RSS
How any actor (even a really nice one) can play a truly evil villain like King Joffrey
Game of Thrones' Jack Gleeson is the latest in a long line of sweet, nice actors who have played total monsters. How do they pull it off?
 
Just the worst.
Just the worst. (Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO)

Game of Thrones fans have spent the past few years nursing a grudge against the actors Lena Headey and Jack Gleeson, who make a strong case for being the world's worst mother-son combination: the vindictive Queen Cersei and the despicable King Joffrey.

In interviews, however, the actors themselves seem to be the nicest people you could meet — a distinction that can be a little jarring for the show's loyal fans. Headey has noted that fans are not afraid to tell her that they hate her. "I guess it's a compliment," she told Conan O'Brien last year. "Or people say, 'I love her,' and I kind of worry more for them."

Playing a hated character can be rewarding — as long as the audience doesn't mistake you for the character you play. Anna Gunn played Skyler White in Breaking Bad, and the outcry against her and her character was so great that it inspired a Facebook page called "I Hate Skyler White," which still has over 30,000 likes. In response to the vitriol directed her way, Gunn was moved to write an opinion piece for The New York Times. "The consensus among the haters was clear: Skyler was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an 'annoying bitch wife,'" she wrote. "As the hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me."

The idea that viewers could confuse actors with their characters might sound bizarre — but it's been happening since the early days of the cinema. Theda Bara, Hollywood's first "vamp," was known as a dangerous woman to cinemagoers of the World War I era. People avoided her and restaurants refused to serve her. "Audiences thought the stars were the way they saw them," she recalled. "Once on the streets of New York a woman called the police because her child spoke to me."

Fame has its virtues, but there are drawbacks to being famous for playing an evil temptress who constantly lures men to their doom. In her actual life, Bara was a demure young Jewish woman from Cincinnati whose real name was Theodosia Goodman. Her publicity campaign — which photographed her with skeletons and billed her as "a crystal-gazing seeress of profoundly occult powers" — ensured her a huge box-office return at no small cost to her social life.

A quick stroll through Hollywood history reveals that many of the nicest, sweetest people have played some of the screen's best villains. Boris Karloff — who played monsters and miscreants in a number of classic horror movies — was by all accounts a gentle, courteous man who enjoyed gardening and poetry. (In fact, prior to his big break as the monster in 1931's Frankenstein, he had a job reading children's stories on BBC radio.) German actor Peter van Eyck specialized in playing vicious Nazis in films like The Longest Day and The Bridge at Remagen. He must have approached the roles with a healthy dose of irony; as an outspoken anti-fascist, van Eyck had fled Germany when Hitler was on the verge of power.

How does a normal, friendly person conjure up the evil that's necessary to play a great villain? In the golden years of Hollywood, studios tended to fall back on anyone with a menacing voice and arrogant English accent. Of course, they were sometimes willing to fudge on the last part. Vincent Price, who played creepy villains in everything from House of Wax to House of Haunted Hill, wasn't even English — but he looked and sounded wonderfully evil. "I suppose it's true that I have been mainly identified as a terror specialist," he said in 1964, "and if that is to be my public image I've no objection."

These days, audiences demand a little more variety. Perhaps the greatest movie villain of the past decade was The Dark Knight's Joker, who was brilliantly reimagined by the late Heath Ledger. "He's just out of control," said Ledger. "He has no empathy. He's a sociopath — a psychotic, mass-murdering clown — and I'm just thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying it."

At the moment, TV's greatest villain is House of Cards' Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. In an interview several years ago, Spacey told me that — despite playing everyone from Lex Luthor in Superman Returns to Seven's insane John Doe — he doesn't see his characters as villains. "People like to say, 'Oh, you love to play villains,' and I say 'Whoa! What does that mean?' One of the great things about being an actor is that, when you're forced to be in someone else's shoes, it's very difficult to be prejudiced. You have empathy for them, because you're no longer judging them with misinformation or very narrow perspective. You're looking at them as a fully rounded human being."

When he played the corrupt Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff in Casino Jack, Spacey even visited Abramoff in prison to get a handle on his character. "I found him, when I met him, to be incredibly charming, to be very funny. I came away with a real conflicted and confusing feeling. Part of the job of being an actor is you're like a detective. We're given clues. We're going to try to unearth what those clues mean, whether the clues are real clues or they're red herrings. You begin to understand that it's not as black and white as it's portrayed."

In short: Even if your villain lacks empathy, you need to find empathy for your villain. At this point, Game of Thrones fans are quick to praise Jack Gleeson for making Joffrey so easy to hate. He may be getting a little too much credit — Joffrey is so pathological that audiences would hate him even if Tom Hanks played him — but the 21-year-old actor made him truly heinous.

Fortunately, Gleeson couldn't be more different from Game of Thrones' psychotic young king. He announced in November that he would give up acting after Game of Thrones to focus on contributing to aid agencies like Goal, which is helping Haiti rebuild following the 2010 earthquake. "I'd been looking to use the celebrity I've got from the show to bring awareness for causes Goal supports."

Joffrey would be disgusted by such altruism — so how did Gleeson pull off such a memorable performance? "I empathize a lot with him, to be honest, in everything he does," Gleeson admitted to an audience at University College Dublin. "First of all, on a neuro-scientific level, I don't think incest is great for the frontal lobe and moral centers. [Joffrey is the bastard son of Cersei and her brother Jaime.] It's not his fault in that sense that he's this malevolent king. It's a genetic thing. Also, it's a contextual thing. His father didn't really love him, his mother was over-protective, and he was told from day one that he could do whatever he wanted. Anyone here, if they were put in that context, I think they'd turn out like Joffrey — perhaps myself included. I wouldn't say he's inherently immoral or evil, but simply the product of his setting and his context."

The trick, in the end, is the same moral you've heard since grade school: even the worst people just need a little understanding. Just listen to the first great villain of Hollywood's talking pictures, tough guy Edward G. Robinson, who put gangster films in vogue with Little Caesar (1931). "I still work as hard, probably harder, at each role I get as I did at the beginning," he said in 1963. "To my mind, the actor has this great responsibility of playing another human being. It's like taking on another person's life, and you have to do it has sincerely and honestly as you can."

And if you can sincerely make us hate you, you're doing something right.

 
Mark Juddery is a journalist and author based in Australia, who writes for Mental Floss, The Huffington Post, The Spectator and numerous other publications. His latest book, Best. Times. Ever. (Hardie Grant), published in Australia and the UK, explains why almost everything is better than it used to be.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week