Theaters do these things now, talkbacks, they’re called and they happen right after the curtain comes down. They’re meant to get deeper conversations started with the audience about the communal experience that is THEATRE( with a capital T) . Often, though, audiences haven’t really had time to process what they’ve experienced, and the only questions that springs is the dreaded, ‘how do you learn all those lines?’. FOR THE RECORD, I AM GOING TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION SO NO ONE HAS TO EVER ASK IT AGAIN: Learning lines is the least of your worries. It’s part of the job, and when you do it as often as we do, it just becomes second nature. THERE, that’s that questions answered for all time. However, actors sometimes get slightly more interesting questions like, “How do you play evil?’. To answer this, Theatre Three invited Paul Taylor, Renfield in our current production of DRACULA to share his thoughts of ‘playing evil’. Enjoy.
I play a lot of villains in theatre and film. What does that mean? According to Google Dictionary, it means I often play “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel. A character in a novel, play or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.” Merriam-Webster reports that I often play “a character in a story or play who opposes the hero.” According to the very simplistic and easy-to-understand Vocabulary.com, I often play “a bad person – real or made up.”
Wow. While the purpose of a dictionary is to succinctly define what a word means, attempting to define what a villain is in simple and general terms seems more complicated than what can be stated in one or two sentences. There is no one way to simply define a villain, just as there is no one way to simply define a hero. Personalities and motives of a character’s actions are too complex for that.
Acting is not so much about being a character as it is about behavior. A character’s behavior is what defines who the character is. And whether or not that behavior is evil or good (or somewhere betwixt those two extremes) is really up to the audience to decide. Most people would describe Hannibal the Cannibal in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as a villain, seeing as he behaves in atrocious ways that some would describe as “evil.” Eating a person is frowned upon in America and most of the world, after all. But is it evil if you’re mentally ill and really hungry? Or is it simply “bad” behavior? Or is it just somebody trying their best to make it through another day? There are others (myself included) who think of Hannibal as a hero, one who helps Starling catch one of the other monsters of the story. He also rather unheroically eats a guard’s face and eventually has the sadistic warden of the mental institution “for dinner.” Is he mentally ill? Definitely. But he has a very strong moral code. He fights fair (except when he just can’t help himself). He teaches Starling some very valuable lessons about truth and bravery, attributes of a hero. What I’m saying is this: It’s never black and white. Every well-written character has different types of behavior. And you can’t “play” evil or virtuous; you can only play the behavior of the character without judgment.
The mustache-twirling villain in the classic melodrama DIRTY WORK AT THE CROSSROADS…no positive behavior there, no virtue at all. He was written to be “a bad person.” The classic rules of the old-fashioned melodrama are simple, but most audiences aren’t interested in that kind of simplicity anymore. Today’s villains want shades of grey, not black and white. They evoke sympathy, empathy even. Maleficent, that glorious villain of the Disney classic SLEEPING BEAUTY, has been given her own franchise and softened by the Angelina Jolie interpretation and script of the character. She’s now a victim, a symbol for nature against greed. Some of her behavior is motivated by ugly emotions, some by a desire to save the world. It’s a story of an “other” against a world of selfish men. But she isn’t the villain this time. She’s the very dark protagonist. Is she evil? Is she virtuous? Can an actor act those things? I think not!
One of the most important things an actor needs to do in rehearsal is decide what they love about their character. If they despise who they are playing, all the audience will get is someone full of self-loathing. Who wants to watch or play that for two hours? Personally, it’s only after discovering what I love about a character I’m playing that I can have fun with it and give that character humanity and more importantly, vulnerability. No matter who I am playing, I always give my characters vulnerability. It humanizes them and helps the audience connect to them, maybe teaching them something about empathy, in my opinion the most important trait that is missing from much of contemporary humanity.
In HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT, I played “Pinhead” (The Lead Cenobite), an iconic horror character some would describe as a villain, others as an employed demon just doing his job extremely well. When the cenobites are summoned by mortals who have solved the puzzlebox (apologies to those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about…watch HELLRAISER: JUDGMENT and you’ll understand), the cenobites come to offer the ultimate sensual experience, more sensation than a body can stand. Can they help it that they work for a God called Leviathan and are theologians of The Order of The Gash, sado-masochistic angels/demons just trying to give the people what they say they want? I don’t think that’s a villain at all. Sounds more like a hero to me. But I digress…so much…
As Renfield in DRACULA, which I am currently playing at Theatre Three, I have a rich character, wonderfully written by Michael Federico. Yes, he declares early in his first scene, “I AM A MONSTER!” But in this case, he is full of joy at the declaration, equating being a monster to being a Giant, a Chosen One, immortal and important. These are all generally desirable qualities that might be used to describe a hero. Renfield is insane and selfish, but he’s found his ultimate purpose in life and he’s happy about it. And all I do with the role is behave the way the script dictates. I don’t “act” evil or scary. Well, maybe I do a little bit…it IS a Halloween show, after all. But no matter how I behave in the play, I always do it with a motivation and a goal. After all…I AM A MONSTER!!!
You can’t play Evil.