Many actors vie for lead protagonist roles on screen. But some are simply better suited to play the film’s villain.
A combination of charisma and mystique often makes for a good bad guy, and it helps to have a certain look. These actors (and actresses) have successfully played the antagonist on more than one occasion. And they look good doing it.
1. Christoph Waltz
Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz didn’t break into the biz for some time. But when he did, he made quite a name for himself as a villain. After years of stage and TV acting, Waltz’s breakout role came as a Nazi officer known as “The Jew Hunter” in Quentin Tarantino’s hit film Inglourious Basterds.
This compelling character portrayal earned Waltz the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2010. He soon appeared as the villain in The Green Hornet, Water for Elephants, and The Legend of Tarzan. In Tarantino’s follow-up film, Django Unchained, he wrote a role expressly for Waltz, which earned him his second Academy Award.
2. Helena Bonham Carter
Tim Burton has been known to direct some very dark films. Along for the ride with him is his long-time partner, Helena Bonham Carter. The English actress appeared in several films helmed by Burton, including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as the eponymous anti-hero’s partner-in-crime, as well as in the live-action Alice in Wonderland films as the Red Queen.
But Carter has become a villain in her own right. Most notably, she played Bellatrix Lestrange, a supporter of the dark Lord Voldemort, in the Harry Potter franchise. She also had a small part opposite Sacha Baron Cohen in Les Misérables. The two portrayed the Thénardiers, the greedy and manipulative innkeepers who exploit Cosette.
3. Ralph Fiennes
Speaking of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Ralph Fiennes took on the role of the franchise’s big bad beginning with the fourth film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He continued to show up until his character’s death at the end of the final movie.
But this was hardly the first time Fiennes has played the villain. He portrayed serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, better known as “The Tooth Fairy,” in the film Red Dragon. However, his most notable early role was that of Amon Göth, a real Nazi captain during World War II, in Schindler’s List. He also plays Professor Moriarty in the 2018 Sherlock Holmes comedy, Holmes and Watson.
4. Glenn Close
Stage and film actress Glenn Close has many accolades to her name. While some of her greatest performances have been as the protagonist, she’s likely best known for her villainous characters.
Close was nominated two years in a row for the Best Actress Oscar. First, for her turn as the darkly obsessed Alex in Fatal Attraction, and then as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons. Other notable antagonist roles include that of Cruella de Vil in the live-action Disney film, 101 Dalmatians, and as evil mastermind Claire Wellington in The Stepford Wives.
5. Alan Rickman
British actor Alan Rickman is well-known for the many prolific film and stage roles he held during his lifetime. Though most recognizable to the younger generation as Severus Snape (seemingly a villain, but later revealed to be a good guy) from the Harry Potter franchise, Rickman is perhaps best known for his turn as gangster Hans Gruber in the acclaimed action film, Die Hard.
Rickman is another actor who has received many accolades for his performances. He earned the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Sheriff Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The actor passed away in early 2016 following a struggle with pancreatic cancer.
6. Sigourney Weaver
Unlike many of the actors and actresses on this list, Sigourney Weaver began her career with heroine roles. Still today, she is best known as Ellen Ripley, the star of the Alien franchise. But she showed off early antagonist chops with her supporting role in Working Girl, for which she won a Golden Globe.
In later years, Weaver has stuck to her sci-fi roots, while dabbling in other genres, such as her part as the evil warden in the Disney film, Holes. Weaver has remained true to form with her roles as Cisserus the vampire queen in Vamps, and as the Director in The Cabin in the Woods. She appears in The Defenders miniseries on Netflix as villain Alexandra.
7. Javier Bardem
Though an affable leading man, Oscar-winner Javier Bardem has chosen to make a living as a villain on screen. The Spanish actor was the first from his country to be nominated for an Academy Award, for one of his earliest English-speaking roles.
Bardem’s most infamous role to date is that of sociopathic assassin Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. He followed this acclaimed film up with Skyfall, where he played villain Raoul Silva opposite Daniel Craig’s James Bond. In 2017, he appears as Armando Salazar, enemy of Jack Sparrow, in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
8. Torrey DeVitto
While many of the actors on this list are primarily film stars, Torrey DeVitto is known for her TV career. DeVitto began as model, but transitioned to small film and TV roles shortly after. She became known as “psycho Nanny Carrie” on two seasons of The CW series One Tree Hill, beginning her reign as a villain.
In 2013, DeVitto starred as one of two conniving villainesses in horror thriller Evidence. Currently, she has a recurring role on the hit Freeform series Pretty Little Liars as Melissa Hastings, who is a member of the antagonist “A-team” and has long been suspected to be the main “A.” Only time will tell how evil her character really is.
9. Christopher Walken
Beginning as a dancer on Broadway, Christopher Walken has made himself known through a myriad memorable roles. Indeed, the actor has appeared in sketch comedy shows, soap operas, and on stage.
The oft-deemed “king of cameos” has appeared in many, many films over the years, but those of note are often as the villain. Included in his repertoire are James Bond villain Max Zorin in A View to a Kill, Max Shreck in Batman Returns, and gangster Hickey in Last Man Standing. Despite these antagonist roles, Walken is known for the deadpan humor and charisma he brings to every character he plays.
10. Malcolm McDowell
English actor Malcolm McDowell had only been in the biz a few years when he was cast as the sociopathic Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film, A Clockwork Orange. Not long after, he appeared again as the antagonist lead in Caligula.
While he has played many different types of characters, McDowell is certainly best known for his villainous roles. He portrayed the evil Dr. Kesslee in cult hit Tank Girl, as well as other sci-fi evil-doers like Dr. Tolian Soran in Star Trek Generations and Mr. Linderman on the first season of Heroes. McDowell even played Satan himself in the comedy Suing the Devil.
11. Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron has had an impressive career over the last 20 years. After just a few years in Los Angeles, she scored major roles in hit films like The Cider House Rules and Mighty Joe Young. In the early ‘00s, she was a major up-and-coming face. But it was her breakout role portraying a real-life serial killer in Monster that made her a household name, and won her an Oscar.
After that, Theron was able to take on more complex roles. She played parts that straddled the line between antagonist and protagonist, like Mavis Gary in Young Adult and Meredith Vickers in Prometheus. Now, Theron has another established villain under her belt: She played the evil Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman and The Huntsman: Winter’s War. In 2017, she played cyberterrorist Cipher in The Fate of the Furious.
12. Danny Trejo
This Los Angeles native has appeared as a villain so many times on screen, it’s easy to lose track. Danny Trejo began acting accidentally, but now appears in several films per year, often as a collaboration with his friend Robert Rodriguez, a prominent writer and director.
Trejo also has the unique opportunity to draw upon personal experience in his career. He has played a prisoner many times, and Trejo himself was in prison for some time.
However, as he became a more prominent star, he’s been able to take on more meaty roles. Though often typecast as a thug, Trejo’s best-known character is likely that of Machete, a daring cop, who was written for him by Rodriguez.
13. Melinda Clarke
There’s something about Melinda Clarke that plays as tough and no-nonsense. Some of the actress’ smaller, early roles were as sex positive women in positions of power, like that of brothel madam Nandi on Firefly and dominatrix Lady Heather on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
But Melinda’s first major role is probably as the conniving Julie Cooper on The O.C. From there, she expanded her antagonist portfolio, with an arc on The Vampire Diaries as Matt’s cruel mother. Clarke is perhaps best known as Amanda, an expert manipulator on Nikita.
14. Tim Curry
Actor Tim Curry’s creepy demeanor and grin have allowed audiences to perceive him as a villain for many years. He has worked extensively in the mystery and horror genres, first rising to prominence for his role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Like several actors on this list, Curry has a background in theater. He is known for many roles, including that of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
But most of Curry’s lead villain roles have been in film. He played Rooster, who kidnaps Annie in the eponymous film adapted from the Broadway show, as well as the Lord of Darkness in Ridley Scott’s Legend. Curry even made an evil splash on TV, as Pennywise the Clown in the 1990 miniseries It, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
15. Jessica Lange
A recent recipient of the Triple Crown of Acting, Jessica Lange has been a huge name in Hollywood for many years. Her early roles ranged from the dramatic (the eponymous lead in Frances) to the lighthearted (Julie Nichols in Tootsie) — both of which earned her Oscar nominations in the same year.
Throughout the ‘90s, Lange racked up several more accolades, though mostly for incredible performances in underwhelming films. However, the ‘00s brought with it several notable roles in film, TV, and on stage. Now, Lange is a regular evil fixture on TV, appearing in every season of horror anthology series, American Horror Story. She seems to have found her niche.
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