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25+ Actors Who Were Wickedly Good at Playing the Villain


| LAST UPDATE 10/23/2022

By Mahlik Campbell

Some actors embody a villain so spectacularly that it can be hard to see them as anyone else. Take a look at these stars who were a little too good at playing the bad guy...

Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator

When Phoenix starred in the 2000 British-American historical drama, it wasn't all smooth sailing at first. The actor reportedly had trouble connecting with his character and getting into the role.

Joaquin PhoenixJoaquin Phoenix
Gladiator via DreamWorks Pictures / George Pimentel via Getty Images

"So one morning... lightning struck. I went out and cut my hair and added some weight... to show how this scrawny prince had kinda ripened into an emperor," Joaquin explained. "I discovered the child in him. He was only 19 when he became emperor." The 24-year-old actor wowed audiences with his transformation.

Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man

Dafoe impressed audiences in 2002's Spider-Man when he took on the dual-personality role of The Green Goblin and Norman Osborn. "I loved in Spider-Man particularly playing the double role. Everybody thinks about the Green Goblin, and that was fun, but the more interesting role was probably the father, Norman," the actor shared.

Willem DafoeWillem Dafoe
Spider-Man via Columbia Pictures / Stephane Cardinale-Corbis via Getty Images

"Because you could play these scenes where it would switch from comedy to drama in a line," he continued. "There's a couple of scenes... they're so double-edged, and they go back and forth between being really heavy and really kind of silly. And the movie is filled with that." Willem still had fond memories of playing the villain.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor as The Operative in Serenity

Ejiofor was the icy antagonist in Serenity and has played other villainous roles, including Luke in Children Of Men. Yet the actor described himself as having a "nervous disposition" despite playing confident and chilling parts. "I think I liked them all because I found them to be terrifically written roles," said the star.

Chiwetel EjioforChiwetel Ejiofor
Serenity via Universal Pictures / Isabel Infantes via Getty Images

"I wonder if I end up bringing to them a certain quality, just because it interests me to bring that to a character," Chiwetel explained. "...But I feel like I only select roles based on how they impact me when I read. They're all very strong, incredibly detailed characters."

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Antony Starr as Homelander in The Boys

In Season 1 of the comic-book series, Antony played the central antagonist. Homelander is the strongest of superheroes, but the actor had something more interesting to discuss regarding the role. "... These harnesses that you put on to fly, I was warned that it's not particularly comfortable," the star divulged.

Antony StarrAntony Starr
The Boys via Sony Pictures Television / Leon Bennett via Getty Images

"What I didn't realize is just how uncomfortable that can be. If the ergonomics of the harness are not perfectly aligned with the body, for a man, it can be a very, very uncomfortable experience. That was pretty funny," he said. Well, it seems the discomfort paid off!

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Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

After its release, American Psycho became a cult classic. But many were reportedly critical of Bale's acting skills while on set. The protagonist revealed years later, "Josh Lucas and I did a film together recently and he opened my eyes to something that I had been unaware of."

Christian BaleChristian Bale
American Psycho via Edward R. Pressman Productions / Kevin Winter via Getty Images

"He informed me that all of the other actors thought that I was the worst actor they'd ever seen," Christian said. "He was telling me they kept looking at me and talking about me, saying, '... He's terrible.' And it wasn't until he saw the film that he changed his mind." Seems that they needed to warm up to the murderous Bateman.

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Michael Emerson as Benjamin Linus in Lost

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Emerson discussed the humor he found in the cold, sometimes monotonous tone in which Linus delivered the most sinister of lines. "It brings you right to the cusp of drama and comedy, I think," the star said. The actor went on to explain that it's the irony that captivated audiences.

Michael EmersonMichael Emerson
Lost via Bad Robot Productions / Walter McBride via Getty Images

"What if you're emotional about the wrong things and dispassionate about the wrong things? ... I play opposites. Opposites of desire. Which people do in real life," he shared. "And the people who do it in real life, we worry about them... I think that's one of the reasons people pay attention to Ben."

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Jack Gleeson as Joffrey from Game of Thrones

When Gleeson was asked how he was able to separate himself at the end of a workday from the cruel character of Joffrey, the young actor shared that it wasn't difficult. "... I'm not a good enough actor to believe the things that my character believes," Jack admitted.

Jack GleesonJack Gleeson
Game of Thrones via HBO / Taylor Hill via Getty Images

"If you're a really good actor, you can completely believe what you're doing in those three minutes," the young man said about the few minutes he spent filming in a day. "... Anyway, I just kind of say the lines in a mean way. I don't really get into the emotions too much." Well, he sure fooled us!

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John Lithgow as Trinity Killer in Dexter

While John Lithgow has played many villainous roles, Dexter's Trinity Killer holds a special place in his heart. The actor revealed that while other characters, "Have been fairly one-note... [Trinity Killer] is far more than one-dimensional … Something's going on: there's a lot more going on here than just sadism and evil."

John LithgowJohn Lithgow
Dexter via The Colleton Company / Chelsea Guglielmino via Getty Images

"There were these huge revelations like he's got a family, he's a churchgoer, he's a volunteer home builder," John said. "... All of these things add a new facet to his character. To me, the most fascinating thing is that he's an evil man who does not want to be evil." Perhaps it's the villain's versatility that captivated fans.

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Stanley Tucci as George Harvey in The Lovely Bones

Surprisingly, the famous actor didn't initially want to play the wicked George Harvey. "I was very hesitant to take this role... I don't care to watch movies or read books or see documentaries about serial killers," he said. So what convinced Tucci to play the character?

Stanley TucciStanley Tucci
The Lovely Bones via DreamWorks Pictures / Rich Polk via Getty Images

"I thought that the story was a beautiful story. And as an actor, sometimes you take things for the role, and sometimes you take them to be involved in the thing as a whole," the star explained. Regardless of initial uncertainty, Stanley played the part convincingly.

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Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones

Rheon played the sadistic Ramsay Bolton in the world-renowned series. In an interview with GQ, the talented actor discussed how he separated himself from the evil character after a season of filming. "It's all right... I try not to bring my work home with me," Iwan said.

Game of Thrones via HBO / David M. Benett via Getty Images

"The thing about Ramsay is that because he's actually happy, it's weirdly easier to play than characters that are introverted, carrying all their darkness inside," Rheon continued. "But there are the scenes you sort of dread, obviously... But it's okay. I'm quite good at detaching." Props to him!

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Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Staunton revealed in an interview that she despised Dolores as much as Harry Potter fans did. "I think she's a bloody monster and to be played as such," Imelda said. "I don't need to understand what she does ... Yet again, I have embraced a completely and utterly deluded women."

Imelda StauntonImelda Staunton
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix via Warner Bros. Pictures / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

The actress also discussed the scene where Umbridge forced Potter to repeatedly write "I must not tell lies" on his hand. She said it was "The most difficult scene to do, which did leave me feeling pretty bad for a couple days." Regardless of her personal feelings towards the villain, Imelda played the part convincingly.

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Jesse Plemons as Todd in Breaking Bad

When El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie premiered, fans were exhilarated to see how many series alums returned for the film. Plemons was one of those actors, and later discussed the process of becoming the brutal Todd once more. "I was surprised at how easy it was to slip back into," he admitted.

Jesse PlemonsJesse Plemons
Breaking Bad via High Bridge Entertainment / Tim Mosenfelder via Getty Images

"The scripts were so well-written... It felt like we picked up right where we left off," the actor said. "But I was fairly nervous that first day, just to see if I could do it again. It took a few takes, but fortunately -- or unfortunately -- Todd was still lurking in there somewhere." Once a villain, always a villain!

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Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow in Batman Begins

Murphy revealed the old-fashioned way in which he prepared to play the frightening Scarecrow in Batman Begins. "He's one of the oldest villains in the series, so they game me some of the very early comics, which I read," said the actor. More surprisingly, the star initially auditioned for a different part.

Cillian MurphyCillian Murphy
Batman Begins via Warner Bros. Pictures / Eamonn M. McCormack/Stringer via Getty Images

"About 10 of us went up for Batman... So I did a screen test in the whole suit and everything," Cillian told. "But Chris [the director] said there might be another part. So we met, and we chatted, and I ended up playing Scarecrow in the end." We can't imagine it any other way!

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Donald Sutherland as President Snow in The Hunger Games

While some may have despised Hunger Games' President Snow, the actor who portrayed him feels differently. "I have huge affection for him [Snow]. I know the turmoil and the trouble that's in his head," said Sutherland. He also believes that Snow had "immense love and respect" for his enemy Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

Donald SutherlandDonald Sutherland
The Hunger Games via Color Force / Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis/Contributor via Getty Images

"If she were his granddaughter, she would rule Panem," the artist said. "In the first film, he is looking for someone to succeed him... She's his definitive choice... And right up to the very end, he tries to deliver her little pieces of knowledge and truth." The villain sure had an interesting way of showing his appreciation!

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Christopher Waltz as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds

Waltz rose to fame after starring as Hands Landa in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. "I don't owe Tarantino my craft, but I do owe him my place," the actor said. But when asked whether he would reprise the role for an on-stage theater version of the film, Christopher had a surprising response.

Christopher WaltzChristopher Waltz
Inglorious Basterds via A Band Apart / Axelle/Bauer-Griffin via Getty Images

"No, no, no. Absolutely not... I have contributed to this whole thing as much as I possibly could," Waltz stated. "And I will have to let go of that. I will not harp on it. I will not cling to it. I would be very interested to see [it performed on stage]. But definitely not to play it." Whoever does will have a lot to live up to.

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Tobias Menzies as Black Jack Randall in Outlander

Menzies plays the sadistic villain in the Outlander series, which shocked fans with an unsettling torture scene in the show's season 1 finale. Turns out the villain himself was stunned. "I was surprised that both the showrunners and stars let us make it as dark as they did," Tobias said.

Tobias MenziesTobias Menzies
Outlander via Sony Pictures Television / Andrew Toth via Getty Images

In discussing the details of how Randall tortured Jamie Fraser in this final scene, the actor said, "I think the thing that actually gets to people is the sort of psychological element of it -- that he's understanding this man and then using that against him to unravel him, and that's the really unsettling aspect of it."

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Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal

Mikkelsen plays the legendary Dr. Lecter in the television series adaptation of the Hannibal novels. In discussing the villainous role, the star said, "I believe that Hannibal Lecter is as close as you can come to the devil, to Satan. He's the fallen angel."

Mads MikkelsenMads Mikkelsen
Hannibal via Dino de Laurentiis Company / Daniele Venturelli via Getty Images

"His motives are not banal reasons... It's in his genes. He finds life is most beautiful on the threshold to death," Mads explained. "He's much more than a psychopath, and there is a fascination for us. We can't understand it, but we want to understand it." Looks like the actor has a firm understanding of the villain.

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Alexander Skarsgard as Charlie Venner in Straw Dogs

In the 2011 remake of the 1971 Straw Dogs, Skarsgard played Charlie Venner. Venner, the film's antagonist, encounters a wealthy couple looking to renovate an old house in the neighborhood. The relationship between Charlie and the pair soon gets rocky, including a brutal scene between the villain and the young woman.

Alexander SkarsgardAlexander Skarsgard
Straw Dogs via Battleplan Productions / Monica Schipper via Getty Images

But Charlie is also painted as a character that viewers can empathize with, thanks in part to Alexander. "I wanted him [Charlie] to be more three-dimensional and understand who he was ten years ago, the dreams and ambition -- what he had lost," the star shared. The depth created an unsettling sympathy for the cruel man.

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Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter

Bonham Carter fit perfectly into the role of the evil Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. So it may be surprising that she wasn't the casting director's first pick. Elizabeth McCrory, who starred in The Queen, was originally cast for the part and had to quit after she became pregnant.

Helena Bonham CarterHelena Bonham Carter
via Pinterest / Mike Marsland via Getty Images

"So they came to me and I loved it. I love magic, I love watches, I love the whole [Harry Potter] world. I was all too happy to play a witch," shared Helena. Things came full circle when McCrory was later cast as Bellatrix's sister Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and the Deathly Hallows films.

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Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men

Bardem received critical acclaim for his portrayal of the ruthless killer in No Country for Old Men. But while filming, the star didn't feel confident in his acting. Even when directors commented on him on good work, Javier was hesitant to trust them. "I don't believe them," he said.

Javier BardemJavier Bardem
No Country for Old Men via Scott Rudin Productions / Stephane Cardinale - Corbis via Getty Images

"I mean, you know when you've done something good because your instinct tells you that was right, but a lot of time you see that take and you go, 'Wow, that was bad,'" the actor explained. "And the other one you thought was horrible, it works. I don't understand anything." Well understanding or not, Bardem wowed audiences.

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Jacob Elordi as Nate in Euphoria

Euphoria mesmerized viewers in 2019 with its cast of multi-faceted characters. Elordi played a complex and deep version of the high school bully archetype. "I never let myself have a clear idea of what was going on because then I was sort of... I was sort of just as confused as he was to a degree," the actor explained.

Jacob ElordiJacob Elordi
Euphoria via A24 / Paul Archuleta via Getty Images

Jacob described how he embodies the complicated teenager. "So I always think that as the audience is sort of trying to figure it out, I think he's also trying to figure it out. So I never have like a clear, definitive answer," Elordi said. Due in part to the artist's dedication, Nate has become an indispensable part of the show.

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Katey Sagal as Gemma in Sons of Anarchy

Sons of Anarchy fans were enthralled by Gemma, the matriarch of the lawless motorcycle club that was at the center of the series. While the captivating woman was a dedicated mother and grandma, she was also an expert psychological manipulator, an aspect that actress Katey Sagal struggled to portray.

Katey SagalKatey Sagal
Sons of Anarchy via Linson The Company / Vince Bucci via Getty Images

"I guess the overall challenge of it was playing somebody that was so very different from myself," Sagal said. "Her maternal instincts are similar to mine, but her ways and means of doing things were something very foreign to me." Katey didn't show that on screen, as she seemed right at home in the outlaw world.

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Jason Isaacs as Colonel Tavington in The Patriot

Jason Isaacs is no stranger to embracing more wicked roles, from The Patriot to A Cure for Wellness. So how does the actor captivate audiences with his villainous characters? "The camera loves anybody who is saying one thing but it's really only a slight indication... of [stuff] that's going on behind the eyes," he shared.

Jason IsaacsJason Isaacs
The Patriot via Columbia Pictures / David M. Benett via Getty Images

Surprisingly, the star rejects that his characters are villains. "I don't do villainy. I take parts where the person can believe that they are entirely right," Isaacs explained. "... I won't take the job unless the person can fully justify and rationalize everything they are doing."

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Justin Prentice as Bryce Walker in 13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why antagonist Bryce Walker has made blood boil with his cruel on-screen persona. But the actor behind the character seems to be the opposite of the teenager he portrays. "I'm different in just about every way. I'm definitely a more chill type of person," Prentice shared.

Justin PrenticeJustin Prentice
13 Reasons Why via Paramount Television Studios / Pascal Le Segretain via Getty Images

"I look on the bright side when I can, and keep things lighthearted for the most part." Yet the young man with a happy-go-lucky attitude also said he didn't mind his title as "the most hated guy on Netflix." "It feels good. I'll take it as an honor... It just means I did my job," Justin explained.

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Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort in Harry Potter

Fiennes was the Dark Lord in four of the Harry Potter franchise movies. The actor embodied the spine-chilling Voldemort so well, it's hard to believe he initially rejected the role. "The truth is I was actually ignorant about the films and the books... Out of ignorance I just sort of thought, this isn't for me," Ralph explained.

Ralph FiennesRalph Fiennes
Harry Potter via Warner Bros / Hannes Magerstaedt via Getty Images

But after four films, the artist felt a sense of ownership over the villain. "I feel a kind of affection for Voldemort," Fiennes said as he discussed the possibility of playing the Dark Lord in the Fantastic Beasts franchise. That's a comeback viewers are likely to support!

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Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Lord of the Ring

Christopher Lee was preparing for a role in The Lord of the Ring before the movie was preparing for him. In 1997, he starred as a wizard in The New Adventures of Robin Hood to up his chances of getting hired for the fantasy film. "I did that... to show... that I would be ideal casting for The Lord of the Rings," Lee explained.

Christopher LeeChristopher Lee
The Lord of the Rings via New Line Cinema / Sean Gallup via Getty Images

But Chris struggled to accept the bad guy role, as he wanted to be Gandalf the Grey. "[Lee] would always feel the need to say, 'You must understand, Peter, he's really not an evil man,'" said movie director Peter Jackson. Despite not having landed the role he wanted, Lee's acting greatly lent to the success of the movie.

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Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring in Breaking Bad

Gus Fring was one of the top villains in the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad. The restaurant owner used his business as a coverup for the crimes he was leading in Albuquerque. After watching the show, it may be hard to imagine Giancarlo Esposito in any other role. So what was the secret to the actor's villainous success?

Giancarlo EspositoGiancarlo Esposito
Breaking Bad via High Bridge Entertainment / Rodin Eckenroth via Getty Images

He practiced yoga to get into character! "Every time I'm on the set I do what I can do to just relax... There's a sprinkling of being able to step back and relax and become and allow the organic nature of the character to come through you." Yet another benefit of the spiritual practice -- acting in an award-winning series.

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Robert Knepper as Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell in Prison Break

Prison Break changed the face of television when it premiered in 2005. The show recently came back after a long absence with a fifth season that was met with mixed reviews. But regardless of what fans thought of the comeback, most agreed on at least one thing.

Robert KnepperRobert Knepper
Prison Break via Original Film / Toni Anne Barson via Getty Images

Viewers largely can't help but be disgusted and simultaneously fascinated by the chilling Theodore Bagwell. The man behind the villain once said T-Bag was more animal than man. "If somebody said something wrong to him, he would probably kill you," Knepper said. It's no wonder Bagwell made it on our list!

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Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

Hopkins fascinated audiences with his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 horror thriller, and it seems that the murderous role had a comparable impact on the actor himself. "I'll never escape from that guy," Anthony confessed in an interview years later.

Anthony HopkinsAnthony Hopkins

The star knew that Hannibal Lecter was about to make movie history. "When I started reading The Silence of the Lambs script, I told my agent, 'This is the part of a lifetime,'" he said. "It changed everything for me." While the role transformed Hopkins' life, it also seems to have haunted him since.

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Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis in Atonement

After playing Briony in Atonement, a 13-year-old Ronan was nominated for an Oscar. The actress went on to star in other feature films, including Brooklyn and Mary Queen of Scots. "It's always going to be exciting because every movie that I've worked on has been a different experience," Saoirse said about her acting career.

Saoirse RonanSaoirse Ronan
Atonement via StudioCanal / Kevin Mazur via Getty Images

"Be it the location I've worked in or the people I've worked with -- or even the characters I've played," she continued. "I've been very lucky that I've played separate kinds of characters." The multi-talented starlet can adapt to many roles, but only her portrayal of Briony Tallis made it to this villainous list.

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