The casting of the villain in Hollywood movies has always had political motivation. During the Cold War the bad guys were often communists and had Russian accents, after 9/11 they became terrorists from the Middle East. However, there has always been a tendency to cast British, or rather, English actors in the role of the cold, calculating, evil genius, often to counteract the all American hero.
The stereotype doesn’t exist with us Brits as a race, it’s all about the perception of the English accent and the assumption that our dialect resembles that of the Royal Family. This is known as ‘Received Pronunciation’, or RP, and can be defined as ‘the speech of educated people living in London and the south-east of England,’ often creating an air of imperialism, from a time when the British almost ruled the world.
There seems to be an unwillingness from Hollywood to cast their own in the role of the bad guy. The lead character almost always has to be seen as perfect and embodies the characteristics of the stereotypical hero. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Alan Rickman’s superb portrayal of The Sheriff of Nottingham was evil, vicious and ruthless. The hero? Kevin Costner, with his heavy American accent. In the Lion King, Mufasa and Scar are supposed to be brothers. Mufasa, the ‘good guy’, is American, voiced by legendary actor James Earl Jones. Scar, the ‘bad guy’ is English, voiced by Jeremy Irons. In The Avengers, a whole plethora of fantastic American and Australian actors play the lead roles, battling to save the world from the evil Loki, played by English actor, Tom Hiddleston.
Den Of Geek offers further explanation: ‘There are often, of course, practical motives for casting British. Equity, Britain’s acting union, has strict rules about the number of US actors a production team can import to a UK film set, often obliging the casting director to interview practically every ex-pat US actor in the UK before even considering the American first-choices of the producers (as in the pre-production of Aliens, for instance). Many villainous roles fell therefore to ‘local’ talent, back in the days when the US>UK exchange rate, tax concessions and a vast pool of technical talent and resources made Blightey practically a suburb of Hollywood in terms of the sheer number of US blockbusters that were shot here.’
Dame Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in ‘The Queen’ spoke out about this during an interview in 2010. “I think it’s rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British,” she said, adding “It’s just nice to say we’re not snooty, stuck-up, malevolent, malignant creatures as we’re often portrayed. We’re actually kind of cool and hip! I love the idiosyncracy of the British people, I love the eccentric nature.”
However, some British actors relish the role and have carved out successful careers by taking on the darker characters in various films. Mark Strong, who has made a name for himself in roles such as Sir Godfrey in ‘Robin Hood,’ Lord Blackwood in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and Septimus in ‘Stardust’ was quoted as saying, “I love playing these types of roles; you’ve got a hell of a lot to get hold of.”
In honour of this, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourite British actors in their role as the ‘bad guy.’
Mark Strong: Sir Godfrey – Robin Hood
Anthony Hopkins (Welsh, but sported an English accent):Hannibal Lecter – Silence Of The Lambs
Alan Rickman: Sheriff Of Nottingham – Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves
Benedict Cumberbatch: Khan – Star Trek: Into Darkness
Jeremy Irons: Scar – The Lion King
Tom Hiddleston: Loki – Thor/The Avengers
Sir Ian McKellen: Magneto – X Men
Bill Nighy: Davy Jones – Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Paul Bettany: Silas – The Da Vinci Code
Terence Stamp: Zod – Superman II
Ian McDiarmid (Scottish, but has an English accent in the film): Darth Sidious – Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
Perhaps the most quintessential bad guy of them all is Sir Christopher Lee. From his earlier Hammer roles as Dracula and Rasputin, Scaramanga in ‘The Man With The Golden Gun,’ to his more recent portrayals of Saruman in ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ films and Count Dooku in ‘Star Wars’ episodes II and III, Lee’s ability to demonstrate evil on-screen is unsurpassed.
While, like Dame Helen Mirren, some find this typecasting offensive, I love the fact that us Brits have the ability to create such powerful, terrifying personas. Their characters often steal the scene, get the best lines and in many cases absolutely out-act their counterparts.