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Evil’s Michael Emerson Isn’t a Bad Guy, He’s Just Good at Playing Them

Michael Emerson Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

“It’s always fun to get to play something that is seemingly normal but has a horrible subtext,” Michael Emerson says, delivering the observation with the clipped overpronunciation that gives many of his performances their signature mixture of humor and dread. Emerson is talking about his role on CBS’s Evil, the bonkers and delightful show from Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King, in which he plays a forensic psychologist named Leland Townsend, who may be the devil incarnate, an agent of the devil, or just a weird dorky tuba player from Iowa who’s trying to make himself seem important.

Either way, Leland consistently plots to mess with Evil’s Scooby gang of heroes, including Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), the psychologist slash mountain climber slash paranormal investigator who’s skeptical of all things supernatural. In Thursday’s season finale, he even convinces Kristen’s mother, Sheryl (Christine Lahti), to marry him. Watching Leland, you get the feeling that he’d get along with the other sinister TV characters Emerson has played on shows like Lost. As he told Vulture in advance of the Evil finale, he’s comfortable playing the types of roles that make people give him the stink eye on the street, though as he discovered in playing Leland, he sometimes does have his limits.

In the episode before the finale, Kristen confronted Leland and revealed that he’s just a dork named Jake Perry who grew up in Des Moines and played the tuba in his high-school marching band. You were also in your high-school marching band, right?
Yeah, I wonder if the Kings have done some delving into my Iowa background. I didn’t go to high school in Des Moines, but I went to undergrad in Des Moines. I went to high school in a little town in Iowa, and I was in the marching band, and I did play embarrassing instruments.

Which instruments?
I started on the cymbals and I graduated to the glockenspiel. Imagine! You’re a shrimpy little 14-year-old, all the girls in your class are a head taller than you, and you’re carrying around an upright xylophone with horsehair tassels on it.

But you didn’t tell the Kings about that?
No! I don’t know where it all came from. The next time I see them, I should ask them. It can’t be an accident that they chose Iowa.

After making us think that Leland’s just an ordinary guy, the episode ends with a scene where he’s meeting with a goat-headed devil plotting his revenge. Like a lot of the supernatural stuff in Evil, it could be imaginary or it could be totally real. How did you take it?
My idea was that it was something he does every day and it no longer has any special shock value or meaning to him. That’s his shrink and he’s impatient with his shrink. He’s tired of being pushed and prodded and told to do things. He’s like a kid. It’s like, “Yeah, okay mom.” Except, in this case, it appears to be Satan.

We have the impression that he had great powers and that he was maybe the evil genius behind everything. To find out that he’s not even that high on some infernal pecking order, it’s delicious. Even when you agree to work with the devil, you still don’t get any respect.

Your wife, Carrie Preston, has a great recurring role on The Good Wife and The Good Fight playing Elsbeth the scattered lawyer. Did you know the Kings well coming into Evil?
I had met them, of course. They had inquired after me for guest spots here and there over the years that I, for one reason or another, wasn’t available for — partly because I was on a long-running series, Person of Interest, on CBS, which is their network. Evil was easy. They said, “We have this script; we’d like you to read it.” I read it and I liked it and that was it. That was how hard it was to sign me up, because they’re the Kings.

You don’t have to read but two or three pages of any script they write to know that it is superior writing, that the language of it is very smart. Nothing trite or predictable about it. It’s strong. And the fact that it is shot in New York City, where I live, that was a big plus.

The Kings said they were excited about Evil because they could work with a lot of the theater and TV actors they’d already used on The Good Wife all over again. What’s it like to join that extended company?
It’s so great because they have the deepest casting pool on the planet here in New York City, so you get astonishingly good and nuanced players coming in to play supporting roles. You get John Glover and you get Darren Pettie and Jayne Houdyshell. Every time you turn around, there’s some great stage actor that you revere and they’re there to do a part on the Kings’ show.

Did you have a favorite guest performer?
Well, of course my best scenes are with Christine and with Katja. But for a guest player, I don’t know if you remember Noah Robbins, who played the young man that I was luring into being an incel shooter. He was really good. He was really professional and well prepared. He’s quite young, but man, you haven’t heard the last of him.

In that story arc, Leland radicalizes Noah’s character through the language of men’s-right’s movements, like he’s an internet figure in the style of Jordan Peterson. Did you do much research into that world?
No, I get enough information about that world from the daily news. To me, that was the most villainous and unforgivable thing that Leland did this season. It was awful. It’s the only time I have ever gotten in touch with the Kings to say, “Do we really need to go this far? Because if it plays as it is on the page, I will be a hated person on the streets of New York City to those people who blur the lines between actors and characters.” We had a good conversation about that and there were some little changes of tone.

What kinds of changes?
Just some language.

When you talked, why did they say they wanted to do that story line?
They said, “We’re glad you called because we’ve been having this discussion in the writers’ room. We’re relieved to have a chance to talk to you and get your perspective on it.” It turned out to be a good conversation. If you tackle certain themes that are very topical, you’re a little bit playing with fire. You can be misunderstood. You can get a firestorm of social media reaction if you appear to be glib or unfeeling — and they are neither of those things.

You didn’t want yourself to be hated on the streets of New York, but of course you’ve played several villains in the past, like Ben Linus on Lost. Do you worry about weird in-person interactions?
In my acting career on TV, I have experienced people misunderstanding who I am. Right from the get-go, when I played that serial killer on The Practice, people would scream and run away from me. Because I was a little-known actor at that time, they couldn’t just say, “Oh, that’s just Michael Emerson.” To them, Michael Emerson didn’t exist. Only the character existed and there he was walking the streets of New York City.

So yes, I do think about those things. The same on Lost. People would cross the street in Honolulu to tell me how much they hated me. Some people would tell me that I had ruined the show, as if I had written it. “We liked it when it was like Survivor. We don’t want all this meanness and danger!”

I imagine if you agreed to play a character like Leland on Evil, then you’ve had to come to peace with that experience?
I don’t mind it, unless I was confused with some sinister or horrible point of view. I would be loath to play a character who was a racist agitator. I know I’d just be an actor playing a role, but I guess I just draw the line somewhere. I don’t want those words to come out of my mouth.

Working on the show, the Kings said they like to keep a balance between their two perspectives on what evil is. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I’m not really a believer of supernatural beings or that an incarnate devil walks the earth. I think evil is like a potentiality in the human brain. A thing that’s vulnerable to persuasion or misunderstanding or fear that can turn us away from empathy and toward aggression. We can lose track of our better natures and do perhaps unthinkable things.

Although, I do think about ghosts and aliens. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but I’ll be walking down a crowded street in midtown and someone will be walking toward me, and they’re looking right at me and there is a fixed deadness in their stare, and I have this intuition that this person is not human. Maybe it’s just the wild imaginings of a person who tells stories for a living, but I have had a couple of those experiences.

When I was a kid I used to get sleep paralysis, where you feel the weight on your chest in the middle of the night and you think that there’s some demon in the room or something, which always terrified me even if I knew the explanation of it.
I have had sleep paralysis a couple of times since we’ve been shooting Evil. It’s like the mere discussion of it in the show has brought it into play in my own mind. We’re all impressionable. If we are hearing those kinds of stories, or in the business of telling them, it may be rattling around in your head.

Michael Emerson: Not a Bad Guy, Just Good at Playing Them