Michael Emerson – Embodying Evil on the Small Screen

Michael Emerson - Embodying Evil on the Small Screen
| December 4, 2021

Michael Emerson, playing Leland Known for his work on Lost, Person of Interest, and, of course, the Saw franchise, Michael Emerson is an actor that brings a level of mystery to the roles he brings to life. From the countless series to the films he has appeared in, he is a face few forget. He is a presence on the screen, be the characters he plays work on the side of demons or angels. Now he is in a new role as Leland Townsend on Evil.

The new show now on Paramount Plus, this American supernatural drama television series created by Robert King and Michelle King, is an amazing entry in his already lengthy filmography. Now in its second season, we caught up with Mr. Emerson remotely to talk about the role, the series, and his career. From reminiscing about his time on Lost, to discussing stage acting, Michael Emerson gives a good sense of the roles he picks, and why being Evil is so captivating.

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CGMagazine: First things first, I just wanted to discuss what drew you to Evil, and what made you want to be part of this series?

Michael Emerson: Well, it was a really good pilot script, and, of course, this production team, they have a great pedigree. I like the scripts so much, even quite apart from my role. But I like the tone of it, I like a thing that has mystery and the occult and the paranormal stuff. All of that I’m keen on. And I saw in the pilot script, even though I didn’t have that much to do, I thought ‘oh, this character could turn out to be a real problem. A real problem for the leads in which he has become.

CGMagazine: This is a show that’s exclusively on Paramount Plus, what are your thoughts on the plethora of streaming services now coming out that do allow for more unique projects? And do you think that is a good direction for the industry as a whole?

Michael Emerson:  Well, I’m in favour of this move for our show, for just some practical reasons. One is we will shoot slightly fewer episodes, and there will be less worry about profanity, nudity, blood, that kind of stuff. I’m not saying I want to be in a bloodbath, although I have been in a bloodbath this year, but we don’t have to always be worrying about who we might be offending. Or we don’t need to be worrying about what we perceive as CBS’ core audience.

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CGMagazine: You have been on a lot of genre shows, and been on a lot of series of genre, movies, etc. Is it something that draws you to these types of projects?

Michael Emerson:  Well, I like good storytelling, as I said, I like mystery, I like something a little sinister, and I like some ambiguity. I like to be kept guessing, and I think other people do too. And I seem to gravitate to roles that are ambiguous, and the audience doesn’t know what the heck is going on, and that suits me fine. Because I don’t really know what’s going on either, but I’m kind of happy to let go of that. I don’t need to know the full backstory, or the full forward story. I’m just happy to come in on the day and play my scene and see how I can make it chilling, gripping, and funny. See if I can get a rise out of the audience somehow.

CGMagazine: You are iconically known for Lost. Do you ever feel that that holds you back, pushes you forward or neutral on your career after that point?

Michael Emerson:  It’s a little better than neutral, I don’t feel like there’s any downside to it. It was great exposure and great writing. I had lots to do, and it was rewarding, I thought artistically, and I think people really liked it. And they liked that character, even if they hated that character; it’s one of those you love to hate. I don’t know, I don’t feel like it pigeonholed me if that’s the question. Although, people have got used to connecting this voice that comes out of my head with something that has maybe double meanings or could be dangerous, but that’s all right. Because then I went to play in Person of Interest, and I really was a good guy, except he was a strange, good guy, kind of a mysterious person. Again, a little hard to figure out.

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CGMagazine: Now, do you gravitate towards good roles, villains, or just a character that you find most interesting?

Michael Emerson:  I have found mostly villains to be interesting. That or extreme characters in a comic sense. I just don’t get cast as, and I don’t gravitate to, good guys. It’s something about the straight earnestness of a lot of good guy roles that I don’t know quite what to do. I don’t think there’s enough to play. I want more layers. I want strategies and subterfuge and guesswork; I want all of that to be at play. Which is not to say that I can’t play a straight lead in something, but I don’t know what it is. I guess I tend to follow scripts, and I tend to follow the shows that I would like to watch myself.

CGMagazine: I’ve always been someone that always gravitates to villains myself, I find them more complex and interesting in general.

Michael Emerson:  Yeah, exactly. Good-hearted, earnest, straightforward, ughhh, okay.

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CGMagazine: I’m very much with you there. Now you’ve done, as I mentioned, a variety of roles is there anything that you’ve always wanted to do, but you still haven’t managed to do?

Michael Emerson:   Not in terms of an on-camera character. Which is not to say that I won’t see some script that is outside of what I’ve done before and might really respond to it and wish to play it. But I never was one with a bucket list. When I was a stage actor, everybody said ‘what are you dying to play? Which of the great Shakespearean leads?’. I want to say no, it just sounds like so much work. I don’t even want to say the names of a role I might like to play because I might either never get it or have to get it. And be careful what you wish for, I guess is my response.

CGMagazine: That’s a fair point. I can’t even imagine because there’s so many different types of roles out there that you might find that the one you get might just be a complete worst thing for your career. Who knows, right?

Michael Emerson:  Yeah, and one of the things that makes me happy about Evil is that I’m not a lead, I’m not carrying the show, I’m more like special sauce. I’m somebody that comes in sometimes, and sort of makes things happen, and hopefully gives the audience a little bit of a thrill or puzzle. Now that suits me, that’s about the workload I’m interested in.

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CGMagazine: Now to jump back to Evil, someone that might not have seen this show, or might be kind of hesitating on clicking the play button, what should audiences expect when they dive in for the first time?

Michael Emerson:  Well, they can expect a kind of intriguing, scary procedure role, because we usually do have a problem of the episode, one each week, say, but it has an overarching narrative line in it too. There’s an ongoing battle between good and evil if you want to put it that way, or between our intrepid duo of investigators and a kind of ill-defined dark side that they keep bumping into in strange ways. And that seems very dangerous to them, and to the world as we know it.

CGMagazine: Now just one last question. For anyone that might not know your career, what is a thing that you feel best represents your acting style or your characters you’ve played? And where should people jump in to see some of your favourite roles?

Michael Emerson:  Wow, I would say that an actor is always inclined to like the role he’s currently playing. But I have to say that Leland Townsend, particularly in season two, seems to be a good use of my skill set because he’s gotten more theatrical. I feel like all those years I spent on the stage or Broadway or what have you, it gets used now because he’s a little larger than life. He’s often play-acting or pretending, singing, dancing, you know, having fun, and all of that in a kind of diabolical mode. So, it’s really satisfying for me.

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CGMagazine: I have one final answer just to kind of wrap things up, you mentioned you had all the years on stage that kind of made you ready for this role in season two. Do you ever want to go back to the stage and do more in that sort of realm rather than TV or movies?

Michael Emerson:  You know I love the world of the theatre, it’s how I learned to act. It’s all I thought I would ever do. TV has been kind of a detour from that original plan, but it’s a happy detour. Five years ago, I would have said oh yeah, I’m chomping at the bit, I want to get back on stage, get back to the rituals and the camaraderie of the theatre and all of that. But I have done some plays in recent years, and they have kicked my butt. I found it super stressful.

And maybe I was imposing a standard of performance on myself that was unrealistic, but it was stressful and made me ill and stuff. So, I’m thinking that my theatre future will be smaller supporting roles like tipsy Uncle Charlie comes in in act two, and plays a game of cards and get some laughs, and then he waits backstage for the curtain call. Maybe a couple of scenes, or small supporting parts in Shakespeare. Who doesn’t want to play John of Gaunt or some of the fools? Those would be great.

CGMagazine: Thank you so much for your time. Anything else you want to leave our readers off with as they might go into season two of Evil or any of your other careers?

Michael Emerson:  No, I just hope that everybody will check it out. It’s just now beginning to air in European countries, and so I’ll be curious to hear their reactions. I guess there’ll be some chatter on Twitter and stuff. We’ll see how it goes.

CGMagazine: Thank you so much for your time.

Michael Emerson:  Thanks, great talking to you.

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