Green Shirt Studio

Playing Characters You Don’t Like


We are conditioned to want people to like us. Many people get into this acting because they thrive on the applause and the positive feedback from the audience. So when we’re asked to play a character that is evil or nefarious – such as a tyrant, a psychopath, a murderer or an abusive parent — we can often feel hesitant about fully embodying that person on stage because we are afraid that somehow, we will be associated with that character.

Often, when actors are asked to play characters they don’t like, they will respond in one of two ways: Either they will play the character as an over-the-top caricature, or they will resist putting their whole selves into the role, making their performance appear flat.

That’s why Andrew Gallant, co-founder of Green Shirt Studio, says it’s important that actors find a way to tap into each character’s humanity so your performance will come from a place that is real and authentic.

“Everyone, even the most horrible people, has a reason they do what they do. Your job as an actor is to find their inner-most wish and try to find some sort of positive way to frame that for yourself. We have to translate the darkness of some characters through our own humanity,” Gallant says.

“Take Richard III, for example, who does horrendous things and is an awful monster in that play,” Gallant says. “You can’t play that role as your idea of a horrifying, awful monster or it will come off as a caricature.”

Instead, Gallant says try to think of Richard’s motivations, his deepest wish, and put a positive spin on it. In this case, Richard wants to win glory for the underdogs of the world — something that possibly you can identify with and get behind fighting for.

Gallant says to look at the difference between Laurence Olivier’s performance of Richard III and Ian McKellen’s. Gallant says, “In Oliver’s version, we see an actor playing a mustachioed villain and in McKellen’s we see a fully fleshed-out human being doing terrible things for reasons we can, on some level, understand. Olivier wore a metaphorical mask to play that part but McKellen found Richard in himself.”

Gallant says he has often used the technique of finding a positive drive for his characters whenever he has to play someone he doesn’t like. In House of Blue Leaves, Gallant played Artie, a man who chokes his wife to death in the last scene. “It was a tough thing to have to do, but I had to find the positive drive that was underneath it all for me,” Gallant says.

Gallant realized that the character was driven to commit murder because he deeply longed to have a family and his wife wasn’t able to have children, and Gallant says he could connect with the idea of wanting to have a family enough to be able to fully embrace the role.

Playing a character who is angry is also something that many actors struggle with on stage and in class. Gallant says when students have to play someone who is angry, they often default into being sarcastic or into just yelling at their scene partner.

“Most of the time sarcasm is tinging something that’s really hurtful with humor. Yelling and screaming is the easiest thing to fake if you’re trying to be angry, but it’s usually not really real,” Gallant says. “Students shy away from going to those places truthfully but we have to learn to do exactly that.”

If you can learn to tap into the humanity of even the worst characters, Gallant says playing evil people can actually be a lot of fun. “I’ve played lots of very dark characters,” Gallant says. “Playing characters that live outside of society’s moral code is always fun because you get to explore in yourself things you don’t get to explore in your daily life.”