‘Someone threw a brick at my car’: what’s it like to play a terrible TV villain?
‘Getting an erection in my coffin was weird’
Claes Bang, 55, played evil husband John Paul Williams in Apple TV+ whodunnit Bad Sisters.
I laughed when I read the Bad Sisters script and realised the opening episode, called The Prick, was named after my character. I don’t have a problem playing baddies. It’s like playing with a fun toy. I never thought of JP as a villain in the classic sense. Villains can be cool, clever, charming or sexy. I didn’t see any of that with JP. We just needed to pile everything on him so it justifies murder. A weird task but a fascinating one. There’s something strangely enjoyable about being allowed to go on set and be horrid. Anne-Marie Duff, who played JP’s wife, Grace, is the loveliest person in the world. I’d never dream of saying anything mean to her but in character, I could be vile. In a perverse way, it’s very fulfilling.
To root JP’s behaviour in something, it seemed to me that it all sprung from insecurity. He thinks his sisters-in-law are a threat, so he needs to defend himself. Sharon Horgan’s scripts were full of delicious details, like how he called his wife “Mammy.” I probably went overboard with the Mammies. At one point, the director said: “Claes, could we have a maximum of three Mammies per scene?” I was saying it every other word.
I’ve seen people on social media say they know someone like JP, so we must have nailed a type. People fucking hate him, but the reaction was exactly like we hoped. I’m proud the show shines a light on toxic masculinity and coercive and abusive relationships. To portray that, I drew on all the darkness I’ve seen during my 55 years on this planet.
For my coffin scene, JP needed to look like he had an erection. Pretty much everyone on set was female, so there were 10 women stood around me, trying different dildos, carrots and bananas to see what worked best while I just lay there. That was a weird day at work.
I’ve never worried about being typecast. Even if I was, villains are fun roles, so it’s fine. My next two parts are also nasty pieces of work. Maybe people are trying to tell me something!
‘My wig came off as Tony Soprano killed me’
Joe Pantoliano, 71, played combustible henchman Ralph Cifaretto in HBO’s The Sopranos.
I’d known the show’s creator David Chase for years but when The Sopranos rolled around and he offered me a part, I said no. I’d had my fingers burned with a CBS gangster series called EZ Streets which got cancelled after 10 episodes. I told David: “I want a home run!” He laughed and, a year later, called me with a new character. “They’re all scumbags,” David said, “but this guy’s a real scumbag. I want him to be charming and funny. He’ll be around for two seasons, then he’ll bump heads with Tony and lose.” I said OK right then.
One of the first choices I made was his wardrobe. I said, look, this guy’s a big earner, so he shouldn’t be underdressed like the other guys. Ralphie had wanted to be a wiseguy his whole life, he probably saw The Godfather 40 times and wanted to emulate Michael Corleone when he becomes Don. So we kind of copied his blazers and cravats. He had a serious cocaine problem, which you don’t realise at first but it explains why Ralphie is wired and volatile. I had to empathise with him, so I figured he was abused in childhood by his mother’s boyfriends. I guess Tony was the father he never had. He wanted Tony’s respect, maybe even his job.
I’m a character actor, so I just want interesting parts. Antagonists are always way more fun than protagonists. My job is for the audience to hate me. If they don’t have a visceral reaction to my presence on-screen, then I suck. When Ralphie showed up, he wasn’t the guy you loved to hate. He was the guy you hated to like. Yet the reaction was always complimentary, which confused me. The public love bad guy characters, I don’t understand why.
My death scene was a brutal fight with Tony. The groundwork had been laid for that. Ralphie had a thing for swords-and-sandals films. He talks about Spartacus and re-enacts scenes from Gladiator. So this was like two gladiators, duelling to the death. There was this darkly comic business with Ralphie’s wig coming off. David had a personal beef with the wig because he was always getting continuity notes about it. That was him getting even.
In 2003, I won an Emmy for the role. I grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD, and had a traumatic youth. When I decided to become an actor, my family disapproved but my stepdad always supported me. When I won that award, it was like: “This is for you.”
Did I get any feedback from real mobsters? Well, those guys don’t carry business cards but, truth be known, my stepfather was one of them. He spent nearly half his life in a federal penitentiary. Once, in a New York restaurant, I met this connected old man who ran the neighbourhood. When I told him who my stepfather was, he said: “Fuck The Sopranos – he was a real wiseguy!”
‘I got wired snorting glucose instead of cocaine’
Zöe Lucker, 48, played ‘superbitch’ Tanya Turner in 00s ITV melodrama Footballers’ Wives.
Tanya Turner was a piece of work but I absolutely loved her. I was a big fan of Sharon Stone’s character Ginger in the film Casino, her sense of doomed glamour. That influenced my portrayal. Her first dark deed was putting Frank, the football club chairman, in a coma but that was an impulsive act. As the show went on, she became more calculating and did some terrible things. Those scenes were my favourite to play, without a doubt.
The costume designer would take me out shopping for Tanya’s clothes. We’d come back with tonnes of Versace and Moschino. We’d finish off her look with fabulous hair pieces, false eyelashes and long nails, which were highly impractical but felt right. When Tanya took cocaine, we used glucose powder but if I had to do loads of takes, I’d be absolutely wired. It was like drinking 20 bottles of Lucozade.
My favourite storyline was the baby swap, which was funny if deeply inappropriate. You’d look at scripts and go: “Surely not!” Nothing was too much. Tanya shagging Frank to death became infamous but I haven’t watched that back for 20 years. The thought is rather horrifying. I feared I’d get abuse in the street but viewers loved the show and still do.
Eventually I got to work with Joan Collins, which was a dream come true. When I was a little girl, I used to sneak downstairs and try to watch Dynasty. I loved the glitz and melodrama. I’d left Footballers’ Wives the previous season but the executive producer rang and said: “Would you come back if Joan Collins was your nemesis?” Who could say no?
The Wagatha Christie trial was like something from the show. Storylines often had similarities to stuff in the papers but Footballers’ Wives was very much a drama, not a documentary. The writers picked up the ball and ran with it, even if it could cause offence. I don’t think we’d dare do that now.
‘I was a Nazi, a Victorian gent, then Rasputin’
Sacha Dhawan, 38, played The Master in Doctor Who, arch nemesis of Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord.
I’ve played a few villains and never see them as bad people, just complex ones. I deliberately didn’t read much about The Master’s history or watch previous incarnations. Instead, I homed in on the relationship between him and the Doctor. There’s centuries of animosity between them but also a lot of love. I also latched on to the idea that The Master doesn’t like himself and prefers disguises. I arrived in the show as an MI6 scientist, later a Nazi officer, a Victorian gentleman and Rasputin.
The brilliant thing about Doctor Who is there’s so much room to play – a whole universe of possibilities. That’s why the role was such a joy. I’ve never wanted to be labelled as a British-Indian actor, I’d rather be a versatile character actor. Playing villains has given me the opportunity to do that.
I’m the first non-white actor to play the role – and also, as a fan said recently, the only one to pronounce Master in a northern way, as opposed to Mar-ster. Playing him put me on the map. British South Asian actors aren’t often given these opportunities, so it’s been gratifying to resist being pigeonholed.
After filming my last episode, I got to keep my Tissue Compression Eliminator – The Master’s version of a Sonic Screwdriver – and my full costume. That was special because I’d collaborated on his look. My vision was steampunk meets Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. I was made up to keep it, although I doubt I’ll ever wear it unless I’m playing The Master. I’d love him to reappear at some point, because I feel there is unfinished business.
The Doctor Who fans were so welcoming, it was overwhelming. There has been hardly any negative reaction. The Master might be a villain but he’s so charming, people relish him. It’s lovely to see fans dress up as him. The fanbase even encouraged me to talk about myself publicly in a way I’ve never done before. I’ve been open about my mental health and the fact that I have Crohn’s disease.
In fact, the only time I’ve had a hostile public response was when I played a bent copper in Line of Duty. Grownups shouted abuse at me from across the street. I would have to explain that I wasn’t a real police officer and didn’t try to kill Keeley Hawes!
‘Women would say: Ooh, I hated you’
Jack Ellis, 67, played corrupt prison officer Jim Fenner in ITV’s Bad Girls.
Jim Fenner was ridiculously over-the-top evil. Playing a baddie is a lot more interesting than being the hero. Look at Shakespeare. Mercutio is way more fun than Romeo – and you get to the pub earlier because you’re not in the second half.
I created a backstory for Jim where he had an abusive upbringing, then got thrown out of the army. He entered the Prison Service and that’s where he exorcised his demons. Jim and top dog Shell Dockley had this duelling villain dynamic, which was hugely enjoyable. My other favourite storyline was the gay governor, Neil Grayling, trying to seduce Jim. That allowed us to tackle the issue of homophobia. Jim went from predator to prey, which absolutely dislodged him.
Tabloids called him “Grim Jim” but 9.5 million viewers tuned in, so we were clearly doing something right. In the street, “Fenner!” became an insult. People would yell it at me, then laugh and come over. Women would say: “Ooh, I hated you” but with a twinkle that suggested they liked me really. I never got hate mail. People realised I was nothing like Jim. Thank God, because I’d be banged up.
Real-life prison staff told me there really were Jim Fenners in the service. Jim was like a kid in a chocolate factory. He could do what the hell he liked. Eventually, he was stabbed with an icicle, which was the perfect murder weapon because it melts and disappears. That scene was hell to do, though. I spent an entire day scrabbling around in dirt, covered in fake blood.
I moved to France for love a decade ago, so I don’t get recognised so much, although there’s a lovely Moroccan lady at the local market who’s seen every episode. When she serves me, she’ll say to another customer: “Do you know he’s very famous?” I’m really not, but there is a lot of nostalgia for Bad Girls. I picked up some stuff from London recently and this lad said: “Fenner’s come for the keys again, has he?”
‘I was buried under a patio for two years’
Bryan Murray, 73, played abusive husband Trevor Jordache in Channel 4’s Brookside.
I happened to be in Liverpool and met up with a friend at the Granada Television building. While we had coffee, word came down that an executive producer wanted to meet me. He said he was in charge of Brookside and wanted me to consider a part: Trevor Jordache, who looks perfectly innocent but soon begins to abuse his wife, Mandy, played by Sandra Maitland. Eventually she stabs Trevor and – with the help of their daughter Beth, played by Anna Friel – buries him under the patio.
When I read the scripts, I started to imagine what was going on in Trevor’s mind. You have to try to get inside your character, no matter how monstrous they are. I enjoyed playing him, which might sound odd, but what a role. He only appeared in 12 episodes, but the public had a lot to say about him – much of it shouted at me in the street. I got hate mail, including one letter about how I’d upset a woman who’d been abused by her ex and now her new chap was coming to the studio to get me.
The morning after the first scene of me abusing Sandra, she came over and whispered: “Have you noticed how every female in the building has taken three steps back from you?” Trevor was buried under that patio for two years, until he was accidentally dug up. In that time, hardly a day went by without someone shouting: “How are ya, Trev?” at me.
‘She chose to punch me, rather than do a slap’
Natasha Little, 53, played conniving lawyer Rachel in BBC Two drama This Life.
This Life was a cool show whereas I was – and still am – entirely uncool. I joined for series two but wasn’t fashionable enough to have seen the first series. Suddenly I was in the cool gang – rather like my character Rachel, the new girl in the solicitors’ office. She tried to ingratiate herself in a sly way and Milly, one of the leads, took against her. Come on, sister! That’s not kind.
I’m still defensive about her. Rachel was always described as passive-aggressive or scheming but she was just trying to navigate a new workplace which wasn’t terribly welcoming. I concede she was annoying, but you always fall a little bit in love with your characters. You lose objectivity about them, which means you can justify all the terrible things they say or do.
It all climaxed with the infamous wedding punch. Rachel exposed her affair, so Milly marched up to her. Amita Dhiri, who played Milly, chose to punch rather than slap me, which was way better. Before she gets decked, Rachel protests: “It wasn’t me.” Hmm, incriminating! I was surprised by how strong the anti-Rachel reaction was. I was like: “God, Milly’s the one having the affair!”
When you’ve played one part, people can imagine you doing it again. I’ve since played everything from murderers to terrible mothers. Casting directors think: “I’ve seen that darkness in her soul!” But it’s useful because I’m quite shy and obedient in real life. Playing destructive, spiteful people is liberating. You can save up your negative feelings for work. It probably would’ve been better to be the puncher, not the punchee, but neither of us look terribly glamorous.
It was scrambly and messy, rather than a beautifully choreographed fight scene, which was in tone with the show. Rachel is not a fighter, she’s a sidelong-looker. Succession is my current favourite drama. Maybe Rachel could go and work at Waystar Royco. She’d fit right in.
‘Everyone wanted to see who I’d kill next’
Brian Capron, 75, played Coronation Street serial killer Richard Hillman.
Corrie wasn’t doing well when I was cast. EastEnders was winning the ratings war and all the awards. So they decided to go back to longform storylines and luckily homed in on my character. I worked hard establishing Richard’s relationship with Gail Platt and her kids, being very tender and loving, as a springboard into his dark side. The first glimpse of villainy was him leaving his business partner, Duggie, to die. Nancy Banks-Smith wrote in the Guardian: “He’s like Raskolnikov, scurrying around Weatherfield.” I was thrilled with that.
You often hear people on the news say about psychopaths: “Such a nice family man, always said hello, always washed his car on Sundays. What a surprise!” That was the key to the character for me. My wife deserves credit, too. When I first got threatening lines, I tended to overplay them. She said: “No, do it quietly, with a menacing look.” That was much more powerful.
Richard was almost a pantomime villain. One of my favourite scenes was when he walked down the cobbles and passed his mother-in-law Audrey, who was his next target. She went, “Hello, Richard” and he said, “Goodbye, Audrey.” He smashed Emily Bishop over the head with a crowbar but she survived because of the hairspray on her wig. When Maxine Peacock walked in on them, he beat her to death, too. She was a popular character, so murdering her was a big deal. Everybody wanted to see who else he would kill.
Another wonderful line was: “Norman Bates with a briefcase”, which Helen Worth delivered beautifully during the two-hander episode when Richard confessed. It’s always an accolade to get a two-hander in a soap. You know you’ve made it when you get a tabloid nickname. I had two: “Tricky Dicky” and “Richard Killman”. It got huge viewing figures, almost 20 million. I won five British Soap Awards in one night and ran out of things to say in my acceptance speeches.
Viewers loved to hate him and I had some ridiculous encounters. The odd person attacked me. One guy shouted out “Hillman!” and threw a brick at my car that hit the roof. A woman bashed me with her umbrella and told me I was a horrible person. Even last year, I was in Mallorca when a bloke walked past and muttered: “Murderer.”
I was in the centre of a press storm and got chased around, which was difficult for my family. I did Strictly Come Dancing a few years later and my dance partner, Karen Hardy, noticed I had a stoop. It was because I spent two years walking down the street with my head down so I didn’t catch anybody’s eye.
• This article was amended on 6 February 2023. An earlier version misnamed James Norton as Andrew Norton in the main image picture caption.