Villains are as key to the success of a film or TV series as the hero they are constantly thrilled to torment. Yet if the actor behind their villain isn’t believable or interesting, then the conflict means nothing and you’ve lost your audience. However there’s a group of actors in Hollywood so well versed in being the bad-guy, it's practically second nature.
These are the people who you can automatically picture as the bad guy. You may not always know much about them or their careers, but you know they make an amazing antagonist. So with that said here’s our list of 15 Actors Who Are Masters At Playing Villains.
12 Christoph Waltz
Waltz is such a talented and charming actor that he even made audiences overlook the fact he was playing a horrific Nazi in WWII Europe who hunted down runaway Jews and sent them to concentration camps. His well-deserved Oscar win for Inglourious Basterds was a coming out party for the actor and after that the floodgates just opened with more offers.
Water For Elephants, Big Eyes, Horrible Bosses 2 and yes, even The Green Hornet solidified him as a above-the-title bad guy that you could take to the bank. Naturally when it was announced Waltz was tapped as the newest Bond villain in Spectre, audiences were psyched.
It may have taken 30 years for the talented Austrian actor to break-through in the US but he’s here now and Hollywood is much better as a result.
11 Christopher Lee
The only man on this list to play the villain in a James Bond, Lord Of The Rings and Star Wars film, Lee needs absolutely no introduction.
Dating back to the 1940s, Lee has starred in more than 275 movies. While he’s played both good and evil characters, Lee is known as an “expert in evil.” It was a combination of his voice and size that simultaneously thrilled and scared moviegoers for decades.
Lee’s off-screen life was just as interesting. A step-cousin of James Bond creator Ian Fleming and an intelligence officer for the Royal Air Force during World War II, Lee truly looked to have enjoyed every minute he was on-screen.
While Lee sadly passed away earlier this year, both his personal and professional legacy is one for the record books.
10 Javier Bardem
Bardem is one of the rare names on this list who hasn’t always played the villain, but he’s earned his spot for how stunningly well he’s played those dark and disturbed characters.
Don’t believe us? Go back and watch No Country For Old Men. Still in doubt? How about Skyfall? An Oscar winner for No Country and a critical favorite for Skyfall, Bardem gives a master-class performance in each that serves as a gold standard in on-screen villainy.
His slow methodical actions and his ability to take on multiple accents are just two of his trademark acting methods. Whether it’s as an assassin obsessed with fate or as the only Bond villain in history to actually achieve his primary goal, it is hard to deny the skillful way Bardem morphed into these insane characters.
9 Dennis Hopper
Pop quiz… which go-to villain ran the table with roles from the extreme to the extremely absurd? That would be Dennis Hopper. And we loved every minute of it.
From his uber-creepy role in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet to his now iconic turn as a terrorist in Speed, Hopper knew how to play a bad guy. It was his facial mannerisms, his voice and his raw intensity that made every character he portrayed even more frightening.
Hopper wasn’t just limited to film; in fact many forget he was actually the big bad during 24’s debut season and a voice actor in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The truth is, if you needed a “presence” to play a heavy, Hopper was the first call. While he also had a few memorable flops (*ahem* Super Mario Bros.), those don’t mean a thing when you look at his overall career.
8 John Malkovich
There’s crazy…and then there is the John Malkovich.
What’s so remarkable about his filmography is how quickly his characters can go from totally normal to off-the-wall psychotic. That’s a credit to Malkovich, who knows how to be equal parts suave and equal parts deadly without missing a beat.
Whether it was as Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons or Mitch Leary in In the Line of Fire (which netted him an Oscar nomination), Malkovich’s chameleon-like qualities were always on full display. If you need any more of a testament to his skills, re-acquaint yourself with Con Air. In a film filled with, well, cons, Malkovich was able to ramp up the crazy to over-the-top levels to play the group’s deranged leader.
Malkovich even recently expanded his craft to TV with NBC’s Crossbones, where he played famed pirate Blackbeard, but even a talented craftsman like Malkovich couldn’t save that sinking ship.
7 Hugo Weaving
You may not know his name, but you know his face.
Hugo Weaving may be best known as Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy but his career spans roles in everything from The Hobbit to Captain America. When a director signs Weaving to a role, it’s because the actor’s reputation as multi-dimensional actor proceeds him throughout the industry.
As evidenced by his roles in Captain America, Transformers and V For Vendetta (where he was technically a good guy), you didn’t need to see Weaving’s face to know it was Weaving. It’s his deep dramatic voice, it’s his calm delivery and it’s his perfect execution of these devious characters that makes the actor so valuable to these films.
Weaving tried to humanize all of his roles and it’s not an easy task, but that just speaks to his talent as a performer.
6 Gary Oldman
While Gary Oldman is quick to point out that he also plays good guys (i.e. Commissioner Gordon, Sirius Black), when you think of villains, you think of him.
Oldman also has a knack, not just for transforming his acting style for every film, but also for his wardrobe. This is an actor who donned everything from heavy makeup to portray Dracula to whatever kind of haircut and cape he put on for Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element. His turn in Hannibal still gives us nightmares.
Some are more freaky than others, but they are all are particularly vile creatures that have no problem hurting other people to get their agendas across.
5 Michael Ironside
A common favorite of those of us here at Screen Rant is Michael Ironside. He’s one of those actors that pours his entire entity into his roles and it shines through in every performance.
Ironside is a method actor and tackles every role with that type of “I don’t care if I’m evil, I’m right” mentality. He’s as fully committed to his characters as his characters are to their nefarious ways, whether its as one of the henchman out to get Schwarzenegger in Total Recall or a serial killer in the trashy Canadian horror classic Visiting Hours.
A fixture in the sci-fi realm, he’s also voiced powerful adversaries in the world of comics including DC Comics baddie Darkseid and Marvel mainstay Colonel Moss. Ironside most recently appeared in the flesh as the dastardly father of Captain Cold in The CW’s The Flash.
4 Mads Mikkelsen
Mads Mikkelsen may not be as well known in the States as he is in his native Denmark, but it hasn’t taken him long to make his mark.
As Le Chiffre, the first villain Daniel Craig tangled with his during his debut turn as 007 in Casino Royale, he held his own against the dashing spy. Mikkelsen followed up that role with a even meatier one as a young Dr. Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s Hannibal.
Mikkelsen has a laser-like precision to his craft. Often times it’s more of his on-screen presence than anything he says that hits home with audiences. The actor knows the power of a certain look and how that can be more impactful than any well-crafted monologue.
Whatever his mindset, its working as Mikkelsen is currently filming Star Wars: Rogue One and reportedly also has a role in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. While we don’t know much about either part, suffice to say he’s likely not going to be the hero.
3 William Fichtner
While it’s not always the case, usually when you see William Fichtner turn up on a TV show or in a movie, you immediately get the sense you can’t trust him.
He always plays that slime-ball hired gun that is brought in to clean up a mess. Often times he has his own secret agenda, other times he’s introduced as the bad guy but then turns somewhat honorable by the time the story ends. Other times he’s just plain evil. Either way you can see the common theme in all these scenarios.
From Armageddon to The Lone Ranger to Prison Break, Fichtner plays the part magnificently every time. Again, like many names on this list, you may not recognize his name, but it is hard to not flash back to one of his many roles when you see his face.
2 Alan Rickman
Do you really much more of explanation that that?
Alan Rickman is one of those all-time great actors that just kills it as the villain. He brings the whole package to his dastardly roles and nails everything from a unique look to a unique quip that cuts as deep as any weapon.
With his role as Bruce Willis’ nemesis in Die Hard topping his resume of evil characters, Rickman has carved out a nice niche for himself in Hollywood. He was so good in Die Hard that it actually set the bar too high for other villains in more recent incarnations (though Jeremy Irons did the part justice as Gruber’s brother).
Yet Rickman’s skills extend beyond Die Hard. He was equally brilliant as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films (was that a villainous role? you'll have to watch the whole series to find out!). We’d also be remiss not to mention his role in Love Actually, where he may not have been anywhere near as deadly as in past films, but his womanizing character provided one of the film’s rare heart-breaking moments.
1 Malcolm McDowell
A few years ago GQ named its list of top villains. When they interviewed the men playing those roles they asked them to name who they believed was the most influential bad guy of all time.
Guess who they almost unanimously picked?
Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 iconic film A Clockwork Orange.
The film remains a must-see for anyone trying to make their acting bones as a villain. McDowell played a character that was menacing but captivating, sadistic but brilliant and above all else completely controversial.
Yet, for sci-fi fans DeLarge doesn’t haunt their dreams nearly as much as Dr. Tolian Soran, whose evil plans led to the death of Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. Throw in Ari Gold’s boss Terrence McQuewick from Entourage and you have three expert case studies in how to get audiences to both hate and fear you in one swoop.
Do you agree with our list? Were there any go-to bad guys we missed? Hit the comments and let us know.