You’ve probably heard it said that an actor must love a character in order to play him well. I am not sure that I agree with this statement, but I do know that an actor cannot hate him.

To play any character well, you must be able to authentically speak their words, walk in their shoes, and live their point-of-view!

So, what do you do when you are cast as someone hateful? How can you find your way in to a role when you’re thinking, “I would never do that, say that, behave like that”?

First, you must recognize that as soon as you think or say those things, you are building a wall that will separate you from your character, encourage your judgment and disapproval of him/her, and prevent you from bringing authenticity to the stage.

It’s a completely understandable response. The idea of
committing wholly to a truthful depiction of someone doing horrific things can be uncomfortable, even frightful. Some actors will hold back in a way that is so vague they may not even recognize they are doing it. Others will find the challenge of playing the villain so exciting and “fun” that they play the role broadly, creating more of an archetype than an actual person. In either case, truth is lost.

So, how do you play the “bad guy”?

The answer, at least to start, is by letting go of judgments
about the character’s behavior, and working to create a
context for that behavior instead.

What we are talking about here is point-of-view and how that gives rise to actions. You see, how you or I or anyone perceives reality is, in fact, reality for that person, and that reality, that point-of-view, is what drives them; it colors all of their behavior and informs all of their decisions. People have reasons for what they do, even when those reasons appear crazy to the rest of us. People believe their actions are justified, even when no one else agrees.

That is why, as an actor, it is up to you to provide a believable and understandable context for your character’s behavior. What do you know, or what back-story can you create, that explains why your character does the cruel things he does? Pain, anger, loss, frustration, persecution… these are common human experiences. You and I may respond differently to them than your character does, but some or all of those things are causing his behavior. He may be ill-equipped to respond in ways that are socially permissible, acceptable, and responsible, but when you connect to the ways in which you have endured some or all of these things
yourself, you will have the foundation to understand the
reasonableness of his behavior from his point-of-view and break down the wall that separates you from your villainous character.

Naturally, there is value in this work beyond the stage, so I encourage you to be bold in this work. Maligning wickedness is easy, but it does little to combat it, whereas shining a light on it may just help to eviscerate it. In Hamlet’s advice to the players, he reminds them that their job as actors “is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” I cannot help but think this is an even
stronger mandate when what is reflected there is hard to look at but more important to see.