Michael Emerson Dishes On Evil Season 3 And His Memories Of Lost - Exclusive Interview

This article contains mild spoilers for the first two episodes of "Evil" Season 3.

Paramount+ 's "Evil" straddles the line between satire and supernatural drama as it examines the nuances of good, evil, science, and religion, and there's no one quite as well suited to bring life to the series' sneaky villain as Michael Emerson. Perhaps best known for "Person of Interest" and his Emmy-winning roles in "Lost" and "The Practice," Emerson brings a mischievous air to Dr. Leland Townsend, a forensic psychologist who works behind the scenes to sabotage the work of Dr. Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers) and Catholic priest David Acosta (Mike Colter) as they try to make sense of darkness in the everyday world.

As Emerson told The List in an exclusive interview, portraying "a bad guy who was an interesting bad guy" is a role he can sink his teeth into — no demonic pun intended. We might only be three episodes into the show's third season, but as its universal critical acclaim and the fans who have followed it from CBS to streaming service Paramount+ show, "Evil" remains one of television's most riveting and daring programs. We talked about what to expect from the rest of its "wild" run, how the character has challenged Emerson, his memories of "Lost," and why he's just as excited as the audience to see what happens next every Sunday on "Evil."

His villainous character on Evil often works from the sidelines

I've been catching up on "Evil" — this new season's really great. What attracted you to the role of Dr. Leland Townsend?

I try always to follow good writing, and [series creators Robert and Michelle King] are ... Everybody understands that they're great television writers. They write shows for grown-ups, and I appreciate that, so the pedigree of the project seemed really good. Then when I saw what it was about, that it was a conversation about good and evil and about trying to find explanations for the inexplicable or those seemingly supernatural and that there was an element of horror or — I don't know — demonology about it ... All of those sounded pretty good to me. Even though I didn't appear a lot in the pilot, I could see the potential of the part, that he would become the nemesis, and that appealed to me, to be a bad guy who was an interesting bad guy and the mystery.

There's definitely some levity in the series, but you're filming a lot of intense scenes. Is there any downtime with the actors where you guys goof around, or is it something you have to separate yourself from sometimes?

We're not a playful cast that much. Everybody seems to take the job seriously. Mike [Colter] and Katja [Herbers] goof off, and certainly he's funny, but I'm sad to say that I don't have that many scenes with those lead characters. I occupy a place on the fringes. I don't know how to describe my position there except that I'm always nearby. I'm always in the background making something happen, and I'm connected to much that they investigate that is negative and terrifying.

The show's satirical and unique viewpoint has made him 'more open-minded'

The series is this interesting mix of religious, supernatural drama and comedy. Has it changed the way you thought about life or good and bad in the world at all?

Oh, I don't know. I'm old enough that my personality and perceptions are fairly well set, but ... the same way that "Person of Interest" made me think about surveillance in a different way, this show makes me think a little harder about things like possession or people [who] complain of being cursed in some way. I think about that stuff as products of our human psychology, and I wonder if there isn't more out there than I've ever given credit to, in terms of something beyond being explainable or having scientific explanations. 

Maybe it makes me a little more open-minded, but it also makes me laugh. I do find the show funny and I find my part funny. I often feel like I'm in a comedy regardless of the tone of the scene, which may be very serious.

I was watching the first two episodes of Season 3, and Leland was talking to Dr. Kristen Bouchard's daughters online, and there was all this stuff with meme culture. It's definitely dark, but comedic as well.

It's so funny that a person as dangerous as Leland is can be bested by a gaggle of school girls. That's perfect because he completely underestimates them [and] overestimates himself, and he acts like a typical heedless adult.

Working in the media, I also loved the scene of him walking in and saying, "Okay, your job is to troll, doomscrolling is partly Lucifer and partly his followers."

That's chilling, the way [Robert and Michelle] King plugged Leland into every conceivable feature of our modern lives that could be questionable, and they find some angle to it. That is, I guess they're a little frightened about the internet — as we all should be — but they find really smart ways to make that the topical theme of a particular plot in our show.

He hopes Leland Townsend has viewers 'wanting a little bit more'

Have you been surprised at all by how the character has grown? I know you said he had a bit of a smaller role in the pilot.

No. I'm happy with the part. It's the right amount for me. If you're a villain, you have to be wary of overexposure, or people will get on to your tricks and stuff and you may become tiresome, so I like to keep it fresh and I like to keep my head down unless I'm beat. I feel it's the right amount of exposure and leaves the audience wondering and maybe hopefully wanting a little bit more.

The show started off on CBS and it's moved to Paramount+, and you guys have got some very passionate fans and critical acclaim. What's it like working on another show that's receiving that kind of attention and love?

I confess that I have had really good luck in the TV shows that I have worked on because I have been on a number of long-running shows that I thought were smart and challenging, and that had, as you say, passionate audience following. Again, I have to say that my policy of working with smart writers has stood me in good stead, and I'm happy that policy is still a good one.

What to expect from the rest of Evil Season 3

Is there anything we can expect to see from the rest of Season 3?

Well, all the complications we've seen so far get a little more intense — a little bit — and the high and low ground gets harder to discern. People are becoming less sure of themselves, even the villains. But it's a transitional time in the world of Kristen Bouchard and of David the priest. They have big challenges coming up, the kinds of challenges that shake you up and make you question what you believe or what's before your very eyes, so in that regard, the stakes continue to get higher.

We are only at the start of Season 3; there's still so much more to see.

Oh, man, stay tuned — there's some wild stuff this season. I love this show because I work about as much as I want to, but it seems like every episode I come in, [Robert and Michelle] King want me to do something that I haven't done before that is a little outside my comfort zone, like sing a Broadway show tune, or do a funny dance, or do some physical stunt that I thought was over in my performing life years ago. It's always something, and I have to go, "Oh, they want me to do that? Okay, here it goes."

On his background in theater and playing the bad guy

Between "Evil" and "The Practice" and "Saw," you've got a little bit of a penchant for playing these evil or villainous characters. How did that happen? Is that something you fell into?

I did. I do think I fell into it. My first big TV role was that serial killer on "The Practice" that you mentioned, and that led to "Lost" and a bunch of other things that set the tone. Before that, I had been a stage actor and mostly performed comical parts or grotesque parts. But it's fine with me. I play good guys too, but they're usually mysterious good guys or ambiguous. But my villains are too — a little mysterious and ambiguous — so I like playing around with what the audience doesn't know and cannot figure out. That's fun for me, and it keeps people paying attention. 

I'm happy with villainy; it's generally more interesting. It's certainly more complicated — more layers, more deceits, more strategies, all of that stuff is good and yet fun at the same time, and it can be funny. The show has a lot of satire in it, packed in there without showing itself off, so I do like that.

I know you have an extensive background in theater and television. Do you have a preference between one or the other?

I always have been [in love with] the stage, but that doesn't mean that's the right place for me to be working now. It maybe is not. To be quite frank with you, I handle the stress not as well now as I did when I was younger. Appearing before a live audience takes a little more of a toll on me than the more workaday experience of shooting a TV series, where you show up, you know your lines, and if you make a mistake, you start over. There's always the safety net. There's always the do-over that you don't get in front of a live audience. I've come to depend on that [and] the relaxation that comes with that, but that's not saying if the right role comes up that I won't slap some makeup on my face and go out and do it.

His experience on Lost was a lot like the characters' experiences

I have to bring up "Lost," as you previously mentioned. After this much time has elapsed since the finale, how do you look back on it now?

I look back on it as if I were a character in a show where you get lost on a mysterious island in the middle of the ocean. It was a parallel. My life experience doing the show was a bit like the character experience in ways, so it seems almost unreal looking back: the beauty and enchantment of Oahu and my life, and Honolulu. [We were] there for some years, and the people I worked with and the kinds of storylines we told ... it was all magic and wonderful. We knew that we were on a show that was setting a standard, a trend for that kind of entertainment, so it was great.

Now, there's a whole new generation of people that are watching the show that were too young or whatever when it was airing. Now they have the advantage over me because people are stopping me [even] this week on the street saying, "Oh, my God, I've just watched 'Lost.'" I think, "Oh, shoot, it's been 12 years. I need to go back and watch it again or I won't have answers to anybody's questions."

It feels like "Lost" set the precedent for season finales, especially when you look at more recent shows like "Game of Thrones." At least in my memory, that was one of the few where it's like, "The finale's on, are you tuning in?"

It really was one of the first shows that capitalized on internet culture and internet following, where the interaction between the writers and the fans became a real thing and where the writers paid attention to their fans' comments and reactions and stuff — and where script security started to be a big deal. That's a side effect of all of that. People became so interested in the show that they would indulge in a certain amount of espionage to get the next script before it aired.

In Hollywood right now, reboot is the word of the season. Do you think we'll ever see a return to the "Lost" universe? Is that something you guys ever talk about?

It's a piece of intellectual property like any other story, and someone owns it and someone can do with it what they will ... They would be wise not to try to do it all over again. I guarantee you they will not get much of the original cast back, but that's neither here nor there. In the right hands, with good writers, all things are possible.

He loves watching 'Evil' alongside the fans

I'm excited to see what's next for "Evil."

I'm a happy camper on that show, and I'm enjoying watching Season 3. After I shoot an episode, it goes out of my head because I'm busy learning the lines for the next one. I often can't remember what I've shot or what season it was part of, so it's good for me to watch the show and go, "Oh, my God, that's still part of this season." It seems so long ago.

Do you typically watch your own performances, or is this one of the shows where you're like, "I'd like to relive this and see how it all comes together"?

No. I'm always curious about what the final cut looks like with special effects and music and all of that. Occasionally, it's disappointing if you know that a great big scene got whittled down to half a page, but I understand that you can't be too precious about it. They have to cut the show. There's a lot of cooks, a lot of supervisors — there's networks and production executives and showrunners and all of that, so it's fine. 

In our family ... my wife, Carrie, does a lot of big shows too, and we make a family event out of it. Everybody comes over — in this case, on a Sunday night — and we have dinner and we watch the show and we laugh and we make criticisms and point out absurdities, and scream when the demons come. It's fun. It's entertainment.

That's fun to hear because you often hear about actors that don't watch anything back — "I don't want to see it." I feel I would be the same way and want to watch it back.

I really do feel like when you're performing, you're in a different head. When I'm Leland and I'm shooting stuff, I don't know where my head is at, but I'm not standing outside the narrative watching and enjoying it, laughing. It's only later when that work is done that I can watch it as the non-performer, that I can be an audience for the show. I do like to have that experience too. Some actors will not watch themselves, and I always thought that they were cheating themselves out of a great deal of fun, but everybody has a different psychology about it.

"Evil" Season 3 is now streaming on Paramount+, with new episodes dropping on Sundays.

This interview was edited for clarity.