intonation or delivery disqualifies me, in a way, from playing a normal good guy. I’ve played good guys, but they’re usually odd. So I think it’s more a quality of oddness or grotesquerie that ends up being the right fit for me.

Gizmodo: The last shot of the season two premiere where Leland just laughs at the camera was very unsettling.

Emerson: Oh yeah, and they made it look like it was an electronic glitch in the surveillance system! A glitch that reveals some deeper truth about Leland: that maybe on some level that is not visible from the surface, he is more monstrous than we think.

Gizmodo: Hopefully we’ll be getting to see more of that in season two! Anything else you can tease about what’s coming up?

Emerson: Oh yes, stay tuned. There’s going to be some wild stuff! There’s a lot to do with turning Catholic sacraments on their head in this season. And there’s a lot to do with blood. [Laughs]