Bad Guys - Looking for opposites to the obvious

Skip Maloney

OnStage Columnist


For a while there, I had some concerns about continually being cast as a production's resident dickhead. From Lewis, a sort of mild-mannered, middle-aged dickhead dating a child, in a production of Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, through Bob Ewell, the child-molesting, racist charmer in To Kill A Mockingbird, and the completely off-the-charts Pap, Huck Finn's father, in Big River, who spends all of 15 minutes and a song, without demonstration of a single redeeming quality.

Beyond invoking a tendency to look for elder dickhead parts in upcoming productions, this gauntlet of roles (added to others in my past) has taught me a few things about bad guys, and a little bit about playing them. Still a lot to learn, I'd say, because like any role, good guy or bad guy, each character has nuances unique to the context in which he or she is placed.

Bad guys are not always easily identifiable. Is Salieri the bad guy in Amadeus the way that Bob Ewell is in To Kill a Mockingbird? While the book for Sweeney Todd most definitely makes Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford bad guys, could it not be argued that, murdering bastard that he is, Sweeney Todd himself is a bad guy?

Bad guys - the Bob Ewell, Judge Turpin kind of bad guys - have a few things in common. They're almost forced, by design, to be unsympathetic. Totally oblivious to the concerns of the people around them, which sets them apart from everybody else on stage, unless there's like a bad guy sidekick. We, as audience, sympathize with the good guys, precisely because we experience the effect of a bad guy's behavior. If I can jump off stage for a moment, I think of Carl Bruner in the 1990 film, Ghost. Over 25 years ago, and I still cringe whenever I think of Bruner (played extraordinarily well, I thought, by Tony Goldwyn) spills his coffee as a means of removing his shirt, in an attempt to seduce Molly, while the ghost of Sam Wheat looks on. You mutter under your breath or even sometimes out loud about these kinds of guys.

"What an asshole," or more likely, an even more descriptive phrase.

When you play a bad guy, you are somewhat hemmed in by this fact. Almost forced into caricature by the conventions of a given script. This, to my mind, has always engendered a stubborn determination to steer clear of that caricature and discover something that even if only for myself, assures that the character is as human as anyone else. Maybe stretched to behavioral excess by pharmaceutical or personal issues. Maybe so wrapped up clinging to destructive impulses that to everybody on stage, there is no room for sympathy. But, for an audience, and sometimes frighteningly so, all too human. I think this is what I liked about Tony Goldwyn's performance in Ghost. As I was cringing at Bruner's behavior around Molly, I recognized the terror at the heart of his behavior. There was some panic in his eyes as he went through the coffee spilling routine. It didn't make his attempted seduction of Molly any more palatable, but that glimpse of panic humanized him.

It's that sort of connection that actors look for in a bad guy role, or actresses look for in a bad gal role. As a male human being, you, personally, might find beating your own child to be a definite dickhead move (Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird is clearly, if not explicitly guilty of this).  But you, as a performer, are likely to know that a man like that is burying some deep-seated guilt and shame. You might not understand the child beating, but I can't think of anyone who wouldn't understand the nature of guilt and shame. So you bring that on stage with you, as a primary tool, and see what those attitudes do to the articulation of the words you speak and the way you behave. In playing Ewell, I noticed almost immediately that I wasn't inclined to look anybody in the eye for very long. Anger came flaring out of me in that courtroom scene, and I'd sneak a look over at whoever I was yelling at, but quickly direct my attention elsewhere. It wasn't something I'd decided to do. It's what happened to me as I kept thoughts of Ewell's buried guilt and shame out in front of the words he was speaking, lying through his teeth to everyone on stage.   

If an audience doesn't see the human being beneath all the scripted and obvious imperfections of the bad guy character, then somewhere along the line, you, as a performer, have missed the boat.

In watching a lot of bad guys over the years, I find them to be at their best, when they're talking sense. Like a terrorist trying to justify his murderous ways by explaining the exploitation of his kind (whatever that kind might be). These kinds of bad guys bristle with indignation, but they bring to life a certain passion for a cause, as wrong-headed as their methodology might be (offering the protagonist something to struggle against). So, like guilt and shame, pretty much everybody can understand passion for a cause. You keep thoughts of that passion up front, and really let it come out during whatever rationalization speeches you make, and the character can be experienced as human, instead of some stock caricature pulled off a dramatic shelf.

Bad guys, of course, aren't always strictly unlikeable. Miss Hannigan and her brother, "Rooster" Hannigan in Annie come to mind. As does Lewis in Dividing the Estate. The Hannigans' bad guy tendencies are funny, in a sitcom kind of way, and it'd be hard to resist a touch of caricature in maximizing the humor. In this case, the performer might look for humanizing qualities like frustration with children, in general. You bring the worst, most frustrating day you've ever had with your child with you, on stage, as a background thought, and when Hannigan rants and raves, it'll be funny and human. Lewis is just something of a goofball, a middle-aged class clown, who, much, I presume, to the surprise of an audience, weeps openly at the death of his mother. The crying touch to the class clown canvas humanizes him.

The key to playing bad guys, and the creation of an audience's perception of them, is related to the juxtaposition of good and bad. Looking for and finding opposites to the obvious. You create it as a performer. You experience it as an audience.

A lot of this is applicable to good guy portrayals, as well. In many ways, they're as hemmed in by the goody-two-shoes side of their characterizations as the bad guys are by their tendency to be dickheads.  The search for opposites to the obvious is a productive exercise for them, as well. Generally speaking, though, you're not likely to go looking for any bad thoughts to bring with you on stage as you play King Arthur in Camelot. Some jealousy, maybe. A little too much pride, perhaps.

Bad guys are at the root of our experience with a given dramatic situation. Without them, we wouldn't be drawn to the plight of the hero, and engaged in his or her redemption. There are theatrical presentations without them, of course, but I can't think of one that has engaged me as well as presentations that have strong ones.

Face it. Bad guys rule.