Many of the best action-adventure villains have been played by actors who were "overqualified." That is to say, the roles were inhabited by highly regarded stars who are typically known for art films and awards bait. Even the most serious-minded performers like to play every once in a while. Taking on a bad guy role in a great, big action-packed extravaganza allows them to do just that.
You don't expect to see an Oscar-winner like Jeremy Irons popping up in Dungeons & Dragons, nor would you automatically think a clasically trained thespian like Ralph Fiennes would be down for a role in a goofy popcorn flick along the lines of Clash of the Titans. And yet, there they are. Both gentlemen approached their roles with just as much commitment as they've given to their artier projects. The best villain performances all have that same kind of commitment, which is precisely why they're so much fun to watch.
Which of these great actors playing villains gave the most deliciously evil performance?
You won't find many actors more accomplished than Geoffrey Rush. He has an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony. As a young man, he was recruited by Brisbane's prestigious Queensland Theater Company, where he appeared in a wide variety of productions. Later, he traveled the world, performing in important stage works, from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest to William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.
Nobody is going to put Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in the same category as those works, but it was a massive blockbuster hit that gave pleasure to millions of viewers around the world. Rush plays Captain Barbossa, the former first mate to Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. After nabbing cursed gold, he's socked with a curse that causes him to live forever. The genius of Rush's performance here is that he keeps it simple, portraying Barbossa as nothing more than a very bad dude. He never attempts to add psychological layers to the character that might make us empathize with him. That choice is entirely appropriate for the movie, which requires a full-on sinister antagonist to work.220Overqualified?
- Photo: Tri-Star Pictures
Dustin Hoffman started off as one of the most important actors of his generation and went on to become one of the most respected screen actors of all time. A student of legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg, he cut his teeth on the stage in productions that cast him alongside fellow legends-in-the-making Gene Hackman and Jon Voight. Hoffman's big break came in 1967's The Graduate, for which he was nominated for his first Academy Award. He would go on to earn six more Oscar nominations for a series of highly respected films - Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Rain Man, and Wag the Dog. He won for Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man.
With the formidable Robin Williams playing Peter Pan in Hook, director Steven Spielberg knew he needed an equally formidable actor to play the villain. Hoffman was the right choice. Always willing to play and experiment, he brought a totally new spin to Captain Hook, maintaining the comically over-the-top nature of the pirate while infusing him with a deep sense of bitterness. The way Hoffman and Williams interact has helped Hook become a beloved '90s favorite for many people who grew up during that decade.140Overqualified?
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Cate Blanchett graduated from Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. She appeared in a number of important stage productions that include David Mamet's Oleanna and Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which she portrayed Ophelia. Her initial forays into film allowed her to work with established directors Bruce Beresford (in Paradise Road), Gillian Armstrong (in Oscar and Lucinda), and Anthony Minghella (in The Talented Mr. Ripley). In the course of her career, she has been nominated for a whopping seven Oscars, winning twice, for Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.
Blanchett didn't get nominated for Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but she was fantastic in it nonetheless. Playing Irina Spalko, a communist with an interest in the paranormal, the actress makes an excellent foil for Harrison Ford's titular hero. Blanchett clearly understands the vibe of the movie, which was inspired by the "Red Scare" action thrillers of the 1950s. She gives Irina an icy-cold demeanor that suggests the woman is hiding some serious secrets. It's a genuinely pleasurable turn in a thrill-a-minute movie.80Overqualified?
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
Tilda Swinton, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is an Oscar winner, a BAFTA winner, and a three-time Golden Globe nominee. Pretty much every major director in Hollywood has wanted to work with her. Among them are such luminaries as Danny Boyle, Cameron Crowe, Spike Jonze, Jim Jarmusch, David Fincher, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Wes Anderson. They recognize her chameleon-like abilities, as well as her willingness to take risks onscreen.
In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, an adaptation of the C.S. Lewis children's fantasy novel, Swinton tackles the role of the White Witch. She's a domineering royal who freezes anyone who displeases her. It's perfect casting, as the actress has kind of a unique quality about her. There's something ethereal and otherworldly about her physical presence. Swinton leans into that, turning the White Witch into an unnerving villain. Her menace makes the stakes a lot higher for the young heroes of the story.114Overqualified?