PopHampton: Owain Yeoman on Twisty North Fork Thriller ‘Emergence’

Owain Yeoman plays Benny Gallagher on ABC's "Emergence"
Owain Yeoman plays Benny Gallagher on ABC's "Emergence," Photo: Frank Ockenfels/ABC

On ABC’s new thriller Emergence, the quaint North Fork community of Southold is rocked by an Earth-shattering mystery when a little girl with amnesia (played by Alexa Swinton) is the sole survivor of a plane crash on the beach. Police Chief Jo Evans (Allison Tolman) takes her in, calls her Piper, and begins investigating the crash and Piper’s identity. It’s quickly revealed that Piper is actually an advanced form of artificial intelligence (AI), capable of learning at a rapid pace and manipulating metal objects. Jo soon finds herself reluctantly working in tandem with journalist Benny Gallagher (Owain Yeoman) after it becomes clear that powerful and sinister forces will stop at nothing to take Piper and use her for their own agendas.

At the end of the midseason finale in December, Emergence aired perhaps its biggest twist yet when Benny, who had gained Jo’s trust and friendship, was revealed to be AI himself and kidnapped Piper. The stunning revelation turned the show on its head. Yeoman, who has played Benny with a friendliness and disarming charm, is happy that the twist surprised audiences and got them talking, noting that he knew from the start Benny was not what he seemed. “Different actors like to have different amounts of information,” Yeoman says. “Tara [Butters] and Michele [Fazekas], our wonderful creators, said to me, ‘How much do you want to know ahead of time?’ and I said, ‘You know what, give me the broad strokes,’ and I think this show is so effective because it has such a clear roadmap of where they want to go.”

Butters and Fazekas have outlined the story for three seasons, and it shows. Emergence has been consistent with doling out answers to the audience, then pulling the rug out with new twists and turns that feel very planned and deliberate. “It was always going to be a 13-episode season,” Yeoman explains, “and there was never any conversation of it being longer. They wanted to keep the mystery/thriller element of it very taut. That’s very smart, because when it first came out, people said, ‘Oh, it’s another Lost.’ There’s always the temptation to put these genre shows into this Lost-alike [category], and sure, but it’s more than that. It’s not just Lost, it’s not just Stranger Things. It’s an entirely new incarnation of its own, and when we got into discussions about the character of Benny, they said, ‘This is what Benny’s all about, this is what he turns out to be, this is where he’s going and if you want to factor that in or not…’ and I think in terms of the big reveal at the end of Episode 9, it’s something I always knew about but something I also thought, if we’re going to play this most effectively, let’s just completely ignore it—and from reactions to the episode, nobody saw it coming!”

Yeoman is excited for audiences to see the final episodes of the season. “Even though most people jumped on the bandwagon and said, ‘Oh no, Benny’s the bad guy!’ I say never assume that. There’s a lot of nuance and we’re going to keep upsetting the preconceived ideas and that’s what keeps people guessing and keeps things fresh. In the four episodes we have to round out the season, I don’t think it’s unfair for me to say that it’s going to take on a whole new level of crazy. By the end of the season, people will be quite shocked at where it will go.”

Part of the show’s appeal is that in addition to the conspiracy/thriller element, it’s also about Jo’s loving family, including dad Ed (Clancy Brown), ex-husband Alex (Donald Faison) and daughter Mia (Ashley Aufderheide). “Of course there’s the genre element there, but at the heart of it there’s this amazing family dramedy of a divorced couple trying to make their way,” Yeoman says. “There’s a lot of people here and there’s a lot at stake and whether it’s on a personal level or a huge ‘What could this do to our world?’ level, I feel like it really managed to hit so many different notes and didn’t feel like anything I could think of. I think the breadth of appeal is enormous.”

Emergence airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on ABC. Catch up on the first season on-demand and on Hulu.

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