As actors, we want to be liked—by directors, critics, audiences, colleagues, family. Does this desire ever affect, perhaps even unconsciously, the way we approach unsympathetic roles? In our commitment to creating multidimensional, fully human characters—whom we are careful not to judge and with whom we try to completely empathize—do we sometimes lean over backward to reveal their vulnerability, their likeability? New York actor Kathleen Chalfant thinks so. In an interview in Janet Sonenberg's The Actor Speaks: Twenty-Four Actors Talk About Process and Technique (Three Rivers Press, 1996), Chalfant said about her difficulty in playing an unpleasant rabbi (among other roles) in Angels in America, "The danger that all actors fall into at one time or another is wanting to be liked."
Los Angeles actor Jeanie Hackett observes that when acting, women tend to smile a lot. Not so with Meryl Streep as fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. "She doesn't want people to like her at all; she just wants to get the job done," Hackett says. "Streep is not smiling in that movie. She allows herself to be voraciously powerful."
Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Robynn Rodriguez knows about the smiley-face problem. One time she was in a play in which she had to "curse a blue streak," she says. After many rehearsals, the director pointed out that she'd been smiling while cursing. "I think I'm a pretty tough gal, but even I was caught in that moment of trying to make it a little nicer, more attractive," she confesses. She explains that during rehearsal you want to plumb the character's depths, find her hidden vulnerability. But you don't want to get stuck in that phase of the process. That's the character's inner core—a given circumstance—but onstage you have to deal with the reality of the moment.
Perhaps it's easier for men to go full-on horrible. Cully Fredricksen, who recently played a serious meanie in Tracy Letts' Killer Joe in San Francisco, says he doesn't spend any time worrying about being liked. But he fully humanized the character, making him deeply needy as well as sadistic.
Like the other actors I talked to, Fredricksen enjoys playing villains. "There's a kind of catharsis that goes with those kinds of roles," he explains. You have to be willing, of course, to access your own dark side to get into the skin of such characters. For Fredricksen, that dark side was readily available: He's had his own demons and struggles in the past, especially fighting alcoholism. "People like Killer Joe are familiar to me," he says. "They're in me."
Actually, they're in all of us, in one form or another, though sometimes that's a hard fact to face. Chicago actor Lee Adam, cast as the menacing Raul in Extremities, knew he'd need to draw on issues from his own childhood to create that character in depth. "That wasn't very fun at times," he admits. "There were times I had nightmares while going through the process."
Adam says he once read about a murderer who'd had the same childhood as his own: a fat kid bullied by other kids. "But where he went left, I went right. It's like parallel lives. That fascinates me. There but for the grace of God.… If I'd reacted more violently, lashed out, I could have been him. That's scary." It's also a useful concept to understand.
Adam used a combination of deep personalization and imagination to create his evil twin, Raul. "I grew more in that show than in any other production I've been in," he says. And he now has an arsenal of tools for playing future creeps. Until now he'd always been cast as romantic leads, but playing villains can be more artistically satisfying, Adam notes.
Hard as it can be to access these hidden negative parts of ourselves, it's necessary and ultimately satisfying to do so. "It's part of the challenge of the job and part of its beauty," says Rodriguez. "It's a healthy place to act out." A therapist once told her that she was glad Rodriguez had found theatre: "She said, 'With all your emotional intensity, how lucky you are to find a place where you feel safe to cry, lose your temper, hit somebody. You don't have to bottle it all in.' " Southern California actor Jean Shaw says playing a meanie in a Neil Simon play was one of the most fun things she's ever done. As a self-described "nice person," she says, "we love to play opposites!"
Comments Hackett, "I think we all wish we didn't have to do the right thing. The child part of us wants what we want when we want it.... There's a temptation in everybody to break the law a little bit, get around the rules.… Oftentimes we're cruel to people. If you whitewash it, you don't get the truth of the character." The key is to create backstory that justifies the character's bad behavior. As Richard III says, "Since I cannot prove a lover…I am determined to prove a villain." "So we know that something crippled him," Hackett points out, "something destroyed the love in him."
In one way or another, you can find—by combining personalization with imagination—everything you need to play Richard III, Iago, Miranda Priestly, or any other king or queen of mean. Los Angeles actor Hansford Prince didn't have to look far to play a drug dealer in an episode of the TV show Nash Bridges. "I made him a bad guy but with some humanity," he says. Moreover, as a black actor, he was very concerned that he not play the role as a stereotype, and he asked for (and got) some changes in the way his character appeared. "I know bad guys," Prince says. "I grew up with them in Oakland. And not one considered himself a villain even if he was doing villainous things." The character thought of himself as a businessman, not a drug dealer, the actor says, so he insisted the character wear nice clothes to represent how he perceived himself. "You can't play 'Drug Dealer' or 'Rapist,' " notes Prince. "You can only play a human being in particular circumstances."
Like Fredricksen, you also shouldn't worry about whether the audience likes you, but sometimes their obvious distaste can be unsettling. When New York actor David Sedgwick played the cluelessly sexist Torvald in A Doll's House, several audience members approached him at a "meet the cast" event to see if he was "really such a bastard," he says. Rodriguez had to stop going to audience discussion groups during the run of David Edgar's Pentecost because some audience members told her that her character offended them. "I couldn't face all that negativity [in the middle of the run]," she says. "People have a hard time with tough girls, which is always interesting to me." Southern California actor Kyle Michael was told that two women in the audience muttered, "That bastard," when he was playing a violent drunk in a community college production of Les Misérables; at a post-performance reception, the women wouldn't speak to him, making him uncomfortable. When Southern California actor Joshua McCarthy played a psychopath, he noticed that audience members who stayed after the show would shake hands with everyone else "but just sort of nervously looked at me and walked the other way." He found it both complimentary and depressing, since, as he says, "I'm a generally congenial guy."
On the positive side, Hackett says, "It's not that the audience likes you, but they recognize you.... When you see somebody who really does break the rules, there's a part of us that applauds them.... You recognize yourself in someone else and get a sense of connection to something primitive or ugly or real. Then you say, 'I'm not alone.' Art isn't about presenting a veneer. It's about presenting the gritty stuff underneath."
If you can make audience members see some part of themselves in your character, warts and all, you've done well.