On playing antagonists: An actor’s thoughts on being the “bad guy”

“Actors reveal their own character flaws not by what they display in the roles they portray, but by what they will not allow themselves to show.”

 

On playing antagonists: An actor’s thoughts on playing the “bad guy”

 

Theater is filled with characters who are far from nice people. Some are merely obnoxious fools, others terrifyingly violent, dangerous people. At times, dramatists pepper their villains with humor, while others reveal the cold horror of a remorseless psychopath. The depth of the antagonist also varies with the part: Some plays’ antagonists are paper thin, two-dimensional, cartoonish characters. This thinness is often intentional, signifying to both the actor playing the role and the audience that they are not expected to take the character’s evil nature too seriously. Other antagonists are complex personalities; the playwright clearly intends the actor to communicate multiple layers of the character. Antagonists of all types exist on stage because they exist in life. Sad to say, some very destructive personalities account for a great deal of the drama in life.

 

It’s been my pleasure to play a number of classic roles that touch on the dark side of human nature: the vile mistress (Madame) in a gender-bending version of Jean Genet’s The Maids; the megalomaniacal and violently anti-semitic Henry Ford in Camping with Henry and Tom; the murderous playwright Sidney Bruhl in Ira Levin’s Deathtrap; Scrooge in a Christmas Carol (a special case, since he, unlike the others, is able to find redemption in committing himself to atone for his miserable ways); and the hard-hearted boss who fires poor Willie Loman in Death of Salesman. I’m prompted to reflect on playing antagonists as I prepare to play the unloving and unlovable father in the upcoming the Vermont Theater Company’s production of Robert Anderson’s classic family drama, I Never Sang for My Father.

 

My “career” as playing characters that one loves to hate probably got off to its ill-fated start many years ago when I was in an off-off-Broadway political theater group. The artistic director asked the assembled company “who feels they could play a pompous asshole” and I raised my hand and landed the role of a nasty business manager who didn’t give a damn about irradiating his employees. But of all the antagonists I’ve played over the years, I learned the most when I played the corrupt union boss in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. I was hamming it up, chomping on a cigar and imagining myself as Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront.  The director told me to bring my portrayal down several notches. I found making this nasty character more real, more natural, made me much more uncomfortable than my Lee J. Cobb imitation. To become more real, I had to get more in touch with and reveal more of my own malevolence. The director — still a very close personal friend — quoted his own teacher, the Tony Award-winning Lloyd Richards: “Actors reveal their own character flaws not by what they display in the roles they perform, but by what they will not allow themselves to show.” It was sage advice. It allowed me to feel I revealed my personal flaws by trying to cover  them up (in this case by exaggerating) than by simply letting the character’s action speak for itself.

In the role for which I’m currently preparing, Tom Garrison in I Never Sang for My Father, I have to understand this unfortunate man. He is not a psychopath or  murderer; he does not have terrible secrets buried in his past. But he is an unfortunate man and a very unfortunate man to have as one’s father. He is not unfortunate because of what has befallen him, though his life has not been easy, but unfortunate in the sense that he denies all that is human in himself and so is unable to feel, unable to relate to his son. Focused on his bitterness about his own childhood and concerned only with his own short-sighted self-interest, he forces his son to make an extremely painful choice.

There are many “traps” in playing a nasty, destructive character. The most obvious, as I’ve mentioned, is overplaying the part and thus turning character into caricature. Overacting is a way of saying: “This isn’t really me. I couldn’t be this awful.” It is a a mode of denial, of distancing oneself from one’s role. Exaggeration can work if the character is intentionally, often for humorous effect, over-the-top, but it seriously detracts from the sense of stark reality that makes drama effective. If the antagonist is not real, is a caricature of wretchedness and evil and not a three-dimensional human being, the role becomes farcical.  Where this is appropriate and done adroitly it can be highly amusing. Where it is inappropriate or done sloppily, it’s simply bad acting.

Many of our finest actors are brilliantly gifted at playing antagonists with barely a muscle tensed or vocal chord raised shrilly. Glenn Close, Kevin Spacey, and Al Pacino come to mind immediately as actors who can communicate extraordinary violence without the slightest overt sign of their underlying violence. I will never forget George C. Scott’s chilling portrayal as the manager of “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) in The Hustler. Seeing this film in my teens, I loathed this man who destroys the lives of Newman and Piper Laurie. There was not a trace of the exaggeration that makes Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove so hysterically funny. Less known but equally powerful is Ben Kingsley’s tough guy portrayal in Sexy Beast. There’s a scene in which all Kingsley does is to shave and, without betraying any direct emotion, he conveys an intensity of violence that is utterly chilling.

Since playing a role effectively requires seeing the world through the eyes of one’s character, it’s necessary for the actor have to have enough compassion for the character to evoke compassion in the audience. If not, the audience’s interest in the character’s fate wanes and a critical aspect of dramatic tension is lost.

But there are limits to this: the actor must not make the antagonist more decent or misunderstood than the character deserves to be. In so doing the actor can make a negative character so sympathetic to the audience that it turns the tables on the playwright’s intent. In preparing to play Tom Garrison, for example, I’ve found myself finding justifications for his coldness to his son and meanness to his wife. One begins to see the more decent characters as wrong about oneself, as not taking into account why the character is the way he or she is, of judging him too harshly.

Evoking compassion should not mean portraying a character’s destructive actions as acceptable. The despicable remains despicable, the self-serving remains self-serving, the hateful rejection of caring remains hateful. If the humanness and decency of the character is played too strongly, if an intensity of rage does not underlie the character’s actions, the drama falls apart. It’s another form of denial on the actor’s part.

The challenge, then, is to simply to be real. Far more than Scrooge, Bruhl or Ford, Tom Garrison is meant to be real, three-dimensional. He is a father whom many of us, including me, will recognize all too readily: a father so righteously angry, so self-absorbed and egotistical, so dedicated to his own narrow vision of himself and so oblivious to the needs of his own children that he destroys any possibility for intimacy. He wreaks havoc on the lives of those who depend on him most in their most crucial moments of need; In so doing, he destroys himself.

Though Tom is a man without compassion, his portrayal must be compassionate, but not sentimentalized. His character needs to evoke in audience the very feelings he denies in himself. The audience should care about him despite his own fatal character flaws, making his failure to act humanly to his wife, son and daughter all the more poignant.  For that to happen, the character portrayal must be as real, as immediate, as possible. Tom’s inability to allow his own feelings to surface, his unwillingness to reach out to his son despite both their urgent needs to connect  must evoke in the audience not only outrage and frustration, but also compassion and sorrow.

A challenge like this is one that appeals to anyone who’s serious about acting; yet it’s definitely torturous at times. It isn’t always fun to get in touch with how one felt about one’s own father’s inability to be consistently caring or to get in touch with those parts of oneself that are far less human than one would like to believe oneself to be. Suddenly you recoil in horror as you hear yourself say or do something that fits perfectly with the miserable character you’re playing on stage.

There are definitely times when I’ve tired of being being the toxic character in a play, the antagonist that every other character hates and that the audience hates too. When I played a noxious Henry Ford, I began to feel that the other actors were seeing me as though I really were the power-hungry, egomaniacal, anti-semitic person I was playing, And after you’re cast in several such roles, you do begin to wonder what it is about your personality that makes you seem so appropriate to play miserable SOBs!

In the end, though,the pleasure of effectively creating a believable character on stage is worth the agony of getting inside the skin of a very unpleasant person. The world is not made up solely of nice men and women. Hardly. How dull and unreal theater would be if only decent folks were personified there. Where would Macbeth be without Lady Macbeth or Othello without Iago? Would King Lear’s loving daughter Cordelia shine for us if it not for her loathsome sisters? What would Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe be if George and Martha were just a kindly professor and his affectionate wife? Even Cinderella needs her evil step-mother and step-sisters in order to make her a heroine. Betrayal, egotism, hate, envy — the full panoply of inhumanity is as much human nature, sadly, as caring and love. If we are to appreciate the good, we must also understand evil.

 

All that’s easy enough to say, of course. Now comes the hard part: Actually doing it effectively on stage! It’s been highly rewarding to develop the role. If you’re able to come see the show, I hope you’ll find I’ve at least partially achieved my goal of making the character three-dimensional.

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “On playing antagonists: An actor’s thoughts on being the “bad guy””

  1. Very interesting perspective on the balance and subleties involved in acting.

    I’ve often wondered what it would be like to unleash emotions and actions that society has reinforced, over ones lifetime, as bad, inappropriate, anti-social or even sociapathic. Would it be liberating to “buck the system” or would it make me feel badly or like a creep. You seem to be able to separate your self from the role, but I wonder if you’ve felt any of these feelings?

    I know some actors stay in character for entire days, so as to not lose the person they are portraying. I imagine that using this technique and playing a particular role over a long period might make it challenging to make the transition back to oneself…?

    I also imagine it also changes one, (not necessarily negatively) if only by giving you a perspective of a person (or a type of person) you might not have had actual close personal interactions with.

    Rambling a bit here, but have often wondered what an actor goes through to get into another’s head and if it changes them in some way?

    1. Another thoughtful response. Personally, I think the idea of staying in character when not on stage takes the idea of “inhabiting one’s role” a bit too far. Would one need to commit murder to understand a role of a murderer? Would one have to become certifiably insane to accurately play a madman? To me, this would be taking “method acting” too literally. In a certain sense, it’s even self-contradictory: Would a true murder/psychopath/insane person or even a terribly shy person take on memorizing lines and acting cooperatively in an ensemble? It’s also rather unfair to inflict the nastiness of a negative character on those one’s close to simply because that’s the role one is preparing for.
      So I guess my answer is basically “no.” I don’t think one becomes one’s character so much as one develops an understanding of what makes such a character tick and figures how to effectively communicate that to an audience. Another reason I’d say “no” is that many people who are exactly what a character is supposed to be have very little understanding of themselves. So I think the trick is to understand and to have some compassion for an antagonist in order to effectively portray the character on stage, but not to go so far as to become the character, i.e. to lose the boundary between the person one is and the character one is trying to portray.

      Thanks for response! — JM

  2. Hey dude – thanks for including me in your mailing. Read with interest your thoughts on acting. You mention Glenn Close, Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey and their ability to convey seething emotion to the audience without words or gestures but I think that’s the difference between film and stage. The micro facial muscle signals and glaring stares conveyed to the audience can only be picked up by the camera in close- ups and would be lost to the person sitting in the back row in the theatre. How well would ” The Godfather” go over as a stage play?
    Just some thoughts while we are visiting Seattle .
    Take care
    Mark

    1. Mark makes a good point that the art I praised highly in my recent blog on playing antagonists, that is, the art of conveying intensity with a minimum of physical gesture or facial expression, is more applicable to film than the stage. Can a stage actor rely on the same modalities that work when a camera is three inches from the actor’s nostrils?
      It’s a valid point. Subtleties picked up by the camera can be lost entirely on a stage. (Perhaps a small theater, like the Hooker-Dunham makes this less of an issue, because the audience is always close enough to read all the fine print.)

      There are, indeed, different expectations in a live theater audience from those of a film audience. The theater audience needs to be involved by the actors, brought into the live action. This cannot always be done by down-playing. If deadpanning goes too far, the role is experienced by audience not as “subtle” but as flat, boring, empty.
      So theater characters are all but forced to bigger than life lest they be as boring as life can be. No one chooses of their own free will to spend their money to do bored for an hour or two.

      And yet it still has to be real if it’s to work.

      And that’s true even when the play’s absurd!

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