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Michael Emerson talks 'Evil,' playing creepy characters, more

Michael Emerson attends the "Evil" screening at

 Michael Emerson attends the "Evil" screening at the 2019 Tribeca TV Festival  on Sept.14, 2019 in New York City.  Credit: Getty Images for Tribeca TV Fest/Roy Rochlin

Trick-or-treaters may want to steer clear of Michael Emerson’s home this Halloween. Especially if they’ve seen the Emmy Award-winner in his latest role on the new, critically acclaimed CBS horror series, “Evil,” which premiered last month.

The show, airing Thursdays at 10 p.m., from “Good Wife” / “Good Fight” creators Robert and Michelle King, follows a skeptical forensic psychologist (Katja Herbers) and a man studying for the priesthood (David Acosta) as they investigate strange cases that may (or may not) be examples of demonic possession. Lurking in the background is the manipulative Dr. Townsend (Emerson), an occult expert who may (or, um, may not) be a demon himself. Hey, maybe he’s just a psychopath.

Those are the kind of choices Emerson, 65, relishes, having honed his mysterious persona on shows like “Lost” and “Person of Interest.” An Iowa native who got his start as a classical stage actor, Emerson now lives in New York with his wife, actress Carrie Preston. He spoke by phone this week with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

You seem to be an amiable fellow. A nice guy.

Heh heh heh heh… (He chuckles, sounding casual and sinister at the same time.)

Yet your most memorable TV roles are anything but. How is it you’re so good at being bad, dark and mysterious?

I think it’s an unconscious gift of some sort. Or maybe it’s the tension between my seeming amiability and the sinister nature of the characters I play. I’m not really sure how I got these jobs. When I was a stage actor I usually did the funny stuff. I don’t know what happened.

Could the medium — TV vs. stage — affect how you come across?

That’s an interesting point. Maybe the closeness of the camera…understands you or your face in a different way than a live audience does in a big dark room. Don’t know — I’m just having fun playing villains. It’s always more interesting. The first TV role I ever did was a serial killer (on “The Practice” in 2000).

You won an Emmy for that. I remember — you creeped me out.

I guess I imagine the interior lives of terrible people as a place of horror and dread. Yet it doesn’t do to play right AT that. This is a lesson you learn playing Shakespeare— it’s better your villain has wit. Or a sense of humor, or style. I often feel like I’m in a comedy, even though I’m playing a villain. Look at this new show — “Evil.” The guy I play is terrible, but he has fun. I shouldn’t be having fun when I’m wreaking havoc. I think that’s why it gets under the audience’s skin. You might ask, well, is he human or a demon? I have no idea. It hasn’t been revealed to me. But they do dance around it a bit in the scripts’ stage directions. I’ll say something and the script reads, “said in his most demonic way — or is it psychotic? Ha ha..”

They actually write “ha ha?”

Yes. This writer’s room is more playful than others I’ve experienced. They seem to be having fun.

So do you believe in ghosts, demons, possessions?

I have no personal experience of the supernatural, other than things that happen in a dream state. I have to say, I’m a disbeliever… yet fascinated. I read all the ghost stories I can get my hands on. I don’t know what I’m searching for.

Any favorites?

All the nineteenth-century guys.  Poe. Le Fanu.

I always liked Stephen King, of course. And H.P. Lovecraft.

Oh, man — Lovecraft. He makes your head spin, doesn’t he? You feel like you need to take a bath!

If only you weren’t terrified of going into the bathroom.

Right! I’m fascinated by what is just beyond our ability to understand or describe, just beyond explanation. I love to hear people tell their dreams. A dead relative comes to you in a dream and comforts you. What’s that about? Or…you dream about your boss, but there are children in the background you went to elementary school with. Is there meaning in that?

Maybe we should ask your “Evil” writers. Switching topics — I love your wife, Carrie Preston. She played the adorably oddball attorney, Elspeth, on “The Good Wife,” and “The Good Fight.” Now she’s a quirky character on “Claws.” You both play eccentric, peculiar roles. That must make for an interesting household.

It’s fun. We’re married 21 years. I think we’ve acknowledged we are character players. We were both happy little actors in our youth who got a taste for…well, when you’re 10 or 12, you’d much rather play the Wicked Witch than the heroine.

Well, YOU might.

Yeah. (He laughs.) It’s what we’re drawn to.

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