How to Be a Villain on Stage and Screen

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Photo Source: Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

As an actor, it’s fun to play a villain. They’re limitless in terms of interpretation, giving you a lot of room to try something new. Whether you are playing some variation of a bad guy, a killer, a mass murderer, a terrorist, an assassin—or any other deeply immoral character—here are seven tips to help you be a villain.

1. Understand What Kind of Villain Your Character Is

Is your character a sociopath, a psychopath, a person who snapped and became psychotic, or just someone who is plain evil? To know exactly how they would be diagnosed will help you to understand their pathology.

Literally do the medical research on the character. People can have flaws they’ve acquired, or the defects can be ingrained in their nature. Know the case study that applies to them and how they are wired. This is foundational for understanding the characteristics of a villain.

2. Explore Rage

Let yourself realize how angry your character is, so you don’t just play the generic rage of that character and stay on one note. And then find the layers of that rage. When does it come out in the story? Justify what makes them angry and how much power they crave, and how far they are willing to go to act on it. The amount of power they have after can be closely tied to their anger. Get comfortable portraying strong emotions.

3. Find Your Character's Poker Face

Think of all the choices you can make about how a villain hides their true feelings. Once you show the full dimension of a character’s fury, you have nowhere to go from there. The script will tell you when that explosion will fully erupt and that will usually happen at a climactic point for the character. All the other scenes are spent defending that. That is why you need to find creative ways to not show your character's wrath.

4. Find a Great Costume and Voice

When you find the perfect attire, it makes for a colorful character. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” had a say in his hand-tailored prison jumpsuit. Villains are usually narcissistic and love hearing the sound of their own voice. A schizophrenic villain can have both a voice that is lighthearted, and another filled with vitriol. Costumes and voices are places where you can be highly creative.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Get Ugly

Great actors don’t care if they are unattractive; they care that they are truthful to the character. Don’t let fear hold you back from finding and showing the monster within.

6. Find the Humanity and Humor

Everyone has a heart, so find your villain’s soft spot. Be clear about a specific time in their life where they got their heart broken. That is what makes a character believable. The reality is that psychopaths cry and can feel (mostly for themselves, but it’s still feeling). Someone can commit a heinous crime and still be capable of a certain humanity. It is possible that those two extremes exist in one person. You can give yourself carte blanche looking for how they see the world. Humor is essential, and that can even contribute to making a villain likable—especially in a comedy.

7. Watch Great Villains on TV and in Films

Some villains have become archetypes. Enjoy performances such as Lena Headey as the spiteful queen Cersei Lannister and Jack Gleeson as the vile King Joffrey Baratheon on “Game of Thrones,” Lorraine Toussaint as the diabolical Vee on “Orange Is the New Black,” and Joe Morton as the imposing and predatory father to Olivia Pope on “Scandal,” to name a few. When you find a multidimensional character to play, audiences will relish watching them and they will stay memorable!

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Michelle Danner
Michelle Danner is an acting coach, film director, and artistic director at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, and a Backstage Expert. Her latest movie “Bad Impulse,” a psychological thriller, is set for release later this year. The Michelle Danner Acting Studio in Santa Monica, Calif. is currently offering online classes for actors of all ages, experience levels and from all around the world. For more information, check out Danner’s full bio!
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