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Exclusive Q&A Interview with Paramount+ EVIL Series Star Michael Emerson

Maj Canton & Jamie Ruby - October 9, 2021




On Sunday, October 10, 2021 at 12:01am PT/3:01am ET, Paramount+ premieres “C is for Cannibal,” the Season 2 finale episode of EVIL. The team is sent to meet on campus with Mitch Jasper, a student with a growing compulsion to eat human flesh. Written by: Rockne S O'Bannon. Directed by: Alethea Jones. On July 8, 2021 Paramount+ renewed EVIL for a 3rd season.

The supernatural drama EVIL follows psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) who joins former journalist turned priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter) and his colleague and contractor Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) to investigate strange cases of possible miracles, possession, or other demonic forces to decide if they have a scientific explanation or are caused by something else. The series was originally created by Robert and Michelle King for CBS, but moved to Paramount+ for the second season. The move ended up being a positive thing, as it allowed the series to tap into a darker and more twisted tone which really shifted in season two, also adding more humorous elements.

Michael Emerson plays the part of the evil Leland Townsend, who has been a thorn in the side of Kristen and the others from the beginning. After pretending to have a demon exorcised, at the end of the season, he is causing even more problems after being appointed by the church to talk to the group’s clients after his claims to have experience with being possessed and saved


On October 1, 2021 we had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Emerson to talk about his work on the series and more. (Interview was edited for clarity and readability)

Question: EVIL does such a fantastic job of leaving things up to the interpretation of supernatural versus science. Like, is Leland really talking to the devil? Is he a demon? Or is he just totally insane?

 Have the Kings kind of told you what they are writing it to be, or have they left it up to you?

Michael Emerson: The Kings have told me nothing. They tend to leave us alone, and I would not have it any other way. I really like the ambiguities of the show. I would say I'm an ambiguity addict. I like playing characters that people don't quite know what to make of. I like being in the gray zone. Is this good or bad? Is this evil or holy, or what's going on here? I think an air of mystery is a great thing to cultivate on a show if it's going to run for a long time. So, no, we don't talk about that, and I'm glad that people are left to sort of make their own choices. The characters are trying to figure these things out, not always successfully.

Question: As you're playing it, though, in your own mind, are you playing it one way or another? Or are you purposely even as you’re playing it thinking, “I don't know.”

Michael Emerson: Well, Leland has a lot of tones. I'm not sure who he is. I'm not sure what his background is. I mean, I know what people say of him. He grew up a normal kid in Des Moines, Iowa and played in the marching band, but what he is now, I can't tell you. It's interesting. Fortunately, I don't have to know, and I don't have to make a choice about that.

I learned a long time ago, I suppose. On LOST, it was best to come in every day and just play the scene at hand. You know, play it fairly earnestly, and then let the audience decide what's going on. But I have to say, with Leland, there's a little more fun to be had. Somewhere early in the going, I realized that he enjoys his mischief so much, and it's a chance for him to be a bit of a wise guy and a bit of a comedian. I'm not sure anyone's laughing except himself, but it's fun. I often feel there are many scenes where I feel like I'm in a comedy. I don't know about everybody else, but I'm gonna have a good time.

Question: Could you speak to his way of dealing with the exorcism, is he completely faking? Is he possessed? Because he seems at least to really be scared at one point, but then there's also Kristen’s conversation of asking David if an exorcism have a placebo effect. Is he scared for that reason?

Michael Emerson: Well, there were sort of three stages of Leyland's exorcism. In the first stage, he's toying with the church authorities and having fun at the expense of David. At some point, I think the second priest gets on top of Leland. His Mojo is too strong, and Leland begins to experience the true symptoms of a true exorcism, where voices that aren't his are coming out of him, suggesting possession. This terrifies him, because this was all supposed to be him in charge. So, he needs more blood. He needs whatever it is that the blood bath gives him, call it, I don't know, confidence or strength. Somehow, it gives him strength or stamina to withstand the rite of exorcism. Then, the third time we visit the exorcism, he's back on top and trying to make a mockery of the previous time when the exorcism was working, the irony being that while he's back mocking the exorcism, the exorcism is having its full effect on Kristen, just through proximity, I guess

Question: Is there anything else do you think that that frightens Leland?

Michael Emerson: Well, I think there are people that he works with or that he answers to that are powerful, frightening. I'm not sure we've met them. I used to think at one time that it was the goat-headed demon, but, obviously, Leland has gotten past that. [laughs] I know also he fears the same things that vain and self-absorbed people fear, which is exposure, ridicule, failure, all of those things. Maybe those are his worst demons, I don't know.

Question: How was it filming the bloodbath?

Michael Emerson: That was a miserable scene to shoot physically. Part of it was I couldn't believe that they were going to ruin an entire ensemble of beautiful clothing that was made for the scene. I suppose they had a backup, because they always do, but we did it in one.

Then, to have that syrup poured it over my head, that's a bit like a waterboarding, because you think, “Oh, this is fine. It's just make believe and all,” but at some point, and fortunately, they cut away before this point, but at some point I couldn't breathe. And in my effort to get air into my lungs, I inhaled some of the syrup. It's some kind of syrup with a red coloring in it. It doesn't taste bad. It's just sweet.

We got through it; it was fine, but how then do you get out? How do you get out of the tub? You are dripping with red syrup. We were on location. We didn't have a bathroom nearby, and we were two blocks from trailers. So, they brought a kid's backyard pool for me to stand in and slowly piece by piece stripped off my dripping hot pink suit and shoes and socks, everything - oh my God, my underwear. Then, they wrapped me in a big terry cloth robe. Then, we walked a couple of blocks [laughs] to get to a trailer that had a warm shower in it. It was a cold night when we shot that. So, it was kind of a lot that night, but it looks great.

Question: What was it like working with Christine Lahti? You two are so funny together.

Michael Emerson: She's just great. She and I have both been working actors for quite some time now, and we both got to kind of come in ready to play and ready to go. She's very game and funny. Its like ping pong between us; it's a lot of serve and return. She picks up on the things I'm doing; I pick up on the things she's doing. We have a lot of laughs. She's just doing a terrific job. She's a formidable scene partner. We get our stuff done pretty efficiently.

Question: Is any of dialogue improvised or is everything scripted?

Michael Emerson: It's all scripted. Every once in a great while, somebody lets out something that makes the cut, but in general, we don't think in those terms. We don't think improvisation. Although, I think on Episode 207, the silent one, I think a lot of that had to be improvised for specificity. The script says,“Kristen signals to so and so something.” Well, that's not explained. She has to figure that out on the day, “How do I make that signal?” Or “How do we communicate without communicating?” So, I think they did a lot of improv in that particular episode, and very successfully. I have a kind of allergy to improvisation. So, I was just as happy not to have to figure those things out myself, but they did a great job. Particularly Katja, I thought she was on fire in that episode, as she has been all season two and has really come into her own.

Question: I really do love, especially this season, the tone of it. Is it hard to kind of balance the drama with the comedy with him?

Michael Emerson: Well, there aren't many scenes where I feel I have to take care of that balance. I'll play it for fun, and then if a director thinks we need a different kind of angle on it, I'll do that just as easily and just as happily, but mostly, I'm able to deliver fun in a kind of sinister package. So, it ends up working out all right, usually.

Question: Would you ever want to do something that's just purely comedy?

Michael Emerson: In my stage career, before I got in front of TV cameras, I was often in comedies, and I often played more lighthearted characters or sometimes silly characters. So, the kind of sinister tone that I've had in my TV career is a bit of a mystery to me, but I also get I get why, because it's good when these malevolent energies come from someone who looks harmless and sounds armless. Maybe that's a good delivery system for that.

Question: Other than the script, is there anywhere else that you were inspired for Leland when you were creating him, like any other characters, or people?

Michael Emerson: No, I tend not to, I should say, I don't often have people from the real world in mind, particularly if it's a language role, which I think Leland could be called a language role. He speaks in a particular way. He's formal, in a way, or he tries to be formal or cultured. I take more of my cues from the text than I do from the observation of people in the world. I so rarely play a character who is like anybody. So, I just have to kind of go on instinct and just let the lines kind of take me where I need to go.

Question: Do you have a favorite line or scene or something that kind of sticks out to you that you can think of off the top of your head?

Michael Emerson: Oh, there're so many. There're so many interesting ways that he's blasphemous. There's a hundred of those, but I think of that scene where the priest gives me the Rosary, and I look at it, and I say today that, “Jesus looks unhappy.” And I thought, “Oh, that is so quintessentially Leland, to make a mockery.” I mean, sometimes it worries me, because I think, “Oh my God, one of these days, I'm just gonna do that too well, and a lightning bolt from Heaven will come down and smite me.”

Question: When the goat-devil therapist asked Leland for blood, he asked Sheryl rather than hurting someone. Was that for a pragmatic reason? Or does he maybe have a moral line?

Michael Emerson: His job is done when he has manipulated someone else into something heinous. And somehow, the killing of the goat-headed demon, that's not like a murder, since we're not sure... if it's real yet

Question: Do you think he could ever be redeemed since sometimes we see little glimpses of humanity?

Michael Emerson: Oh, he might appear to be redeemed, but how could we ever trust him, because he’s such a game player?

Question: So, is there anything about the finale that you're allowed to kind of tease without spoiling too much?

Michael Emerson: I'll be anxious to see [the finale], because it feels like Kristen having sort of resolved her exorcism and being relieved of a demon inside her, I sort of felt like “Oh, okay, Season 2 has reached its happy conclusion,” but of course there's more to come and worse. [laughs]

Question: Any news about Season 3?

Michael Emerson: The writers are already working together, remotely. There should be some cameras rolling in November, I think.

Question: If you could have played any character in the history of television who would it be?

Michael Emerson: My favorite role in a comedy would be Gomez Addams from THE ADDAMS FAMILY and my favorite dramatic role would be George Smiley from TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY.

Question: What’s currently on your DVR or currently streaming? What are you watching now?

Michael Emerson: I'm just now watching THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT and FOUNDATION. For relaxation, I watch ANTIQUES ROADSHOW UK because I find it very educational, and it is also a showcase of regional dialects.

Question: Would you do a LOST reunion or reboot?

Michael Emerson: People ask that a lot, and when there are anniversaries for the show, it comes up a lot. I don't think they could get that cast together ever again and probably not those writers. So, it would have to be something different. It's like any other piece of writing. It's a piece of intellectual property, and it can be sold or traded or done with what anyone with money wants to do. It would have to be something very clever and a completely unexpected angle on those characters in that situation, but I wouldn't rule that out.