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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

SO YOU WANT TO BE A VILLIAN: Tips on how to play a bad guy (or gal)

Erin Boyer, a former student, playing the Serpent in a production of "The Apple Tree" that I directed for Foxcroft Academy.  Costume and photo courtesy of Michaela Petrovich.

Today at Theater is a Sport, I thought I would talk about something fun:  being a villain on stage.

One of the reasons people become involved with community theater is to discover a world outside of who they are, to pretend to be someone completely different.  And, since most average people are not villains, per se, being cast in a bad guy or bad gal role can be one of the greatest joys for an otherwise really nice actor. 

I have played my share of morally questionable people over the years, from a womanizing cross-dresser, to a one-eyed grave-robbing minstrel in the Middle Ages, but the most genuine villain I probably ever played was the part of Chillingworth in an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter.  As with every role I tackle, I took this role very seriously, and spent a good deal of time developing a believable character.  Whether I succeeded or not is not really up to me to decide, but I was proud of the work that I accomplished.  And, along the way, I discovered some things that helped me out in playing a villain, and I will share them now with you:

TIP #1:  IF YOU'RE PLAYING A DEVIL, FIND THE ANGEL IN HIM OR HER!  Even if you're playing the baddest of bad people, it is important as an actor to find some good in them.  Maybe you discover when doing research for playing Adolf Hitler, that he apparently loved and doted on his dogs.  Now, perhaps there is no scene in the play that shows him playing with his dogs, but, just knowing this tidbit as an actor can help you show the human behind the monster.  Remember, a villain is still human.

TIP #2:  REMEMBER--- A VILLAIN IS THE HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY.   By and large, for most plays, this rule is true.  Most bad guys or villains don't even realize that they are villains (except for a very few, like Iago in Othello who is perfectly aware that he is evil).  Remember that in most stories, the villain just happens to have a conflicting objective than that of the hero.  In their own mind, what they want and what they are doing to get it may be the morally correct choice from their perspective.  In a way, this makes the characters even scarier a good deal of the time.

TIP #3:  SOMETIMES, MORE IS LESS!  Unless the play calls for you to be a very over-the-top villain, you may not want to start practicing cheesy "evil laughs" or angry shouting.  Sometimes, the best way for a villain to show their power and control is to be a little understated.  A person can sound far more dangerous threatening a person in a low tone of voice than shouting at them.  Talk about these types of choices with your director.  After all, how often does Anthony Hopkins raise his voice as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs?  Not very many. 

TIP #4:  HOMEWORK--- OBJECTIVES AND MOTIVATION (AND A LITTLE SUBTEXT)  These things are important to look at no matter what part you are playing, but they are particularly important to examine closely and precisely if you are playing a villain.  Objectives:  what does your bad guy or gal truly want?  Why do they want it?  What do they hope to gain by achieving this goal?  Motivation:  What happened in the characters life that made them the way they are (this may not be provided by the script).  Create a backstory to give yourself proper motivation and incentive if these ideas are not expressly identified in the text.  Subtext:  this is looking at every line, ever action, and finding clues about what makes your character tick and what they are truly saying.

TIP #5:  MUSIC, SWEET MUSIC!  When I was playing Chillingworth, who was  a very angry villain, I would listen to angry music to help put me in that mindset.  Since then, I have tried to find the right music for ever character I play.  This does not mean that it has to be music that your character would listen to (I listened to Eminem and Metallica to get angry for Chillingworth), but just something that helps you as an actor.  This, of course, is for everybody, not just for villains, I just happened to discover how effective it was for me getting me revved up to play the bad guy.

I hope you have enjoyed these little tips.  Perhaps soon, I shall write a post about how to play a saint. 

Until then, may you be truly and humanly bad, and remember--- theater is a sport.

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