Rooting for the Bad Guy

Okay, I’ll admit it…I love to play the bad guy. Being the villain on stage is so much more fun than being the hero.

My first big lead in a play was in my high school production of Dracula, and to be honest, it was great fun… plus I got to kiss a girl on stage (that was fun too… but awkward).

Back then I didn’t know much about acting, but some things that were true then still hold today. Acting gave me the opportunity to pretend to be somebody else and I loved pretending to be a different person. The pretending I did at home, acting out scenes from movies, was my playground and became the foundation of what would become my career.

In my childhood the bad guys were just that… BAD. I would play the part thinking I was a bad guy and thus it was acceptable that the bad guy did bad things, but would ultimately die at the hands of the hero. But that was okay, because it was fun to act out death scenes too.

As I learned more about acting I began to understand that a bad guy… a real bad guy… doesn’t usually think of themselves as bad. To play a real bad guy I needed to understand why they did the bad things they did. It is then that you begin to see them as real people, not necessarily bad people. Often they’re just people who make a wrong choice or even do a bad thing for what might be considered a very good reason. They kill for revenge, they steal to feed their family, they cheat on their spouse because they feel a need for more excitement in their life. It’s called justification and if we are honest, we all do it. It is the knee-jerk reaction we all default to when we do a bad thing.

I play the Bible character Judas in a scene from my one-man show Encounters (see video at the bottom of this post). The scene is in the moments before he takes his own life after betraying Jesus. In writing and playing this scene, I wanted to show what might have been going on in this man’s mind—what motivated him to do the bad thing. If I do it correctly you—the audience—come away with a more sympathetic view of a person that many simply write off as a “bad guy.” And while in the biblical story he is a villain, I like to think that he wasn’t all bad. He was misguided, he did a bad thing for what he thought was a good reason.

Hollywood has done much to change the image of the bad guy in recent years. In the movies of my childhood you were not really given the option to root for the bad guy. They were bad—they will lose or die—John Wayne or Gary Cooper would see to that! End of story. Today we are given the choice and even encouraged to root for the bad guy. Hollywood has given us the anti-hero in characters like Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Dexter Morgan (Dexter) and a whole host of others. In these shows we see life from the bad guy’s point of view. It is expected we will root for the bad guy.

In some ways this has merit. It is good to see people—all people—as real people. It is easy to put ourselves in their shoes and to see how, given the right set of circumstances, we might make the same bad choices. I think it is helpful to empathize with people who do bad things.

But there is another outcome from looking at things from this perspective. Over time we can begin to no longer see things as bad. We numb ourselves to the degree that we even forget that what they are doing is bad. We can see this trend in real life. When there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a rape, an affair, riot or a robbery—the media often takes the angle of exploring the motivation and looks for some justification for the crime.

While it is helpful to know the motivation for the crime, let’s not forget that a bad thing is still a bad thing.

It’s called sin… and we are all guilty.

And as for justification… there is only one sure path to that.

“That we may be justified by faith…”


Deceived from Encounters by Chuck Neighbors

3 thoughts on “Rooting for the Bad Guy

  1. Richard Moxley says:

    Good article, but not sure you’re right about the “In my childhood the bad guys were just that… BAD,” unless you’re older than I thought. 😉 Henry Fonda was the killer bad guy we loved to love in 1968 movie “Once Upon a Time in the West.” And, like the Breaker Bad lead, it worked because there were badder bad guys that made him look good. //www.imdb.com/title/tt0064116/ But, no, I did not miss your overarching point.

    Reply
    1. Chuck Neighbors says:

      Good catch Ric. I’m sure there are other exceptions too. But I do think the “bad guy” is much more exalted today than when I was a youngster. And, yeah I do have a couple years up on you…you whipersnapper!

      Reply
  2. Scott Bettis says:

    I’m sorry, I’ll have to read the article again. All I could think of was you onstage saying “I VAHNT TO DRINK YOUR BLAAAHD” X-D

    I remember an interview with Ian McKellen about his role as “Magneto” in the first X-Men movie where he made the very same point. The best “bad guys” are the ones that are just – “otherwise motivated” – and willing to go to whatever lengths to achieve their goal.

    Reply

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