When you speak with Michael Emerson, you spend the the first few minutes of your conversation marveling at how…normal he sounds. If you’ve seen him as Leland Townsend in Evil on Paramount+ or as Benjamin Linus in the medium-shaking masterpiece Lost, you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. For him to talk you into a sinister plan. To construct a terrifying scheme before your very eyes.
But Emerson laughs more than the people he plays on TV. He’s thoughtful, clearly thinking through each answer before he gives it, measuring every word. And he’s more than happy to keep playing weirdos and creeps, telling me during our interview that he doesn’t even know how to play a “soft-hearted” character.
On Evil (whose second season is currently streaming on Paramount+) Emerson plays Leland Townsend, one of the most chilling villains on television at the moment. Is he a literal vessel of Satanic power or just one of the most organized psychopaths in TV history? The show hasn’t made that clear yet. And Emerson himself doesn’t know. But he stands as an ongoing obstacle to the show’s leads, a trio of investigators working for the Catholic Church to prove and/or debunk supernatural mysteries. He’s one of the few actors who can make hulking co-star Mike Colter look positively small in a scene, using his voice and his voice alone.
I recently spoke with Emerson about his work on Evil, how not knowing his character’s truth helps his performance, what it’s like to act alongside a giant demonic goat, and yes, that famous “You guys got any milk?” scene from Lost.
But before we get to all of that: Emerson recognized my area code, so we broke the ice chatting about Austin, Texas, where I reside. And where he’s spent a few fun nights.
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