Film Training in London

British Villainy in Hollywood

By Rory O'Donnell

Yesterday Dame Helen Mirren was reported to have said in Los Angeles “I think it’s rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British. We’re such an easy target that they can comfortably make the Brits the villains.”

The reasons for this state of affairs have been argued many times. Suggestions have ranged from cultural memories of the American Revolution to the confused inner working of Mel Gibson’s mind (don’t get me started on Braveheart and The Patriot!) However I think there are three basic reasons for this casting conundrum:

1)   American actors are overwhelming trained in ‘The Method’. The American Method style has progressed far from Stanislavski’s original concepts, which nearly all actors now subscribe to.  The American Method involves the finding of the character within yourself, using personal experience to create the performance. When combined with many actor’s personal insecurities and desire to be loved by the audience it makes it difficult for many actors to throw themselves into a villainous roles. They see the hatred of the audience aimed not only at the character, but at them personally.

The classically trained British approach to acting is far more open to the concept of ‘wearing’ a character. This allows the actors far more freedom to go ‘over the top’ and have fun in their villainy without seeking the approval and love of the audience.

99 Minute Film School 2)   To many Americans there are two English accents, upper class and Cockney. While the Cockney can occasionally be used for sympathetic downtrodden peasants, it’s the upper class accent which is prevalent amongst British characters in US films.

This accent seems to imply two things to the average Mid-West American audience, intellectuals and homosexuals, both things that much of that audience is fearful of and therefore gives an automatic signal of villainy without having to go into any exposition.

3)   When films are budgeted a large proportion is set aside for the ‘star’. This will be a name from a very small list of actors who are considered by the studio to have instant box-office appeal. They will be almost exclusively American.

So, what is left of the casting budget is very small in comparison. The main characters left to play will be the ‘girl’ and the ‘villain’. The pay disparity between men and women is still huge, so the ‘girl’ part will be within the budget, but the ‘villain’ part will likely be male and a large role….So they turn to the British (well really it’s Europe in general, but of course British actors will be easier to deal with linguistically.)

The fact is, British actors are extremely cheap compared to their American counterparts, and that includes big names and Oscar winners. Combine that with the villain being unlikely to make it to the sequel (with the commensurate increase in salary) and it makes perfect sense to find another Brit actor in each successive film.

Having covered all this I have actually to ask myself whether this oft-repeated truism is actually still the case, or is it an out-dated relic of memories of ‘Die Hard’ and the eighties.

I’ll discuss this in part 2, next time.

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About The Author

Rory O'Donnell

After gaining a Masters degree in Ancient and Medieval History and excavating the most northerly leper colony found in the British Isles Rory took the natural next step of training as an actor. Following a career which including being directed by Stephen Daldry in the West End and shooting aliens on the HMS Belfast he then began making short films and travelling the world until all his money ran out.

Rory first volunteered at the Raindance Film festival in 2000, was print traffic coordinator for the festival in 2008 & 2009. In 2009 he became course director. He also works occasionally as a casting director, with four features and many shorts to his credit.


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British Villainry