Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Evil's Michael Emerson Reveals What It Takes To Be Diabolical And Looks Back On His Time On Lost - Exclusive Interview

Although his role as antagonist Benjamin Linus on "Lost" will forever define him, Michael Emerson has had an illustrious acting career beyond that.

Prior to joining "Lost," Emerson won an Emmy for a memorable guest turn as a serial killer on "The Practice" and starred in the original "Saw" film. But joining "Lost" in season two significantly upped his profile, even winning him another Emmy. As the morally ambiguous Ben, Emerson starred on five of the six seasons of the critically acclaimed ABC show, which ended in 2010 with a controversial series finale.

Since then, Emerson has starred on the science fiction crime drama "Person of Interest" and appeared on the DC Comics-based superhero series "Arrow." In 2019, he took on another titillating bad guy in the form of Dr. Leland Townsend on the supernatural drama "Evil." Season one of the series aired on CBS while season two, which is streaming now, is available on subscription service Paramount+.

As Leland, Emerson plays a diabolical forensic psychologist who's a master manipulator that literally does the Devil's work. Created by Robert and Michelle King ("The Good Wife"), "Evil" also stars Katja Herbers ("Westworld"), Mike Colter ("Luke Cage"), and Aasif Mandvi ("The Daily Show").

Emerson recently opened up about his affinity for playing villains during an exclusive interview with Looper, in which he also explored the personal dilemmas he faces on the set of "Evil" and reflected on his time on "Lost" and whether a series revival might be in the future.

Michael Emerson thinks it's 'fun' to play a remorseless sinner on Evil

First, I've got to say, you make a delicious bad guy. How does one do that so well?

Well, I think I handle the language that they write for me with some ease and I think, why not have fun with it? It must be some fun to be a remorseless kind of villain. So, I just try to relax and have it all be a game.

What attracted you to your character on "Evil"? And, in general, what attracts you to the characters you usually portray?

I like characters that are verbal and have a bit of mystery about them, and a bit of wit. That usually is something in, sort of, the sinister end of things. I don't often play regular guys. I don't know, I just don't come off that way. I mean, the tone of my voice, the shape of my face, all of that. I think it's kind of made for something odd or ... what's the word? Just a trace of grotesquery. I guess I am drawn to them. I do think that the bad guys are usually more interesting than the good guys.

What is your favorite episode of "Evil" so far, and why?

There's a lot of favorites. I mean, in season one the episode that scared me the most, that worried me the most, was maybe one of the best. The one where I sort of convince a young incel man to get revenge on women with guns. That was one where I thought, "Oh shoot, this is not just bad, this is sort of the badness of our cultural moment. And sort of frightening to portray." So, that was one where, I don't know, I had to get some reassurances that this wasn't too far, that this wasn't beyond the pale, that this wasn't somehow a destructive performance in the real world. The way it was written and the way the episode ended, I think, it was good. These are the issues and the dilemmas that the Kings like to explore. And I like that, too. I think it's smart stuff and it's for grownups. So, I'm glad we go there, but sometimes it's kind of breathtaking.

Piggybacking on that, is there anything about the show that spooks you out in some way or follows you home after filming? Has anything ever happened on set that hit too close to home?

You know, I was brought up a Catholic boy. And season two in particular, there's indulgence and a lot of blasphemy with respect to the church and it's sacraments. Sometimes, I stop and think, "Wow, I am really a blasphemer right here." I hope a lightning bolt doesn't come from the heavens and strike me down for some of the things I say as my character.

Michael Emerson talks real-life demons and working with Mike Colter

Do you personally believe in demons and the occult?

I wouldn't go that far. I do believe in stuff that's a little paranormal with respect to dreams or premonitions or interesting coincidences, visitations, things like that. That kind of thing, not really monstrous creatures. The monstrous creatures from my dreams and stuff are a little more vague. A little more indefinite, just certain shapes or darkness or something. But I do enjoy the creatures that we're making on "Evil." They are a lot of fun and kind of plausible in the terms in which the show presents them, which is, are we really seeing this? Are the characters really seeing this? Or are these products of the imagination, or spirits, or something? I don't know. But I like walking that tightrope the way the show does. You know, we're never quite sure. We're never quite sure what is a function of something scientific or what is a function of something, what's the other, of the spirit.

I've got to say, George the demon freaks me out.

Yeah. It is scary. At the same time, he's quite flawed and he has a sense of humor. So, what are we to make of that?

I don't know. It's creepy, though.

It is. But it's kind of creepy fun. Rather than just creepy, where you haven't slept for a week. Or maybe you didn't sleep for a week...

I've got to tell you, the nightmares portrayed on the show ... sometimes when I'm watching it I think, "I hope I don't have nightmares tonight."

And we have more creatures from the other side coming this season.

What's it like working with Mike Colter? Any moments on the set of "Evil" that stand out with him?

He's a real professional actor. We come in with business. You know, we gab between takes, but when the camera rolls he plays his role very seriously. And I do my best to upset him as his character. I do my best to shake his confidence in his faith. That's my whole mission as Leland.

Michael Emerson understands why Lost was both 'satisfying and frustrating' for fans

Now, I'm curious about Leland's occasional inability to remember Aasif Mandvi's character Ben's name, or pretending to. Is that a subtle joke about your iconic character Ben on "Lost"?

Wow, no, I never thought of it that way. I don't think so. To me, I always just attribute it be that he's just cavalier with people and has bad manners. He only remembers the names of the important people. So, Ben's not high enough rank to merit his full attention.

Do you see any connection between Leland Townsend and Benjamin Linus?

No. Benjamin Linus was often a bad person but he didn't relish it. He was more in earnest. Benjamin was conflicted and he showed it. And he was often quite desperate. Leland doesn't really seem very desperate. Leland is playing a big game, and he's winning more than he's losing, and he likes the game, I would say.

What does "Lost" mean to you?

I mean, it's kind of a touchstone — maybe I'm mixing up metaphors here — but it is the standard by which my work continues to be measured or compared since then. It's a great part, and you can't predict when a show will be that strong, that popular, and get under people's skin in that way. I still talk to more people on the street about "Lost" than I probably do about "Evil," even though "Evil" is more current. "Lost" just never goes away. People that were too young to watch it before are now binging on it.

Do people ask you to explain the ending?

Sometimes. People will lead with this, they'll say, "Oh, I love that show, but I didn't like the ending." I won't offer to explain it but I'm ready if someone wants it. But it may not satisfy them because they were looking for something neater or more conclusive. You know, something that answered all the questions. But I never thought that. I never wanted that. I just wanted it to come somehow full circle spiritually, and not have the ending be a gimmick or a literal purgatory. It was a purgatory but not in the way people made [it out to be]. It was a lot of things, it was all kinds of things, and that's why the show was both satisfying and frustrating in equal measure, I think. No easy answers. That's it, there's no easy answer.

Michael Emerson reveals why there may never be a Lost revival

Since there have been some rumors about it, what do you think of a potential "Lost" revival? And would you want to be part of it?

Wow. I don't know who's saying that. It would be tricky. I mean, I couldn't name you a handful of the original actors that would do it. Maybe I'm wrong about that. But I think I could speak for anyone else that was in that original show that it would have to be a hell of a new take on it, a hell of a new angle. We would all have to be playing something kind of brand new. So, I don't know. Can that be done and still be that same character by name, but what would it be? A prequel? A sequel? I don't know. Here's the thing, you would never get that duo of writers to do it again, I don't think.

It's tough, but there are a lot of rumors — or hopes — out there right now, though...

That's interesting. That's food for thought. What would it take? What would I have to see on the page to say, "Oh, let's do that again"?

The great thing about the show though is that it could go any way — the way it was written, the way it ended, you could open it up in so many different directions to some extent.

Yeah, I suppose. I suppose there's a way, if the writing was good enough, to pick up one of the "Lost" threads. You know, pick up on that idea of Hurley and Ben ruling the island for a period of time. And what if the show was then more funny. Serious, but more light-hearted. I don't know. Interesting question.

You voiced the Joker in the animated "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" franchise, and you also appeared on "Arrow," so you're officially part of the DC Universe. What's it like being part of that world?

Well, it's daunting. It's so popular, and it's popular with people that are making comparisons. So, you know, you see those top 10 Joker lists or top 10 Avengers or top 10 things and you think, "Oh my God, it's so scary to take on." Even with an animated feature, to take on a franchise character like the Joker, you think, "Oh my God." The potential to fall on your face there and become a laughingstock is fairly high. So you worry about it a bit. You have to kind of readjust your own self-critical perspective and try to just have fun with it. And yet, also, not too much be in the business of reinventing the wheel, you know? Especially if it's a voice-only performance.

It's better to be conscious of traditional ways that character expresses himself, like the Joker. You can't make him fuzzy and warm. You can't give him a purring kind of a voice. I just feel like it's essential to the character that his voice is raspy and crackles, it's shrill, it's unforgiving, it's laced with a venomous kind of fun — and that laugh. You kind of have to honor those things and then find your way within that fairly narrow tradition to make it your own somehow.

Season two of "Evil" is now streaming on Paramount+, with new episodes airing every Sunday.