Good at Being Bad: 8 Actors Who Deserve Emmy Nods for Playing the Villain

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Photo Source: Prime Video/Starz/Michelle Faye/FX

In a post–Tony Soprano world, protagonists often get away with murder—and TV is more delicious for it. As voting for the 76th Primetime Emmy Awards nominees begins, we’re celebrating the small-screen stars who are good at being bad. Some played classic villains, while others portrayed antiheroes, annoyances, or something in between. Whether they were killing good guys or just killing vibes, these performers deserve Emmy nods for being wicked awesome.

Walton Goggins
“Fallout” (Prime Video)


Of the main characters on Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner’s post-apocalyptic video-game adaptation, Goggins’ irradiated bounty hunter, Cooper Howard (aka the Ghoul), is the most complex. His itchy trigger finger and indefatigable pursuit of the plucky Lucy MacLean (Ella Purnell) would land him a spot on the shortlist for the villain hall of fame if not for flashbacks that delve into his horrifying backstory. 

So as the audience shudders when the Ghoul blows off a man’s leg or tortures our hero because she has something he wants, it’s hard not to think, Yes, but do you recall that this man lost his family in a devastating nuclear attack that forced him to wander the wastes as a mutant cowboy? He may not have scruples—or a nose—but Goggins imbues the Ghoul with a tragic soul. 

Jon Hamm
“Fargo” (FX)


Every season of Noah Hawley’s flyover-state noir thrums with menace, pitting decent folks against uniquely American evil. And on the show’s fifth season, darkness looks an awful lot like Don Draper. 

Hamm plays Sheriff Roy Tillman, a far-right authoritarian holding a rural county in his grip. The character is a chilling echo of real-life radicals, but in Hamm’s hands, he takes on a primordial power. Hamm plays Roy ramrod-straight, all piercing gazes, Bible verses, and macho commands. The sheriff is so convinced of his own rightness—and so successful in violently enforcing his ideals—that viewers start to see him as a force of nature. A bad guy is even scarier when you know he has the potential to win.

Tom Hollander
“Feud: Capote vs. The Swans” (FX)


The second entry in Jaffe Cohen, Ryan Murphy, and Michael Zam’s anthology series “Feud”—based on Laurence Leamer’s book “Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era”—sets its sights on high society, where all the best betrayals unfold. Hollander’s venal, booze-soaked Truman Capote pats diamond-encrusted 1960s doyennes on the back with one hand and takes notes for later with the other. Capote’s recognizably high, wheedling voice is there—the insults come sweetened with grenadine—and so is a posture that can only be described as penguin-esque. 

Hollander does his best work when he’s playing Capote at his lowest moments. His sad, soused Thanksgiving dinner tirade on the second episode gives Meryl “August: Osage County” Streep
a run for her money.

Janelle James
“Abbott Elementary” (ABC)

Abbott Elementary

The true villain of Quinta Brunson’s Emmy-winning sitcom is probably some abstract concept like public school underfunding; but intangible social ills make poor scene partners on a workplace comedy, so we’re lucky James is there to stir the pot. Over three seasons, her selfish, inept Principal Ava Coleman has earned a place in the pantheon of hilariously bad TV bosses. 

On the latest season, she turns a book club into a “Lord of the Flies”–like competition and opens one episode by hurling a ball at a child during a dodgeball game. In less capable hands, Ava would come off as repellent; but as played by James, the mad queen of Abbott Elementary is an unapologetic bon vivant that you’d love to take shots with. You just wouldn’t want to work for her.

Julianne Moore
“Mary & George” (Starz)

Mary & george

On this cutthroat royal-courtier drama, created by D.C. Moore, no one is playing nice. That makes Julianne Moore’s job on the miniseries even more impressive; she plays real-life social-climbing 17th century Countess Mary Villiers with corseted relish. 

The Oscar winner concocts schemes and delivers snappy comebacks with ease and control, signaling to the viewer that Villiers has fought her way to the top. She talks smack about her own baby in the first scene, for goodness’ sake. If you squint, you can sometimes see bits of masticated scenery stuck in her fangs. That Moore can find the tenderness the countess feels toward her son George (Nicholas Galitzine) underneath all that acid is worth a standing ovation.

Andrew Scott
“Ripley” (Netflix)


If you’re going to play one of literature’s most infamous sociopaths, you’ve got to reinvent the weasel wheel. Scott is up to the task on Steven Zaillian’s “Ripley,” the latest adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The serene cheekiness the actor brought to his “Hot Priest” on the Emmy-winning “Fleabag” melts away to reveal a lizard slithering around an Italian villa, wide-eyed yet dangerous. His deceptions are impulsive, each one a twisted survival reflex. 

The climactic third episode distills Scott’s take on the character. After Ripley beats his friend Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn) to death at sea—hardly a spoiler, for a 70-year-old story—the camera follows a wordless, grunting Scott for an agonizingly long time as he tries and repeatedly fails to dump the body off the boat. It’s a little primal, a little pitiful, and a lot of fun.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Kate Winslet
“The Regime” (HBO)

The Regime

If Chancellor Elena Vernham weren’t so funny, she’d be the most terrifying woman around. Such is the potency of Winslet’s lead turn on Will Tracy’s darkly comic fable about an autocrat in decline. 

The Oscar winner peels back the dictator’s layers like she’s a fascist onion, exposing insecurity, elegance, cowardice, impatience, and intelligence. Though Elena is ultimately a pathetic character, Winslet embodies her dangerous potential—as when when she breezily traps an American politician (Martha Plimpton) in the labyrinthine halls of her palace as a power play.

Key to that scheme—and all of Elena’s schemes—is the mad butcher Corporal Herbert Zubak, played by Schoenaerts. He oscillates between dead-eyed dominance and screaming rages, with a couple blubbering pit stops along the way as the mutual obsession between himself and Elena waxes and wanes. This modern Rasputin makes a chainsaw look smooth.

This story originally appeared in the June 13 issue of Backstage Magazine.

“Abbott Elementary”: Gilles Mingasson/Abc; “The Regime”: Courtesy Hbo; “Mary & George”: Courtesy Starz; “Ripley”: Philippe Antonello/Netflix; “Fargo”: Michelle Faye/Fx; “Fallout”: Prime Video; “Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans”: FX