Actors who embrace the evil of their character

My sister and I were, for reasons I can’t now reconstruct, talking about Michael Douglas, and she said that one of the reasons she didn’t care for him as an actor was that he isn’t willing to be dislikable – even when he’s playing a bad guy, as in Wall Street, he holds back a little.

So we started trying to think of actors who are willing to just go whole hog on a truly dark, scary character in a completely believable fashion. (Believability is important – Bond villains don’t count, for instance, because there’s an ironic distance in the whole premise of the movie.)

I came up with Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather and De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. I’ve never seen Silence of the Lambs, believe it or not, but gather Anthony Hopkins might be another one.

As I was writing this, I was going to say “no comic book films” because of the lack of realism – but yanno, Heath Ledger as the Joker might count.

What are some others? And who are the women?

Rowan Atkinson seemed to relish the various incarnations of Blackadder.

Let’s go way back to 1935. Charles Laughton made one badass Captain Bligh.

Charles Dance is an actor who seems to relish playing villains. His character Benedict in Last Action Hero loved being evil.

He seems to get into being Tywin Lannister as well, although “evil” might be a bit strong for that character.

John Travolta relishes the bad guy roles: see Face Off and Broken Arrow. Hammy, though.

I’m interpreting this question (and tell me if I’m wrong) as not so much being about actors who enjoy playing villains, as being about actors who are willing to be disliked by the audience.

For me, the difference is illustrated by two interpretations of the Emcee in Cabaret. In the 1993 televised showing of the London play, Alan Cumming won great acclaim as a sexualized Emcee. He was nothing if not adorable.

By contrast, Joel Grey (in the 1972 film) was unabashedly vile.

To my mind that took greater courage. Most performers want the audience to at least admire them for their mustache-twirling villainy (if not find them sexy and magnetic). Most will not commit to being truly despicable.

Cyril Cusack played the best baddies is films like **Farenheit 451, 1984, **and The Day of the Jackal because instead of scenery-chewing maniacal, he was always brought a weary resignation “time to make the donuts” attitude that is more consistent with the actual sons of bitches we meet in life

Of course, if scenery-chewing is what you want, there was Eric Von Stroheim, billed as “the man you love to hate.”

For female, there was Catherine “just shoot him in the face” Zeta Jones in Traffic, but I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to hate her because she was a vicious drug queenpin, or because she was a self-absorbed SoCal rich bitch.

Everyone, pretty much, is evil and good in that series. Didn’t he plan the Red Wedding, though?

Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me is extremely unpleasant and evil, and plays the part perfectly. It’s one of those films I really think I should rewatch, but don’t want to, if that makes sense…

I’d go with Billy Drago. Almost always evil, and enjoys it.

The girl who played Nellie Olsen in Little House on the Prairie. Until the later seasons when she grew up and got married, Nellie was a vile sociopath who would cause harm to someone else just to get a chuckle out of it. Then twirl her blonde curls and skip merrily away.


That’s a comedy. We’re talking about believable villains. Comedies, by definition, not about believability.

I think hamminess also disqualifies – it taints the performance, making it clear it’s a performance. Lots and lots of what Pacino has done is disqualified on this basis – but his Michael Corleone was understated and evil.

Exactly. That was our starting point – that Michael Douglas (at least in my sister’s perception of him) isn’t.

13 posts and nobody has mentioned Hugo Weaving or Heath Ledger yet?

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter.

Neal McDonough as Robert Quarles in Justified.

Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy in Justified.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Raymond Cruz, who played Tuco in Breaking Bad, along with Bryan Cranston of course.

Nick Cage doesn’t seem to care what the fuck people think, regardless of the role.

The OP mentioned Heath Ledger.
James Spader seems to enjoy playing bad guys.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No County for Old Men.

Christian Bale is excellent at this and so is Kevin Bacon.

American Psycho and Sleepers are the two movies I am thinking of.

Boris Karloff?

Among actresses, I’d nominate Laura Fraser for her Lydia in Breaking Bad. She had the courage to be genuinely repellant—twitching, cowardly, squinting with the effort to think of ways to murder everyone who might threaten her. There was no effort on the part of the actress to display her actual beauty; instead, she undercut it at every moment by showing us the force of Lydia’s neurotic survivalism.