Baddies With a Bent: 4 Steps to Playing the Anti-Villain

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Photo Source: “Game of Thrones” Credit: Macall B. Polay/Courtesy HBO

Characters are often painted in shades of black and white, with heroes and villains neatly categorized to guide sympathies and antipathies. But the most captivating narratives often lie in gray areas, where anti-villains such as Erik Killmonger, Cersei Lannister, and Severus Snape reside. These complex characters are cloaked in the guise of villainy yet driven by noble (albeit misguided) intentions. Join us as we explore what sets the anti-villain apart and how they enrich storytelling landscapes.

What is an anti-villain?

Neither villain, hero, nor anti-hero, the anti-villain is a captivating departure from traditional character types. Unlike the archetypal villain, an embodiment of evil who opposes the hero’s values and goals out of malice or for personal gain, the anti-villain operates from a foundation of what they perceive as noble or just motives. This nuanced character type blurs the lines between right and wrong, as their well-intentioned ends often lead them to employ morally questionable means. 

While their actions are aimed at achieving what they believe to be a greater good, the anti-villain is invariably in conflict with the protagonist, creating a complex dynamic that enriches the narrative. They challenge our empathy and ethical judgments, inviting us to explore the delicate balance between intention and action in the realm of moral ambiguity.

What’s the anti-villain’s narrative purpose?

Provide a foil: These characters serve as a mirror, reflecting the complexities of real-world moral dilemmas where right and wrong are not always clear-cut. Anti-villains challenge readers and viewers to consider the impact of circumstances on personal morality and the lengths one might go to achieve their perceived greater good. 

Blur lines: Characters who straddle the line between antagonist and misunderstood hero grant stories a layered dynamic that encourages audiences to question their preconceptions about villainy and virtue.

Add depth: This complexity adds depth to the narrative, fostering engagement through empathy and introspection. Anti-villains enrich a story’s emotional landscape, allowing for a more profound connection between the audience and the narrative. Beyond merely providing an antagonist for the protagonist to overcome, the anti-villain offers a subtle exploration of morality, ethics, and the human condition.

How to portray a good anti-villain as an actor

Understand character motivations. To effectively bring an anti-villain to life, you must first understand the character’s ultimate goal and the justifications they use for their morally gray actions. This involves exploring the character’s backstory, identifying their core beliefs, and empathizing with their cause, however unsound it may appear. 

Consider narrative purpose. Engage in rigorous script analysis to understand the character’s purpose within the larger narrative. Are they seen as the bad guy due to extremist beliefs, a strict ideological bent, or simple life circumstances? What’s their relationship with the protagonist? Anti-villains remind us that the line between good and evil is often blurred, reflecting the real-world complexity of human nature and morality. Their presence in stories encourages viewers and readers to question their preconceptions and explore the gray areas of ethical decision-making. They’re pivotal figures that drive the narrative forward, offering opportunities for reflection, empathy, and understanding.

Use body language. The nuanced use of body language such as a furrowed brow or squeezed fist can help convey a character’s internal conflict, subtly hinting at noble intentions beneath a facade of antagonism.

Study top anti-villain performances. Watch and learn from the masters of anti-villainy, such as the following: 

  • Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in “Black Panther”: In this key scene when Killmonger confronts Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Jordan’s performance is layered with intensity and vulnerability, revealing his character’s pain and the depth of his convictions. His controlled yet passionate delivery, combined with purposeful pauses and eye contact, communicates a profound sense of injustice and a fervent desire to right the wrongs of the past. This makes him easy to empathize with, despite his reliance on violent methods.

    See how Jordan transitions between aggression and aching sadness, using this dynamic range to add depth to his character. This emotional complexity is crucial for portraying an anti-villain, as it invites the audience to see the world through their eyes, even if for just a moment.  
  • Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) on “Game of Thrones”: Cersei is a complex woman driven by fierce love for her children and the relentless desire to protect her family’s power at any cost. Headey brings depth to the character, navigating her cunning, ambition, and vulnerability with a nuanced performance that keeps the audience riveted.

    A scene that epitomizes her anti-villain qualities occurs in Season 7, during a conversation with Tyrion Lannister when she reveals her pregnancy. In this moment, Headey’s use of facial expressions and a softened voice tone conveys Cersei’s protective maternal instincts, juxtaposing her usual ruthless demeanor. Her performance subtly hints at the motivations behind her actions, providing a glimpse into the personal pain and fears that drive her. The audience is offered a rare view of Cersei’s humanity, blurring the lines between villainy and a deeply flawed, yet understandable, quest for security and legacy.

    Pay close attention to how Headey balances strength and vulnerability, particularly in scenes like this one that reveal Cersei’s motivations and internal justifications for her actions. This can provide insight into the art of portraying characters whose villainous actions stem from deeply personal, often relatable, desires and fears. 
  • Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) in the “Harry Potter” films: Snape is a character cloaked in ambiguity. He’s initially presented as a cold, bitter professor with a seemingly personal vendetta against protagonist Harry Potter. Throughout the series, his true motives are obscured, painting him as a villain in the eyes of Harry and the audience alike.

    A scene that encapsulates Snape’s complexity occurs in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” when he reveals his true allegiance and unrequited love for Lily Potter, Harry’s mother. Rickman’s performance is layered and heart-wrenching as he conveys a lifetime of regret, love, and sacrifice with minimal dialogue. Watch his ability to express profound sorrow and unwavering loyalty with subtle facial expressions and a restrained yet emotive vocal delivery. This moment transforms our understanding of Snape as he shifts from simple antagonist to a deeply flawed yet ultimately heroic figure whose actions were driven by love and protection.

    Rickman’s focus on his character’s emotional undercurrents slowly peels back layers of mystery and misdirection. This example underscores the importance of depth and restraint in bringing such characters to life, inviting viewers to reconsider any initial judgments and empathize with the character’s complex moral landscape.