Evil - Michael Emerson interview

Michael Emerson plays Dr Leland Townsend, an occult expert intent on evil.

How would you describe Evil?

Evil is a show written by Robert and Michelle King which means it is very smart. What I love about their shows is the way they always assume the audience is intelligent. The Kings are not afraid to pitch complexities at you, just like they did on The Good Wife. They bring that same sense of detail and nuance to these tales of the inexplicable in Evil.

How would you describe Leland Townsend?

He is an unquestionable villain, but his background and motives are obscure. I think he's in top form. He seems to feel no self-consciousness or guilt at all about his behaviour. He's never been happier because he's succeeding at subverting a sense of the rule of law and civil order. He has his henchmen and life is good.

How easy is it to play a character who has little or no empathy?

It's very easy because I don't have to live and breathe it. I just have to enact it and say the lines in the script. This experience has been fun for me because it's a chance to play villainy again. When I've played villains in the past, it's been a question of playing the wrong subtext or the wrong intention, so your attitude is inappropriate to the moment. If people are being hurt and he's having fun, that's inappropriate; it's villainous. But it's fun to play and it doesn't cost me a lot of darkness of heart. It's like playing make believe. It's delicious. Villains are always more fun to play because they have more secrets, more mysteries and more false faces. And each villain is different.

What makes Leland Townsend different to other villains?

I think it's his mocking tone. It's his superciliousness. He thinks he's so damn smart and it's all a laugh. It's a joke. All these poor humanoids aren't clued in the way he is.

Could he be described as pure evil?

Perhaps part of the quest of the show is to see if there is such a thing as a pure evil. I don't know. The jury's out on that. However, my character does have a few redeeming qualities. He's fun, he has a sense of humour and he's quick-witted.

Robert and Michelle King have hinted that audiences might see social media used as a tool for evil in the show. Is your character involved in this?

I think so. He keeps making cryptic references to an organisation he calls The Sixty. My guess is that these are people who have lost their way in some kind of dark chatroom or a site where they are encouraged to fantasise about their worst thoughts.

What makes the Kings' authorship so compelling and engaging in Evil?

As Michelle King would say, as long as they've been writing legal shows, their conversations at home have often been about supernatural events that they've read about in the papers or supernatural stories they've heard about at parties. They've been picking apart these stories for years. I think the scripts are an outgrowth of those conversations. And what better couple to compose a narrative out of that than they who are so thoughtful and smart and so trusting as the Kings. What I've always adored about everything they've written is the way that nothing has to be watered down or dumbed down. They will tackle the most complex legal issues and, in this case, they may tackle some really complex issues of perception and church issues, which we don't get to talk about that much. Their storytelling is always complex and intelligent.

Can you tease what kind of issues surrounding the church are tackled in the show?

Mike Colter's character is a priest in training. His seminary experience is somewhat unusual. As we move forward, we will see more of how he works with some higher church men who have special charges, as the Catholic church does. These are the men who are charged with looking into exorcisms and demonic possessions, as well as the casting out of devils and spirits. I guess he's doing his graduate work on these very issues. I think his position represents the church's position, which is, "We don't talk about it much, but these things are out there and if you ever really saw what it was like, you might question your own safety or your own security."

Of all the philosophical questions asked in Evil, which interests you the most?

I am interested in why people are drawn to the consideration of these issues, these stories and the speculations they indulge in after the sun goes down. What is it about ghosts? What is it about possession? What is it about miracles? Is any of this real? If it's real, how does it come to be real? Are there people out there faking it?

Do you personally believe in ghosts or the supernatural?

I have not seen a ghost. However, at different times in my adult life, I have consumed ghost stories. I don't know what draws me to them. Atmosphere, perhaps? I'd have to say that in the broad light of day, I have not seen, nor do I necessarily believe in these things - but I must entertain it somewhere in my subconscious. In my family, there are some mysteries that seem like they're on the periphery of something supernormal.

Tell us more about these family mysteries!

Dreams. Premonitions. That kind of thing. To be honest, I think most of these revelations and mysteries come as a byproduct of our own mind or the byproduct of our own mind by way of suggestion by others. Or perhaps they come from some kind of group inspiration or fantasy.

Have you ever participated in a séance or visited a palm reader?

No, I haven't done much of that personal participation - but I have known people that got deeply into Ouija Board situations that got quite dark. Once a week, they would 'speak' to a person who said they'd been murdered. This person gave them more and more detailed and graphic descriptions of who, where, what and when. Eventually, they got so overheated that they decided to open up their own investigation into the murder. Do I believe in it? Personally, I don't think there's a supernatural agency at work there, other than the human imagination.

Does the show tap into any fear or anxiety in the world around us at the moment?

I have an allergy to topical material. I tend not to be drawn to work on shows that tackle issues of the day. To me, this show seems eternal and I like it that way. This quest or this project that the investigators on our show are tackling, it seems like they could have been doing this 100 or 1,000 years ago, so it feels timeless to me.

Why do you try to stay away from topical material?

Because it hasn't percolated in the human mind long enough to be poetic. When it comes to current events or current tragedies, I don't want to see the movie the next year because I think it will be reportage and not digested. I think mostly in terms of plays. I don't know many good plays that are written about a real event without there being a period of time during which a point of view made itself apparent or the right language made itself apparent; when it could rise to a state of being somehow heightened.

There are some dark and sinister storylines in Evil. Does the material stay with you after you've left the set?

Only in a really pleasurable way. It's fun in the course of your weekday to explore the grey areas on the fringes of consciousness and daily life. Just like a good ghost story or gathering around a campfire, it's fun to see where we can go. But I don't think it's made me more susceptible to nightmares or anything like that. I'm fine!