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The Best Villain Performances By Actors Who Always Play The Hero

Updated February 8, 2021 26.3k votes 5.4k voters 323.3k 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: Arguably the most popular and well-liked actor of his generation, Tom Hanks has built his career by playing everymen and nice guys - from Allen Bauer (Splash) and Josh Baskin (Big) to Forrest Gump and even Mr. Rogers (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Hanks's characters are generally easy to root for. Although his early roles were mainly comedic, he expanded into dramatic fare in the early 1990s, winning his first of two Oscars for Best Actor for his portrayal of an AIDS-stricken lawyer suing his former employer in Philadelphia.

    How He Broke Bad: In a 2019 interview with The New York Times, Hanks admitted that the main reasons he has played so few bad guys in his career are that he doesn't think he scares anyone, and that he has trouble understanding the motivation of characters who are cruel or destructive for no reason. But he has occasionally taken on a "bad guy" part. In fact, of Hanks's six roles in Cloud Atlas, three are villainous.

    In the 1849 segment, he portrays Dr. Henry Goose, who attempts to poison lawyer Adam Ewing in order to swipe the poor guy's gold. He plays a hotel manager who blackmails a musician in the 1936 segment. And in the film's present-day setting, Hanks plays gangster Dermot Hoggins, who hurls a book critic that panned his memoir off a 12th-floor balcony. All of these villains have a motive or motives for their actions - Dr. Goose's and the hotel manager's motive is greed, while Hoggins's is revenge (and possibly also greed). Clear motivation, however, doesn't make these guys any less malevolent. It's just not the way we're used to seeing Tom Hanks.

    • Age: 64
    • Birthplace: Concord, California, United States of America
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  • How We Usually See Him: Over the course of his 40+ years in film, Henry Fonda became known for playing characters who exhibit a subtle type of heroism, understated intelligence, and a strong belief in following their conscience. As an English professor defying his college administration to read a letter written by an executed anarchist to his class in The Male Animal, an empathetic juror swimming against the current simply on the principle of giving a defendant a fair trial in 12 Angry Men, or a future US president pursuing a legal career in Young Mr. Lincoln, Fonda's characters often take great personal risks to stand up for what they believe is right. The classical Henry Fonda archetype is a paragon of virtue and integrity.

    How He Broke Bad: For those who've seen Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in the West, it's hard to forget seeing Henry Fonda, of all people, emerge as a stone-cold killer. In the annals of cinematic villainy, Fonda certainly made an impression. As Frank, a ruthless hired gunman working for a land baron, Fonda imbues his character with a cold-eyed contempt for life. In one scene, he smiles as he  calmly, wordlessly shoots a young boy at point-blank range. Frank is the antithesis of the quiet heroism Ford so effortlessly displayed in films like Mister Roberts or The Ox-Bow Incident. There is nothing likable or redeemable about Frank, who thinks nothing of wiping out the settlers rather than just forcing them to give up their land - and he has no issue framing a colleague for the slayings he himself commits.

    • Age: Dec. at 77 (1905-1982)
    • Birthplace: Grand Island, Nebraska, United States of America
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  • How We Usually See Him: With his youthful good looks and physical indomitability, Tom Cruise has been known as a romantic lead and action hero - the kind with that certain cocky charm that so defines the American movie star. He saves the world as the globetrotting Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible series. He takes an ethical stand as the eponymous sports agent in Jerry Maguire. He delivers justice in A Few Good Men. He charmingly embodies military heroism in Top Gun. Many of Cruise's recognizable roles are flawed men who have to grow up or be cut down to size, but there's little doubt as to their noble motives and intentions. He epitomizes a certain brand of movie-star hero.

    How He Broke Bad: Although Collateral wasn't the first time Cruise had played something of a nasty fella - his Lestat in Interview with a Vampire and Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia both fall into that category - Vincent, the enigmatic hit man in Collateral, was still a notable about-face for the star. There's nothing heroic about Vincent, as the film follows his attempt to fulfill a contract to knock off multiple witnesses scheduled to testify against a major dealer - and the prosecutor. A former Green Beret, Vincent has a surface friendliness, but is ruthless and cold as he goes about his business. He has a deeply pessimistic view of humanity, believing that most people care little about others and think only of themselves. And with his gray hair, unshaven face, and a cockeyed smirk replacing his trademark smile, there's little hint of the boyish persona for which Cruise is so well known.

    • Age: 58
    • Birthplace: Syracuse, New York, United States of America
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  • Kevin Costner In 'Mr. Brooks'
    Photo: MGM

    How We Usually See Him: Kevin Costner became a star playing likable underdogs in movies like Bull Durham and Tin Cup, and stoic heroes in the likes of The Bodyguard, Dances with Wolves, and The Untouchables. A common characteristic of many of his best-remembered characters is integrity, whether it's to a game (as in Bull Durham), or his oath to represent the law (as in The Untouchables). He generally comes off as trustworthy.

    How He Broke Bad: In Mr. Brooks, Costner plays a serial killer with a split personality. On the one hand, he's a successful businessman and a devoted husband and father. On the other, he's a psychopath who's gleefully addicted to taking innocent lives. His responsible, good side is appalled by his actions; he admits he's an addict (without saying to what) at an AA meeting and recites its 12-step program in an attempt to rid himself of his cruel desires. But he's egged on by his alter ego (William Hurt), an imaginary friend named Marshall, who coaxes Costner into continuing his reign of carnage. While Brooks has a tormented conscience, Marshall is a happy-go-lucky sociopath who gets off on the thrill of killing for the hell of it. If the Marshall half of his personality didn't exist, Brooks could be seen as being right in line with a bunch of other straight-laced Costner characters. It's the gleefully maniacal side of this man that sets him apart from anything Costner had done before.

    • Age: 65
    • Birthplace: Lynwood, California, United States of America
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