The Hearts of Monsters: Why We Need to Play Villains

“You are terrifying!” came the enthusiastic greeting as I stepped into the post show lobby. . I had grown used to it by then, and knew from the grins on the faces of this pleasant older couple that it meant they’d enjoyed the show. I smiled back sheepishly and offered a genuine, though bashful thank you, trying to distance myself somewhat from the character I had just played. Each night, I even made a point of dressing up more than usual when I went to the theatre. This was my first production in a new city, after all, and I wanted to be sure that everyone knew I wasn’t really a sociopath.

Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre in Washington DC.
Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre in Washington DC. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I’ve always been drawn to eccentric characters –or, perhaps, I have always been drawn to the eccentric in the characters I play – but playing Doc in Ursula Rani Sarma’s The Magic Tree was my first opportunity to play a genuine “bad guy.”  In the time we spend with Doc we  are introduced to him as a would-be rapist, and witness him in the act. He is a very, very bad guy.

Over the course of the rehearsal process, I had delved into the Doc’s damaged psyched, felt his pain, and tapped into the genuine pleasure he feels in committing horrible acts.  I had intellectually acknowledged that for Doc, a wounded animal, morality didn’t mean the same thing it meant for me. Yet, I found myself in tech still walking onstage knowing I was there to do a horrible thing. Doc needed to walk on stage knowing something awesome was going to happen.  

And then my director told me to stand up straight.  What a little thing – and yet, in that small note was the key to unlocking my character.  I may have been feeling guilty, but Doc was a man without knowledge of that guilt.

Stand up straight. That’s all it took, and suddenly, there he was. He didn’t care about laying low, and he wasn’t there to commit a serious crime. He was there for a party, and everyone else was ruining it. Now I could see how truly ugly he was, how deep it went for him. When I saw the bottom of that dark well, a cruel light washed over parts of myself I try to ignore; and once that happened, how could I do anything but love him. The moment I stopped concerning myself with how much I hated Doc, I loved him. I had spent so much time trying to understand him, It seemed foolish to have denied it for so long. I loved him for being human, and now I could play him.

People may not be born with ethics, but we are born with empathy; and while it atrophies easily, it can also be the easiest, and most rewarding to stretch. After this point I noticed myself exhibiting more patience in day to day interactions, going out of my way on impulse to grab a door or carry a package. Occasionally, this came from my sense of guilt about spending so much time with a horrible man, but it was more often from the way it taught me to be attuned to the pain and the yearning in each of us.

Brianna Letourneau and Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre.
Brianna Letourneau and Scott Ward Abernethy in The Magic Tree at Keegan Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

 

Would I throw someone like Doc in prison? Absolutely.  Still, my calling as an artist has taught me that Doc, and every character – angel or villain – has something important to teach me.   Iago has something to teach me.  We can learn as much or more from Edmund, Captain Hook, and Javert than we learn from Edgar,  Peter Pan, and Jean Valjean. We are all more alike than different, and there isn’t one of us that doesn’t know something the rest of us do not. In a world where we judge an article with a “like” or a comment before we even read it, it is difficult not to pass judgment – and all the more essential.

In the theatre, we must have empathy.  Playing Doc, I had the opportunity to give him something he probably never had, something I cannot help but to give to any character I play: love.  This is the great gift of our craft. As we hope to hold the mirror up to nature, we must be the first to find the hearts of monsters.  

 

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Scott Ward Abernethy is a professional Actor/ Teacher/ and Writer, who has worked across the country from Seattle to New York, and now resides in Washington, DC. He has a deep love of clown, Shakespeare, and promoting new work. He earned his MFA in acting from the University of Washington.

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2 thoughts on “The Hearts of Monsters: Why We Need to Play Villains”

  1. As a theatre educator, community theatre director, and all around geek, I have always given my actors this bit of advice on villains: the great villains all share one thing in common: They think they’re the hero.

    Lex Luthor is protecting Earth from a god-like alien invader. Pres. Snow of the Hunger Games is keeping order. My favorite stage villainess, Irina from James Clavell’s “The Children’s Story” is educating children to prepare them for a better life. No matter if that involves shredding the American flag and destroying the institutions of faith and family.

    While I don’t recommend living in the dark places, it is crucial to examine the darkness. So that we might understand. And understanding is the bedrock upon which great performance is built.

  2. SCOTT WARD ABERNETHY- great article! Interesting that it took going toe-to-toe with depravity before that love was extended to all “God’s creatures”–(Coleridge reference, LOL)! I recently read an article about the ultimate bad guy, Hitler, being “just a human who thought he was doing the right thing.” I like how you relate this same concept to your bad-guy roles! Thank you for the enlightening article. This will totally help me with similar roles! Great job!

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