Playing Formidable Foes

By Rob Adler | Posted May 19, 2015, 3 p.m.

I was recently coaching an actor for a new role on a hit cable series when he ran into a common actor challenge. As he was researching the role, he found it difficult to identify with and personify a character some presidents might describe as an “evildoer.” Regardless of your politics, the character was indeed a villain.

Before we discussed how to personalize the character, I reminded him it doesn’t matter if actors are really feeling the character’s emotions. This runs counter to some acting teachers’ opinions, but most people don’t go to the movies or watch television for the actor’s benefit. People go to the movies so they can feel something themselves. The actor’s inner life is only relevant insofar as they truthfully communicate the story so the audience has an emotional experience. What character gives the audience this gift better than the villain? Great actors relish the opportunity to play the villain because they are almost always smart, creative, passionate, plotting, and absolutely essential to a good story.

Villains fall into a few major categories. “The Sociopath” is a passionless killer, like Dexter or Dahmer, who seeks a junkie-like relief from their treachery. These villains hide in plain sight, the kind the neighbors say, “seemed so normal.” “The Anarchist” loves to create chaos. Usually highly intelligent and cynical, “the Anarchist” laughs in defiance at the rules of an ordered world, like Malcolm McDowell in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”

My client was struggling to relate to a villainous character I call “the Zealot.” This character does things many of us would consider unconscionable, but believes it is the only way to serve a greater good. My client was struggling, in part, because someone once told him, “Don’t judge the character.” Here’s the problem with this advice: Trying to play a negative (not-do something), is a little like saying, “Don’t think of pink elephants.” It creates the opposite effect. We all make judgements. An actor’s passionate subjectivity is one of their primary assets and a well-written script will elicit your emotions about every character. My client needed a practical tool for relating with a character he judged as immoral. He needed willingness.

Since the actor related to the show’s hero, he came to understand that for the audience to root for the hero, his character needed to be a formidable foe. Most great villains have strong similarities to the hero, which is the case on this show. Both the hero and villain are passionate about their beliefs, pained by injustice as they see it, and willing to go to great lengths to win. But the hero is unwilling to cross a line.

My USC colleague Joe Hacker teaches a course on playing the villain. In his brilliant book, “Auditioning on Camera,” he suggests actors playing “the Zealot,” “try to see the villain…as a would-be hero who stands for something.” We all experience rage, jealousy, and greed in our everyday lives and do our best to stop short of acting upon them. But there are times when we can imagine how it would feel to justifiably cross the line for something we believe in. The key to personalization here is relating to the willingness to cross the line.

In working with him on the role, we found further personalization unnecessary. We heightened the work we’d done by using a physicalization tool called Explosion Tag, in which the actor suddenly, physically expands and extends themselves like they’re exploding. This creates some vital muscle memory for beats filled with rage. The result was a character that was volatile, righteous, and terrifying—just the kind to make you root for the hero.