From co-creators Robert and Michelle King (The Good Wife, The Good Fight, BrainDead), the new CBS drama series EVIL follows Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), a skeptical psychologist who is asked by priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter) to help investigate the Church’s backlog of unexplained mysteries and determine whether they involve miracles, demonic possessions, hauntings, or just the mundane and everyday. While they look at whether something could be explained in a logical way or if something truly supernatural is at work, they learn that something more sinister could be at play.
While at the CBS portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actor Michael Emerson, who plays the mysterious Leland Townsend, about why this show and character appealed to him, what he enjoys about working and collaborating with the Kings, what makes his character so creepy, how there’s really no doubt that Leland is a villain, the fun of hiding in plain sight, what makes co-star Mike Colter such a cool guy, and why he’d like to keep the mystery surrounding his character going, for as long as possible.
Collider: How was this script and character presented to you, and why did you find it so appealing?
MICHAEL EMERSON: I was asked if I would read a script for interest, and I read it and liked it. I read a lot of scripts, and I don’t often say, “Yes,” but with this one, the stars lined up. There was good writing, such good dialogue, inventive narrative work, a New York City setting, which would mean sleeping in my own bed at night, a good pedigree, a strong cast, and that element of horror. I just thought it was such a fun idea, that a show on CBS would be as scary as ours looks like it’s going to be. So, it was irresistible. I like that whole element of the show, where seemingly supernatural phenomena are debunked or taken apart, piece by piece, by the character Ben, that Aasif Mandvi plays. When I was a kid, I loved to read about people who would figure out magic tricks, or that would debunk seances and things like that. The Kings (Robert and Michelle) must have an endless store of anecdotes and things they’ve read about. All of their shows seem to be extensions of running conversation they have at home, about crazy stuff they’ve read or seen on TV.
What a cool way to take what you’re thinking and talking about, and then process that into interesting storytelling.
EMERSON: Yes, I agree. It’s fun to be on that ride. They have a magnetic quality about them. There’s such a good couple that it’s just so nice to be around. You feel like you’re at home with them, wherever they are, and are together. They don’t step on each other’s toes, and they have a beautiful way of deferring to one another. Division of labor seems really successful, in their relationship. In purely personal or romantic terms, I like to sit back and watch them move through the world. I do believe that the tone of a company trickles down from the top, and our company is extremely settled, professional, easygoing and hospitable. It’s a really nice set. It seems to be tension free, which is nice. There’s nobody that’s a diva or a problem, or anything like that. It’s just companionable.
This is an ensemble show, but it’s a fairly small ensemble, which means we’ll get more time to follow these characters.
EMERSON: That’s right. I have a good feeling about that. I knew we were onto something when it was rolled out at the Upfronts in New York. We didn’t have a finished episode then, but we had a three-minute teaser, and it was a really strong teaser. That audience gasped when the demon comes out of the shadows in the corner of the bedroom, and then you see his head slowly come up over the footboard of the bed.
And he’s particularly creepy because he just has normal conversations.
EMERSON: There’s no forced monster-ness. Maybe there’s something in that. Maybe it will eventually be revealed that he is more of a human than we think, and somehow there is a projection of a monstery surface. I don’t know how that will work, but it’s interesting. I noted the same thing. What’s fun about the show is all the questions. What if you’re so busy offering up scientific explanations that you miss the terrifying supernatural event. You figure out that the scary noise is coming from the air vent, but it’s not really the answer to why your husband has become demon.
Your character seems unquestionably bad.
EMERSON: Right. I don’t think we have to worry about him being misunderstood.
Is there a freedom in that?
EMERSON: Yeah, I guess so. I’m trying to think of whether I’ve ever been burdened by the need to humanize villains that I’ve played. When I’ve played villains, they’ve been pretty much full-on and have been happy in their villainy, relishing it and proud of their successes. I won’t say that there’s goodness in every villain, but there is professionalism, a work ethic, and pride. Why do it half-way? Don’t be a half-ass demon. If I had anything remotely demonic in me, the playing of these characters would be a good way to deal with things, but I don’t have any wicked urges.
What can you say about the relationship between Leland and this group of people who seem to be interfering with what he’s doing?
EMERSON: I’m not sure yet, but I think he’s going to stay close for, for whatever reasons, as yet unexplained. David (Mike Colter) and Kristen (Katja Herbers) are targets for him. They’ve had the misfortune of attracting his attention, and he appears to have a history with David, of some sort, and secrets to be revealed. I don’t think he’s going to let go of them.
Does Leland view David as a true believer?
EMERSON: Yeah, well, they’re both on the inside of certain systems. I don’t know much belief is the issue, but they are co-witnesses of very dark events. Neither of them can kid the other about what they’ve seen. That’s an interesting battle.
Leland has created a normal life for himself, so that he can hide in plain sight.
EMERSON: He has a good cover. It’s a reasonable cover, and he plays it well. He appears to relish playing it, probably because he knows what he’s getting away with, when he’s off stage. You’d think he’d be so busy running some kind of dark net web of human demons that he wouldn’t have time. There are 60 of them It’s creepy when there’s a number. There are five dozen of them. That’s too many. Are they all totally gamed by Leland, or are some of them having it over on Leland? He’s not invulnerable. They’re going to turn the tables on him, now and then. It’ll be hard to eradicate.
Does he enjoy all of that drama?
EMERSON: He loves all of that. He loves the drama that he’s in control of. He’s petty that way, and childish. He’s totally a sociopathic psychopath, but he passes fairly well. He’s a high functioning maniac, it seems to me, so far.
Are there people in his life that aren’t aware of who he really is?
EMERSON: Most people, I would expect. That’s part of the pleasure of his deceit. He walks among us, and we don’t even know. He can have a little altercation at the supermarket and threats can be exchanged, but he can walk home smiling, knowing that he could put it all into action, so easily. He’s like the secret king.
Is he someone who would rather have recognition for his work, instead of hiding it?
EMERSON: He teases his adversaries with it. He teases David. But he’s so above it and so in control that he doesn’t need to brag or advertise himself. All in good time.
What do you enjoy about working with Mike Colter?
EMERSON: I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with anyone quite like him. He’s a cool guy. He’s so personable, and likes to sit around and gab. He’s like the best kind of neighbor. He’s fun loving, but without airs. I think the darker a show is, the more fun you have to have, when they say, “Cut!” At the end of the day, it’s make believe. There’s no use getting too involved with characters and storylines like this. No, this is to be clocked out of, just like you should clock out of Hamlet, at the end of the day. There are 15 guys around within 20 feet, and they’re all they’re thinking about how they need a smoke or when lunch is. It’s fun. There are gonna be days when we shoot something that’s terrifying, and we know it, just by the way that we hear it in our ears as we play, and when they say, “Cut!,” we are gonna crack up ‘cause we’re scaring ourselves, like we did when we were kids.
If this show was only about the darkness, then it wouldn’t be as interesting. You have to balance that with the lightness of life, as well.
EMERSON: Yes. Kristen’s gaggle of girls at home is such a strong image. I love them, by the way. They’re like a bunch of little monkeys, chattering and moving around, all the time. There can be no darkness in that world of hijinks. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it could be a reminder that all of these scary stories that we tell ourselves as grown ups, are just a grown-up version of those ghost stories we told each other at sleep-overs.
It makes you wonder whether all of their lightness keeps the demons away.
EMERSON: Maybe they’re the anti-venom of demon-ness. It’ll be cool to see how it spins out.
Do you want to keep the mystery with this character, for as long as possible?
EMERSON: Yeah, for as long as possible. I like him to be a little unknowable. He’s almost like mythological figure. In a lot of cosmologies, there’s some God of Mischief. That’s across all cultures. I learned on Lost that you don’t need to know where things are going. You can just play it day by day and scene by scene, and play it a certain way that doesn’t give everything away. You can ride that a long way. That’s where you have to trust the King’s curatorial skills. They will make this balanced experience that you’re hoping for, or that I’m hoping for.
EVIL airs on Thursday nights on CBS.