Michael Emerson has played some of TV's biggest baddies, and he'd like to give you some pointers.
If you knew me between September 22, 2004, and May 23, 2010, then you know I was obsessed with LOST to the point of near mania, a condition from which I have not really recovered. I mean, does anyone get over the unique mix of character-driven storytelling, sci-fi madness, and endless mystery that was LOST?
Island leader Ben Linus was my favorite character, played to perfection by Emmy-winner Michael Emerson. Originally slated just for a three-episode guest role, Emerson helped grow Ben into a multilayered, relatable villain that audiences loved (or loved to hate). When I say I spent years worrying about whether he would be killed off, I'm not exaggerating. I just loved watching Emerson bring something new every single week.
That’s why I have been so delighted to see him wreaking havoc on a new show, Paramount+’s Evil. His character, Leland Townsend, is similarly shrouded in mystery. Who is he? Is he just some Iowan, or a devilish force? What's the end game?
There's not at all a tender side to Leland. He's simply terrifying. And Emerson is having a great time playing him.
Emerson was kind enough to speak with No Film School via phone about his best advice for working in series television, what he looks for in great scripts, and what it's been like playing some of TV’s most iconic villains. Enjoy!
Editor's note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I know that you've talked about admiring [showrunners Michelle and Robert King] and coming on pretty quickly after reading the script for Evil. What do you need to see in a script in order to say yes to it?
Michael Emerson: Well, it needs to read like a good story, for one thing. I'm always looking at the way the dialogue is written. Is it smart? Does it articulate things? Is it thoughtful or thought-provoking? I guess what I'm saying, I want it to be smart. And I don't want it to fall back on a whole bunch of clichés or tropes or anything. I want there to be surprises along the way. Something to keep me turning the pages, because then I know it'll keep people from going to the kitchen when they're watching it. So that's what I look for.
And that pilot script for Evil, it was really good. And my character wasn't in it much, but I saw what it could be. I saw the way he was being positioned to be this sort of inexplicable outsider, malevolent, but seemingly harmless, but not really harmless. So I just thought, "Oh, I'm already intrigued." I'm already thinking about—you know, if your actor brain starts to interrupt your reader brain, and you start going back and saying, "How would I say this? How does this time out? How would this line really land great?" then you think, "Oh my God, I'm already rehearsing it. I haven't even agreed to do it, and I'm rehearsing it." So you know that it's something pretty good.
NFS: What does a well-developed character look like to you, on the page?
Emerson: Well, gosh, that's kind of a hard question. A well-developed character. That's a good question. And it's not a function of how many lines you have. It's a function of structure, I would say. Do we meet this character in a cool way, cool enough to keep us interested? Is there mystery about it? And is not all given to the audience? Is something held in reserve? Is there something that we'll go away from it and wonder about what the hell's going on here? That's kind of what I want.
When you read a great play, let's say [Harold] Pinter or [Samuel] Beckett or something, one of the best things about it is, "What the hell's going on?" But I'm with it, I'm with a thing that I can't get, as long as they're not wasting my time. I think if your listeners are writers, directors, filmmakers, actors even, I would encourage them to not over-explain or over-explicate things. Let your medium be a little more mysterious, and in doing so, it might end up being a little more poetic. Because at the end of the day, I kind of want that, too.
I want magic pictures and magic words. But I think, often, magic pictures need magic words, and magic words need magic pictures at the same time. So it's a beautiful art form, the camera storytelling thing, because it depends on getting a whole lot of things right.
NFS: I think something that especially beginning writers don't understand is that they don't have to just pile on exposition in that first scene.
Emerson: Right. The audience doesn't need to hear you tell them how you feel about things. Let them gather on their own from what little, cryptic information you give them.
Oh, he does this, or oh, he doesn't like that kind of thing, does he? Or he's not forthcoming, or there's family trouble here. All those things, people will fill in so many blanks, it's unbelievable. So you don't need to have a character say, "Well, I've never gotten along with my mom and my siblings, and I didn't do well in school." You don't need all that backstory stuff. You just don't need it. It's too much.
NFS: Yes, absolutely.
Emerson: Listen to me going off about this. It is my personal taste because I like ambiguity, and I like mystery, and those are the things I respond to in other people's work, as well.
NFS: You've worked with a lot of great directors across your TV career, specifically. What's the challenge or how do you find it best to work with new directors on a rotating basis?
Emerson: I think one of the things you should do when you're a regular on a series, because you're an authority on your part, in a way, people aren't going to tell you to do a completely different way, if it's already successful. So I think one of the best ways to behave, just in terms of the work environment, is try to be a welcoming host. Treat them as gently as, if I were a director, as I would treat a new actor.
Just be a listener, and be agreeable. People have ideas. I'm not one that says, "Oh, no, my character wouldn't do that," or "I can't do that." I try to go, "Hmm. Okay, let's try that," because why not? Why not try it? It's going to be a long day, anyway, so you might as well try a bunch of stuff and see what really works.
I guess that's a long-winded way of saying be a good collaborator, and think of your workplace as your home, in a way, and you are a host. So be gracious. Doesn't cost you anything, and it will make the day go way better. And you may surprise yourself, and just by agreeing to do something that you didn't think of, you may find that it's actually better.
NFS: Your guest role as Ben in LOST was famously expanded because of what you brought to the character. Can you tell us about how you might develop a character beyond what you're given in a script?
Emerson: Well, I think, if I'm responding correctly to your question, I think part of my job is to make it something real, make it three-dimensional, to flesh it out in a way that keeps the right balance between just showing up in the scene and speaking the lines, and also tantalizing the audience and moving whatever mystery agenda a show might have, moving that forward.
So it's just part of, I guess, the toolkit that you're supposed to bring, and I guess I brought it on LOST. And I learned a lot about doing that, on LOST. And now I do it—now I think it's what I'm supposed to do.
NFS: LOST was formative for me and a lot of my friends. I think a lot of people also revisited it over quarantine. It's interesting to go back and watch from today's perspective. Since you've played a few of these characters, how do you think the landscape of villains has changed since you were on LOST?
Emerson: Well, it's well-traveled territory for a lot, a lot of actors, and everybody's finding ways to refresh it. The people that do it successfully, I think, come at it from different angles. They keep you guessing. Again, I'd say mystery and some—I don't know, what's the word—a particularity of speech is often helpful, I think.
And maybe I think that because I started my career on stage, where speech is all. But I still think it—even when the camera is up in your face, I still think speech is all, in a way. So I depend on that. Maybe some actors don't, or some actors, articulation of language is not really part of what they're thinking about. But it is always what I'm thinking about. And I always feel like, after 20 takes, "I think there's still a perfect way to read this line, if only I could find it."
NFS: You're challenging yourself that much, even after that many takes?
Emerson: Yeah. Because your enemy on the set, and this is particular to the camera world, is boredom, repetition, becoming numb, so that saying the lines, doing the scene over and over and over again, you don't lose a freshness of attack or an intensity of listening and responding.
If I had to say to an actor—an actor says, "What's the difference between the stage and the camera?" I would say, for the camera, you need to maintain a freshness of attack. Because if you're in a play on stage, you're only going to say each line once that night, hopefully, and it's going to be fresh, and it's going to be in the moment.
What if you have to do the same three minutes 20 times? What would you do with it? So that's, I think—in a way, that's one of the big crafts of camera acting, is holding onto it, holding onto what I would call an originating breath or an originating impulse, and then just letting it flow out of your mouth in as many different ways as you can think of in the course of a few hours. One of them is going to be probably pretty good.
NFS: I have read elsewhere that you were a little bit concerned about the Evil episode where your character encourages another to plan a shooting.
NFS: And you worked with the writers to refine that slightly. So what advice would you have for that collaboration you were talking about, maybe wanting to bring suggestions, and how to do that tactfully?
Emerson: Yeah, because I very rarely will talk to the writers or creators of a show. I really do feel like my job is just show up on time and deliver the goods. But I thought that episode in particular, and God knows Leland does a lot of terrible things, and he's so blasphemous and manipulative and insane. And yet, I thought that thing about the incel boy, I thought, "Oh wow, we're really getting into contemporary headlines with this." There was a thing in the Times two days ago, about the police busted this incel clique that was getting guns together. They were going to shoot up a sorority or something. So I thought, "Oh, wow."
It's one thing to do your lines and collect your paycheck, but I thought, "Oh, man, I don't know how I feel about being the guy on the TV screen that encourages that stuff in a really plausible and creepy way." So I thought, I need somebody to hold my hand a little bit, and let's talk about this. This really is as bad as I think it is, isn't it?
And they changed a few lines, and that made me feel better because he was—oh man, it was bad. I don't know if the ending of the episode had been written at the time. I guess it had. But when I saw it on-air, I thought, "Okay, this is fine. This is fine. This played right. I don't think we encouraged any delicate borderline personalities in the viewing audience to start loading up." Hats off to the Kings for dealing with something like that in that straightforward way and making it terrifying.
NFS: That's what I've enjoyed also about The Good Fight, is the way they handle all those contemporary issues.
Emerson: Oh my God, yes.
NFS: It's so interesting to watch, and I don't think a lot of showrunners are doing that right now, so it's exciting.
Emerson: No. What I like about the Kings is—well, I know this is what they do. They get up in the morning, they read the papers together, and they go, "Oh, did you read this?" "No, did you read this?" and crazy stuff out of the papers, and they think, "My God, that could be in an episode."
NFS: Even the YouTuber episode I found was really surprising, in Evil. That felt really timely in an age of influencers, and a really interesting way to handle it.
Emerson: Yeah, they're topical in a kind of good way. It's not in your face that much, but really, they have smart ways to bring in storylines of stuff that we might have discussed at home.
NFS: Is there anything that you wanted to bring up that I didn't ask?
Emerson: No, I can't think of anything to say, except that I'll be keen to see Sunday night's episode.
Emerson: They have some great stuff—there is an episode coming up that is virtually silent that Robert [King] wrote and directed, as well. I'm anxious to see that. Because they go to solve a terrible mystery at a monastery, where no one can speak.
NFS: I need to catch up on this season, but I just love the wild things that you've got going on. It's just exciting to see you again performing a role that's so interesting—and pure evil.
Emerson: Thanks a lot. It's actually a lot of fun.
NFS: I know Leland's a little bit more straight-up evil than Ben was. He was a little bit more nuanced.
Emerson: But that's good. Ben was kind of tortured and all that. I don't think that Leland is tortured at all.
NFS: No. No, he just enjoys the torturing, I think.
Emerson: Yeah. Yeah, that's right.