The Inverse Interview
'Evil' Season 2 finale: Michael Emerson explains what’s next for Leland in Season 3
“He’s always listening.”
Michael Emerson knows a thing or two about being on TV shows with deep mythologies and lots of secrets. But he is as clueless as the rest of us. The last thing he wants is to be told what will happen, yet he's usually playing characters who are two steps ahead of everyone else.
"It frees me up from being responsible for backstory or forward story," Emerson tells Inverse. "All I have to do is show up and play the scene that's on the page that day."
After playing a good guy on the very underrated sci-fi thriller Person of Interest, Emerson is back to playing the deliciously evil Leland Townsend on Evil, which just wrapped up its Season 2 finale.
Evil follows a group of investigators working with the Catholic church to assess whether events are paranormal or have perfectly reasonable psychological explanations. The show is one of the best horror TV shows of the past few years, combining psychological thrills with philosophical questions about morality and religion while also just being a darn scary show about demons and ghouls.
In an interview with Inverse, Emerson helps break down the season finale, where Leland seemingly gets everything he wants and is last seen leading his own evil church. He also teases what we can expect from Season 3.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Major spoilers of Evil’s Season 2 finale ahead.
Evil’s second season reached a whole new level in terms of mythology and mystery. How was it like seeing this unraveled?
Honestly, I had no idea where things were going to go. I wait until I get the script, and then I see what they've asked me to do. And it's usually something great. The change is in the writing team. They've gotten comfortable with this narrative and these characters that they're warming up to, and they have more and more good ideas about what we can do.
Certainly, for Leland Townsend, he's become more active. For me, it's great because I feel like he's now suddenly more theatrical. He's funnier; he's having a good time, which is both interesting and irksome. I think the audience is still trying to get a handle on him in the same way that I am actually because I don't know where it's going to go.
Do you have an idea in your mind of what Leland is planning in any particular scene?
I have to make plans because Leland is making plans. So I have to understand how he operates. I know that everything he does is part of an agenda. Even though I may not know all the details of the plan, and I certainly don't know who his comrades are, I still know that he's up to his business. And that's always playable because it's all micro strategies. He's always just trying to get a rise out of somebody to piss them off, make them do something, embarrass them, or, most importantly, shake their faith.
By the end of the season, it seems everything is coming up Leland. Do you think he has an ultimate goal in mind that he's working towards?
He seems to have a boundless ambition, and it seems to be mainly focused on the Catholic Church. It would be satisfying to him to get inside the church and begin to corrupt it from the inside, begin to destroy it or shake its foundations to ruin faith.
Now that he's infiltrated the team, they are all going to have to work together. How does that change the dynamic going forward to season 3?
It just means he's going to have more disguises. He's going to have to pretend and have more layers with more people. But he seems to delight in that in a way. He's an actor. He pretends a lot. And he means to provoke people at every level. The higher he climbs the hierarchy, the more dangerous and thrilling his work becomes.
Speaking of dangers, can you talk about that exorcism scene? Because there is a moment of real vulnerability that is very rare for Leland.
Well, Leland thought that he could outwit the exorcists, that he could pretend and make a mockery of their sacraments. But at some point, the exorcist had too much power and began to conjure something out of the inside of Leland. I think that scared him to death, and it left him weak, shaken, shattered. That's why he needed Cheryl to bring over the blood and the root beer to get his power back. He was in dangerous territory there for a while.
Playing that is hard work because it involves a lot of contractions, forced breathing, and wrestling with people. It's a great struggle to do many, many takes of those different scenes all day. And then sometimes they have to come up with voices seemingly coming out from inside me — voices that aren't my own. That's a hard thing to think through, to find those voices and then to do them in quick succession. All while flailing around and screaming.
One interesting thing about Leland is how carefree he seems at all times, except when he's with Sister Andrea. What does Leland see in her?
Those are great scenes because they are fully dangerous, and he doesn't know where he stands. Leland is not in control of those moments. It's like a showdown between gunslingers; she has some power unknown to him. He doesn't know if his stuff will work or not. She's going to be a real problem for Leland.
The finale ends with what I can only describe as “an inverse communion,” with Leland leading this ritual. What does this moment mean for Leland?
I wasn't prepared for that. Instead of playing it very breezy, or like it was a party, I thought, let's play it like we're at a place of worship. Let's slow it down. Let's have gestures. Let's have rituals. It turned out very disturbing.
In the last four to six episodes, we got into a place where we see Leland is part of some organizations. The people at these organizations each have a different habit or thing that they do. Leland is pleased to feel like he fits right in with whatever somebody's practices are. He can help make it more intense.
It seems like Leland is connected to everything bad that is happening on the show, but we don't know how he exactly is involved.
I just play who Leland is at all times, which is, he's eager and delighted and having a good time and learning more from people than he's giving out. He's always listening. And it wouldn't be cool for him to express a surprise or say, “Oh my God, I had no idea.” He has nature to say, “Oh yes.”
One of the big surprises was Leland seemed to recognize the fire Djinn that haunted Kristen. Previously, it seemed like only one character could see a demon in order to maintain the suspense of whether it was real at all. What does it mean for Leland?
The solution to that problem is to ask why he does not express surprise, disgust, horror, or embrace them. I like to play the boredom that comes with familiarity.
Like his psychologist, who was the goat-headed demon, I thought, what would make this scene strange and mysterious? I realized because the audience is seeing this creature for the first time and Leland has seen him hundreds of times; there's no surprise in it anymore. In fact, I'm sick and tired of him bossing me around. It's like a teenager with his dad; you don't want to hear it anymore. You're so over it. That's a way that scene gets weird.
So, I'm going to employ plain boredom on our show when it comes to the fellowship of other agents, the Dark Side. Leland’s immune to their violence or their scariness because he's already sold his soul to the devil. That makes him fear-proof.
Evil Season 2 is now streaming on Paramount+.