Judgement In filmAs viewers, we tend to judge the villains in films, criticizing their actions as unscrupulous and wicked. It is a natural response for those of us who do not have a vested interest in the mean-spirited character. But how should actors playing a villain feel about their character? Should they be equally judgmental , or should they take a more open-minded approach to their character’s circumstances?

Glenn Close, who has played the antagonist in movies like Dangerous Liaisons, Fatal Attraction, and 101 Dalmatians, has commented on her methodology when playing an unsympathetic character. Her process for development involves “falling in love” with the character she is playing. While this might be hard to believe, an actress as dedicated as Close must identify with her character on a deep level. In order for the portrayal to be believable, rather than a caricature, both the actor and the director must be able to say honestly of the villain: “I can understand why a person would make that decision or choose that lifestyle.” According to Kevin Spacey, when an actor must play a character who is traitorous, malicious, or corrupt, he has to search for those qualities within himself. Needless to say, it can be an eye-opening and unpleasant practice for a person of good moral fiber.

When Mary Tyler Moore took on the role of the mother in Ordinary People, her portrayal of Beth was not without effort. Perhaps it would have been easier for her to play the role by calling less attention to her character’s unsavory traits. However, Moore’s performance was honest and executed without judgment on her part. She left the evaluation of her character up to the audience, simply playing Beth as a mother who thinks she is doing what is right for her family. Judgment of a character, by the actor or actress charged with playing him or her, waters down the audience’s collective response to the character’s behavior.

Without this honest portrayal of Beth, the audience would not sympathize as deeply with Beth’s son when he has to decide between pleasing her and opposing her malice. But Moore is not the only artist who should be credited with the movie’s success. Robert Redford, the director of Ordinary People, demonstrated impressive levels of sensitivity and support when it came to Moore’s interpretation of Beth. Directors obviously play a big part in the finished product; they, too, have to understand and identify with the script’s characters to an impressive degree.

In a similar way, Kathy Bates managed to play Annie in Misery without passing judgment on her actions. While it would have been easy to dismiss her character as a psychopath, she instead played Annie as logical and intellectual in her own right. She and Rob Reiner collaborated in order to make Annie into someone who truly believed she was doing the right thing by her patients. By delivering them from misery (or killing them, as far as viewers were concerned), she effectually granted them freedom and peace.

In all of these cases, actors and actresses managed to make assets out of their characters’ perceived flaws. Their actions and behaviors are still cruel, but the motivations behind them appear virtuous—or at least understandable. Herein lies the actor’s paradox: the less judgment inflicted upon a character, the more clearly that person’s flaws are revealed to the audience.

For an actor, judging a character is both superficial and selfish. It stems from a narrow-minded perspective in which the actor responds to his or her own concerns. This approach eliminates any need for creativity and imagination and requires very little effort. Where is the fun in that? Instead, energy should be given to understanding the character, understanding his unique situation and his needs. At their core and in their own minds, characters are managing the best they can. So regardless of the atrocious actions they may commit, there is a story behind them that makes them who they are.

You first have to be interested in people to get interested in characters. The lesson here for artists is that you cannot consider yourself superior to anybody. Behaving this way is the antithesis to possessing genuine insight into human beings. Judging somebody is not based on fact but opinion, and opinions are not nearly as interesting as stories.

But this advice does not merely apply to wicked or mean-spirited characters. On the sitcom Becker, Shawnee Smith played a character named Linda, who often came across as an empty-headed ditz. According to Smith, however, she never played Linda with that characterization in mind. Instead, she thought of her character as someone who was open and transparent, someone who did not put on airs. In a similar way, DJ Qualls did not assign the titles “dork” or “nerd” to the character he played in Road Trip. On the contrary, he played Kyle as a boy with limited life experiences, as if he had grown up in a sheltered and secluded environment where the unknown was feared, not embraced.

In Adaptation, Chris Cooper patterned his character after men he had met during his life. He did not portray self-taught John Laroche as unintelligent or dimwitted, but he thought of him as the type of person who could have become a CEO with the right education. Mark Ruffalo, the actor behind Terry Prescott on You Can Count on Me, believes that his character will ultimately turn out alright. In doing so, he has transformed Terry from a misfit into a well-meaning person taking a bit longer to find his place in the world. Giving characters credit where credit is due is a matter of perception, and these actors have nailed it.

Neglecting to judge characters does not mean that audiences will be sympathetic toward the “bad guys.” The crux of the issue is honesty, not sympathy. Directors and actors dedicate themselves to portraying characters and scenarios as truthfully as possible, and this often means suspending judgment in order that villains’ awful qualities can be revealed.

For actors, this means not making assumptions about characters. They have backgrounds and motivations that need to be explored and fleshed out in order to be accurately represented. In addition to the ones mentioned above, other actors such as Brian Cox, Robert Duvall, and Ben Kingsley have disclosed how they are able to act as villains without passing judgment on their characters. The common denominator here is compassion for individuals who are forced into difficult situations. Bad guys, for the most part, don’t see themselves as such; rather, they see themselves as marginalized or misunderstood.

Artists view the world differently than most. They imagine a connection to other people where one might not readily exist. Artists can acknowledge that under different circumstances they, too, would be forced make unpopular, complex life choices. They eliminate passing judgment on the basis that villains are human beings and that it is in our very nature to make mistakes.