There are actors we just can’t separate from certain characters, either because they’ve played them for so long or simply because they completely knocked the role out of the park. Particularly in the cases of superhero films and large, expansive franchises, an actor can become forever tied to a character.
Sometimes an actor is able to distance themselves from this kind of persona and distinguish themselves outside of the role. The struggle of redefining yourself after such iconic roles may inspire meta-textual casting and performances, as seen with Michael Keaton in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). That film is a direct reference to Keaton’s prior work in two Batman movies. Then three years later, he rejoined the comic book world as the main baddie, the Vulture, in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Winged heroes and villains seem to plague the man.
In rare cases like Keaton’s, actors are actually able to break so fully with their definitive role that they make the transition from protagonist to antagonist. Some of these performances stand out above the rest when “good guy” actors really get to show off what they’re capable of. Joaquin Phoenix, who blew everyone away in Joker, actually played a heroic kid dressed as a young Superman back in the day in an episode of the CBS series Superboy.
Though not definitively known as a “good guy” actor, Phoenix belongs among this group due to how effectively he channeled his own natural intensity into the complicated mental state of Arthur Fleck. There are even rumblings about Phoenix getting an Oscar nomination for the performance. He was able to establish his own unique portrayal of the comic book world’s most recognizable villain, presenting a new side of himself audiences had never seen. For Phoenix’s first foray into the world of superhero films, we really couldn’t have asked for a better display.
Compare this to the now-iconic Joker performance from Heath Ledger — audiences were rocked due to the dramatic difference in the actor’s presence on screen from what they’d known. Forget him being unlike anything they’d seen before in a Joker role, this was absolutely outside the realm of anything the 10 Things I Hate About You star had ever done in his career. Back in 2006, the public was less than happy with Ledger’s casting for The Dark Knight for this exact reason.
How could he possibly be a convincing Clown Prince of Crime when he was most known for galloping across a high school stadium singing Frankie Valli? To compensate, Ledger poured an exorbitant amount of creative energy into the role and fully committed to understanding his character. Rumors of Ledger driving himself mad while preparing for The Dark Knight have always been so damaging because they downplay exactly how much work the actor put into giving us the most menacing and effective Joker of all.
One actor in particular who has made a habit of jumping around from hero to villain (and done a damn good job doing so) is Hugo Weaving. He is responsible for the “Mr. Anderson” line from 1999’s The Matrix becoming so bone-chillingly quotable to this day. His Agent Smith character is perhaps one of the greatest movie villains in history, with the actor perfectly executing the spookiness of corporate coldness along with ruthless computer program logic.
Just two years later, however, Weaving gave us the somewhat grumpy but honorable elf-dad Elrond in The Lord of Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. For many, his heart-wrenching expression in the sequel The Return of the King as he presents Arwen to Aragorn at the coronation is more familiar than his sneer as Agent Smith. But in 2011, he jumped right back into a bad guy role for Captain America: The First Avenger as Red Skull. His distinctive voice may be the key to both of his roles as villains, seeing as both required a good deal of monologuing.
Another Lord of the Rings legend who sold their soul to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (just kidding, Film Twitter) while moving from hero to villain is Cate Blanchett, for her roles as Galadriel in LOTR and Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Though both characters are complicated and have their light and dark moments (literally in the case of Galadriel) the actress’s intense energy was funneled effectively into both.
However, Blanchett in Thor: Ragnarok possesses a more humorous intensity, and the addition of dark humor in her deadly goddess character works amazingly. She was able to transform into one of the most fun-to-watch Marvel villains, and it was clear that the dynamite Blanchett enjoyed the role as well.
Making the leap from hero to villain can also be just what an actor needs career-wise, best seen in Michael B. Jordan’s Johnny Storm and Killmonger roles in Fantastic Four and Black Panther, respectively. The actor proved he was talented earlier in his career with The Wire and Fruitvale Station, and a role in a comic book film seemed to be the logical next step. However, that first foray into the superhero realm was a less than ideal intro. Thankfully, Creed happened to come out that same year, lessening some of the damage.
Black Panther presented Jordan with the opportunity to show off his abilities in the MCU. This time, however, he was portraying a sympathetic villain. The actor was positively magnetic as the film’s antagonist, convincing us that the fanatic Killmonger may be making some good points. No doubt wanting to do the film and character justice, Jordan made a tremendous effort in terms of channeling the rage and feelings of racial injustice felt by Killmonger. It’s this level of commitment to a performance that makes a character solid and effective onscreen. That’s also why audiences resonated with Black Panther’s villain so much.
There are a few special cases where an actor succeeds at making both hero and villain roles equally memorable, making you question whether you most associate them with heroism or villainy. Sir Ian McKellen stands out as the best example of this for his respective roles as Gandalf and Magneto in The Lord of the Rings and X-Men, though the latter is arguably considered an antihero, making the move somewhat easier.
The actor’s calm and commanding onscreen persona translates perfectly for both Galdalf’s power and Magento’s superiority complex, making him perfect for both characters. His expressive face and eyes are used most effectively in both roles as well, making him a fan-favorite in both franchises.
In a similar way, Samuel L. Jackson has been able to play hero and villain intermittently due to his own powerful persona. He went from good guy Mace Windu (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace) to evil mastermind Mr. Glass (Unbroken, Glass), and back to Marvel hero Nick Fury in more recent years. And let’s not forget Frozone from Pixar’s The Incredibles, or any of the many antiheroes peppered throughout his career.
A stellar combination of familiarity in voice and stature plus a natural ability to bring charisma to any role make Jackson so great at playing these different characters. However, there is definitely a similarity in how he approaches both good and bad guy roles. It’s most likely due to the actor being a character in his own right, meaning this energy works its way into his performances as well.
The way these actors are able to so effectively transition between different moral compasses is why we have so much love for them as performers. Those who haven’t been able to fully distance themselves from the characters again simply can’t because of their skills as actors. Compare those on this list to, say, Ben Affleck, who is unlikely to be best remembered for his efforts as either Daredevil or Batman.