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Michael Emerson on Evil, Lost, and his acting secrets
When you watch a performance by Michael Emerson, you never fully know what to expect. Whether it's watching Finch on Person of Interest, his lauded and famous portrayal of Benjamin Linus on Lost, or one of his equally lauded stage performances, the man always keeps audiences on their toes. The same can be said of his new role, Dr. Townsend, on CBS' Evil.
Townsend is a foil (and a huge antagonist) to the heroes of the new series, and he's got a large touch of madness about him. Emerson brings it to life with joyous glee, and SYFY WIRE sat down with him to discuss the new role. We also got into his rich theatrical background, his vocal performance as the Joker in the animated The Dark Knight Returns, and, because how could we not, Lost. Emerson himself might be slightly enigmatic in real life (not nearly as much as the characters he plays), but he also radiates a kindness that cannot be denied.
You’ve played characters in genre that have ambiguous motives, and we don’t know whether or not to trust them. Dr. Townsend seems like more of an outright antagonist.
Michael Emerson: Oh yeah. There’s no question from the minute you lay eyes on him, he’s a full-on villain. They’re not gonna tease that, or fuzzy that up. He’s all in on the bad side. He’s the head bad guy for the time being, unless something big comes up in the script that I haven’t seen yet.
How do you get into the mindset of someone like that? What do you latch onto?
I just try to find some kind of character logic that’s based on the lines he has to speak. The villainy comes in so many different shades. I look for an interesting angle, an interesting villain strategy that may set it apart from other roles I’ve played or other roles I’ve seen. I look to find the things that the character feels good about — pride, efficiency, articulation — those things I think serve. At the same time I don’t get too busy defining the personality, because whether I’m playing a good guy or a bad guy, it always works better if they’re mysterious on some level.
What would make him different from say, Finch, or Ben Linus?
I’d say in this case there’s a lightheartedness about him. He’s carefree in a way, convinced of his own superiority, with no question in his mind that he will prevail in his many projects. In this case, more than any other, I feel like it’s gamesmanship. He’s playing a game, like a huge board game in which the playing pieces are living human beings. He kind of delights in that, I can’t explain why he delights in that, but he does. I don’t know if it’s compensation for some tragedies in his youth, or if he’s just psychopathic… it’s hard to tell yet.
Not that Finch or Ben Linus weren’t fun to watch, because they were, or that you weren’t enjoying yourself... but Townsend seems to be really enjoying himself, and you the actor seem to be too.
It’s fun, I mean what could be more unnerving and annoying to good operators than an enemy who doesn’t give a damn and mocks you all the time? There’s so much sarcasm here.
Has there been a moment where you’ve apologized to your co-stars for something you’ve had to say to them?
Ha, well I’ve been asked to behave broadly, or you might say theatrically. There have been some sequences where you don’t know if they’re dreams or memories, where he’s singing or dancing, or doing other distracting things while people are trying to be serious. There is that prankster dimension, he is a force of mischief, I would say… but it’s a high order of mischief. I think mischief is an issue in our lives now, on a lot of levels, and so I think it’s a fun thing to climb inside and pull all the knobs and levers and see where it goes.
That theatricality is something you have from your own theater background, did any of that find its way in?
I suppose. I mean when you play a villain in Shakespeare, you’re articulate, you’re describing yourself to the world, to the audience, and you’re often reveling in your own plans, your own schemes. I think those are good attitudes for bad guys in general. They help me to understand how to play these more contemporary villains.
It’s the 15th anniversary of Lost. Are you tired of Lost questions at this point?
No, because they always come to me in earnest, and I thought Lost was a wonderful show for mystery and speculation, and I still think about it. Clearly people that watch it, or are now finally discovering it, they have the usual set of a zillion questions. It’s always fun to talk about.
When you first came on in Season 2 as “Henry Gale,” were there plans for you being as big a part of the show as you became?
It was supposed to be only a three-episode arc. I think they were trying it out, or trying me out… trying the idea of Benjamin Linus out, to see if it would work, if it would lend that next layer of complication to the narrative. Had it not worked out, they could have easily killed me off and gone on to the next mysterious figure.
They obviously had no problems killing characters.
Oh my god, yeah.
When you came on as “Henry Gale” did you know the truth of him, who he actually was?
No! I had no idea. Even after they had made up their minds to keep me, they still kept me uninformed. I kind of tumbled to it myself, one day we were shooting and the director was being cagey. I was asking simple actor questions about why might I do this, or what’s going on here… and he was being real cagey. I thought something was up, and I went to him and I said, "You know, what would be really cool is if I was actually the leader of the Others." He blinked at me a couple of times and said, "I can’t discuss that with you."
Because you didn’t know the secret, did that make it easier, just playing the one truth instead of all the layering?
Yeah, but I kind of figured that out early. I was never gonna know the long game, where it’s all going. All I could really be responsible for was playing the scene at hand. It seemed to make good sense to play it in a neutral gear, to not be too much of any one thing, just listen and talk.
He always kind of waited to see which way the wind was blowing anyway.
That’s right. He’s watching and listening, and making plans.
Is there a question about Lost or Ben Linus that you wish someone had asked you that no one’s ever asked?
I often think sometimes people don’t ask you enough about what it is in you that made you right for that role, or how you even feel about the playing of it. So much of the dialogue around the show are the questions of the plot mysteries, and the meanings of things, and I guess I don’t think that much about meanings. Just the playing, as I said. Of course, you get weary of debating whether the ending was good or not. That’s half of every Lost fan’s lead question.
That is the ending, so that’s that.
I tell them you don’t get to pick an ending. The show, the narrative that’s established, all those years, they did dictate the ending. There’s only the ending that is possible within the set of story strategies that you’re working with.
I always think of this line of yours from the show: “Destiny... is a fickle bitch.”
Such a good line.
Would you agree with that line in real life?
I’d have to say, and I don’t know if this is a function of being theatrical, I am kind of superstitious. I will knock on wood, and I don’t make grand pronouncements. I try to keep my head down and avoid the attention of the fates. Whether it be the gods of the theater who can ruin you, or whatever other gods are in charge of the other stuff in your life.
You wouldn't go into a theater and say the title of the Scottish play, then?
Not say it out loud. You owe it to those around you, the other actors. These are kind of agreed upon, these stage superstitions. You don’t want to do anything that makes anyone in the company uncomfortable, even if you don’t believe.
You might not believe, but someone else may.
Yeah, in a way it’s signing up to be part of a culture. Saying I now work in the great ancient tradition of the stage, and I will observe the etiquettes of it.
Do you think that old theatrical world translates into television?
For me, it fully translates. I am as superstitious, or as fussy about the workday for the camera as I would be for the stage… although the stage requires a little extra care, because it is such a high wire act.
You voiced the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns, going into a character already so firmly established in voiceover.
Oh god, yes.
How did you manage to give a different life to something so firmly established?
It was scary, after I said yes to it I started thinking, oh my god, who should even be allowed to be the voice of some of these iconic characters, and the Joker had already been done… but I thought well, they’ve chosen me, so I’ll just try to bring the usual set of character tools to bear. It seemed to suit Andrea Romano, who is the director of all that stuff, my god, she’s tough, but she gets what she wants. Those two hours in the booth were two of the hardest hours of work I have ever done in my life as an actor.
What is the best advice you got as a young actor?
It’ll be different from the advice I give. The best advice I got, I didn’t get much, but I did have a teacher sort of yell at me and say, "This scene is not about you, get it out past the footlights." Of all the BS acting classes I have taken over the years, that was the single most meaningful piece of direction — meaning get over yourself, deliver the goods.
What’s the advice that you give?
I give the advice, because no one gave it to me as a young actor, I just say try to be kind. Be patient, be patient with yourself. It’s not a race. You don’t have to get there first. Yes, someone you went to college with has just won an Oscar, and you can’t get arrested… do not despair. It is a long game.
To see more of Emerson and Dr. Townsend, check out Evil on CBS every Thursday.