Evil Star Michael Emerson on Exploring the Chaos of Leland Townsend

If there's one thing that actor Michael Emerson excels at is keeping the audience on their toes especially when he plays mischievous characters like on the Paramount+ series Evil. As Leland Townsend, he's a thorn in forensic psychiatrist Kristen Bouchard's (Katja Herbers) side at first by undermining her work as a rival in her profession in the court- and then by dating her mother Sheryl (Christine Lahti). After causing strain between mother and daughter relationship, Leland further ups the ante directly intervening in his rival's work along with her partners David (Mike Colter) and Ben (Aasif Mandvi). I spoke to the Person of Interest star about what drew him to series created by Robert and Michelle King, which part of Leland's destruction that he had to work through, and his latest film.

Evil Star Michael Emerson on Exploring the Chaos of Leland Townsend
Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

How Michael Emerson Landed Evil

"Sometimes you receive some kind of notice that has a little kind of CliffNotes characterization of what the storyline is, but there wasn't much," Emerson said. "I think it was given the pilot script or an early draft of it. It checked all the boxes that I like. It was mysterious, a little cryptic. There was menace in it and mystery. All of that is good for me and the character they were offering me. I saw that he was positioned well in the narrative that he was even what little I had to do in the pilot. He was a force of mischief and mayhem. He was always going to be a problem in a very particular way as a character and I thought, 'Oh, this could be so much fun.'"

Evil
Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS ©2021 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

As one could suspect playing the primary antagonist on Evil, Emerson found himself do far more than expected as a pleasant surprise. "Well, I learned about Leland's world in a way the same way that the audience does, which is by getting the next script," he said. "They are always out ahead of the Kings and the writing room. They always have even a bigger, more, I would say, theatrical agenda for him. I'm always kind of surprised that what they want me to do in the next episode, because sometimes it's a little shocking or it's often something I've never had to do before, like singing or dancing. Thank God they haven't asked me to ride a horse. I think like every part I ever had that ran for a while, you and the writers learn it by doing it over the course of time and it becomes the kind of conversation. I never talk to them on the phone or anything like that, but they write the lines, scenes, and I think about them and then I perform them the way I think they must want them. Then they hear that and they get ideas about how to write the next one. We have a back and forth that way. It's a kind of a good collaboration, and I like that it's a verbal one."

Evil Star Michael Emerson on Exploring the Chaos of Leland Townsend
Image courtesy Paramount+

While Leland's interactions in season one were largely limited to Kristen and her family, season two starts off with his character requesting an exorcism from David, the priest-in-training inserting himself more into the trio's affairs directly. As cerebral a character he is, it's a pretty casual environment on set with his co-stars. "I'm a kind of an easygoing actor, and I wouldn't call myself a method actor or anything," the Lost star said. "I don't need privacy, silence, or room to nurse my pent-up emotions or anything like that. We sit around and talk about the day's news, a little bit about work and stuff. It's actually better not to talk that much about the work. God knows you're going to do it enough when the cameras finally rolling. I know it's very collegial and I have to say on this particular show, it's very nice, very pleasant as everybody thinks the same way about it. Everybody has a high level of preparation, a high level of patience, and a high level of skill. It's really good that way."

Evil: Incel Clichés Underlie Missed Opportunity, Lazy Writing [OPINION]
Image courtesy of Paramount+

Evil Incel Arc

As far as Leland's boundaries going too far, one particular arc that bothered Emerson was an incel involving his influence over Sebastian Lewin played by Noah Robbins. "Well, most of it just seems like good fun and devilment, but when we got to that episode about the incel kid," he said. "The young man that felt rejected by women and I sort of encouraged him to join groups that are interested in punishing women for not loving them or whatever. I thought, 'Wow, this is getting awfully topical' and also it just spoke to me. It seems awfully terrible and so I did need a little handholding on that. I thought, 'I'm not afraid to be villainous or to be blasphemous, for that matter, but I don't ever want to be playing a part that encourages someone in the audience to behave badly,' My worries… they took care of me. They stage a couple of lines, very small things that you would never know, and the way the episode was written and the way that it ended, I think they took care of business. I was grateful for that little bit of conversation that we got to have about that one."

Evil: Incel Clichés Underlie Missed Opportunity, Lazy Writing [OPINION]
Image courtesy of CBS
As far as the jump from the network television of CBS to the ViacomCBS streamer home of Paramount+, Emerson admitted the second season wasn't originally shot anticipating such a move. "That is yet to be determined, because we shot the whole second season as a CBS show," he said. "Yes, the ground rules are a little more liberal with Paramount+. We have. We actually went back in and re-recorded some stuff which we added some profanities and stuff that we didn't think that CBS would allow that Paramount+ will. I'm sure and what you'll find is that when it is season three will have a little more. It'll be more plainspoken and it will have a higher level of sexual and violence content I think."

For his latest project, Emerson will be next starring in Man & Witch, which is an homage to the lo-fi fantasy films of the 80s. "I should say I don't it's a project that was written by and stars, a good friend of mine from my theater life, Greg Steinbruner, and it looks like a really cool project of the sort of fantasy fairy tale sort of thing," he said. "It has some amazing talking animals in it, among other things, and a lot of showy, fun performances by actors who have theater training in a lot of character roles that I play in a scary and unpleasant evil wizard, and if it was hard work and but I'm happy to be part of a project. I think will end up needing something and I hope it will find an audience. So this is what you do, you know, for friends and loved ones and you. It looks like it has quite an astonishing cast, as it turns out, good direction and terrific special effects. I hope there's life in it." New episodes of Evil stream Sundays on Paramount+.

daily dispatch
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About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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