12 Actors Talk About How They Tapped Into Cold-Blooded Villains

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Vote up the stories that explain how actors embodied their most evil characters.

In the history of movies, there have been hundreds of performances by actors playing villains that have made that character jump off the screen and hold the audience's attention from the first time they appear to the last. A great villain has elevated many a film from "meh" to good or great - and won more than a few awards for the actors who have portrayed them.

It has been said that playing a villain is often more fun - and more challenging - than playing a hero, in part because the motives for their actions aren't always as clear-cut. So what kinds of techniques does an actor use to try and get into the head of a cold-blooded villain in order to portray the character in a way that captures the audience's attention and makes the villain appear to be a true challenge or obstacle? Do they totally immerse themselves in the character or do they try and separate themselves from it? The approaches taken can be as varied as the types of villainous roles that are portrayed.

Below are stories of how actors have taken on the challenge of playing some of the most terrifying villains in recent film history.


  • 1
    105 VOTES

    As Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins Had A Clear Idea Of What Scares People: ‘Stillness Is The Key’

    As Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins Had A Clear Idea Of What Scares People: ‘Stillness Is The Key’
    Photo: Silence of the Lambs / Orion Pictures

    When Anthony Hopkins was sent the script for The Silence of the Lambs, one line really sparked his interest in playing the role. As he explained to Vanity Fair:

    When [the FBI agent] Crawford said, "You don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head," I thought, "Ooh, that’s it." I phoned my agent, and I said, "Is this an offer? This is the best part I could ever." He said, "Well, it’s not a big part." I said, "I don’t care."

    The actor continued:

    The way Ted Tally had written it - it was so indelible in my mind. [Laughs.] I don’t know what it is that’s in my brain - I’m fairly normal most of the time - but I know what scares people, and I believe that stillness is the key. You know, we don’t look at anyone too long. We look away, or we laugh to disarm ourselves. But if you stare at someone for more than 10 seconds, it scares them. And you can do it, you can test people. I knew instinctively that I should be absolutely still. All the talk about "He’s a monster..." I thought, "Well, go to the opposite. Play him nice."

    When Hopkins met with Jonathan Demme to discuss the role, the director made a point about Lecter's character that resonated with the actor:

    [Demme] said, "I think he’s a good man, he’s a very bright man. He’s trapped in an insane brain." I thought, oh. And I think he was right, because what Lecter is really - it’s an old-fashioned word to use - but he’s a gentleman. He has finesse. He’s not Buffalo Bill. When he kills, it’s fast and deadly.

    In the Vanity Fair piece, the actor stated that he based Lecter on an old drama teacher of his named Christopher Fettes, whom he had studied under while attending the Royal Academy:

    [Fettes was a] Stanislavsky method teacher, and he was lethal. He was very charismatic, and he was deadly. He would rip you apart. He would just take you apart intellectually. He’d just smirk, and he’d say, "No. Do it again." ...You’d do a piece, and he’d say, "Do it again. No." I based it on him: “No, Clarice."

  • 2
    24 VOTES

    Director Rob Reiner Suggested Kathy Bates Use James Caan's Refusal To Rehearse Or Discuss Their Characters To Fuel Annie Wilkes's Rage In 'Misery'

    Although Misery was Kathy Bates's first starring role in a feature film, she had already developed a reputation for her ability to portray female characters who were eccentric, strange, and/or depressed. In a 1991 New York Times Magazine article, Bates made this claim about the character she portrayed in Misery:

    Annie isn't a monster in a horror movie; she's a human being who is a psychopath. Her humanness comes from her inmost dreams and hopes, however crazy they may be.

    The actor clashed at times with her Misery co-star because of their different ways of preparation. As a stage-trained actor, Bates was used to using long periods of rehearsal to help develop her character. James Caan, on the other hand, was used to working in feature films, where rehearsal and discussions about character were far rarer. As the film's director Rob Reiner recalled:

    Kathy kept saying, "Jimmy's not relating to me, he's not listening to me," I said: "That's true, he isn't. His character doesn't care one iota about yours." And I said, "You can use that to fuel your rage."

    For Misery, she and Reiner agreed that Annie as a child had been assaulted by her father even though this idea wasn't in the novel or the screenplay. This detail helped clue Bates into the depth of Annie's disturbance. But her deep sympathy for her psychotic character caused Bates some problems.

    In the New York Times Magazine piece, Bates admitted that by the end of filming:

    I found myself feeling dislocated from people. Rob picked up on it and advised me just to leave it at the studio at the end of the day, 'cause it's very easy to get so caught up in that mishmash that you can't enjoy yourself or the role.

  • 3
    39 VOTES

    As Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund Used The Annoying Four-Hour Makeup Process To Get Madder And Madder

    As Freddy Krueger, Robert Englund Used The Annoying Four-Hour Makeup Process To Get Madder And Madder
    Photo: A Nightmare on Elm Street / New Line Cinema

    Being transformed from Robert Englund into the fictional serial killer Freddy Krueger was an arduous task - the actor spent many, many hours sitting in a makeup chair in order to portray the role. And as he explained to the CBC, he used those hours to help him get into his character:

    I get more and more ornery as they put more and more glue on me, and in about four hours, there's nothing left of Robert Englund - it's just this cantankerous cuss named Freddy Krueger.

    The actor explained to WGN News that what originally appealed to him about the role was the opportunity to work with director Wes Craven. To try and look like the character, for his audition, the self-described "blond surfer boy" greased his hair back, put some cigarette ash under his eyes to make them look sunken, and "just played staring games" with the director. 

    Krueger's eyes are a big part of what makes the character so frightening. Englund told WGN News:

     They made these very expensive contact lenses for me, and it was my choice not to wear them. Because then I looked more like a doll. When you have the real eyes come through that makeup, it just sells the effect more.

  • 4
    57 VOTES

    As Darth Vader, James Earl Jones Had To Keep His Voice On A 'Narrow Band Of Inflection' Because He Isn't Human

    As Darth Vader, James Earl Jones Had To Keep His Voice On A 'Narrow Band Of Inflection' Because He Isn't Human
    Photo: Star Wars: A New Hope / 20th Century Fox

    Although another actor physically portrayed the role of the villainous Darth Vader, James Earl Jones provided the memorable voice. The Shakespearean-trained actor, who has had a long and distinguished career, including receiving the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 200, told the Los Angeles Times that he was a bit surprised that the voice of Darth Vader became so iconic:

    I couldn't make him sound human. Whenever I did a new one, the director would say there is a very narrow band of inflection. There were no special tricks, just getting to the deepest register of my bass voice and being as menacing as possible.

    As Jones explained to Movieline in 1999, George Lucas knew he wanted someone with a bass voice to play Darth Vader:

    Well, how many bass voices are there? There was Orson Welles, and the rumor is that he considered Welles, but decided that voice might be too recognizable, so he called my agent and asked, "Would Jim like a day’s work?"

    The actor got paid a flat fee of $7,000 for voicing Vader in the first Star Wars film. When he first met Lucas, the director didn't give him much insight into Vader's character or background to help him prepare for the part. Instead, he told him that it wasn’t a matter of the actor making the character more interesting - it was the opposite. Thus the lack of inflection in the voice. Jones recalled:

    The difficulty for the second and third movies was how to keep that narrow band of inflection. For The Empire Strikes Back, [director] Irvin Kershner put down his own track for Darth Vader to give me an idea of where he wanted to go with it. He had a great, squeaky, cracky voice. And it worked unusually well - it’s even scarier, because you don’t expect it.

    As for the heavy breathing Vader did? That wasn't Jones's work. He stated:

    It was bionic breathing, not related to speech at all.

  • 5
    51 VOTES

    Heath Ledger Locked Himself In A Hotel Room For A Month And Kept A Detailed Diary In Order To Prepare For His Role As The Joker

    Heath Ledger Locked Himself In A Hotel Room For A Month And Kept A Detailed Diary In Order To Prepare For His Role As The Joker
    Photo: The Dark Knight / Warner Bros. Pictures

    Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his mesmerizing, terrifying performance as the sociopathic villain the Joker in The Dark Knight. The film was still in post-production when the actor tragically passed.

    After Ledger's untimely demise, his sister tried to dispel rumors that playing the Joker in The Dark Knight had somehow negatively affected him, claiming, "He was having fun. He wasn’t depressed about the Joker." Which may very well be true. Still, in an interview with The New York Times, Ledger himself admitted playing the role had been "physically and mentally draining" and that on some nights, he had gotten as little as two hours of sleep.

    In a 2007 interview with Empire magazine, Ledger explained his intense preparation for the role:

    It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script, and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it. I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices - it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath - someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown.

    In the documentary Too Young to Die about the actor's life and tragic end, Ledger's father is shown going through the diary that Ledger had used to help him prepare to play the Joker. Among the images shown in the documentary is a picture of a hyena, all of the dialogue from the hospital room scene in which the Joker disguises himself in a nurse's uniform (Ledger's father revealed that Ledger's sister used to dress the actor up in a nurse's outfit when they were kids), and multiple photos of Alex DeLarge, the terrifying character portrayed by Malcolm McDowell in the 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ledger's menacing expression in The Dark Knight is similar to McDowell's in A Clockwork Orange.

  • 6
    27 VOTES

    As Bellatrix, Helena Bonham Carter Wanted Kids To Be Scared Of Her But Also Wanted To Be Her Because She ‘Gets Away With Everything’

    As Bellatrix, Helena Bonham Carter Wanted Kids To Be Scared Of Her But Also Wanted To Be Her Because She ‘Gets Away With Everything’
    Photo: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix / Warner Bros. Pictures

    Helena Bonham Carter described her Harry Potter character as a mixture of different things, but the most important thing was that she be attractive. As she told Movies Ireland:

    She can be scary, and definitely kids are scared of her. But also have a part of her that they kind of wouldn't mind being her, in the sense that she's really naughty. She gets away with everything, you know.

    The actress went on to describe Bellatrix as incredibly infantile but very liberated, and admitted that it was a lot of fun to portray her because she was so abandoned, which allowed her to just go through that as an actor. At the same time, it became tiring:

    It was like having a 2-year-old around all the time.

    In another interview, she described the character as being "really good therapy" because she got to scream a lot, be very physical, and was a totally unsubtle character. The actor didn't think she'd ever get another film role that allowed her to be those things.