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The Best Villain Performances By Actors Who Always Play The Hero

Updated February 8, 2021 27.7k votes 5.7k voters 350.7k views15 items

List RulesVote up the best villainous performances by our most reliably heroic actors.

Actors are often typecast as a specific type of character. Those who become defined as "good guys (or girls)" and "heroes" wind up playing, more often than not, good guys and heroes. When actors play the same kinds of roles over and over again, it can be easy for audiences to start accepting them only in those roles.

But actors often like to stretch and challenge themselves by taking roles outside the bounds of their typical persona. Just as a comedian might be eager to take on a dramatic role, an actor known mainly for playing a hero might relish the chance to finally take on a true baddie. Sometimes the role reversal is successful and goes down as one of the performer's most loved performances; other times, it's a bad fit, or audiences are simply unable to accept the star in an unfamiliar role.

Here are some of the actors who have generally played trustworthy characters but broke away from that typecasting to play a villainous role. Which of these risks paid off?

  • How We Usually See Him: Steve Carell is best known for comedic roles in films such as Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin - and that's just the big screen. On the small screen, he received six Emmy nominations for portraying Michael Scott in the beloved sitcom The Office. His characters are often a bit off-center or idiosyncratic, but are usually "good guys."

    How He Broke Bad: One of Carell's first roles in a dramatic film was as John Eleuthère du Pont in the true crime drama Foxcatcher. He gives a darkly chilling performance as the paranoid, mentally ill heir to the Du Pont fortune who forms a dysfunctional relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, the latter of whom he ends up slaying. Carell's portrayal of the millionaire wrestling enthusiast, who sees himself as the Schultzes' mentor, has deeply sinister undertones, even though he seems to consider Mark a real friend. Du Pont's abusive behavior plays a part in Mark's eventual decision to leave du Pont's training facility; Dave, however, makes the ill-fated decision to stick around. While some of Carell's other roles have had him play characters that don't quite fit in, this is the darkest, most dangerous role the actor had taken on up to this point of his career. He was rewarded for this risk with an Academy Award nomination.

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    • How We Usually See Him: Although Matt Damon's breakout role was playing the genius working-class janitor in Good Will Hunting, he may be better known now for his roles in action movies such as the Bourne series and Ocean's Eleven. Damon has a boatload of Oscar nominations and has shown his range as an actor, but his wholesome good looks and charm make it hard to root against him, even on the occasions when he has played a bad guy.

      How He Broke Bad: In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Damon's Tom is an amoral con man who will do whatever he thinks is necessary to get what he wants. His talent lies in is his ability to impersonate other people. Having grown up as an unloved orphan with little money, he is deeply envious of those who have the wealth and lifestyle he wants for himself. He comes across as charming, friendly, and polite, which helps him insinuate himself into the lives of Dickie Greenleaf and his girlfriend, Marge. But instead of accepting Dickie's rejection when the other man tires of Tom's friendship, he slays him and takes on his identity. Although Tom doesn't want to be alone in the world, he is more determined to have the wealthy lifestyle he has dreamed of. So he takes the lives of anyone who can expose his attempt to impersonate Dickie as a fraud - even his lover, Peter.

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      • How We Usually See Him: Han Solo. Indiana Jones. Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. President Marshall in Air Force One. Is there any actor in the last 40 years who has portrayed more good-guy heroes than Harrison Ford?

        How He Broke Bad: In What Lies Beneath, Ford flips his good-guy image on its head. On the surface, Ford's Norman Spencer is a good guy - he's a respected scientist, happily married to Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer). But beneath the good-guy facade is a murderous nature that is revealed whenever Spencer thinks his reputation is endangered. When Claire realizes her husband took the life of a female student after she threatened to tell the university president about their affair, Spencer attempts to off his wife and make it look self-inflicted - after all, she knows too much now, and has thus become a threat to his reputation and career. His absolute calm as he attempts to drown his drugged wife in a bathtub is chilling - and a far cry from the Harrison Ford we're used to seeing.

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        • How We Usually See Her: Angela Lansbury has won five Tony Awards and earned three Oscar nominations, but the role for which she is most remembered is that of Jessica Fletcher, the middle-aged mystery novelist and amateur sleuth from the long-running TV series Murder, She Wrote. Lansbury thought one reason the show was so successful was that audiences found it easy to relate to Fletcher. There was nothing dangerous or threatening about her.

          How She Broke Bad: For The Manchurian Candidate, Lansbury was cast in the role of the manipulative Eleanor Iselin, mother to the brainwashed assassin Raymond Shaw. In 2007, Time named Mrs. Iselin one of the top 25 greatest villians in Hollywood history. Power hungry and icily dangerous, she is not a person to take lightly. With the goal of her husband becoming president of the United States, she coolly pursues her role in a Communist plot to influence the American government, accepting that she must persuade her son to assassinate the presidential nominee in order to get what she wants. Although she vows revenge on the people who chose and programmed her son for the assassin's role, her idea of motherly love is disturbing. Unlike many of her other roles, there is nothing relatable or non-threatening about Eleanor Iselin.

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