Some actors in cinematic history portraying such spine-chilling villains, it can be hard to separate the actor from the character. How do they do it? As Leonardo DiCaprio once said, “Don’t think for a moment that I’m really like any of the characters I’ve played. I’m not. That’s why it’s called ‘acting.’” Here are some insights into playing miscreants, brutes, and reprobates from actors who’ve convincingly played them on the silver screen.
1. Make your villain complex.
Acclaimed thespian Willem Dafoe has a special talent for creating psychotic, unstable characters. The Wisconsin native strips for complexity in his performances as he explained on the “Off Camera Show: “I think [the goal is] to give a fuller picture, not just go for the obvious…and to challenge people’s idea of what they already know. If you’re positioned, let’s say, as a bad guy—let’s talk in real broad terms—the most normal thing in the world is to develop the part that is not a bad guy. Because, if you can do that and give some flavor of that, people can start to question their idea of what a bad guy is much better than if you just flat out played the bad guy and didn’t address yourself to finding that shadow side and finding the other side, you know?” Not all acting gigs afford the luxury for this kind of exploration, Dafoe acknowledges. But he says that whenever you’re given enough screen time, “Yeah, always develop the other part. And when we tell stories, and when we show things, and things happen, they should challenge our thinking. That’s the fun. I think people like escapist entertainment, yeah. But, I think deeply what stays with them is when they may change their mind about something…Life opens up for them again; they’re not stuck.”
2. Know your villain’s motivation.
Having a deep understanding of what your villain really wants is key to bringing the character to life. A firm motivation is what draws the audience to not only believe your soundrel, but to empathize with him or her as well. For example, Loki in “Thor” desperately desires the love and approval of his father—more than power or revenge. Evildoers tend to think what they’re doing is right, whether it is for their own self-interest or the world’s. Samuel L. Jackson, who has portrayed many sinister characters over the years, asserts, “You can’t play a villain and think of yourself as a villain. It’s not the thing to do. You have to go about the business of doing what he does and being who he is.” With that in mind, is your character motivated By love, honor, grief, betrayal, hatred, ambition, or perhaps a desire to save humanity? And what is the reason for this powerful drive?
3. Know your villain’s mental state and criminal record, if any.
What was it that turned your villain to the dark side? Sometimes the bad guy is just plain nihilistic, or a person under such stress that he or she just snaps. Other times, the character might show signs of being a psychopath or sociopath. It might take some medical detective work to learn how a psychiatrist would diagnose your character. Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs,” for instance, is a depraved psychopath—a paragon of insanity. And Jared Leto shared what it was like to prepare for the creepy role of Albert Sparma in “The Little Things.” He explained that it was key to look into the “research and conversations with criminology experts.” He continued, “I examined FBI transcripts and interrogations. It was quite intense, quite heavy, but really fascinating. For a bit—it starts to take its toll after a while.”
4. Dig into the power.
Look closely into what specific power your villain holds. The horrible Colonel Hans Landa from “Inglourious Basterds,” for example, is a villain not merely because he’s a Nazi, but because of how cruel he is as an individual, albeit with a disturbingly cheerful disposition. Throughout the film, the audience is constantly trying to guess how much information Hans knows about each situation or character, creating tremendous stress for the viewer. His knowledge is his power. In “The Silence of the Lambs,” young FBI trainee Clarice Starling comes to the manipulative cannibal killer Hannibal Lecter wanting his help to catch a murderer. Although Lecter seems powerless as he stands restricted in a prison cell, he actually holds the power in their relationship as he alone determines whether or not he’ll give Clarice the information she seeks.
5. Have fun being the villain!
Let’s face it, it’s just plain fun to play the part of the bad guy. Denzel Washington once said, “Bad guys have more fun. You can get away with more…In playing a real character who’s heroic, you’re kind of stuck. There’s only so much you can get away with. But [the] bad guy can say anything.” After reading the Stephen King book “Misery,” Kathy Bates wished she could one day play the horrific “number-one fan” Annie Wilkes when the book was turned into a movie. Once cast in the role, she described the uncharted ground of portraying a lunatic as “an out-on-a-limb performance.” Al Pacino felt that playing the out-of-control renegade Tony Montana in “Scarface” was an “attractive thing to play.” He said, “I really felt as though that was expressing a sense of the underbelly of our world in a certain way—in a more flamboyant way.”
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