Updated: Jan 6, 2021
Everyone loves a good villain. Actors who can tap into their dark side fascinate and intrigue audiences. How does an actor enter that twisted headspace and take on the role of a killer? What can you do if you're given such a challenge?
Here are my tips for exploring a villainous role. Just a bit of a warning, we're delving into some disturbing territory here!
1. Don't pre-judge the character.
Your character may truly be a monster. But as an actor, you can't really play the idea of a "monster;" it's too generic of a characterization. It's an imposition of judgment, and this will just keep you distant from the character. You still need to play a real person. So fundamentally, you still need to approach a villain like you would any other character. This is a person with a certain set of experiences; they have desires and objectives they are fighting to achieve. Granted, those desires and objectives will be twisted and unlike normal people. But you still have to find them and play them. You have to be brave and willing to put yourself in the shoes of someone you may find disturbing and try to see the world from their perspective.
2. Discover where their villainy stems from.
To be specific, by "villainy" I mean the person's desire and willingness to hurt other people. This has to be grounded in strong reasons in order for their actions to make sense. Sometimes the story will provide clues or background information that explains or hints at why this person is this way. If not, you will have to piece that together for yourself. It might not be a matter of having a specific backstory. But you need to dig into their psychology to figure out what is driving them.
Here are some things that could be going on with them. Sometimes these reasons are intertwined. Be willing to explore.
Psychopathy - Psychopathy is defined as a personality disorder characterized by an inability to feel empathy for others as well as an inability to feel emotions such as shame, remorse, fear, and disgust. Psychopaths are willing to lie and manipulate for selfish purposes. They tend to be narcissistic. This is really the realm of serial killers. Think Hannibal Lecter, Anton in No Country for Old Men, John Doe in Seven. There is also often a ritualistic obsession characteristic of their killing; it satisfies a sort of murderous fetish. Not all killers are psychopaths though! Some are much more sympathetic characters.
Trauma and abuse - Trauma and abuse experienced especially during childhood is quite common among murderers and serial murderers. It can actually be at the root of the development of psychopathy in some individuals.
Social rejection and isolation - This is often what drives mass shooters. They seek recognition through infamy.
Twisted relationship with father or mother- A person's relationship to their parents is fundamental to their development. If there is manipulation, emotional abuse, or improper boundaries between a person and their parents, it can impede their ability to individuate, and it also corrupts the way that person relates to other people and the wider world. Think Carrie or Norman Bates in Psycho.
Ideological possession - Sometimes people get swept up in the zeitgeist of their age, and driven by ideological fervor, they become capable of heinous acts. Regular Germans joined the Nazis; regular Chinese joined the Red Army, regular people join terrorist groups. True believers with a utopian vision will go to murderous lengths because they believe the ends justify the means.
Corruption by having too much power - Absolute power corrupts absolutely, so the saying goes. The possession of immense power can inflate a person's ego and make them feel godlike. They may feel they are above any ordinary moral standards. They may simply delight in their ability to control other people. There can also be an infantile sense of entitlement going on. It's no wonder someone like Kim Jong-un (The North Korean dictator) is so depraved. Think Regina George in Mean Girls.
3. Determine where the person's power lies and how they wield it.
Each villain has particular talents or powers they employ to control people and get what they want. Sometimes they occupy an actual position of power and authority. They might be a dictator, a senator, a cop, a professor, a coach, a corrections officer.
The person might be very charming or physically attractive and is able to lure their victims in that way. They may be able to manipulate people with their speech. Or their power may simply stem from brute strength.
A few examples for contemplation:
Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds comes off as very polite and conciliatory. He uses his gracious manners to cloak himself. It assists him in what he is actually doing, which is interrogating people.
Darth Vader's power is mainly brute strength and he wields it with the threat of torture or destruction. He also has the power of the imperial army backing him. His tactics aren't subtle. He's a pretty straightforward guy. You do what he wants or he'll "force choke" you or blow up your home planet, etc.
In The Dark Knight, The Joker's power stems from his nihilism and complete embrace of anarchy. Because he doesn't care about anything, even his own life, nothing can be used against him. He can't be intimidated or bargained with.
4. What does the character enjoy the most? What do they despise the most?
Answering these two questions is helpful for analyzing any character. These two questions cut to the core and show you who the person is fundamentally.
What's interesting about villains is that their reactions to things are often opposite to normal human reactions. They might despise love and find it repulsive. They might take pleasure and delight in pain, fear, blood, and destruction.
5. Find the games they like to play.
Some predators like to play with their food before they eat it. There's often a perverse sense of fun in the way a villain goes about weaving their plan and manipulating people. Find their particular strategies and sense of gameplay.
6. Do an animal study.
Animals are great subjects to draw inspiration from for all kinds of characters, but they're especially helpful for villains. Animals exist in the world of brutal nature. It's kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. So they move and act from a place of primal, survival instinct.
You can use the animal to inform the way your character moves and speaks as well as their strategies for killing their prey. Reptiles, such as snakes, are especially popular for villainous inspiration. This is because they lack the natural warmth, care, and familial bonds of warm-blooded creatures such as birds and mammals. They are the world's natural psychopaths. Obviously, Voldemort, the villain of the Harry Potter series, is explicitly described as resembling a snake and having a kinship with snakes. Humans have a deeply inbuilt fear of snakes embedded through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, so we do find these mannerisms particularly unnerving!
The animal you choose to model your character after might be less expected. For example, for some reason Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds reminds me of a beaver. (Christoph Waltz has never talked about studying an animal for the role. This is just my own observation.) Aside from his Nazi uniform, he isn't physically intimidating. He is actually somewhat short in stature. He has an eccentric charm and prankish, trickster-like quality. But he steadily gnaws away the false pretenses of other people, like a beaver gnaws at the trunk of a tree. And he attacks with absolute viciousness. (Beavers are actually quite dangerous and have been known to attack people in the wild. If you feel so inclined, just look up "beaver attack" on YouTube.)
Now studying an animal doesn't mean sticking closely to an imitation of the animal. You use the animal as the inspiration point for more creative expression.