Answering a FAQ: “Why do you play so many evil characters lately?”

Every actor has a particular type they can play well, for some reason or another. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with who we are in real life, but it's just what we do well.

Example: Travolta is amazing as the Lovable Loser. When he's in Welcome Back Kotter and Saturday Night Fever in the 70s, he is the biggest star in the world, because people can identify with him in a way they may not be consciously aware of.

Then, in the early 80s, the industry decides to make him The Leading Man. They put him in films like Perfect and Urban Cowboy, and his career tanks. Nobody can connect to those characters, because it's not the right type for him to play. He does those talking baby movies for awhile, and then he explodes back to the top of the A list when he plays a junkie hitman in Pulp Fiction. He's back to being the Lovable Loser, and audiences go crazy for him, because that's the type he's meant to play.

You can do this with just about every actor if you look hard enough and spend enough time on it. It's all about Jungian Archetypes and Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces.

So why do I play evil characters? When I was a kid, I played the sensitive, awkward kid full of self doubt who really wanted you to like him*. When I was in my 20s, I kept getting auditions for those roles and never booking them, because it's just not the type I'm meant to play. When Kim Evey cast me as a douchey agent in Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, and Felicia wrote me into The Guild as douchey Fawkes, things started to turn around. I realized that I'd found my type, and I started looking for those roles.

It turns out that my type is the Villain You Love To Hate, so that's who I am in The Guild, Leverage, Eureka, and Big Bang Theory. I don't think it's a coincidence that, once I started playing these types of characters, my acting career began to come back to life, and I will be grateful for the rest of my life to Kim and Felicia for taking a chance on me.

I really don't know why this is my type, but whenever I try to figure it out, I start to feel like Lenny with the rabbit, and I really don't want to break something that's working out pretty well for me right now.

I do know this, though: the whole point of being an actor is to portray characters who are different from who you really are. The most important thing in the entire universe to me is kindness, so it's really fun to play characters who are antithetical to my personal ideals. Exactly why I seem to be so good at doing that, though? I'm not going behind that particular barn.

 

*Incidentally, that's pretty much who I've been in my real life since I can remember.

71 thoughts on “Answering a FAQ: “Why do you play so many evil characters lately?””

  1. I’ve read of many actors who “play against themselves” and critics and fans alike go nuts for it. My take on it is that in some dark recess of our mind playing against type is just that, a chance to “play” because it isn’t real. Your mind knows it isn’t you so it can let loose a bit without any emotional repercussions. Some of the nicest people play evil the best. Have fun with it, I mean, someone has to keep Sheldon on his toes.

  2. I think it was perfectly answered when I asked you at the Phoenix Comicon a few years back “How does it feel to know you’ve crushed my sweet, innocent, good, inner Wil Wheaton with awesome, evil, douchey, Wil Wheaton?” The answer was short, precise, and to the point: “Feels good, Moon Pie.”
    :)

  3. It’s interesting that you post this because I was just thinking the other day about the fact all of your characters lately have been the bad guys. And it made me a bit sad for a little while(because I’m a SUCKER for the “sensitive, awkward kid full of self doubt who really wanted you to like him” probably because I am/was similar, lol).
    Anyway, right after I thought all that I realized something profound. While you play the villains in your acting career, we get the great and FABULOUS Wil Wheaton in real life on Twitter, G+, and here of course. So all of a sudden I felt loads better. :)
    Keep doing what you’re doing, cause it’s all awesome!
    P.S. Unrelated to your blog, I am having a BLAST following your lovely wife! She cracks me up. I love her sense of humor! And she’s so genuine; she’s an absolute pleasure to follow. Don’t know why I felt compelled to put that in there, but you have a great wife and you both are awesome with each other. Thank you for all that you do!

  4. Well written, well considered, and well played! I actually think you are better as a douchebag!
    Its the beard you know–villians have more facial hair.

  5. How odd that I was recently wondering why you were playing douche bags.
    I never really thought about actors and their roll “types” but I see it clearly now. Thanks for explaining. I guess that’s why I have not been able to watch certain actors that I love in one movie but cannot in others. Kristen Stewart is DOOMED. *evil laugh*
    Oddly enough it can also be applied to online personae. Whenever I’m nice, open and sweet *gag*, I may as well be chatting to the wall. If I’m my usual dark, sarcastic, and misanthropic self, things are way different (in a bizarre but good way).

  6. Well, acting is rather advanced and exceedingly more skilled version of roleplaying. For me, roleplaying is a release, a way of acting out fantasies, playing someone who gets away with things I personally couldn’t and I would assume working as an actor is similar?

  7. I’ve always heard it said that playing the bad guy is fun. Look at Danny DeVito from TAXI and you wouldn’t know that the man is a total sweetheart. Same thing with John C. McGinley, (Doctor Cox from Scrubs). Just keep dishing up that very special brand of sarcastic douchey and we’ll be sure to keep lovin’ it.
    Non-sequtor, here’s something for your next Radio Free Burrito podcast…

  8. “to Kim and Felicia for taking a chance on me.”
    When I read this, I started hearing ABBA in my head. Just sayin’.
    Oh, and good on ya for finding your type and your career in one fell swoop.

  9. I am a huge fan of both the evil Wil Wheaton character and the nerdy, sensitive RL Wil Wheaton. One of my favorite Sheldon quotes will always be, “Damn you, Wil Wheaton!”
    But Chaos will always be my most favoritest of your roles. For sure.

  10. Yeah, I’d noticed that for a guy who’s family crest reads “Don’t be a dick”, most of your recent character work has been heavily in the dick camp. So “the whole point of being an actor is to portray characters who are different from who you really are” is an important thing to be aware of, both for yourself, and your fans.

  11. I firmly believe that you are so good at playing douchebags because you’ve spent your whole life watching them and learning what you don’t want to do with your life. I tend to play characters like that in D&D, but in real life I am the lovable quirky guy. I was even a “four popped-collars douche” for Halloween one year.

  12. I just saw Big Bang last night where you made Penny and Leonard break up! You bastard! I hate you so much! :). I have just started watching the show. I liked all your appearances. So far I have seen the one in the comic shop, the breakup, and the one where you cut in line for Indiana Jones. So Wheaton 2, Sheldon 1? I now must search and see if you are in any others.

  13. I don’t question why you play ‘evil’ characters. In most cases, they’ve turned out to be my favorites in their respective shows.
    Also, props for the “Of Mice and Men” reference!

  14. I have this theory about writing, that writing what you aren’t is more fun. It’s playing around in someone else’s psychology for a while. I imagine the same is true of acting.

  15. Keeping score on The Big Bang Theory, Evil Wil destroyed Sheldon at a game tournament, broke up Leonard and Penny to win a bowling tournament, broke character at his house party by giving Sheldon the action figure (which Evil Brent Spiner ruined), and posted Howard’s bachelor party to the web getting him in trouble with Bernadette. You also line jumped everybody for Indiana Jones. Seems like you’ve targeted everyone except Raj. Next season, maybe?

  16. Also true of NPH in many ways (Dr. Horrible being kind of a toss-up). He just seems to be having so much fun as Barney, on Glee, etc.
    Maybe we just like seeing RL nice guys get an excuse to cut loose–a vicarious thrill, sort of. ;-)

  17. It’s not that they’re evil or that they’re consciously choosing to do evil things, it’s that they believe they’re right in what they do and they’re just following that path.
    That’s Parrish. That’s Fawkes. That BBT’s Wheaton. When you believe you’re right, you don’t see yourself as evil at all. And that’s what makes such characters so interesting to watch.
    Have fun being seen as evil, sir. I hear it’s the best role to get.

  18. Yes. Bill Prady once told me, "The Villain is the Hero of his own story."
    When I understood that, all these characters came to life, and became people with their own points of view, rather than just foils for the good guys.

  19. I don’t think it is so much as Wil is “good at playing people you love to hate” as much as it is people like watching Wil playing people you love to hate. Let me try to explain. People know him as “the sensitive, awkward kid full of self doubt who really wanted you to like him” and most people know him in these kinds of roles. This could be that he is a good actor, or that he has been cast in a role that matches his personality. Now when that person plays a really good part 180 degrees from what he was know for doing before you realize that the person is actually a very good actor, and not just put in roles that were made for him. Either he was acting before, he is acting now, or he was acting both times. You believe the actor was awkward, sensitive, and full of doubt, and then again you believe the actor when he plays a stuck up, arrogant, self centered, self confident person you love to hate.
    That is was a good actor does. He makes you believe he *is* the character he is playing when you watch him, be it a wimpy self conscience nerd in one role, or an aloof, intelligent, self confident genius the next.

  20. I wonder how much of this is due to child actors playing similar roles to their own personalities well whereas with adults, it’s due to the art/skill of the actor?

  21. I’d say that in all likelihood it’s because there IS a part of those characters within you. Chaos and Fawkes aren’t simply moustache-twirling, one-dimensional villains; they’re the versions of you without the instinct to Not Be A Dick. They are your honest dark side unleashed. It’s why they’re believable, and why they’re so damn much fun. Sometimes you have to unleash The Dick Side, and it’s preferable to do so as a fiction.

  22. Because you can take that to the bank.
    I have certain skill set I am good at and maintain employment using those skills. It’s really not all that different. You find your niche. Maybe some celebrities become trapped in that niche, but so do everyday normal people. I couldn’t get a job as a pharmacist with experience as a lawyer. You know?

  23. This is the second time that something you said about your role in Stand By Me has brought a question to mind.
    How much do you think playing that role impacted your true personality and shaped your path for the rest of your life?
    Was it one of the those Significant Emotional Events that affects you deeper than you realize?
    Do you think it had the same impact on the other young actors you worked with?
    (You may have addressed this somewhere before and I just haven’t found it and it looks like I am asking something similar to others in this conversation).

  24. It’s also fun when sometimes the Hero is shown in a different light, and actually appears to be a complete dick. Take “Family of Blood”. That’s one of those rare times where you kind of really dislike The Doctor at the end, and you’re kind of meant to. Doctor Who shades of Superdickery.

  25. I’d say the roles you’ve been playing are more the Villain-You-Love-to-Hate-But-End-Up-Liking-a-Little-In-Spite-of-Yourself.
    I like Fawkes, as douchey as he is. I like Evil Wil Wheaton.
    Of course, that might just mean I’m a little douchey, m’self.

  26. Anyone that uses the word “antithetical” in a post is a writer first and an actor second.
    Like your acting ( a lot ).
    LOVE your writing.
    Keep writing Wil. Your acting is good but your writing is on another level.

  27. Makes me think of roleplaying. Most people have a ‘type’ when they roleplay that most of their characters tend to fall under to some extent, something they enjoy playing and play well — not a total pigeonhole, but a set of tendencies, we used to describe it as the “Played by [name]” flaw when we played World of Darkness.
    Mine tends to involve ‘Does not suffer fools gladly’, ‘direct approach’, and being amoral. Not evil, merely willing to do bad things for good ends, or at least for necessary ends.

  28. Wil, I don’t see your character “the Evil Wil Wheaton” on Big Bang Theory as being, well, evil. You are just the perfect foil for Sheldon, who, in his own right, is “the Evil Sheldon Cooper, super genius”

  29. One of my friends, after getting your autograph at Gen Con, said, “he’s so nice in real life, which is kind of weird since he always plays such douchey characters”. So when I saw this post and specifically your use of “douchey”, it made me smile.

  30. I think your turn on CSI was a testament to your acting skills. You weren’t the baddie, but we didn’t know that until the end. BTW, that episode is totally based on the true story of Stephanie Crowe. Her brother was accused of her murder (along with two of his buddies) and it ended up being a local crazy homeless guy.

  31. From everything I’ve ever heard or read, Vincent Price was the sweetest man in the whole wide world. He loved his children and he loved to spread the joy of his favorite pastime, art, through charity work and museums. But man, he was a great bad guy. So you’re in good company if you join the tradition of really great guys who play epic villains.

  32. But you ARE evil!
    You haven’t even responded to my nice little note tucked into the Savage Worlds: Darwin’s Worlds books hand delivered to you at GenCon by my minions. ;-)
    Seriously, dude. I totally understand. I can’t truly relate. But I totally understand.
    Still… kinda hoping…
    @EdgetoneStudios

  33. I’ll take a stab at this…
    It is your childhood fantasy to be the James Bond villain instead of James Bond. These roles bring out childlike joy in you and that makes the characters oh so entertaining for us.

  34. I think many have made the point so I’ll just pile on it: the juxtaposition between Real Wil and the characters.
    Another reason why good-guy-plays-evil-guy is such an attractive one is the desire to get back at the evil guys but not with pure evil. I’m mostly familiar with Fawkes and Evil Wil Wheaton and underlying in those characters is a true sense of humor about what they do and how they do it. I perceive their motivations as evil and self-serving but the motive of gaining anything, while present, is dominated, thwarted even, by a desire to poke holes in the opposing characters. The evil makes you snicker.
    Evil deflation of your opponent is a different evil than evil destruction.

  35. I read somewhere one actor state he loved being the heavy, because it let him channel the negative energy in RL (getting cut off in traffic, someone being an a$$ to them, etc) into their character. This gave them a great release mechanism, and their attitude at home and elsewhere was great ’cause they weren’t carrying this stuff around. Looks like you’ve found your niche.

  36. I think sometimes, it comes down to how much fun you’re having. Every time someone’s cast me as me I’m bored to tears, and I don’t know what to do with any of the lines because I’m wondering if I’m saying them like the character or like me. The whole point of acting, for me, is getting into someone else’s skin; why would I want to get into my OWN skin? It got to a point where, if someone wanted to cast me as me because they “knew I’d be great in the role,” I’d ask if I could make her British or Long Island or Southern, just so at least her voice was different.
    A playwriting teacher once gave me great advice that he heard from someone else: people tend to feel as though the world happens to them, that their friends and family are acting on them, and they’re only reacting, and that’s really boring. So if you’re writing an autobiographical play, and you’re a white man, make the character who’s you be a black woman. Otherwise the lead character really IS you, and they’ll sit there doing nothing while all the other characters act on them. Maybe it’s the same way with acting.

  37. Some make a good point.. “Evil” Wil is Sheldon’s foil, but Sheldon can’t exactly be painted with a “good” brush, although he is the protagonist.
    Will Wil put up with Sheldon’s crap? No. But few do.
    Will Wil tweak Sheldon over his crap? Of course, we all would.
    Kinda a bit of a grey area.

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