Bad to the bone: why actors find it so hard to leave their darkest roles behind

Luke Holland
·5-min read

A quick experiment: Anthony Hopkins is one of history’s most celebrated thesps, a star of stage and screen for more than 60 years. Picture him. What do you see? Is it John Quincy Adams in Amistad? Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man? Or is it Hannibal Lecter, leering through plexiglass, theth-theth-thething into the camera? If you said it’s anything other than that last one, then congratulations. Why not pour yourself a nice glass of chianti to wash down your LIES.

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Of course it was Lecter. That is no slight on those other roles, either. Nor is it an insult to Javier Bardem to posit that he’ll for ever be the coin-tossing, mop-headed wrong ’un from No Country for Old Men. And Kathy Bates is a phenomenal actor, but even she must be aware that she hasn’t met anyone for 30 years who didn’t, at some point in the conversation, calculate how far she was from the nearest hammer. These actors are exceptional at what they do, yet it was that same brilliance in these roles (for which each of them won an Oscar) that turned Lecter, Anton Chigurh and Misery’s Annie Wilkes into such inescapable, career-defining figures. The real Hopkins, Bardem and Bates almost seemed like their final victims.

Why these characters in particular? Brian Cox played Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter in 1986, five years before Anthony Hopkins’s adroit wine pairing for human liver in The Silence of the Lambs. Yet Hopkins’s interpretation lives on, ever-quotably, in the common consciousness. Cox’s Succession stablemate Matthew Macfadyen played the Sheriff of Nottingham in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Is it Macfadyen you think of when you imagine the sheriff? Of course not. The sheriff is a lithe Alan Rickman, threatening to remove someone’s heart with a spoon, and it always will be. You might argue this is because Scott’s Robin Hood wasn’t very good. But rewatch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and you’ll find that, besides Rickman, it’s appalling.

These actors’ synonymy with villainy may appear to be an alchemic, almost accidental intersection between the perfect actor and role, but it isn’t as serendipitous as it appears. Hopkins played Lecter three times, presumably on purpose. Rickman alone is responsible for not one, not two, but three of the great baddies: the sheriff, Harry Potter’s Snape and Die Hard’s Hans Gruber. It is a deliberate, more-is-more approach pioneered by Boris Karloff in the 30s then perfected by the mighty Christopher Lee, who would cheerfully ham it up as the big evil in the majority of his 260-odd (!) films, including 10 (!!) appearances at Dracula, as well as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, and as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels. Through a chimera of tone of voice, fortuitous evil-faced physiognomy and sheer gung-ho enthusiasm, some actors excel at playing villains, and clearly have a ball doing it. It cannot be typecasting if the actors are typecasting themselves.

They also get the meatiest, showiest roles. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger’s Jokers won Oscars. Christoph Waltz bagged one for Inglourious Basterds. Louise Fletcher won best actress in 1976 as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood, Mo’Nique for Precious, JK Simmons in Whiplash, Charlize Theron in Monster – all winners. Villains are critical darlings every inch as much as they are fan favourites.

Most actors say it is much more fun playing the knave than the hero, so it’s easy to see why Lena Headey created one of TV’s great monsters in Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, but also stole 2012’s Dredd as the joyously psychopathic drug kingpin Ma-Ma Madrigal. Anything in which Jason Isaacs plays a right bastard – Potter, The OA, The Patriot – is essential viewing. Gary Oldman, Helena Bonham Carter, Ruth Wilson: if they are playing a baddie in something, people will watch it for no other reason. There’s such an embarrassment of larks and accolades in being bad it’s a wonder anyone strives to be good.

Guess Who … David Tennant as serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
Guess Who … David Tennant as serial killer Dennis Nilsen. Photograph: AP

An actor doesn’t have to be born with a permanent sneer and an arched brow, either. Robin Williams made a chilling nasty in Insomnia and One Hour Photo. Denzel Washington is spellbinding as the unhinged bent copper in Training Day. America’s sweetheart Meryl Streep was a next-level sod in The Devil Wears Prada. David Tennant’s ascent to full-blown national treasure has been assured by a post-Doctor volte face in which he has played every manner of swine, from Dennis Nilsen to Jessica Jones’s gaslighter general Kilgrave. And the sooner Tom Cruise abandons his midlife crisis, accepts he’s creepy AF and gets back to the Magnolias, Interview With the Vampires and Collaterals to which he’s far more suited, the better.

Heroes are fine, but they come and go, more or less interchangeably: Arnie begat Bruce who begat Will Smith who begat Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Those few actors lucky enough to play ne’er-do-wells know this: that it is great villains who linger, who sink their claws into us, needle away at our subconscious, delighting and disgusting us decade after decade. Perhaps they don’t want to change. They’re not trapped at all by their God-given bastardry. They’re freed by it. Only by being bad can they get to be this good, and they love it. And who can blame them? Bwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa.