I have not had many chances to play “evil” people on stage. I do not mean the antagonist necessarily, (though I rarely play that either.) Nor do I mean the black hat and long moustache cartoon evil found in a farce. I mean evil in a very human, realistic sense.
The most evil people I have portrayed thus far were Aaron McKinney, a murderer, and Fred Phelps, a hateful, bloodthirsty preacher. Both of them were in The Laramie Project.
I will not get into the details about the characters here, other than to say that they presented some of my favorite acting challenges thus far. Therefore I would like to address the concept of playing evil characters in general.
Like any facet of the human spectrum, there is more than one kind of evil. Ergo, there is more than one approach to be taken when playing evil. I think, however, a common mistake is made, at least on the amateur theatre level. That mistake is that actors attempt to actually portray evil itself. This you cannot do, and appear real.You must portray a person.
Always, always, you must present a character to the audience. Too often people work on showing anger, or hate, or some long, drawn out laugh when they play the villain, even when the script calls for a realistic one. Such performances practically say, “insert concept of evil here.”
That is not to say that evil people do not possess such qualities. Many if not most evil people do not, however. It is difficult to walk outside and point to the “evil” people. What is worse, many evil people possess some characteristics that most people would find very familiar. And that is the truly horrifying nature of the evil person, and what most be explored by the actor portraying an evil person.
If I can make an evil character act in ways an audience is familiar with, fear begins to build within those watching the play. If a killer on stage also answers the phone, prepares a meal, or uses a tone that someone in the audience recognizes in themselves, the audience does not get off as easily. They must confront the truth that no matter how evil, the character being portrayed is in fact a human being, like the rest of us. It’s easy to laugh or just cringe at a cartoon villain on the stage. In contrast, But when the villain spend much of his time on stage behaving like your neighbor, or your brother or yourself, the real squirming in the seats starts.
Obviously, there will be a point when the actions of the villain differ from those of us who are not. But the idea of them being motivated by a need to take a certain action is pretty much universal to all of us. When an actor is able to tap into that, and to make the horrific action of an evil character the result of the very sympathetic concept of needing something, and pursuing it in a way that we all pursue our dreams, the real acting begins.