Michael Emerson wouldn’t be surprised if his character on Evil turned out to be a demon or some other supernatural entity. Forensic psychologist Leland Townsend is a master manipulator who has twisted the minds of victims and children on the chilling and always surprising series, which is currently streaming on Paramount+.
He’s an “amazing force for mischief and confusion in people’s lives,” Michael tells Closer. “And it’s such a smart show. It involves deep mysteries and detection and just enough horror to keep you on the edge of your seat.”
Playing memorable, often villainous, characters has become something of a specialty for Michael, 67. Among his best loved — and feared — characters are The Practice’s serial killer, William Hinks, Lost’s morally ambiguous Ben Linus, and computer genius Harold Finch on Person of Interest. “I’ve always played gentle, funny persons in my stage career. It’s only on TV that I got to create this kind of scariness,” he says. “It’s turned out to be a great deal of fun.”
Did you always want to become an actor when you were growing up in Iowa?
I didn’t. For a long time, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I wanted to go dig up ancient civilizations! But growing up, I was the smallest boy in my class and kind of a loudmouth. There was no real space for me in the world of athletics, so I gravitated to the marching band and the drama club.
And you found your calling!
I had kind of a roundabout journey to do it professionally. I moved to New York City right out of college, but it just knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t figure out how to get started, so I became a magazine illustrator for many years and then drifted back into acting later.
Was it hard to keep your dream of acting alive?
I’m proud of not having lost faith. I’m proud of the fact that I never made a living as an actor until I was in my 40s. I rode that out and didn’t let it diminish my passion for the work. It’s all worked out, and I’ve become the kind of character actor that I dreamed of being when I was little.
Does it ever get emotionally difficult playing such dark characters all the time?
I’m an actor who doesn’t need to get too deep into it. At the end of the day, I can usually just clock out. There have been things that Leland has had to do on Evil — like convincing an impressionable young boy to take up arms against the world of women. I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s awfully topical and terrible.” It made me a little uncomfortable. That’s the only phone call I ever made to the writers to say, “Are we sure about all of this?”
What do you love about playing a villain?
I’m liking how theatrical my role has turned out to be, particularly in Evil’s second season. I get to speak in tongues. I pretend a lot of terrible things. The character can also be surprisingly funny at times. I didn’t realize how much comedy there would be, despite it being so dead serious and terrifying.
So is it unlikely we’ll ever see you in a romantic comedy?
I don’t see myself as a romantic lead but maybe as a zany friend or an employee. There’s 100 character parts that I would be happy to play. I’ve been in dark shows that ran a long time, but in between, when I get to do guest spots, I have played some good silly characters on other people’s shows. I find that’s kind of a great relief.
Many people remember you as Ben Linus on Lost, which earned you a second Emmy. Were you surprised by the show’s success?
I knew that show was a hot show before I got on it. My wife, Carrie, was addicted to it. I got an offer to do a three-episode arc, and I took it. Then, one thing led to another, and they never let me come home.
Do you have a favorite memory of filming the show in Hawaii?
Oh, to be out in the Hawaiian Islands for the best part of five years, shooting in the jungles, the beaches and mountains, was a wonderful and exotic job. My memories are of beautiful sunsets where I thought, “Let’s just put the cameras down and look at this.” I felt a lot like I was a character on the show because I was, in fact, stranded on a mysterious island in the middle of the vast ocean.
Do you think there will ever be a Lost revival or reboot?
I suppose somebody could think of something to do with it, but it would never be Lost again. It would have to be a totally new angle.
Do you have a favorite character or role that you have played?
No, because I’ve walked many different paths in the entertainment business. I suppose Ben Linus was a great role to have on TV because he kind of came out of nowhere and turned in a lot of different directions. I think back to earlier in my life on stage. I made my name in New York City playing Oscar Wilde in a play off-Broadway, and then I made my Broadway debut in The Iceman Cometh. Those were dreams come true, too.
You’ve been married to actress Carrie Preston for 20 years. What’s your secret for a happy marriage?
We have a sense of humor, we don’t compete with one another, and we don’t really bring our work home that much. We have a really supportive and warm extended family life that I think has helped keep us sane. Also, I’m still just so charmed by her.
How do you deal with having to be away from each other for work?
When we were first together and we were both in the theater, we might not see each other for a month or six weeks. We can’t handle that anymore. So, it’s gotten down to a two-week rule — maybe more like 10 days. It’s just too miserable and lonely otherwise.
What has been the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
That it is not a race. That’s like a mantra with me: “It is not a race, take your time.” If you pressure yourself too much, you risk ruining it and then there won’t be any joy left for your work.