Performances can take a lot out of people. They might have to play villainous characters they don’t like, or they might disturb people around them with how good of a job they’re doing. And sometimes, a role was originally meant to be even worse than what we got on screen. Here are 43 facts about the darkest roles that have ever been played.
43. Creepy Subject Matter
It should go without saying that if a controversial book like Nabokov’s Lolita gets a movie adaptation, it’s going to draw some attention. In a story where the main character, played by a mature James Mason, is pursuing romance with a 14-year-old girl, the film naturally alarmed many people who saw it. Mason’s character actually had to be downplayed if the film was ever going to be released, but the creepiness still made it through.
42. I Think I’ll Pass
The Night of the Hunter was one of the most influential films of the 1950s. Its disturbing portrayal of a sadistic, fortune hunting preacher was deeply important to film, but producers had some trouble finding someone to play the role. Gary Cooper believed it would ruin his career, so he refused to do it. Robert Mitchum, however, was so eager to get the role that when the director described the main character as a “diabolical shit,” Mitchum replied with “Present!”
41. Spoiled Brat
Jack Gleeson will go down in pop culture history as the villainous boy king Joffrey in Game of Thrones, receiving endless critical acclaim for his portrayal of the young, sociopathic ruler. Gleeson stated that he had to tap into all the negative thoughts in his life to truly portray Joffrey. But, despite the acclaim, evidently the craft didn’t hold that much allure to him—Gleeson retired from acting in 2014, and he now runs a travelling puppet show.
40. Harsh Criticism
Never underestimate the fury of Trekkies. When Captain Kirk was killed by Tolian Soran in one of the Star Trek films, Soran’s actor, Malcolm MacDowell, received numerous death threats for daring to kill such a legendary character.
39. Wish I Could Take it Back
One of Glenn Close’s most famous roles is that of the mentally disturbed stalker Alex in Fatal Attraction. Her character has an affair with Michael Douglas’ character, a family man, and her affair turns into an obsession, leading her to terrorizes Douglas and his family. Years later, Close came to regret her part in the film, as it not only demonized women, but also people with mental health issues.
38. Production Hell
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most famous horror films ever made, but it’s a miracle that the film was successfully finished at all. It was so hot during filming that the inside of the dilapidated house reached an unbearable 115 degrees. The actors playing the murderous cannibals holding Sally (Marilyn Burns) hostage were so delirious from the heat and the long filming hours that at least one of them was half convinced he had to kill Sally for real. For Burns’ part, her finger was cut for real, provoking her hysterical (and genuine) reaction on screen. But hey, at least it was convincing, right?
37. He’s Misunderstood!
Most of the darkest performances in film have been villains in their respective stories, but in recent years the role of villain has shifted dramatically. Earlier movies tended do have villains who do evil simply for the sake of being evil, but over the years a shift was made to more “sympathetic villains” who feel truly justified in the things they do, often making them all the more terrifying.
36. A Moment of Reflection
In Goodfellas, the role of mob boss Paulie is played by Paul Sorvino. As brilliant as he is in the film, Sorvino was deeply unsure of whether he could pull off the cold persona onscreen, and almost dropped out of the production at the last minute. When he let his agent know about his uncertainty, he was told to take a day to think about it. Sorvino found himself looking into the mirror later that night, and he actually scared himself with the expression on his face, convincing him that he had what it took to play Paulie.
35. When a Clown Turns Dark
Despite being one of the most beloved comedians of the last seventy years, the late Robin Williams was capable of playing very dark characters. Arguably his most famous work as a villain was the murderer Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. Finch’s motivation for murder stems from humiliation and frustrated desires, as was revealed in a chilling phone call between himself and Al Pacino’s character.
34. A Clown That Was Always Dark
Before Hollywood decided it needed another remake, Stephen King’s killer clown in IT was famously played by Tim Curry in the HBO miniseries. One of the most memorable character actors of his time, Curry put his all into the chilling performance of a child-murdering clown with supernatural powers. His characterization was actually so disturbing that people went out of their way to avoid him on the set.
33. Slightly Too Much Into Character
When Jared Leto took on his darkest role as the Joker in Suicide Squad, he must have thought for a long time about how his performance could match the chilling portrayal by Heath Ledger (whose preparation and performance became infamous after his tragic death). Before filming, Leto had a “henchman” drop off a dead pig in a rehearsal room for the rest of the cast, and also sent a live rat to Margot Robbie, who played his love interest Harley Quinn. I think it’s safe to say he succeeded in creeping his co-stars out, which I guess was the whole point.
32. Can You Clarify That?
When the period piece drama Outlander’s first season aired on television, audiences were shocked when one of the beloved main characters, Jenny, was brutally tortured and sexually assaulted by the most evil character in the series, Black Jack Randall. Since Randall keeps telling Jenny to turn around during the assault, many people decried the series for playing into an ancient trope where LGBTQ characters are portrayed as disgusting or villainous. The backlash was such that the author of the original books had to come out and explain that Randall was not meant to be gay, but simply a psychopath using any method of torture at his disposal.
31. What Was I Doing??
Bernardo Bertolucci’s five-hour epic Novecento was a box office flop when it first came out, but it did feature a chilling performance by Donald Sutherland. Cast as the ruthless psychopath Atilla, Sutherland’s character proceeds to help fuel the Fascist movement in 1920s Italy, at one point killing a cat to prove his point. Sutherland was so disturbed by his own performance that he refused to watch the movie for years after.
30. No Hard Feelings, Right?
In the Korean movie Oldboy, there’s an infamous scene where the main character, after being locked up for years, desires to eat something different from the same stuff he’s eaten while in captivity. For his meal, he chooses a live octopus. That octopus wasn’t faked either; Choi Min-sik actually ate a live octopus on camera. To make it worse, Choi is a devout Buddhist and vegetarian, leading him to actually apologize to the octopus before eating it. We are left to imagine whether the octopus accepted his apology.
29. Blade to the Face
Back in 2008, Mickey Rourke was given the career comeback of a lifetime with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. The film featured Rourke as a broken wrestler with a destroyed relationship with his family. Rourke went all out to portray the harsh life of a failing wrestler. This involved an old wrestling trick of cutting one’s face during a performance. Rourke went all out and actually cut his face for real during these scenes. Allegedly, the real wrestlers hired to be extras in the film applauded Rourke’s dedication to the role.
28. No Way She Was Evil, Right?
In the wake of the highly successful horror film Get Out, which deals with issues of racism in modern America, co-star Allison Williams revealed that many white audiences refused to believe that her character was as evil as the movie portrayed. They would insist that the pretty, young white woman luring black people to their doom couldn’t possibly be truly evil, and must have brainwashed or forced to do so against her will. We reckon this proves the point that director Jordan Peele was trying to make about all kinds of racism still being extremely prevalent in today’s society.
27. Animal Attack
In one of the many scary scenes in The Omen, a troop of baboons attacks the little boy who is secretly imbued with the powers of Hell. His mother’s terror in the scene might seem especially real to audiences, because the actress who played her was, in fact, utterly terrified. The baboons were not trained and were genuinely attacking the actors, and the crew had intervene before the maddened monkeys put the production especially behind.
26. Just Another Childhood Memory
The film Stand By Me has gone down as a classic about childhood friends going on life-changing adventure together. The film doesn’t hold back when dealing with serious issues in the boys’ lives, leading to an intense, emotional scene between River Phoenix and Will Wheaton’s characters. To get the best performance possible, the director told Phoenix to tap into his own childhood memories of betrayal and disappointment. This led to such a breakdown on Phoenix’s part that he had to be comforted after filming finished.
25. Keep Him Away!
In the film There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis’s character is often accompanied by the young boy he adopted. The actor who played the boy was new to acting, and his parents needed convincing before they’d let him be in the movie. Apparently, his mother wanted to find out more about Daniel Day-Lewis, so she rented his Oscar-nominated film Gangs of New York, in which he plays the chilling, brutal villain Bill the Butcher. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sway her, and she wasn’t convinced to let her kid act in the film until they showed her one of Day-Lewis’s nicer characters.
24. A Close Shave
The Wolf of Wall Street famously portrayed the world of stock-brokers with too much money, too many drugs, and zero morals. In one of the more infamous (and frankly disturbing) parts of the movie, the main characters persuade an assistant to let them shave her head for $10,000, which will go to breast implants for her. The shaving is completely real, since they’d found a hair stylist friend of Leonardo DiCaprio who was willing to actually shave her head.
23. Go Explore and Don’t Return
The Blair Witch Project was revolutionary for its time. It was a film featuring three college students wandering into the woods looking for witches, framed as a documentary. The film launched the found footage genre, but to do that, it needed to be convincing in its horror. The three amateur actors were thus kept in the dark about what the filming would contain. The directors sought their genuine reactions by stalking them on their lonely trek through the forest, even as they got more tired and angry with each other. Literally dozens of hours of genuine freak-outs and aimless wandering was cut down into a single film which made more money than anyone involved in the project could ever have imagined. Who doesn’t love a happy ending?
22. Secret of Se7en
Kevin Spacey’s murderous and disturbing character in Se7en, John Doe, finds some of the most creative and horrifying ways to kill his victims in ironic tributes to the Seven Deadly Sins. David Fincher knew that he had to build up John Doe as much as he could before the man ever appeared on film. As a result, he hid Kevin Spacey’s involvement from as many people as possible. Spacey isn’t even credited until after the film is over, so that his reveal is as surprising to the audience as it is to the main characters in the film.
21. Bully For You
In another example of Stand By Me blending fiction and with reality, Kiefer Sutherland decided to go one step further than usual with his villainous bully character. He would terrify the young child actors off-camera as well, so that their fear and dislike of him was as genuine as possible on camera. Based off the final product, it seems like his strategy worked.
20. Villain in her Underwear
Of all the great female villains in film, few probably enjoyed playing that role less than Louise Fletcher. On the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fletcher’s chilling Nurse Ratched had to stay cold and cruel when everyone else got to laugh and have fun around her. One day near the end of the production, Fletcher stripped down to her underwear in front of the whole crew to show that she was just playing a character, and she was just as capable of joking around as any of them.
19. Casual Dinner With Mom
Going back to the movie Goodfellas, there’s a scene which, in a way that Scorsese has perfected, rides the line between funny and unsettling. The three main characters have brutally murdered a rival gangster and have his body in their trunk. Through wacky hijinks, they end up waking one of their mothers, who proceeds to make dinner for them. They improvise their way through dinner with her to hide their cold-blooded violence. The thing is, the scene wasn’t scripted, and the woman playing the mother was Martin Scorsese’s actual mother. She wasn’t told the context of the scene, which made the three lead actors’ improv all the more genuine.
18. Cast Against Type
Before 1994, Woody Harrelson was known strictly as a funny actor. He’d been in White Men Can’t Jump, but he was mostly known as the loveable bartender Woody on Cheers. To everyone’s surprise (including his own), he was cast as the disturbed mass murderer Mickey Knox in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The film shocked audiences and critics alike, with a lot of praise directed towards Harrelson’s performance.
17. The Tears Must be Real, Damnit!
Glory was an inspiring story about the first black regiment in the United States Army. Taking place during the Civil War, the recruits face racism on all fronts, and the risk of being killed or enslaved by the Confederacy. However, in one of the film’s darkest moments, one of the recruits disobeys direct orders and the Colonel insists on having the man whipped. The recruit, played by Denzel Washington, takes his punishment, but eventually breaks down and weeps as they whip him. Those tears were not fake—urged to continue until he felt a real connection to the scene, Washington was eventually overcome physically and emotionally by the humiliation of being whipped. It led to his first Oscar win—we hope that made up for it.
16. Put Through Hell
Sadly, The Shining was a literal nightmare for co-star Shelley Duvall. Kubrick put her through the wringer to get the best performance out of her. For the scene where she swings a baseball bat at Nicholson, Duvall had to perform nearly 180 takes! No surprise that she suffered a nervous breakdown and hair loss during production.
15. I Was Acting!
Game of Thrones features a number of characters who do utterly vile things, but one of the least popular characters is the magical religious fanatic Melisandre. People were horrified when she convinced a major character to burn his own daughter alive as a sacrifice. Some people were so horrified that they sent death threats to Melisandre’s actress, Carice Van Houten.
14. Convincing Creep
Fritz Lang’s M has been hailed as one of his best films, with some of the most disturbing content of Lang’s career. This German film follows a hunt for a child murderer played by Peter Lorre. The film ended up changing Lorre’s career forever: he had been a comedic actor before M was released, but his disturbing role as a serial killer meant that even when he learned English and went to the US, he was pigeon-holed as a villain for the rest of his career.
13. A Children’s Picture
By all accounts, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a beloved film for the entire family, but it isn’t without its shocking or scary moments. In the famous ride through the tunnel, the horrific imagery that the children see is just a ramp-up for a horrifying poem Willy Wonka chants until he’s basically screaming at them. The terror on their faces was genuine because Gene Wilder didn’t tell them he was going to do that—some of the children thought he’d genuinely lost his mind.
12. Emotional Father
If there’s one scene that people remember from Reservoir Dogs, it’s the deeply disturbing one where the deranged Mr. Blonde tortures a captured police officer just for fun. It’s easy to guess that Michael Madsen had a difficult time playing this vicious character, but it got worse when the actor playing the cop improvised a line where he begged for his life, saying he had a little kid at home. Madsen himself had just become a father for the first time, and the implications of the scene made him stop filming for a moment before being able to continue. It goes without saying that the line made it into the final cut.
11. The Scorpio Killer
For the gritty cop film Dirty Harry, Don Siegel needed someone convincing to play a psychopathic serial killer who murders innocent people and takes children hostage. Andrew J. Robinson provided such a convincing performance that he was typecast as a psychopath years, and he received death threats from disturbed audience members. Thankfully Star Trek: Deep Space Nine came along later and gave him the biggest role of his life, finally getting him out of Dirty Harry’s shadow.
10. Does the End Justify Those Means?
In 1969, the British film Kes depicted a young boy and his relationship with a kestrel. In one of the most disturbing moments of the film, the kestrel is killed by the boy’s brother. The child actor had spent a great deal of time building a genuine friendship with the bird, and to get a good performance out of him, nobody told him that the bird wasn’t actually dead. They even swapped out the bird for a dead one and didn’t let him known until after the camera had captured his genuine heartbroken reaction to his friend’s death. No doubt he was happy to see his bird alive and well, but that’s still really cold, Ken Loach.
9. Voluntary Withdrawal
Malcolm MacDowell is no stranger to controversy. When his big breakout film A Clockwork Orange was released in the cinemas, the response was one of horror and intrigue, especially towards MacDowell’s electrifying portrayal of the youthful, psychopathic villain Alex. MacDowell went on tour to try and explain the film to people, even as it was accused of inspiring youth to commit gruesome crimes. Director Stanley Kubrick finally had enough after a year or two and withdrew the film from the UK completely. It was not shown there again until after Kubrick’s death in 1999.
8. Should Have Worked on E.T. Instead
Most people, when asked to think of the Alien franchise, will probably go back to the infamous chest-bursting scene from the first film. It was a moment of terror which fully established just how freaky the xenomorph’s reproductive system was, except it wasn’t just terrifying for the audience—it was terrifying for the actors in the scene too. None of them (except John Hurt, for obvious reasons) knew what was going to happen, which means they were freaking out for real as fake blood sprayed everywhere and a convincing puppet burst from Hurt’s chest.
7. Too Method
Aguirre: Wrath of God was the breakout film of Werner Herzog’s career. A lot of its success depended on the lead role of Aguirre, who slowly loses his sanity as he goes further into the jungle. For that role, Herzog found Klaus Kinski, a struggling German actor who had been in the Second World War. As it turned out, Kinski was a tad too much like his character, and his crazy antics drove everyone to their breaking points. At one point, Kinski and Herzog got into a brutal shouting match, after which Kinski tried to leave the production. Herzog threatened to shoot Kinski and then himself if he left. Somehow, the film was finished. I guess Herzog’s threat worked? Even more shocking, Herzog and Kinski continued to work together after.
6. Let’s Try Round Two
It turns out that Kinski and Herzog had one of the most extreme love/hate relationships in the history of film. While Herzog worked with him on five films, others could barely handle being with him in one. On the set of Fitzcarraldo, Kinski’s unhinged temper tantrums while playing a mad genius sailing through the South American jungle (yes, they did that kind of film again) so enraged and terrified the local indigenous that they approached Herzog and offered to kill him.
5. Life-Threatening Dedication
When Christian Bale was cast in dark thriller The Machinist, the script called for him to be very thin. The six-foot-tall actor proceeded to drop down to an alarming 120 pounds, shocking the rest of the cast and crew. He actually wanted to drop down to 99 pounds but was forced to stop because his health was already at risk.
4. Break a Leg! Wait…
In the horror film Misery, a writer comes across his biggest (and most terrifying) fan, who locks him in her house and goes to extreme measures to keep him there. Kathy Bates ended up turning in a legendary performance as the crazed fan, but casting the writer was no easy feat. Among those who turned it down were Warren Beatty, Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino. Why? All these actors were concerned about the scene where the writer’s legs get brutally broken. And this was even after the film’s script toned down the scene—originally his legs were going to be chopped clean off.
3. Wow, I’m a Monster…
In the intense crime drama The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Yorick Van Wageningen plays a social worker who takes advantage of Lisbeth Salander in the worst way possible. The scene is brutal enough to watch, but it was worse for the actors playing it out. The bruises which appeared on Rooney Mara’s body were mostly real, due to the nature of the filming process. For his part, Van Wageningen was so disturbed by what he had to do during the scene that he spent a day locked in his hotel room, crying.
2. And We Came So Close…
The Butterfly Effect was already a dark film with a lot of disturbing implications regarding time travel and changing people’s lives, but the film almost had one of the darkest and most depressing endings in film history. Originally, Ashton Kutcher’s character was meant to realize that the entire world would be better if he’d never existed, so he was going to go back in time to being a fetus in the womb, and was to strangle himself with his own umbilical cord. The producers ultimately bailed on the self-infanticide ending, because really, who ever needs to see a pre-born child commit suicide? They were kind enough to put this ending into the DVD release, though.
1. It’s a Kid’s Movie, Right?
Despite his creepy portrayal of the young, psychic child Danny in The Shining, Danny Lloyd had no idea he was in a horror movie at all. Great pains were taken to make him unaware of all the creepiness of the film’s story (which also featured one of Jack Nicholson’s most terrifying performances). How he didn’t realize things were off when he was chanting “Red Rum” while holding a knife is beyond us.
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