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An average day sees Robert Emmet Lunney acting opposite Geena Davis in Fox’s The Exorcist. But, really, he’s just the guy next door — writes Celine Havard.

Robert Emmet Lunney guest starring in The Exorcist. Photo: Jean Whiteside/FOX.

It’s not every day you get to sit down with a demon. But Robert Emmet Lunney, who plays one on the Fox Network’s reimagining of the 1973 William Friedkin classic The Exorcist, is literally (for us in Hell’s Kitchen) just the guy next door. 

His credits as an actor, director, and playwright go way behind this most recent incarnation. Rob is recognizable for his guest appearances on TV shows such as Law & Order, Boardwalk Empire, and Gotham. And on stage, he’s performed in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance and Brian Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa on Broadway.

“I wish I could grab people who come from a place of ignorance and have them live in New York, live in Hell’s Kitchen, LIVE here and realize that we’re all the same.”

Robert Emmet Lunney

CH: How did you wind up in The Exorcist?

REL: It wasn’t clear to me. I was supposed to do a self tape and I said: “I don’t think I want to do this.” I thought it was a low-budget thing and I’d been burned in the spring with a bounced check from a low-budget movie. The breakdown said: “Dapper Man.” I put nothing into the audition. I kept it simple. I sent it in, my agents sent it to casting and the next day they said: “Can you go to Chicago on Sunday?” I got the offer in an email and thought: “This is serious! This is Fox Network.” I flew to Chicago on Sunday, had a costume fitting on Monday. Then on Tuesday, the first day of shooting, this guy (who turns out to be Rolin Jones, show-runner and executive producer) comes up and says: “We’re so glad you’re here. If you don’t like any of the lines, let us know, we’ll change them.” It was such a great surprise to have what turned into, a great part. I think that if I had known that this was The Exorcist and I was The Demon I would have “acted” too much and not gotten the part.

CH: What is it like to play a demon?

REL: I tried not to think of him as a demon, just a guy. The torture and pain that Casey, the young woman played by Hannah Kasulka, goes through while I’m trying to possess her, might make you think: “Oh you’re such an awful guy doing that to her.” But, of course, in my mind, if she would just accept that I’m going to give her eternal life and pleasures and everything that one could ever dream of … well. I was never evil, from my point of view. I have this line: “Do you know what it’s like to have paradise within your reach but never be allowed to touch it?” The progression of my character is that he’s become desperate, sad, and defeated. And only then lets Casey know what he really wants – which is her mother, played by Geena Davis. I had a great scene with Geena. It was a sort of redemption. I got to clean up and have a modicum of happiness. Then, in the final episode, it doesn’t turn out so well for me.

CH: Do you like doing TV?

REL: I do. I love it. I feel comfortable in front of the camera. It’s very different from theater – not in terms of acting and honesty, but so much happens there, in the moment, without benefit of rehearsal, you have to be open to surprise. And, partly because I didn’t know where my character was going, I didn’t have the full character arc that said: “You are this ultimate evil demon thing.” I was just a guy with needs, trying to get what he wants.

Robert Emmet Lunney playing alongside Geena Davis and guest star Sophie Thatcher in The Exorcist. Photo: Jean Whiteside/FOX.

CH: What was it like when you first came to New York?

REL: I’ve always loved New York. I felt like I fit in. I feel much more at home here than any place, even Seattle, where I grew up. I love the neighborhoods. I love the theater. I worked in a lot of the theaters on the old Theater Row. I’ve now worked at most of the theaters on 45th Street. I’m a New Yorker. I think New Yorkers are incredibly generous and helpful. There are too many people now on the sidewalks in Hell’s Kitchen. You can tell who the actors are — they’re the ones walking on the street to get to half hour.

CH: What advice would you give young people on how to be a successful actor? What would you have done differently?

REL: I think I enjoyed bartending and staying up too late and too often when I first got here. I could have been more focused, been more involved with a theater company, volunteering. That’s a natural way to network. I hate networking, and I’m really bad at it, but if you are here to work and help people create stuff, then there’s nothing mercenary or ugly about it. Wanting to be on Broadway and have a Joe Allen account was not necessarily the best of goals, but it was one I came here with; I should have aimed higher. I needed to work on my craft. There are so many good teachers here, so many places you can get involved.

CH: Do you have a family immigration story?

REL: My grandparents were born in Ireland. My maternal grandfather came to New York City in 1912. The legend is that he was supposed to be on the Titanic, but a family illness kept him from boarding. He came from a poor family in County Longford. Grandpa Mulligan was down to his last dime, went to a bar, where a beer cost a nickel, and bought a beer for himself and a friend. The bartender told him that they needed folks at the waterworks in Freehold, New Jersey, and that’s where he ended up working all his life. He met my grandma there. Her name was Maggie Dunn. She sang for Kate Smith on the radio. Whenever Kate couldn’t sing, Maggie Mulligan would substitute for her.

CH: What are your thoughts on the immigration issue?

REL: We did the immigration rally down at Battery Park. (I’m not good at chanting. Especially because there were rival chants. But I managed all right with “No ban! No wall!”). I’m frightened for our world. The further away you are from people who are like you — if you are just around people who look like you, worship where you do — the more ignorant you tend to be. In New York, we’re not ignorant. We are everybody. We live down the hall from each other. You can’t have that frightened, nationalistic prejudice when you live among people who are different from you. You realize that we ARE all alike. There’s so much ignorance and fear elsewhere. That’s part of the reason that I went down to the rally. I wish I could grab people who come from a place of ignorance and have them live in New York, live in Hell’s Kitchen, LIVE here and realize that we’re all the same. I think that we have an obligation as artists, if we can reach people, to use that. Art has always done that. Painters, writers, actors, dancers can and should be political. Art has always has been political.

The Exorcist is on Fox

This article originally appeared in Issue 27 of W42ST Magazine in March 2017.

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