Michael Emerson Talks True Evil

Michael Emerson dances to demon rhythms on CBS's paranormal series Evil.

CBS’ new supernatural drama Evil is playing in The X-Files territory. Not only thematically but also with the character dynamics. Forensic psychologist Kristen Bouchard plays scientifically skeptical Dana Scully to David Acosta’s out-there truth seeker Fox Mulder. But Evil ups the ante with their recurring nemesis. Where the cellar-dwelling division of the FBI had a powerfully well connected Cigarette Smoking Man breathing down their necks, Evil‘s Catholic Church supernatural classification division has the devil seeping under their skins.

The series stars Luke Cage‘s Mike Colter as David Acosta, training to be a priest but doing his seminarian studies in the field, and Katja Herbers (Westworld) as Dr. Kristen Bouchard, a phenomena diagnostician. Former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi plays all three Lone Gunmen if they had home improvement skills. Because they work for the church, the investigators in the series will delve into spiritual misdoings like demonic possession over extraterrestrial mischief. Michael Emerson plays the incredibly mischievous Leland Townsend. His misdeeds are positively satanic.

The character is at least on speaking terms with the devil, although, as the advance press hints, his technological prowess might make him prefer messaging the dark lord on 4chan. At most, Evil‘s primary antagonist is the father of evil. Michael Emerson, best known as the mysterious leader of the “Others” on the mind-bending series Lost, spoke with Den of Geek about how good it is to be bad.

DEN OF GEEK: You’ve played some evil characters, but this guy seems evil evil. What is it like to get into this terrifying mindset?

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MICHAEL EMERSON: Well, it’s a lot of fun. It’s all right with me to play a full on, unambiguous villain. I’m still in the early stages of seeing what the parameters of the part are or how he functions on the series. I see already he is kind of a lord of misrule. He likes to fuck around with people and then sit back and watch the damage. It seems to delight him. I guess he’s psychopathic.

But, you’ll see as the episodes go on, he’s also kind of entertaining. He’s a funny kind of, and very bold, provocateur. Interesting.

Even the title of the show seems to be setting it up for supernatural level of evil when it comes to demons, but it is kind of shocking to see the human level of evil?

I think that’s their agenda, (creators) Robert and Michelle King. I think they want to explore the gray area that’s a periphery of our everyday lives. How do people do really terrible things? Is it in their nature? Are they being compelled by their upbringing and their environment, or is there something apart from that, some pure essence of evil that is free floating in the universe, or in our lives, or in our brain, maybe?

Did you do any kind of research into psychopathy or is there any sort of inspiration for this character, or is it something you just developed from the ground up?

I just see what the lines are, and try to figure out what would be an interesting way for the lines to be delivered, always with the idea in mind that villains don’t necessarily give themselves away. They don’t have necessarily a villainous surface or affect. I often try to play opposite the moment, opposite of what normal people or normal bad people might do in tone or in rhythm. The older I get I think of these things musically more than I do logically, maybe. It seems to work, though, in some cases. No special research or anything except the research I’ve done by way of playing villains for years on stage or in front of a camera. There are just some instinctive things you pick up.

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You must be one of the world’s most foremost villain experts, at this point.

Well, I have a certain sense of how these things might play. But of course, you don’t to always want to bring the same toolkit to a part. I’m also always looking for ways that this is something new for me and hopefully newish for the audience. Although our culture is so obsessed with villains like serial killers and stuff like that, that it’s hard to find an original way to play a scary character or a dangerous character or a despicable character.

I’m glad you bring that up because, you’re right, we are always fascinated with true crime and murder. True crime is very popular genre right now. Do you have that same relationship with true crime and what is it like to act in a piece dealing with dark, real life subject matter?

There’s something thrilling, or entertaining or fascinating about crime, and real crime, maybe even more so. I follow podcasts about true crime and stuff. I don’t know if I’ve learned much from it. No, actually I do learn something from it, that the perpetrators of vile crime are often really banal people, people that you would not pick out on the street as being a danger to you or anyone. And that’s something that I try to bear in mind. People who lead terrible lives are good actors. People that have secret lives or violent secrets or impulses, they cover it up really well. Otherwise, they wouldn’t get away with so much.

What are your preferred true crime podcasts?

Oh, I just kind of catch them scatter shot. My wife will recommend something.  The series about the boy who was accused of murdering his girlfriend and they reopen the case, (Ed Note: Michael was talking about Serial it turns out), excellent. Then there’s also an added level. True crime has always been a tried and true genre, and this one adds a new element of, I suppose exorcism or some kind of Catholic idea of good and evil is also a fairly popular genre.

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What’s it like to be involved in something that blends those two things?

Yeah, we get into that stuff, too a lot on Evil, in hopefully fresh and thought-provoking ways. It’s like the Kings’ ongoing meditation on that borderland of dark and light, the stuff that doesn’t seem to be explainable with conventional psychology. Are there ever supernatural events? Is supernatural just what we call things we can’t explain or things that seem motiveless or senseless? It’s good psychology, and they found apparently an infinite reservoir of ideas and situations and kinds of events that are fuel for the series. It’s pretty good. I’ve looked at, I guess, six scripts now, and it’s always something. Well, you’re not going to do demonic possession week after week, and we are certainly not, but all of these things are kind of always present, bubbling under in the background and possibly interconnected with other kinds of trouble.

read more: Evil Review (Spoiler-Free)

It’s very interesting, and I’m having fun because it turns out that one of the things that distinguish this character I’m playing from others is that he’s much more theatrical. He sometimes appears in dream or fantasy sequences. So for me, the actor, I have been challenged to do things that I have never done before as a TV character: To sing, for example, or dance or do a comic monologue or things like that which are a little frightening but a lot of fun in the end. I think it makes the show even more entertaining than it might sound.

What’s it been like to work with the Kings?

Well, they’re great. I don’t see that much of them except for scripts that come, and the scripts are brilliant. You say yes to a show like this because the writing is so darn good, and I’m also pleased that it shoots in New York City where I live but the writing, the writing, the writing. Follow the writing and you cannot go too far wrong. They’re great, and I like the way there’s a very thin membrane between arguments and discussions they’ve been having for 30 years as a married couple and arguments and discussions that are being played out in the script. I think it’s very natural for them, and it shows that they’ve been thinking fairly deeply and broadly about some of these issues. They remember little snippets of things they’ve read in the newspaper or seen in documentaries, and they’ve wondered about them ever since. Now they’re able to incorporate them in small ways or large into this entertainment vehicle.

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Watching you, you get the sense that you can almost hear two people writing it, almost a conversation with yourself.

I said if you went back and watched all of The Good Wife again, I bet that you would see how that is, in effect, a dialogue between two minds being played out dramatically with a larger cast of characters. I think you’re onto something there.

What’s it like working with Mike and Katja?

It’s dreamy, I have to say because both of them are upbeat, lots of fun and super professional, and that doesn’t always happen, so this is possibly the most pleasant company I’ve ever been a part of. The crew is upbeat too, kind of light-hearted, and the stress level seems low. Everyone is happy with the work and thrilled about the writing. Maybe the tone of things does filter down from the top. The Kings are cool and funny, and why shouldn’t the atmosphere on their sets be cool and funny?

As a TV observer I tend to watch more cable and streaming things, but you got a very successful career on network television. You find worthwhile roles on larger audience shows. Is it something that you are aware of when you are looking for parts? Is it just happenstance or a lot of network television roles come your way? Is it something you seek out?

I don’t know. It isn’t a thing I have pursued. Part of me wants to do shorter seasons. I used to be so jealous of those actors that were on a show that only shot ten episodes, but for whatever reason, I hit it off with writers and directors who work on these more legacy network projects. Fortunately Evil is shorter. It’s not a full order, and that’s okay with me. I think it keeps the actors and the writers fresher and free of exhaustion.

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So, I like that, but it’s true I audition for all sorts of material, and these are the ones that I have gotten. You can only walk through the doors that are open before you. That’s what I’ve done. Maybe in the future, I’ll work on some shorter term projects.

For what it’s worth you find the good network ones.

Yeah, it’s true. As I said, I have just followed good scripting, and that has worked out. For me, I don’t really miss the boundaries sort of socio-sexual or linguistic that you encounter on network TV. That doesn’t bother me. It’s okay with me that I don’t have any raunchy sex scenes. It’s okay with me that I’m not really profane. It’s okay with me that it’s a little more family-friendly.

Yeah, more friendly-family like this show.

Yeah, this is not one. The kids need to go to bed before this one.

What are you most excited for people to see in this first season of Evil?

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Well, I’m excited for them to see the things I’m easily relating, which is how does it all work, and can they maintain that kind of breathless foreboding that was in the pilot? I think the pilot is really good. When you have a good pilot and people get excited about it, you think, okay can that be maintained, that level of excitement, the quality of that entertainment experience? But fortunately, we have a company where they can just pull it off, and I have been really pleased to see how many different situations and ideas they are exploring on this show. It’s always very fresh and thought provoking.

I’ll be curious to see how scenes of horror get played out on a legacy network like CBS. It will be interesting to see how this goes. This is new, this is uncharted territory for CBS, I’d say.

It’s going to be a crazy balancing act because I love the pilot, and the idea of trying to sustain that balance between the potential supernatural and the real world existing alongside each other for a whole season seems like it’s going to be incredibly difficult.

Right. That was always my concern too, but I have to say I feel reassured by the episodes I’ve shot. I mean, I have the seventh episode in my hands here, and it’s good too. So, who knows? Maybe this is going to be a great ride.

Evil premieres on Sept. 26 on CBS. Hear more from Michael Emerson about Evil and earlier work of his on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast:

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Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.