Michael Emerson Talks Evil's Leland Townsend: "He'd be More Laughable if He Wasn't So Dangerous and Deadly."

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If you have yet to watch Evil on Paramount+, you couldn't pick a better time to start than the week of Halloween.

Those of us who have been watching along know that Michael Emerson's Leland Townsend is one of the greatest villains to hit TV in a very long time.

The writing is fantastic, sure, but it's Emerson's performance that solidifies Leland's menacing behavior.

That's a Laugh - Evil Season 3 Episode 5

Throughout his career, Emerson has enormously impacted us with his villainous characters because he seems to have so much fun portraying them.

Whether it was Lost's Ben Linus, a serial killer on The Practice, or Evil's Leland, Emerson approaches his dark characters with ambiguity and a healthy dash of comedy, making it impossible to root against even the most dastardly of characters.

Why Is He Even Here? - Evil Season 3 Episode 4

Emerson feels like Leland is a good fit for him. "Even in the pilot, where Leland doesn't have much to do, I thought, 'Oh. Oh, I see. This could go places. This could really be something.'

"If their idea is that he is their antagonist and he is the sort of mischief-maker and their ongoing adversary, enemy, what have you, I thought, 'Oh, this could be fun.' And it has turned out to be just that."

Emerson sees the benefits of playing Leland and how he stands apart from previous roles.

"He's more flamboyant and carefree, I'd say. There's nothing tortured about him. He doesn't have misgivings or anguish or any of that stuff," Emerson said.

"He, I think, kind of delights in his work, which is to sow mayhem wherever he can, and he finds opportunity for it everywhere he turns. He kind of sees through people in his own way, and he likes to provoke them, tease them, or corner them into compromising their stated ethics."

The first two seasons of Evil left a lot more to the imagination than Evil Season 3 does. By the end of the third season, there's little doubt that Leland is dancing with the devil and he's roped others into his macabre world.

How the storytelling has changed in that regard hasn't affected how Emerson portrays Leland. "I pay attention to the script because it is the notes I play. If you're thinking of the role as musical, it is the notes I have to play. It's the score.

"I have my own way of interpreting it, which I have applied to all the seasons and episodes, and I don't feel like I've ever strayed from the path or that the path has changed that much."

If the story around him has changed, and he finds himself in new and exciting places, Emerson says, "it's always good old Leland at the end of the day."

Inexplicably, Leland managed to trick the clergy into thinking he was a changed man, following the Lord's faith, which led to some delicious scenes in the church.

Leland's inclusion in the Church's investigation into Sister Andrea raised more than a few viewers' eyebrows, but it was just another day at the church once Leland tipped the tables in his favor.

"Yeah, everybody thinks he's a man of God, or he pretends to be, and yet here he is positively the devil, but he's also kind of childish and careless in a way," Emerson shared.

When Leland killed Monsignor, he literally danced down the staircase with a wicked grin on his face. Emerson said, "So proud of himself. He thought, 'By God, I took care of that, finally. Who says I'm not manly?'"

"He's dangerous, but he's also absurd at the same time. He'd be more laughable if he weren't so dangerous and deadly."

Another scene found Emerson and scene partner Tim Matheson as Edward as they prepare to dispatch of Kristen's husband, Andy Bouchard when they are interrupted and must refocus their efforts. Evil and an uncanny ability to take a creepy scene and make it lighthearted fun.

Leland Gets Down - Evil Season 3 Episode 3

"And the fact that they inserted a little bit of the American musical theater into it, I thought, 'Oh, they'll never keep this,' but they did. They actually made more of it. It turned out that Tim Matheson also knew the lyrics to that song.

"I don't know if he had been in it sometime in his younger days or something like that, but we had a ball. And we could harmonize the end of the song. Everybody laughed," Emerson said.

No matter how ghoulish or bloody the task, Leland enjoys himself immensely. "I think he's a person that sleeps well at night. Business is good for him, and he's getting a lot done.

"I'm still not sure what his real position is. He must have bosses, but it's unclear to me who they are and how far up the demonic or diabolical hierarchy they go. But somewhere at the top is Lucifer."

Emerson thought for a while that his "goad-headed psychiatrist was Lucifer," but when Leland killed him, he realized they were probably on equal footing. Emerson doesn't even know where the stinky being called "The Manager" fits into the equation.

Doom Scrolling - Evil Season 3 Episode 2

"He's a demon, but I don't know if he's higher up. I guess Leland kind of answers to him, at least on that project, the project of doomscrolling on the internet. It's a pretty cool idea and pretty terrifying if you think about it."

Evil creators Michelle King and Robert King have a knack for using cultural moments, sometimes to the extremes.

"Well, they're not afraid. They see this stuff in the culture, and they think, 'Oh, this is a problem. How can we explore that? How can we exploit that and make drama of it and skewer it at the same time?'"

Their storytelling sometimes makes you feel a little weird being a part of it, especially when you think, Oh, it's kind of demonic, now that you mention it.

Everything about what happened in the doomscrolling business this season was mindblowing, from the cryptocurrency to influencers. It's just so on-the-nose and really kind of scary, especially because we're looking at it from a demonic perspective.

Leland Wants In on the Action - Evil Season 3 Episode 2

"Yeah. And if you're like me, you've known all along that something was a little bit wrong about all this, but then they make it rather explicit. They rather spell it out for you. They show you how it plays out in worst-case scenarios, and it's terrifying."

As TikTok and other social media platforms make questionable things commonplace, the Kings' material shakes you out of your reverie, forcing you to see it from a different perspective.

"I won't go as far as to say that our show is good for people, but in addition to it being entertaining, it is also, I'll say, thought-provoking."

Emerson thinks that it was a dual effort between Leland and Sheryl to offer up her son-in-law for sacrifice. "Well, they both had motive. I'd say it was a joint plan," he said.

"Leland already had the facilities, but she's played her role pretty thoroughly. And she's in a bind, but on some level, I think she cares about her family, just not her son-in-law. Would've been all right with her if he disappeared."

There's a Cockroach in the Church - Evil Season 3 Episode 5

Needing to change their plans midway has left Andy altered in some way. "He's not 100% Andy anymore. I don't know. Some sections of his brain are AWOL."

Evil Season 3 Episode 10 revealed the ultimate destination of Kristen's egg missing from the fertility clinic. Leland got his hands on it, added himself into the equation, and their child will be born through a surrogate.

"Only the Kings could come up with this one. That's crazy. I don't know. We'll see how that plays out. Kristen's not going to stand for this. But what can she do?"

Bit by bit, Leland has frayed Kristen's relationships so that she is running out of people to trust with her issues. Sheryl was the first, Andy's mind is leaning toward mush, and Dr. Boggs chucked all common sense to achieve his goal of being a writer.

"He's flaked out and gone over to the dark side," Emerson said of Kurt Boggs. Leland saw Boggs' vulnerability and played him to the hilt. "I didn't have to hold a gun to anybody's head, least of all Dr. Boggs."

Checking on Their Latest Victim - Evil Season 3 Episode 6

When we talked with Kurt Fuller, he seemed anxious about what was coming for his characters. Little did we know what was in store. "I'm sure he's delighted," Emerson said of Fuller's darker storyline.

"He's a very funny and antic guy. I'm sure he thought, 'There's got to be more for me to do on this show,' and now, of course, careful what you wish for because now he's really in it."

There are so many CG effects that would be lost on those creating this incredible story, and Emerson watches the show along with us. He's unlike some actors who swear off of watching themselves on screen.

"We make a party of it. Anytime we're home on Sunday night, the family gathers together and watches. Everybody hoots and poots and makes comments, and sometimes they scream, or they groan. It's a lot of fun."

As we chatted about what could lie ahead for Leland, Emerson considered Leland going on TV. "I don't know in what capacity, like a talk show. But maybe he goes on America's Got Talent or something, only he's gaming it, and he's hypnotizing people somehow while he's doing it."

That idea seemed less likely when Emerson realized how many of his many talents the show has already utilized. "They've explored every talent I own and then some. I've never had to sing and dance. I've never done as many goofy things for a part as I have for this one."

He said some of the material he gets seems impossible at first, but then he goes home and works on it, realizing, "I can do that. I can do that in a funny way."

With only three seasons behind us, Evil has been an embarrassment of riches for the talented actor. Still, he can pinpoint his favorite moment from the show.

"Well, my single favorite line is when Kristen has a knife at my throat in her mom's garage apartment, and she cuts me and tells me how long I have before I'll bleed out. I say to her, 'I have never been so turned on by you.' I could hardly do it with a straight face," he laughed.

Emerson says he's not one of those people clamoring to get their hands on the next script. He likes to have no idea what's coming his way before it's time to get back into it.

This Can't End Well - Evil Season 3 Episode 2

He thinks the writers' room is hitting its stride and looks forward to where they'll be taking the story as it continues, and he believes it's been made easier with the transition to Paramount+.

"It's a little more freeing. I think it's just a bump up in terms of audience for us. I think Evil was a slightly harder sell on CBS, the conservative legacy network than it is on a streamer.

"But one of the side effects of that is a more liberal aesthetic. We can be more profane, more blasphemous, more violent, more sexy, and that's been a plus, I think. We'd have been fine without it, but I do think the show is just a little edgier, a little racier."

He's not sure what numbers the show gets, but he knows they've got viewership. We talked a bit about word of mouth for weekly drops on Paramount+ rather than the binge model some other streaming networks use.

The weekly drop promotes conversation and theorizing and builds anticipation for what's ahead, all of which is lost when an entire season drops. Instead of anticipation for the next episode, viewers are already anticipating their next show. Word-of-mouth promotion has a much more limited window.

Leland Has a Friend - Evil Season 3 Episode 4

"That's why a show like Lost had a kind of perfection about it was that seven-day wait between episodes. That just whetted the appetite, I think. It raised the stakes. It made it a thing to tune into."

TV Fanatic and other sites came into being based on episodic television, fanning the flames with stories about what happened and what may come next. Emerson sees a parallel to televised sports, which garner TV's greatest ratings.

"We have the games at set times each week, and then we have the week to chat about it, analyze it, make comparisons and predictions."

While sports compare plays, time with the ball, and coaching decisions, episode television allows for character analysis, discussions about plot, and theorizing about what's next.

Some further discussion led Emerson to a wistful moment. "I'm glad, in a way, that I'm closer to the end of my career than the beginning, so I don't have to spend a lot of time strategizing how to survive in this landscape. Where do I go? But maybe it's as simple as it always was, which is to follow good writing."

Sheryl Delivers News - Evil Season 3 Episode 8

Good writing has always been at the core of Michelle and Robert King's success, and Evil keeps getting better. It seems like Emerson is right where he's supposed to be.

In between seasons, Emerson isn't taking a long hiatus from his craft. "I've been working on a kind of never-ending action-adventure pilot that Jonah Nolan is doing.

"He was the one who did Person of Interest, so he brought me in to do a guest spot on this other show. It's been heavy work and a lot of violence and outdoor stuff, so to have it done is kind of a relief."

We laughed about the effects of aging in a nonstop business. "I guess I can keep doing it as long as it gets slightly less athletic. I thought, 'Are you kidding me? I'm going to have a knife fight with Boris McGiver?' Both of us are old Shakespeare actors from New York who had long since given up on combat."

Scenes like that energize Emerson. "Yeah, you're energized. You're also tired and relieved that it's over and no one is injured.

Death Threat - Evil Season 3 Episode 5

"Because I don't care how safe you are and how many stunt coordinators you have in the room. If you do a thing like that over and over again, there's going to be a take where the knife gets away from you, or you're slammed up against a stone wall, and it has a little protrusion in it that bruises you."

We don't have much information on what he's been working on with Nolan, but Emerson did offer hits that it's a series for Amazon. "It's huge. A cast of thousands and extreme special effects and digitization, and some technologies that are brand new. It's really going to be something."

Don't worry. Emerson isn't leaving Evil; he's contractually bound to Paramount+ for the duration. "They were gracious enough to let me do a little summer gig," he said.

But what about Halloween? How does a man with so many wickedly awesome roles find a way to celebrate? Vicariously.

Checking on the Progress - Evil Season 3 Episode 8

Once upon a time, Emerson says, he loved Halloween. He couldn't wait to score a great costume and get into the holiday spirit. Becoming a working actor has tempered that excitement, though.

"It's because I put on makeup and wigs and clothes every day at work and play a character, a make-believe character. I don't have that urge to do it anymore."

Between him and his wife, Carrie Preston, they have created memorable characters that transform others for Halloween. "Sometimes people send me pictures of kids dressed up as my character. It's so funny," he said.

All three seasons of Evil are currently available for viewing on Paramount+. If you have yet to get your costume ready, let Evil be your guide!

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on X and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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Evil Quotes

Acosta: The Church has a backlog of about 500,000 requests for exorcisms and miracle appraisals, and my colleague Ben and I are hired by the Church to investigate unexplained phenomenon and recommend whether there should be an exorcism or further research.
Kristen: I didn’t know that was a job.
Acosta: It is.

Kristen: Why did you give my therapy notes to a serial killer?
Townsend: You’re in way over your head, Ms. Bouchard. Why don’t you leave this to the professionals?
Kristen: Who are the professionals?
Townsend: Your boy toy Acosta, Leroux, the Sixty.
Kristen: Who are the Sixty?
Townsend: People who know who you are, now. Hey, that session No. 37 was a juicy one, wasn’t it? ‘I just want my daughters gone so I can have my freedom.’ Just say the word Kristen, and ‘Poof, they’re gone.’ No one blames you, no guilt; just four little caskets.
Kristen: Go to hell.
Townsend: With pleasure. In fact, I’ll make room for your daughters.