Michael Emerson's newest TV villain is way more "Evil" than Ben from 'Lost'
The star of CBS's new show talks 4chan, demons, and 'Lost's controversial ending.
Michael Emerson became a television star as Ben, the mysterious and manipulative leader of the “others” on Lost. On the ABC science fiction-infused drama, which ended almost 10 years ago, Ben’s true intentions were always a bit of a question mark, but in his latest role, Emerson is pure evil.
“This is way more theatrical a character than I’ve played before,” Emerson tells Inverse. “He’s like a demigod of misrule.”
Evil, which premieres September 26 on ABC, stars Emerson alongside Mike Colter (Luke Cage), Katja Herbers (Westworld), and Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show) in a primetime drama that’s half Mindhunter and half The Exorcist. The show pairs Herbers and Colter as a (platonic) odd couple investigating potential demonic possessions — he’s a priest in training, she’s a no-nonsense criminal psychologist — but Emerson steals the pilot episode as a rival psychologist who spouts insults as if he’s possessed by the devil himself. (When I ask if his character, Leland Townsend, is human or something more supernatural, Emerson deflects.)
"I think my character has a secret life on the dark web.
Evil is the latest series from Robert and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife and The Good Fight), and iff you’ve watched those shows, you know the Kings aren’t afraid of veering into political and cultural commentary. In the first episode, Evil ties a satanic cult to the infamous real-life message board 4chan, and according to Emerson, that’s just the beginning.
“You’re going to see the Kings address those issues very explicitly and directly in future episodes,” he says. “They’re highly political people and they have their opinions and they’re not shy about putting their opinions into the scripts of their work.”
Emerson adds that his own character is tied up in an larger plotline devoted to the darker corners of the internet, before referencing a cult called “the 60” that comes up briefly in the first episode of Evil.
“I think my character has a secret life on the dark web,” he says. “I don’t know what the exact nature of it, but the 60 seems to be some kind of organization or cult that shares a mission or is unwitting partners in a mission of Mr. Townsend’s making.”
Of course, I had to ask Emerson about Lost and its controversial ending as well, and he offered an optimistic and surprisingly convincing take on the series finale while also discussing the show’s lasting influence on television all these years later.
Read on for Emerson’s take on Lost, Evil, and more below. (The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Inverse: You play a pretty weird character in Evil. Who is Leland Townsend?
"Sometimes he’s a figment of people’s imaginations or he appears in their dream or in their fantasies.
Michael Emerson: I’m kind of discovering that as we go along. He’s a tricky character. This is way more theatrical a character than I’ve played before I think. He’s not quite so naturalistic. Sometimes he’s a figment of people’s imaginations or he appears in their dream or in their fantasies. And I get to do some really fun things that way. So the menace is tempered by uncertainty and humor in a way.
But if you ask me what his function is in this narrative, he seems to be a provocateur. I don’t know if he’s a psychopath or not. Maybe he is, but his mission in life is to create situations. Mess with people, mess with their head, and sit back and watch the fallout. Watch how stuff falls apart. He’s like a demigod of misrule.
How far into filming are you now?
Later today, I’m filming scenes from the sixth episode, but I have the script for seven on my desk here and I start work on that on Wednesday. We are approaching the halfway mark. This will not be a full network order. It’s not going to be 20 episodes. It’s going to be either 13 or 15 is my understanding, but I’m always the last one to hear that stuff.
Getting back to your character, do you think he’s a human, or is he something more supernatural? This is a show about demons and possession, after all.
"I’m way more interested in mystery than most other qualities.
Just like you, I don’t know. So my default in that state of unknowing is I try to operate in a neutral mode. Be many things but also charming without giving much away. Being kind of stateless or history-less. In most of my roles, my characters don’t seem, at least at first, to have lived any life before the moment. And it makes for a kind of mystery that’s engaging. I’m way more interested in mystery than most other qualities.
Is it true the same thing happened with Lost? That the showrunners weren’t sure what they would do with your character, Ben, until they saw you perform?
That’s right, and that I find myself in that situation a lot, which is a good place to be because I don’t really need to know. I don’t really need to have a character biography. If it’s needed for a certain scene, I’ll make one up on that day.
The first episode of Evil references 4chan, which has been in the news lately for terrible reasons. Can we expect a lot of political and cultural commentary from the show?
"The dark side of the internet is going to be really important.
You’re going to see the Kings address those issues very explicitly and directly and in future episodes because they’re highly political people and they have their opinions and they’re not shy about putting their opinions into the scripts of their work. The dark side of the internet is going to be really important, not just in the day-to-day episode thing, but I think in the narrative of the series.
I think my character has a secret life on the dark net. I don’t know what the exact nature of it, but you heard him refer to the 60. And the 60 hasn’t been made plain yet, but the 60 seems to be some kind of organization or cult that shares a mission or is unwitting partners in a mission of Mr. Townsend’s making. Something he controls. That could be played out over any many seasons. Maybe. It’s all pretty vague right now.
One of the weirdest parts of the pilot is George, an Incubus demon that haunts Katja Herbers’ character at night and may or may not be real. What do you think is happening with that character?
George is an interesting character. We’re seven episodes in and I don’t know any more about George than you probably know, but he’s there. So what is the nature of George? Is he something real? Is he some figment of Kristen’s imagination? I don’t know, but that’s a good question. And that’s one of those open-ended mysteries that they’re kind of teasing out.
George cuts off the main character’s fingers onscreen and talks about her underwear. It’s pretty intense? Is Evil pushing the boundaries for what’s allowed on CBS?
"I doubt this show would have got made when Les Moonves was in charge.
Yeah, I think they’re testing the boundaries of what CBS is comfortable with. I doubt this show would have got made when Les Moonves was in charge, but I think they have a new regime at CBS and I think they’re a little more excited about having some fun and pushing the envelope a little.
It’s hard not to see the influence of Lost on a show like Evil that’s packed full of supernatural mystery. What do you think Lost’s legacy is all these years later?
Lost led the way with some narrative ideas that they explored more fully than other people had done in the past, like flashbacks and flash sideways, inter-dimensionality, time travel. And it teased out a bunch of fairly interesting mysteries that kept people talking for the seven days between episodes.
I think it was fresh and kind of original in that way, and it has been much copied since then. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. I just mean, it made it okay to be a little more mysterious. To not have answers and not have a satisfying ending to every episode.
That ending was pretty controversial at the time and people still debate what it really meant. What did you think of the Lost finale?
"I liked making Lost’s ending spiritual and not some narrative cleverness or device.
I thought it was rather a fine and perfect ending for the series. The trajectory of any show dictates its ending, and Lost was a complex puzzle with narrative lines exploding in all directions. I think the only way to finish it in a satisfying way was to bring it back to the center. And I thought they did that by bringing it back to Jack, the beginning and end of his life and the possibility of it having meant something in some kind of spirit after life.
I liked making Lost’s ending spiritual and not some narrative cleverness or device or, oh, this is a dream or this all flash before his eyes in the moment of death. I don’t think any of that was true. Of course, all the things people wanted to claim for it were true in some metaphoric way. I guess that is a kind of purgatory. It is all those things that people like to chat about.
But at the end, I think the writers thought seriously about it, thought seriously about life and death and whatever legacy we may leave behind with our lives. And I thought they came up with the thing that honored the show and honored people’s performances and honored the time people had spent watching it. It always makes me a little sad that people are so unhappy with the ending, but, for my money, it was a splendid ending. I feel maybe I’m more convinced of that then even some of the writers were.
Last question: What do you think fans of Lost will like about Evil?
The things that the two shows have in common are kind of thrilling ambiguity and also an engagement with esoteric question, timeless questions of good and evil and human nature and mystery.
Evil premieres September 26 on CBS. You can watch Lost on Hulu.