A story retold from the point of view of the villain

Empathy is defined in the dictionary as, “The power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.” As an actor, what do we do when we are faced with the challenge of playing characters with questionable morals and behavior: like Castor Troy in John Woo’s Face/Off – – terrorist and murderer; or Aileen Wuornos in Monster – –  prostitute and serial killer; or even the title character in the recent film Maleficent – – self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil”?

The biggest trap that many actors fall into with these types of characters is to play the “idea” of this evil, violent personality without investigating the humanity and the reasons behind what is motivating the character. Regardless of the character’s behavior the actor’s job is to ask themselves what is the human reason behind what makes a character decide to behave a certain way in life? The most effective tool that every actor must use is to exercise EMPATHY while doing their homework on the character.

For example, Maleficent, based on Sleeping Beauty, is retold from the point of view of the villain. Through this retelling, we learn that Maleficent was originally a good fairy who protects a kingdom of supernatural beings. As a child she befriends Stefan, a human – – and they fall in love. Later, Stefan betrays her and burns off her wings so that he can ascend to the throne by proving his skill to the dying king. It is that betrayal which motivates Maleficent’s transformation.

Often, what motivates a villain is not spelled out in the material. It is the actor’s job to create a character history and humanize the character by asking “why”? “Why is the character like this?” “What might cause a person to become this way?” Empathy is the bridge between playing an idea and living in the humanity of what drives a character’s actions.

The late, great actor, John Cazale said that no matter what the character, he always needed to know his character’s pain. Whatever you want to call it: “Pain”, “Need”, “Want”, “Motivation” – – as long as you commit to the process of understanding the humanity of your villain, you will avoid getting caught in the idea-trap.