I actually got the idea for this post from Kristin Scott Thomas’ interview on BBC News where she revels in the unusual opportunity to turn on her ‘bitch switch’ and play a really bad character. It set me thinking about why we like to pretend to be evil and why we aren’t evil for real (that is, if we aren’t).
I suppose it’s obvious why we aren’t evil: we value the regard and affection of fellow human beings who would shun us if we did them harm, we perhaps have a moral sense that it would be hard to go against anyway, and we prefer to avoid being put in prison for criminal acts.
On the other hand, being evil can give us our own ends: riches, power, the lover with the most beautiful body, etc, which is enormously attractive. Even more attractive is freedom from certain human feelings which make us liveable with. Imagine experiencing no guilt, remorse or pity and not bothering to look after anyone else’s feelings – how liberating that would be!
On a day to day basis, abandoning the fight to be good means you can say what you like to whoever you like, you can lie, steal and cheat, you can trample on other people …
Sure; but it doesn’t make you evil – just a bad and lawless ingrate. A truly evil person, generally speaking, is fiercely intelligent, patient, good at dissembling, while inside them resides a block of ice.
The vast majority of people wouldn’t have the ability to be evil even if they were to ditch their moral sense. It takes a certain grandeur, a certain stature, to turn bad character and criminal deeds into evil.
This is, I believe, why evil characters are for some actors such a joy to portray. Portraying good characters can be boring; portraying bad characters with individuality can be fun; but portraying evil characters is the most likely of all to be challenging and exhilarating.
Evil characters need to be played by actors who have the subtlety of mannerism and facial expression to convey the negatives to the positives which we expect. For example, demonstrating pleasure in watching violence, or giving us glimpses of a watchful, simulated sympathy instead of compassion.
Similarly, writers who wish to invent or portray evil characters have to be of a certain kind unless their creations are to be mere caricatures. I’m almost tempted to say: such writers need to be a cut above the rest. But there are many specialisms in writing and this is just one of them.