Michael Emerson on the Evil Season 2 finale
Paramount + ‘s spooky and delightful drama Wrong finished his second season with several loose ends.
Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show balances complex scientific, supernatural and spiritual themes. He follows psychiatrist Dr Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), seminarian David Acosta (Mike Colter) and tech expert Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) as they work to prove or disprove possible hauntings and miracles. They meet their opponent in Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson), who may well be working with the Devil himself.
In season two, Leland doubles down on his nefarious activities, especially towards the end of the season. He took Kristen’s mother, Sheryl (Christine Lahti) under his wing to help him commit crimes. And in the finale, “C Is For Cannibal”, Leland tries to manipulate Kristen’s daughter. He juggles all of this while pretending to want an exorcism just to play with the priest-in-training David.
Leland loves chaos, and Emerson is aware that the trait is similar to one of his other well-known characters: Lost villainous Benjamin Linus.
Emerson’s memorable television performances stayed with audiences, from The practice To Lost To Person of interest, of which the latter lasted 103 episodes on CBS. The AV Club spoke to Emerson about how he is preparing for these monumental roles, being surprised by the Wrong scripts, and the actor he wants to work more with in season three.
The AV Club: What did you know about the direction of Leland’s story? As his story progresses, he keeps going deep into the deep end, and your performance really reflects that.
Michael Emerson: Thanks, but I had no idea and wouldn’t have done it any other way. I’ve done long series before and sometimes even the writers don’t know exactly where they’re going from season to season. Sometimes when I get the scripts I’m amazed at the things I have to do or the things they make me say as Leland. I completely agree with how much fun they are having with this character. It’s getting more and more theatrical, and I have to say it’s getting more and more funny as it goes.
AVC: The finale doesn’t fully explain what Leland did because there are so many moving parts. What’s her endgame here with Sheryl and the blood transfusions or with Lexis and hand her that Daffodil note?
ME: Much remains to be answered on this subject. Wrong and Leland just has mysteries upon mysteries. I know what its basic program and its mythologies are. It’s about creating as much chaos as possible and pushing people’s buttons. He is delighted. Whatever rituals or organizations he may belong to, or what his office might be that includes demons or potential demons, who knows. I’m as mystified by the finale as viewers are. I will say that part of his job is recruiting and management. But I can’t yet say if he’s a top officer or a bureaucratic drone in this big, dark business.
Stroke: Wrong Usually gives rational explanations of the affairs of the week being handled by the team, except when it comes to Leland. How does your current scenario add balance?
ME: I think there is a constant landscape against which leaders play their decisions or their indecisions about good against evil, their beliefs and their skepticisms. He’s here to make things harder for Kristen and David. I guess Ben too, but I haven’t really had a lot of scenes with Aasif Mandvi. It could be fun in season three, if Leland continues to work with the main team, if there can be some fun face-to-face interactions with him. I think Aasif is so dry and funny in his performance. One would have the impression to face pranksters, except very dangerous.
AVC: I liked the scene you had at the start of season two where Leland doesn’t remember his name and he says casually to Ben. I thought it was a cheeky nod to Lost. On that note, you’re well known for playing Ben Linus, who is another villainous character. Do you feel like Leland is often compared to him?
ME: [Laughs.] Yes, that was a funny nod, indeed. People are generally inclined to lump them together like two sinister characters that I played. I’ve thought about it and the more I do, the less overlap I see. Benjamin Linus is a tormented character in a spiritual crisis and he is serious. I don’t think there is much playfulness in Ben, as Leland is having a blast with power and powerful friends he never dreamed of having in his life. If he’s even human.
AVC: Well, we get part of Leland’s story, but without the context of reality. Do you know a lot about it, or do you and Kings talk about it?
ME: I never had a discussion about Leland’s origin with them.
AVC: How do you prepare to step into character then?
ME: I do it like all the characters that I have ever played. I read the text carefully and find their voices. If I can find one that seems to meet all the situations the character finds himself in, half the battle is won. I like to be sensitive to where the writing takes it. There are actors who want to be informed and who want to sit down with creators and bat ideas. I almost have a superstition against it. I do not want to know. I want to wait for the scripts to arrive on my computer. I will open it and it will be a big surprise.
AVC: It’s very interesting. Has it always been the case, even with Lost Where Person of interest?
ME: Yes. I learned to like it. I am happy like that. Ultimately, knowledge of what has happened before or what is to come is of no use to the actor. It can be a distraction sometimes because you might be thinking “I have to play it that way because I know what’s going to happen in two episodes.” I want to be free from this. All I want to do is play the scene as directly as possible. Or as straight as my character can be.
AVC: Leland is definitely not that. He gets more cheeky with each episode. It must be a lot of fun to play that.
ME: Everything is unexpected. The Kings got me doing things I thought I’d never do in my professional life, whether doing funny dances in a field for a vision David has, or being submerged in a tub of fake blood. I often look at the script and say, “Really? I wonder how this will work. And then it does.
Stroke: Wrong does not necessarily take sides in the supernatural versus science debate. Do you feel like your own take on these themes has evolved since you started working on the show?
ME: Guess they did as we get these scripts full of personal dilemmas and challenges. Even if you’re not in crucial scenes, you read the entire script and you’re like, “Oh, that’s an interesting take on this problem.” Many of the show’s issues seem obvious and the answers seem obvious, but they are fully fleshed out. So I often think, “Oh, I don’t know where the truth is here.” As we do this, we feel some of that ambiguity that some audience experiences.
AVC: Are you often the most recognized for Ben Linus or Finch, and is Leland now climbing the charts? He distinguishes between being entertaining and frustrating, so people like to either love him or hate him. Are reactions polarized?
ME: You put it correctly. It’s about 50-50 with Lost and Person of interest. And now more and more people are going to say, “You’re that crazy demon type.” But that’s the range. People like to half-consciously confuse actor with character. They know it’s imaginary, but if you spend enough hours watching a person behave in a certain way, it is bound to happen. If people run into me on the street now, they’re confused.
Stroke: Will your wife Carrie Preston make an appearance on Wrong? You’ve appeared on each other’s shows in the past, with her on Person of interest and your role in Claws.
ME: She’s part of the Kings repertoire so that would be cool. It could be that Carrie’s presence on Wrong would come as a director rather than a player. she directs The good fight and it would be an easy transition to come to this one, even if it is a different kind of show. It is not out of the question. It would be fun and embarrassing. On set it’s like, “I know you and I don’t know you, and now I have to pretend I don’t know you.” It always makes us laugh. It makes us shy.