Top 10: Actors Who Play Villains

What makes a great villain? Is it the way that they are designed? How about what they say? In my humble opinion, a villain is nothing without superb delivery (and it’s the actors who bring the goods).

In a change from my standard ‘Top 10’ structure, I’ve decided to identify whom I believe to be the strongest actors who play villains and then state their best villainous roles. As you’ll see, some of the best villainous performances can be attributed to the talent driving them.

10. Robert Englund

Of all of the nightmare inducing murderers to come out of the ‘Slasher’ genre, Freddy Kruegar is likely the most charismatic. Primary antagonist of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Kruegar is a disfigured god in the world of dreams and takes great pleasure in abusing children, petty revenge, and using pruning equipment to claw the nubile bodies of dozing teengages. While he’s fairly startling to look at, what really makes him shine is his attitude. Robert Englund plays up the role of the mischievous trickster by cracking wise, implementing a unique and unnerving way of moving, and acting completely outrageous whenever possible. No other horror icon is as fun, calculating, and charismatic as Englund’s Freddy. A point made all too clear when Jackie Earle Haley tried to fill his big shoes in 2010.  

Best Villainous Performance: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Sure, Freddy gets much more hilarious later on in the series, but I feel like Englund hit the character’s sweet-spot in the first film. He played up the calculating murderous side of Kruegar while sliding in some playful humor where appropriate. To think a madman like this could crawl into your head and screw with you is terrifying; when he actually does it to the kids on Elm Street, it is. Sure, the sweater, claw, and hat are iconic, but it’s Englund that brings the life to Freddy and no one brings the nightmare-inducing noise quite like this ghastly actor in his inaugural role.

9. Christopher Walken

Christopher Walken is a paragon of the entertainment industry. No other actor is versatile enough to play a powerful, creepy, and occasionally hilarious antagonist. He’s been in a variety of interesting roles, but he particularly stood out in his portrayals of Max Zorin (A View to Kill), The Headless Horseman (Sleepy Hollow), Hatcher (The Rundown), and Maximillian Shreck (Batman Returns). The stone face, cold eyes, and his vocal delivery all contribute to his ability to command an audience. He’ll either have you in hysterics or make you completely uneasy.

Best Villainous Performance: A View to Kill

Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin is undoubtedly the best thing about what is considered by most fans to be a pretty mediocre Bond film. This villain is actually the product of poor genetic engineering (the result of Nazi experiments to make highly intelligent babies). While these experiments did indeed produce brilliant minds, one of the side effects was a psychotic nature. Zorin goes so far as to kill competitors rather than subverting them through traditional means. As long as his actions make him another dollar, the ends will always justify the means. Walken not only portrays him as being super intelligent and calculating, but also incredibly cold and murderous. This bond villain benefits greatly from Walken’s unusual delivery and stalwart presence.  

8. Kathy Bates

Admittedly, Kathy Bates is known more for her ‘Romantic Comedy’ and ‘Dramatic’ roles than she is for being a villainous actress, but she rose to prominence with one very pivotal performance in a very chilling movie: Annie Wilkes in Misery. Not to muse on how much of a sausage fest this Top 10 list is, but very few women have the ability to offset their nurturing side in an effort to be imposing and downright oppressive. Kathy Bates is one actress who can be absolutely frightening if the role calls for it. She deserves recognition for scaring the bejesus out of audiences (and writers) everywhere.

Best Villainous Performance: Misery

Annie Wilkes likely wouldn’t classify herself as a villain. In Misery, she simply did what any good samaritan would do if they ran across there favorite author injured in a car accident in the dead of winter - take him in and nurse him back to good health. Unfortunately, things got a little crazy once she discovered that he was killing off her favorite fictional character from his novels, Misery. Annie felt it was necessary for Paul to stay longer and complete a rewrite. Paul disagreed and she took steps to keep him there. She lied, drugging him, and used a sledgehammer (in a very brutal scene) to keep him on bed rest. She was an unsuspectingly frightening obstacle, due in no small part to Kathy Bates’ masterful performance.

7. Willem Dafoe

Never one to avoid an avant garde role, Willem Dafoe is no stranger to portraying characters that are either villainous or morally questionable. Sure, many will know him as the Green Goblin/Norman Osborne in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films or the incomprehensible ‘He’ in Antichrist, but I feel that this creepy snake-like man was at his best in the fictional account of real-life German actor Max Schreck in the 2000 metafiction horror, Shadow of the Vampire.

Best Villainous Performance: Shadow of the Vampire

Visionary director F.W. Murnau decided that the only way to do a vampire movie justice would be to have a real vampire play the lead. Willem Dafoe’s Scheck ascended to take the role of Count Orlak in his film, Nosferatu. For the sake of realism and supposedly to satisfy the actor’s demands, Murnau stated that the mysterious Max Schreck would only shoot his scenes only at night and remain in character at all times. Schreck creeped out the entire cast and crew (including the cameraman who eventually went mad), but was ultimately just another actor who was hired to play a part. Had it not been for Dafoe’s unsettling appearance and portrayal of a blood-sucking monster, this film would have been an uninteresting pseudo documentary. Sometimes, all a film needs to propel the conflict is the strong performance of one actor.  

6. Anthony Hopkins

Hopkins is renowned for his role preparation. He has indicated in interviews that once he commits to a project, he will go over his lines as many times as is needed (sometimes upwards of 200) until the lines sound natural to him, so that he can “do it without thinking”. This leads to an almost casual style of delivery that belies the amount of groundwork done beforehand. Without this acting style, I doubt he would be nearly as imposing as a villain. Sir Anthony Hopkins may not seem to imposing at first glance, but brilliant mind and cannibal Dr. Lecter is clearly one of the more frightening human villains in cinematic history.

Best Villainous Performance: The Silence of the Lambs

Lecter’s acts of cruelty from The Silence of the Lambs would be classified as grotesque by most people (in one particularly disturbing incident, he cut the face off of a guard and wore it as a disguise during an escape). Hopkin’s monster has absolutely no remorse while slicing and dicing his victims and his taste for vengeance seems to be unending. Normally I’m adverse to gore and violence in film, but Hopkin’s unnerving performance makes macabre elements seem reasonable in this instance. You may be surprised to note that this is one of the shortest lead performances to win an Oscar, as Hopkins only appears on screen for little over 16 minutes (less than 10% of the film’s running-time). If this performance doesn’t deserve praise, I don’t know what does.

5. Ian McKellen

Some of the best villainous performances come from the strongest actors. Sir Ian McKellen has won multiple Laurence Olivier Awards, a Tony Award, two Academy Award nominations, and five Emmy Award nominations. McKellen was also made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1979, was knighted in 1991 for services to the performing arts, and was made a Companion of Honour for services to drama and to equality, in the 2008 New Year Honours. As you can imagine, he is quite good in almost any role. Whether he is a supporting character, protagonist, or antagonist, McKellen draws all eyes to his performance - a feature that serves him well while portraying a villain.  

Best Villainous Performance: X-men

McKellen’s Magneto and his gang of fellow mutants would begin to carry out a plan to eliminate discrimination through either assimilation or destruction (Magneto doesn’t really care). That coldness is what makes McKellen’s performance shine. His portrayal is one of extreme cunning, intelligence and patience. We believe that Magneto is mad enough to accomplish his goals because he is presented as a calm, brilliant madman who isn’t above playing god - all of which can be attributed to McKellen’s trained delivery.

4. Hugo Weaving

Some actors almost seem factory produced for certain roles. Whether it’s their bone structure, body type, or way of talking, these individuals can make you feel uneasy or angry with just a look. Of this population of creepsters, Hugo Weaving reigns King. There’s just something about him. I wouldn’t trust him to walk behind me, much less feed my cat for a week. It shows in his films too - he’s pretty much always an authority figure, primary antagonist, anti-hero, or disagreeable background character. Weaving is clearly not the ‘huggy’ type and I would say it works in his favor.  

Best Villainous Performance: The Matrix: Revolutions

We all know that The Matrix: Revolutions isn’t the strongest film in the trilogy, but I believe it to include Hugo Weaving’s strongest performance as a villain. Weaving plays Agent Smith, a rogue program who resurfaces in various spots all over the Matrix without being under the control of the machines. Just as Neo did, Smith began to learn that the boundaries of his programming could be broken and discovered new powers. Weaving’s character goes through a profound catharsis and it’s reflected in his performance. We see Agent Smith move from that of a methodic, machine like tool to a naive and greedy child with dreams of boundless splendour. Agent Smith is the antithesis of Neo and a cold representation of anarchy. Without Weavings masterful performance, this message wouldn’t have had the same impact.

3. Jack Nicholson

More than a few people are of the belief that Jack Nicholson plays the same role over and over again. While I can understand the argument, it doesn’t change the fact he remains a tremendously convincing psychopath. The mix of his hoarse voice and sinister smile makes him the perfect asshole and one of the scariest villains. Col. Nathan R. Jessup (A Few Good Men), Daryl Van Horne (The Witches of Eastwick), and Jack Torrance (The Shining) are all remembered by many as being among his best roles (villainous or no), but in my mind, he has one performance that takes the cake.

Best Villainous Performance: Batman

[I can almost hear thousands of Heath Ledger fans cry foul] Allow me to first state that while Ledger’s performance was excellent, Nicholson’s Joker offers something different: pure, unrealistic insanity. Jack Napier was a relatively normal thug until he fell into a vat of nasty stuff at Axis Chemicals in Gotham City, becoming the disfigured prankster that we know as the Joker. Nicholson plays up the Joker’s passion for fashion while clearly enjoying every crazed minute of screen time. Where Ledger’s Joker represented pure chaos and had no solid backstory to speak of, we see the transformation of Nicholson’s character from a murderous thug to a flamboyant maniac who just wants to put on a good show. It’s dark, it’s campy, and it’s excellent.  

2. Gary Oldman

Gary Oldman has such incredible range. Allmovie has described Oldman as “capable of portraying almost any type of character”, and as having “consistently amazed viewers with his ability to completely disappear into his roles.” His performances during his career have provided inspiration for younger actors who would go on to enjoy successful Hollywood careers. Brad Pitt and Daniel Radcliffe in particular both have sited Oldman as their inspiration. Unlike Jack Nicholson, none of his characters are at all similar. Whether he’s a crazed drug addict (The Professional), a terrorist son of “Mother Russia” (Air Force One), or an effeminate spaceman (The Fifth Element), Gary always delivers. Furthermore, he is known far and wide for his portrayal of villains (Oldman was once dubbed Hollywood’s “psycho deluxe”). He may not be number one on this list, but he isn’t a distant second.

Best Villainous Performance: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Oldman’s Dracula is grotesque, but at the same time, extremely passionate and well-developed. He obsesses over the beautiful Mina until she asks him to make her a vampire so that she may enjoy youth forever. He is overcome with love for her and cannot bring himself to “condemn” her (as he puts it), but she forces his hand. Wiley and clever, Oldman’s Count is a cunning warrior with animal instincts. He kills man, woman, and child at will and is only driven by passion and hunger. Conveying subtle aspects of personality like obsession, thirst, and regret can be difficult - this Dracula is a believable entity because Oldman engrossed himself in the character and his motivations.

1. Vincent Price

There’s only one person who could out-villain Gary Oldman and he is considered to be a god of classic B-movie cinema. Price was known for his distinctive, low-pitched, creaky, atmospheric voice and his quizzical, mock-serious facial expressions. To say that he liked to play the villain is a bit of an understatement. Price enjoyed deliciously evil roles in The House of Wax (1953), The Mad Magician, The Story of Mankind, The Fly, House on Haunted Hill (1959), Tower of London, Scream and Scream Again, Theatre of Blood, and House of Usher (to name a just a few). In the few roles he takes on where he doesn’t actually play the part of the primary antagonist, he remains subtly sinister and a somewhat dubious.

Best Villainous Performance: House on Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill is one of my favorite horror films, due in no small part to Price’s performance. Price plays eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren. Loren invites five people to a “party” he is throwing for his fourth wife, Annabelle, in a rented house, promising to give them each $10,000 with the stipulation that they must stay the entire night in the house after the doors are locked at midnight (at the time of the film’s release $10,000 was worth considerably more than it is now). The whole film is essentially a cat and mouse chase with supernatural elements. Price’s character isn’t exactly diabolical, but he is calculating and unsuspectingly dark in his intentions. His performance made you question everything in the film as you found yourself both rooting for his success and questioning his nature of his character.