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.
I loved your movie choices. Very well put together. I do love a good ‘baddie’. And my favourite has to be Alan Rickman in ‘Robin Hood’. He managed to portray evil and humour. A sort of delicious combination. ‘I’ll eat your heart out with a spoon……..because it will hurt more.’
He was also excellent as Snape in ‘Harry Potter’. Just a great actor, I suppose. I think I first saw him in ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’ where he wasn’t a baddie but still smashing.
I look forward to more from you.x
I was going to talk about his roles in Die Hard and Harry Potter, but I thought that the post would be too long.
Thanks very much for your comments. The content of my posts vary from day to day, but there’s usually something for everyone.
What a comprehensively cool list of bad asses. Nicely done!
Funny how it’s mostly male villains that are British. I know you dont get as many female villainesses(?). But the only female villain i can think of is pretty much Helena Bonham Carter in everything she does, Les Miserable, Sweeney Todd, Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potters, not to mention the most viallainous of all Enid Blyton!
I was going to include Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled but she was awful. Good call with HBC though!
Great post! As an American I’ve noticed and wondered about the ubiquity of British villains, so it was nice to hear your perspective. Thanks for visiting my blog, I’m new to all this but I’m really enjoying your posts and hope mine will be as interesting!
Thank you! You’re welcome any time!
Great article, I wish I had written it!! Great list as well. As a fellow Brit I love the fact that we get to play the villainous roles. Given how genial and polite the stereotypical Brit is perceived as being it feels appropriate we get given the roles that “ironically” play against that perception. Look forward to reading more of your stuff
It’s great to see that we also still do a lot of tea drinking whilst being bad, lol, some stereotypes are not allowed to die. David Warner is also a prolific baddie. Besides good guys are always less interesting than their nefarious counterparts.
Absolutely… Thanks as always for your comment. I might do a follow up because I’ve thought of so many more that I want to add…
Awesome, it is a good excuse to rewatch a load of films and claim that it is research…
Ooh that’s an idea. I’ll remember that excuse…
Great post. To tell the truth, I think we Americans find the English fascinating; thry are able to give these roles that spark- says the American with a useless degree in English history…
What an awesome topic to have a degree in! I’ve met quite a few Americans that love our history… I suppose we take it for granted at times…
Thanks so much for your comment!
Great post! I feel inspired to mention Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) in the original Star Wars, one of my favorites (actor and movie) 🙂
Absolutely!! There’s quite a few that I need to add that I only remembered after I’d posted it… Thanks for your comment!
Haha, I think that just supports your point — there are so many 🙂
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Bill Nighy is THE MAN. His Viktor in Underworld is one of my favorite baddies of all-time.
I love that character!! One of my favourite films!
The Underworld franchise kinda jumped off the cliff, but the first movie was so amazing. It really set up a terrific world that needed better exploring than the midnight bungling through the dark we received afterward….especially that horrible 4th installment.
I didn’t like the second, I enjoyed the fourth, but I loved the third, which was essentially a prequel. Rise Of The Lycans was my favourite in the whole series…
Yes. I did like the 3rd. That Rhona Mitra….woooo.
Haha, I was a bit partial to Michael Sheen!
Thanks for posting this link at Susie Lindau’s party. When it comes to villains, I’d say there’s actually quite a mix of Americans and Brits…but the Brits are more memorable (more prolific?). There’s something about that smooth, proper accent that’s so at odds with the evil deeds they do that makes them utterly delicious. 😉 HBC and Alan Rickman are two of my favorites, though Jeremy Irons does extremely well in giving me the “heebie jeebies”, too. 🙂
Absolutely! I’m English myself so I love the accent (although I prefer Irish ones)…
I’ve got a thing for a Scottish burr. Yin.
I thought you were talking about the Scottish Comedian Billy Connolly – he’s called ‘The Big Yin.’
LOL! Really? Never knew that. I vaguely remember him from the tv show “Head of the Class”.
That should have said yum, not yin. Dang autocorrect.
Great idea for a post, I love the English Baddies, thanks for sharing on Susie’s blog!
Thank you very much! I really appreciate it!
Reblogged this on suzie81's Blog and commented:
Another reblog I’m afraid today – however if you are a movie fanatic you’ll hopefully enjoy this!
Hollywood baddies are very often English even English playing Americans, is this a throw back to the portrayal of perfidious albion and the struggle for independence? a way of reaffirming and perpetuating the history of the throwing off of the English yoke and creating the countries very own shared mythology by showing the wholesome everyday American freeing himself from the threat of the upper classed englishman with his evil intentions
Great response!! I think there’s definitely an element of that in a lot of these sorts of films…
we looked at this aspect of American film making in the open university and how its come to contribute to a misrepresented and warped view of history
This post just had to be written, and you’ve done it beautifully! You describe one of my favourite bug-bears so well – I remember thinking as a child what a classy bad guy Sher Khan was in the jungle book, and then getting increasingly annoyed as I saw that we were always the classy bad guys -even if we did it with style. On the other hand, James Bond is the ultimate British hero!
Haha! Thank you very much! It want something that I contemplated until recently, but now I notice it everywhere!!
General Zod does have a bad guy presence on the screen that wields a great deal of power, although there is an element of a dictator/over-the-top to it.
Exploring the concept of country of origin with bad guys is certainly interesting. Hadn’t considered it before. Usually, the first thought about thinking about what makes bad people bad is upbringing.
However, thinking of bad people in general….Psychosis, in general, trumps cultural origin, I believe when it comes to bad guys. Someone that is so unhinged that they can indulge in behaviors that show they have no boundaries is far more scary. I think the “based on a true story” phrase can make it worse, although I think that phrase has been used fictionally more often…I think the ‘Blair Witch Project’ indulged in that.
Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson, and Kevin Spacey characters extend beyond culture with their bad-guy-ness. Bruce Willis bad guys tend to be German/Russian/Eastern European. Courtesy of current events, even terrorists have generated a Middle Eastern stereotype. Englishmen give off a gentlemanly vibe. An implied civility that dissipates any potential bad guy vibe, in my book. James Bond villians comes to mind, particularly the dude with the white cat. Even he has been devilified by the Austin Powers movies. I’d have to see the right film, I suppose, to reshape that perception.
I love this post and actors and movie choices and ALL of it!
As I was reading this, I kept thinking, “Well, all these Brits are able to out-act just about every American actor so that probably has something to do with it.” Ha! Glad we came to the same conclusion. I think American actors are sometimes concerned about their public image and don’t want to be seen as the “villian” so they only play the heroic roles. Conceit sometimes, I think. Who knows? Either way, this leaves poor American girls horribly confused because the villains are nearly always classier and more attractive than the heroes!
Thanks kaela! Really appreciate it! I’m not quite sure about the attractiveness bit – I’d much rather have Robert Downey Jr over Tom Hiddleston!
I really love this list! Alan Rickman in Robin Hood was just amazing and Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ gave me the impression he loved what he was doing which I think made him that much better at the role. Wonderful list! Now you’ve sparked a movie night into life… look what you’ve done! Ha ha!
Thank you very much! Enjoy your movies!!!
Brilliant post, doing well he served justice to our cream of the crop. Baddies are ace! 🙂
Thank you very much! Yes they are! What’s your favourite?
Pretty much everyone you mentioned, I’ll have a think and let you know if I think of further worthy candidates 🙂
As an American, I’ve never really thought of this, but to be honest…I often like the villains better than the hero. It must be the nifty accent. 😉
As an aside…the Sheriff of Nottingham was one of my all-time favorite villains. I thought he was way cooler (is that even a word? maybe I should say more cool?) than Robin Hood. In American-made movies, it might be related to practical reasons…After all, there are tons of complications when it comes to hiring individuals from other countries. It might just be that it is only possible to bring in one or two actors/actresses from other countries…and they happen to be better for the role of villain (I think villains are harder than heroes…As an aspiring author, I have found that my villains need a greater level of mystery, depth and complexity because they have to have a good reason for being the bad guy. A simple psycho is just not enough to pull at the heartstrings.)
Thank you! It was really nice to get an American perspective!
Really excellent article – and of COURSE British actors make the best baddies. Soooo much more subtle, dripping with menacing charm! Sarcasm helps too…a quality Americans have yet to master!
Thank you very much!