Playing the Bad Guy

A conversation on art and craft: two actors talk villainy

David Stahl
David Stahl (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

(With this article, the Chronicle Arts section inaugurates a new series featuring conversations between artists about craft. The idea is to provide readers with more of a window into what artists do by having them talk about how they do it -- the impulses they follow, the techniques they employ, the experiences they draw from -- and to do so not in response to questions fired by an uninvolved interviewer but through the course of a discussion with a peer, someone who shares an intimate sense of the technical challenges involved in creating art. We begin with two of our city's most accomplished actors discussing villainy onstage and how to play it. We hope to bring you one-on-one conversations between dancers, painters, directors, cartoonists, choreographers, classical musicians, designers, and comedians, as well as more dialogue between actors. Enjoy. -- Robert Faires)

David Stahl and I first met 11 years ago, when we played George and Emily, Thornton Wilder's Our Town ingénues, for Big State Productions in a version directed by Jim Fritzler. The show was a high point for both of us, in my case partly because of the pleasure of discovering and working with such a remarkable actor. Stahl has since distinguished himself in Austin theatre productions ranging from Molière to Shakespeare to Pinter to Sophocles, exhibiting a terrifying range that encompasses high classic drama, low modern comedy, and apparently everything in between.

As David points out in this conversation, given our ingénue-ous beginning it is ironic that he and I should have met to discuss acting villains. But as he is now appearing as the wicked Richard III for the Disciples of Melpomene, and I recently played the evil daughter Goneril in the Public Domain production of King Lear, it seemed a ripe topic to launch a series of artist-to-artist conversations. And we found that our mutual experiences with the work of Harold Pinter, including playing opposite each other in the Public Domain's 1999 production of Ashes to Ashes, offered some interesting perspectives on villainy in the modern world.

I came into the conversation with one question -- Why are some villains more fun to play than others? -- and left with a box of mixed insights. Villains may be cheerful agents of random destruction or sweating Nixonian paranoiacs, and I am curiously (perhaps alarmingly) drawn to the former. Playing a villain can be delightfully therapeutic for an actor. And villains are like us, David rightly insists; we are all villains, and villains love themselves as much as you or I.

David used the words "off-balance" or "out of balance" several times in talking about his villains, and that seems right. Energies out of balance in any direction create problems -- create villainy -- and the re-balancing act that follows is part of what makes good theatre.

Katherine Catmull: Is it fun playing villains?

David Stahl: Yes.

KC: I think it's really fun!

DS: Especially Richard, because the character is kind of a melodramatic villain.

KC: He's kind of Snidely Whiplash ...

DS: In that first soliloquy to the audience when the play opens, he lays out his plan: War is over, everyone's having a good time ... but me. Because I'm deformed, I don't look pretty, I'm ugly, nobody wants me.

KC: Are you playing him with a hunch or anything?

DS: There's no hump. [laughter] Even though it is referred to, it's more just this kind of misshapen ... just, he's off-balance.

KC: Is it fun? Because I just played Goneril, and I thought that was going to be fun, because I've enjoyed playing villains in the past. And it was a great experience, but it wasn't really fun in the jolly sense because against my will I got all wrapped up in the Tragedy of Goneril [laughing], this tragic life that she had, you know: She would have been the best king, and she's not going to get to be king, 'cause she's a girl. So instead, her power impulses have gotten all ... [makes the noise of gears grinding], and she's just mean to everybody around her. And maybe she would have gotten to be in charge of things -- she seemed well on her way to kicking everybody else out of her way -- but then she falls in love. With the wrong guy. She gives it all up for this loser jerk guy! And kills herself.

So it wasn't fun! Whereas villains I've played who don't care, who don't give a shit, who are just ready to go ahead and destroy other people, are more fun! Is that what Richard is like?

DS: Oh, absolutely. In that monologue, he lays out with the audience [nasty voice]: "I'm going to do this and this and this." And then he does them! Which is in direct contrast to a character like Hamlet, who struggles through the whole play as to whether he should do this or do that. This is the opposite of that. He tells you what he's going to do, and then he does it. And he talks directly to the audience. That's another fun thing -- and Richard finds it fun!

KC: Well, it's fun to have an impulse and then act on it!

DS: Then once he gets to be king, of course everything changes, it becomes like Macbeth in a way: the total paranoia. It was fun getting there, but once he's there, he's scared to death of "I still haven't killed this person," and "I haven't killed the kids yet -- and until I kill them I'm not going to be done." Then he just spirals down into a state of mind where all of that fun is gone.

He has a dream toward the end. He's about to go into battle with Richmond, and the night before, he has this dream where these ghosts of all the people he's killed tell him: You're gonna die, you're gonna die, you're gonna die!

KC: That's great!

DS: I know! And of course he wakes up out of this nightmare, and he actually has a conscience. In fact [Queen] Margaret says that to him, that's her curse to him: "The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul."

KC: Ah!

DS: It's this one little moment in the middle of Act One, where she just ... [makes knife-twisting sound]. And what she says comes true. She's like Cassandra, in that she's telling the truth to all of them. They won't listen, and everything she says comes true during the course of the play.

KC: I love her making the worm of conscience be her curse to Richard, because having a conscience is what makes playing a villain less fun. When your villain has a conscience, that's what sucks the fun out of playing it. And I guess that sucks the fun out of the villain, too. I mean, if you're just a complete sociopath, you can ...

DS: Right! But Shakespeare provides Richard with little places, tiny places within the script, where that worm of conscience is beginning to gnaw at him. And then he pushes it down.

Katherine Catmull
Katherine Catmull (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

KC: Would you say your character in [Pinter's] Ashes to Ashes was a villain?

DS: I think you could say he represented something villainous.

KC: I started thinking: "Are there characters in Pinter who are not villains?" My character in A Kind of Alaska wasn't a villain, but Pinter characters do tend to ... You don't have many heroes, even if there aren't that many clear villains.

DS: Right. I think in Ashes to Ashes, that's true.

KC: I don't think my character [Rebecca] was a hero. I think she was kind of a villain too, just in a different way.

DS: Mmm-hmm. And I think the same thing of [my character] Devlin. He seemed a little scary, especially the way it was staged -- her vulnerability as opposed to his control.

But in real life, who is really a villain? You could make the argument that our entire nation, our entire culture, is villainous by us using air conditioning and driving our cars around the block and our consumption of everything, our consumption of other countries. All of this is thoughtless villainy to the rest of the world, and we are oblivious to it. We just expect it to be there. It's that way, don't you think, with Pinter villains -- or Pinter people? It's not just one or the other, there's good and bad.

KC: Yes. Betrayal is a really great example of that, where each of those characters is really awful, but not a villain.

DS: I think in Ashes to Ashes, at least for me, Devlin being who he was, and appearing to be villainous, certainly did not understand. I think part of the power that Rebecca had over him was that she confused him; she knocked him off-balance. And he kept trying to control and figure this out, and it's got to be logical and clear-cut; and she presented this ... [makes a gesture of blowing wisp into the air, shrug], you know? Which blew him out. He never understood what was going on with her ...

KC: ... and he couldn't control it. I think control is a really big word for villains in general, but anyway for Devlin. Ruth, in The Homecoming is my favorite part I've ever played -- I'm sure I've said this to you before because I say it to everybody, but it really was so much fun, and it was because of what you were saying before. She has an impulse, and she follows it. She's like the opposite of Hamlet: "Oh, should I do that, would that be right? What about my children at home? I wonder what my husband would think?" -- none of that. If she has an impulse, she completely follows it.

Another villain you played, which is one of my favorite things you've ever done, is Tartuffe.

DS: [laughs]

KC: I loved Tartuffe!

DS: But, see, that one's just a plain, fun, romp villain. You know: "Here I am, I'm just this big giant hypocrite!" And that was so much fun! My connection with the church is so strong, it was so easy to read that character; I've seen people like this, you see them all the time. Certainly that's why the interpretations of Tartuffe as a televangelist are now so obvious. The way he just dupes all those people. And it's fun!

KC: What I loved about Tartuffe the way you played him is that he was actually really adorable. I mean he's such a horrible person but he was so ... he was so happy with what he was doing. He had a real childlike quality. So does he have to pay in the end in any serious way?

DS: Yeah, he gets thrown in jail.

KC: But do we have to see him all humiliated and sad, or does it look like at the end that he still has a spark of life?

DS: No, he gets carted off to prison.

KC: [disappointed] Oh ...

DS: [laughs] I think! I mean, I'm thinking that's what happens.

KC: There ought to be more plays where the villain doesn't have to pay at the end! Which is another great thing about The Homecoming. Ruth is happy at the end; she doesn't have to pay like Richard does.

DS: I guess you could say there's a payback, absolutely.

KC: Well, he has bad dreams ...

DS: Yeah, but he overcomes it again. Catesby comes in saying, "Come on, let's go." And Richard is all freaked out: "Oh my god, I'm so scared." And they're like, "Come on, buck up, let's go." And he does. "What do I have to fear? [growling] Let's go! Come on!" And he dies in that state.

KC: Oh, that's nice!

DS: I'm fighting back. It's not like "Oh, poor pitiful me! Kill me!"

Playing the Bad Guy
Photo By Bret Brookshire

KC: No, that's good. [laughing] It's weird. I can't believe I'm all, "I'm glad Richard makes it through his dark night of the soul and comes back to his old strong self!" And I am glad.

Do you not get cast as villains very often? I don't think I do, which is kind of annoying when I start thinking about it.

DS: In grad school, at UT, I played Pentheus in The Bacchae.

KC: Pentheus is interesting because he's not exactly a villain. But he is the guy that you're like, "You're goin' down, pal."

DS: Everybody in the cast, except for Pentheus, was barefoot, and their clothing was all falling off, real drape-y. I was in these hard shoes, and the suit I was wearing was oversized -- it was like I couldn't fit the suit, I was always struggling with my suit ...

KC: Aw, that's cute!

DS: ... I just couldn't get it right. And he comes out and he's preaching to the audience: "Here's this new cult, and our women are getting caught up in this thing. You all agree, don't you, that this is not good?" And then Dionysus shows up and he is this gorgeous blond young man. And when Pentheus has him captive -- ah, the homoeroticism! It's like Pentheus' closeted latent homosexuality is ... [sucks in breath tensely]. That's what draws him to the woods, in disguise, to see what they're doing. Dionysus helps him to disguise himself [as a woman] -- and they're trapping [Pentheus], they're gonna kill him -- and [the disguise] was this white linen sundress. [laughing] It was beautiful.

KC: So I guess that Pentheus and Dionysus are both villains, really. You're making me think that maybe the villains that are fun to play are the ones who are like agents of chaos -- just causing destruction and following their impulses, being Dionysian. And the ones that are less fun to play are these control freaks like Pentheus and Devlin.

DS: Yeah.

KC: And Richard goes from one to the other, once he becomes king ... Does he?

DS: Yes. Absolutely. But it is still fun to do that, though, you know. Devlin was still fun!

KC: Well, they're all fun ... maybe it's just me ... [laughing] [Austin American-Statesman arts writer] Michael Barnes interviewed me one time, and I said, "I like playing villains. I like playing roles that are the opposite of me: really bitchy, amoral, selfish people." And all my friends made fun of me: "Awww, the Opposite of Kathy: bitchy, amoral ..." [laughter] But it's true, not that I think I'm not selfish and bitchy, because I am, but because, you know, I fight that in myself all the time. So it's just nice to ... let it out.

DS: Right. Absolutely. It's so therapeutic.

KC: Yeah, it is!

DS: It really is. [laughter]

KC: So: All acting is fun. And playing a control freak like Goneril -- Goneril is a good example of a control freak, who is full or rage, but [snarling] got it under control, and getting control of everybody else, too -- I mean it's obviously fun, but it's a special kind of fun for me to play someone who's not a control freak, who's just going in and destroying everybody else's little plans: smash smash smash!

DS: [I was thinking of] Creon, that I played in Antigone, with Shawn Sides. This was in 1990, West Bank Theatre Company. Bob Ball, the director, first told me his vision of the production was hinting at the Ceausescu regime because that had just happened, and we were discovering how horrible, how evil he was. I was like, okay: Creon's bad. Antigone goo-o-od, Creon ba-a-ad. Then I was reading, and I was going, "Bob: Creon's not a bad guy here."

KC: Yeah, he's not!

DS: He's not! He's completely reasonable. He's doing what he thinks is best. He appeals to the people -- just like Pentheus does in The Bacchae -- he appeals directly to the audience as the citizens. I said, "I think this is more like George Bush" -- because Bush was president at that time -- "These speeches sound like George Bush." He makes it sounds very reasonable: "We've got to go over to the Persian Gulf, we've got to do this, that, and the other." And you kind of go: "... Okay."

KC: And Antigone comes off as one of these Earth First! tree people ...

DS: Absolutely! The interesting thing about that play is that they're both right, and that's what rips everybody apart. You've got these directly conflicting, equally correct viewpoints. I loved doing that play.

I just think this [conversation about playing villains] is so ironic, because the first time we worked together ...

KC: [laughing] Oh, I know!

DS: ... we played George and Emily [in Our Town]! Which, I have to be honest with you, and I am not ashamed to say this, was the ultimate experience I've ever had onstage in my life.

KC: It was for me, too, and it's still my peak. George and Emily ... That's why we don't ever get cast as villains: We look like George and Emily! But we're old now!

Hmm, so we have deconstructed villainy. You can have either kind of villainy, the one that's too Pentheus/Devlin control freak, or the kind that's Ruth, or like Richard early on, just Dionysian chaos. And it's just being out of balance on either side -- like you're playing Richard off-balance. That's what he is, he's off-balance.

DS: A teacher, my mentor who is now deceased, Molly Risso, she was a Shakespearean actress for years at Oregon Shakespeare, Stratford in Canada, Colorado -- oh, she was wonderful, knew everything. She would say: I don't care who your character is, what they are -- when you're playing them, you are always on their side. They love themselves, just like you do yourself. end story

Richard III runs through August 25 at the Vortex. Call 454-TIXS for information.

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David Stahl, Katherine Catmull, Thornton Wilder, Our Town, Big State Productions, Jim Fritzler, Richard III, Disciples of Melpomene, The Public Domain, King Lear, Harold Pinter, Ashes to Ashes, Antigone, Shawn Sides, West Bank Theatre Company, Bob Ball, Michael Barnes, Au

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