What was it like playing some of film's most notorious (and, dare we say, beloved) bad guys?
By Drew Weisholtz
Has being bad ever been so good?
A good movie needs a good story, a good director and most definitely a good villain — you know, a character whose main goal is to impede the protagonist. But not just anyone can pull it off.
From screwball comedies to tear-jerking dramas to violent sci-fi flicks, the 1980s and 1990s provided moviegoers with some of the most memorable goons in cinematic history, characters who transcended the art and entered the zeitgeist, where they still reside decades later.
So, how did they do it? TODAY spoke with a wide range of actors who’ve portrayed villains in all sorts of films from those two decades to find out what it was like being a bad guy, what the key is to pulling off playing one, how the roles affected their careers and how the movies represented a sign of the times.
Robert Prescott has the distinction of playing the foil to a pair of heavyweights as they ascended in Hollywood. In 1984’s “Bachelor Party,” a raunchy comedy about a stag bash that goes out of control, he starred as the smarmy Cole, who’s determined to ruin the party in an attempt to win back his engaged ex-girlfriend, Debbie (Tawny Kitaen), before she marries the less refined Rick (Tom Hanks).
A year later, Prescott starred as nebbishy Kent, a brilliant college student often at odds with Val Kilmer’s slacker Chris Knight, in the comedy “Real Genius.” The film is remembered for its witty dialogue, as well as the ending, which featured a house bursting at the seams with popcorn. Prescott was delightful as brown-nosing, braces-wearing Kent, who sucks up to the film’s central villain (William Atherton).
While both films were comedies, Prescott said he portrayed two different kinds of villains.
“I’m kind of proud of the ‘Real Genius’ one,” he said. “‘Cause I think that character was a little more nuanced or whatever. I really thought ‘Bachelor Party’ was very, very, very derivative of ‘Animal House.’ I think ‘Animal House’ was a great, great f------ movie. ... ‘Animal House’ led the way for a slew of other movies about a wacky group of misfits that tried to be a variation on what 'Animal House' was.”
Prescott’s legacy as a bad guy has been cemented as the years have gone by. He remembers when a friend called him in the mid-2000s to say he was featured in a GQ article about the biggest d---- in Hollywood and he ran to a newsstand to see for himself.
“On the one hand, it felt like, ‘Oh, man, I’m going to be remembered as one of the biggest d---- in Hollywood in the ‘80s. How sad,’” he said.
However, Prescott quickly determined being a bad guy is a badge of honor, especially when he discovered who was considered to be a bigger jerk.
“But when I looked at the article, I was like, ‘Who’s ahead of me? Who’s a bigger d--- than me?’ And then it was (William Zabka from ‘The Karate Kid’) was one of them. I thought, ‘Yeah, well, he was a pretty big d---, maybe he’s bigger than me.’ It’s funny, on the one hand you’re obviously a little bit embarrassed, but on the other hand I was also a little competitive about it.”
Prescott believes villains are different today than they were in the ‘80s.
“You see a little more outrageous performances that test the limits and sometimes when it works it’s really good,” he said. “I felt like, in the ‘80s, too many of those movies were just, I’ve used the word derivative, but, just hitting certain points, stereotype.”
All these years later, Prescott said he is approached by people about the roles and the films.
“I’m amused by it,” he said. “There’s a lot of distance between now and then, so I don’t really identify with that anymore and I’m not really, I’m appreciative. If somebody really liked the movie and let me know, I feel fine about that.”
On how being a villain changed the trajectory of his career: “I had an acting teacher, Fred Cameron, who said, ‘Don’t ever try to figure out a career. You’re just gonna sprain a muscle.’ I wasn’t completely typecast by it, but I think it was a good lesson to me. I was a very gung-ho actor, so if they told me to be a villain, I’d go in full-bore.”
On how he views actors who have been the antagonist in movies: “I’ll tell you one thing about playing a villain, is you look at other performances of guys who have to do it and it’s given me a level of appreciation for other performances like that of their work, of those actors. When I see somebody really just allowed themselves to be a total a------, I’m always impressed with that.”
On being typecast because of “Real Genius” and “Bachelor Party”: “I played variations of that character after that on some movie of the week or guest spot on a TV show or a pilot. Typecasting is a real thing. It does happen. So, it takes some real effort to not allow that to happen. But it did happen to some degree.”
On how he views his roles in "Real Genius" and "Bachelor Party" now: “When you see a movie you were in, it’s kind of like leafing through a yearbook. You remember certain days and what that was like, that scene, what we were doing that day. It’s kind of like that. You tend to be critical of your performances. At this point, with those movies, I totally let myself off the hook, in terms of any kind of criticism about it. And the fact that I’m a villain, I see it more like as, ‘Did I deliver what was necessary for the movie?’ Because, as a villain, sometimes, you’re not the lead character, but you’re there to keep the story driving forward. I’m not bothered by the fact that I’m a villain at all.”
Ted McGinley has enjoyed stints on the small screen on “Married...with Children” and “Hope & Faith,” but in 1984, as his time on “Happy Days” drew to a close, “Revenge of the Nerds” came out. The film chronicled the attempts of geeks — OK, nerds — who formed the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity at fictional Adams College to fight back against the jocks, led by star quarterback and Alpha Beta fraternity big shot Stan Gable (McGinley), who soullessly torture them.
The comedy draws a firm line between the haves and have-nots, and Gable is particularly cruel in his disdain for the nerds, often dispatching girlfriend Betty Childs and teammate/fraternity brother Ogre to remind them of their low standing in the pecking order.
McGinley said the jocks and nerds didn’t exactly hit it off off-camera at first, either.
“We had true animosity between the two groups for about two weeks until we started doing all night shoots,” he said. “And then we all sort of came together. But it was sort of like an acting exercise where they were really low on my list. I didn't like the nerds at all, initially.”
McGinley said Stan and Jefferson D'Arcy on “Married...with Children” are the roles people recognize him most for, but he holds a special place in his heart for Stan.
“I'm super proud of both of those, but probably most proud of Stan Gable. I would say he was my most favorite character,” he said.
McGinley said the movie was a big deal for him.
“But this particular guy, I think, definitely helped me get in a few doors after that, for sure. And kept me working for at least 10 years after that, I think,” he said.
“I've always said if you're not going to get the girl, you want to be the bad guy. And in my case, I got the girl and got to be the bad guy until the very end. So that was OK. Like, that was a great gig. It did give me, as a newcomer, it did give me a little juice, which was nice. Not saying I wouldn't have liked a little more.”
McGinley said he hadn’t watched the movie in its entirety since it came out, but that changed in 2019 while on a golfing trip with some friends. While the film may have been released decades ago, McGinley still gets worked up when thinking about how Stan ended up getting what he deserved.
“I was furious at the end (at) what (Robert) Carradine’s character had done to me, and he and Betty had really worked me over,” he said. “I was still, literally, my blood was boiling, watching it again. And I loved it. I absolutely laughed my ass off.”
The comedy was very raunchy, and McGinley doesn’t hesitate in saying a film like “Revenge of the Nerds” could not be made today.
“I think it's a fun time capsule piece,” he said. “And I think in a way, you know, they probably won't ever make a movie like that again because of our sensibilities today.”
“Revenge of the Nerds” may just be a movie, but McGinley said the rivalry between the Tri-Lambs and the Alphas spilled over into real life.
“I've only done, like, two autograph signings, convention things. And I went into one and I think was in Providence, Rhode Island. I walked in and all the nerds were there together,” he said.
“They go to these things as a group, and they sign autographs. And I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding me? Why didn't you call me?’ I couldn't believe it. And they said, ‘Yeah, we go around and it works better. We're all as a group, we can get more people.’ So anyway, I had my own separate group, but I was incensed that they didn't invite me,” he said while laughing.
McGinley would also jump at the chance to play Stan again, too.
“Oh, I definitely would,” he said.
On when he knew his character would remain part of pop culture: “I remember when I’d just be gone for a run and a carload of kids, like, teenagers, would drive up and yell, ‘Hey, Stan!’ And this was, like, 10 years after the movie. And so there was a whole new group of kids that were seeing the movie for the first time. And they were connecting to it. And I realized then that, oh, this wasn't just for that group of people. This one's gonna keep going.”
On whether he loves Stan Gable: “I do, because it's fun. I love being the bad guy. If I had a choice any day, it would be to play the prick. ... It's funny, I grew up sort of a kind of a short, fat kid and, and it's a great way to get a lot of that sort of pain and aggression out of you. It’s a great way to work through stuff and you get a license to just go in and let it rip. And I think that's really healthy and fun. I do enjoy. You know, a lot of my buddies would say, you know, you make a great prick.”
On what Stan would be doing now: “I think for a while Stan probably got into some investment banking and did pretty well. But a lot of it was probably a little dirty money, a lot of inside trading kind of stuff, and then got a nice, big fishing boat and lived up in, like, Jupiter, Florida. And then likes to go to yoga classes, and just sort of sit in the back and watch. I think he really is the guy who likes to go watch high school football and complain about the coach. You know, he's that guy.”
On what makes a movie villain so memorable: “I would say, the key would be, you create a character that is identifiable to everyone who's watching, like, immediately, they recognize that I'm that guy that they all have already experienced in their lives. And you immediately fit into, ‘Oh, he's that guy.’ And I think the greatest ones are the ones that have sort of, where often you like them because they’re so horrible. And often there’s a charm that goes along with it so that you get brought into him a little bit and almost like him, except that he's horrific. You're creating a character that everybody identifies with, that they've all come across in their life at some point. And they either love to hate you, or they love watching you hate everybody.”
On what “Revenge of the Nerds” means to him: “I feel incredibly blessed and lucky to have been fortunate enough to have a chance to be in it, and probably when I didn't deserve to be, and so that was really a real break for me. And, you know, as I get older, and I realized, you meet so many actors that are wonderful and haven't had a chance or can't get that break. And so, I've become very appreciative of how fortunate I was. And it's rare. There's a lot of TV shows and things that I've done where you just sort of move on and you barely think about it ever again. And this happens to be one that people just keep bringing it up constantly. There's something that resonated with them. And I mean, I even love Stan Gable. The name Stan Gable to me is just, it's classic. It's just a great character name. And I just thought it was, like, the most perfect name for a character that I’ve played.”
It’s rare to be remembered as a bad guy in one or two films, but three? William Atherton checks that box. As EPA inspector Walter Peck in 1984’s “Ghostbusters,” he is determined to shut down the title characters’ operation that has swept New York City, to devastating results. As Professor Jerry Hathaway in 1985's “Real Genius,” he enlists a team of gifted students to help build a laser to use as a weapon without them realizing it. In 1988’s “Die Hard,” perhaps one of the most important movies of the decade, he’s slimy TV reporter Richard Thornburg, who will do anything to get a story as Nakatomi Plaza is held hostage by the film’s central antagonist, Hans Gruber, played by the late Alan Rickman in a spellbinding performance. Atherton reprised the role in the sequel.
A steady presence as a guy you love to hate in ‘80s movies, Atherton doesn’t necessarily believe those roles changed the course of his career.
“No, they just kind of kept it going. I mean, because they were so big … you know, it isn't about whether somebody could like me personally, or as an actor, or dislike me personally, but you've been on the big train. And so you get the sheen from the train, if that makes sense,” he said. “So you keep going on because you were lucky enough to be in those movies.”
In each of the films, Atherton plays someone condescending, which is only one key to being a good bad guy.
“People like villains that are funny, that are smart,” he said. “And the roles were written smart. And the scenario was smart. And so just as an actor (it) gave you an edge.”
“Ghostbusters” and “Die Hard” turned out be monster hits. Atherton had a sense that he had taken parts that people would still talk about years later.
“I did have a feeling of those, particularly with ‘Ghostbusters,’ in the beginning and with ‘Die Hard’ because they were enormous movies,” he said.
Atherton played three very great characters in Thornburg, Peck and Hathaway. Which is the worst, in his opinion?
“Well, I never really approached that as the worst kind of person because in comedy a lot, or in anything, you don't play the bad,” he said. “People have certain points of view about reality and that's what they do.”
Having risen through the ranks as a leading man, he played bad guys in a trio of successful movies, but Atherton was never concerned about being pigeonholed as an actor.
“No, I don't think so. No, I think in a way, probably. But I was kind of grateful for that after a while, because it's kind of elongated a career,” he said.
“I was able to very luckily, kind of, you know, transmogrify myself and move on and do all kinds of different roles,” he added. “And it gave me a certain kind of freedom.”
On Alan Rickman’s performance in “Die Hard”: “He was fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. I thought it was fabulous. Just wonderful. And, again, it was wonderful because the character is smart. It's written smart and played smart. You know, nobody's wringing their hands. This is a person who has an agenda who can do things and has a very powerful intellect and the powerful impetus to do that. It was also great because of (producer) Joel Silver because he hadn't really been in movies yet. And Joel saw him in London on the stage. And so, this was kind of like his introduction into American film. And Joel was behind that. And he and Joel had great taste and great smarts and picking somebody like Rickman, who was great. I thought he was terrific.”
On whether he thinks Alan Rickman set the gold standard for villains: “Yeah, I do, but also not only because of his ability as an actor, but also because of the writing, because of the story, because of the direction. All of those things have to be together. You're not being the bad guy in a vacuum. You are given things to show that. He was given things to show that and he was talented and smart enough to take advantage of it. ... I mean, everything in that movie is kind of like a gold standard for that kind of movie. In the last 30 years, if there's a good thriller, or if there's a good adventure thing, well, it's ‘Die Hard’ here or it's ‘Die Hard’ there, something like that. That was the paradigm to begin with.”
On how to approach playing a villain: “You have to put a certain kind of actor, Hollywood vanity aside. You really have to look at things in terms of the muse, what your purpose is, and what your form is in that movie and that story, and then you have to go with it.”
The prison movie “The Shawshank Redemption” has enjoyed a slow burn over the years. Not initially a box office success, the 1994 film, adapted from a Stephen King short story and directed by Frank Darabont, garnered positive word of mouth while going on to earn seven Oscar nominations and routinely showing up on top 100 movie lists. Clancy Brown’s depiction of the brutal Captain Byron Hadley was one of the keys to the film’s success. Teamed up with Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), they repeatedly put Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne in his place, all while he continues to remain hopeful. Hadley terrorizes the prisoners, while the warden remains unchecked in his power.
Captain Hadley is ruthless — so ruthless, in fact, Brown limited his research for the part when it came to talking to prison guards.
“The technical advisor came to me and he said, ‘You know, all the guards would love to talk to you about what they do and they would love to talk to you, do a lot of research’ and I looked at him and said, ‘I play such a bad guy, I don't want anyone to say that I based it on anybody that actually does this job,’” he said.
He also said some of his inspiration for the character came from an unexpected source.
“I found a picture from the extras' casting office of this guy that just was a local guy,” he said. “I think he might have been an extra, might not have been, but it was just the meanest-looking guy I think I've ever seen. I put it up in my dressing room. And I thought that's Captain Hadley’s dad right there. He just looked like a miserable, old, curmudgeonly man who would die of stomach cancer. That's sort of what I thought Captain Hadley should be.”
Hadley was an excellent No. 2 man in the movie, working with the strict Warden Norton, played by Broadway veteran Bob Gunton.
“I think Bob's terrific in it as well,” Brown said. “He was chilling, he was just so still, which you wouldn't expect from a Broadway guy. But he was very clear. He was very still. I think he understood that role right from the get-go.”
Brown, who has since gone on to voice Mr. Krabs in “SpongeBob SquarePants,” said the film most likely opened doors for him.
“Those are doors that aren’t open up to me and I don't put my ear up to listen to those conversations, so, yeah, probably. There was that in there,” he said. “I think there was one role specifically that I didn't do because they wanted Captain Hadley from ‘Shawshank.’ But, you know, that's typical. That happens all the time. That happens all the time. The last thing you’re in is the only thing that everybody can think that you did.”
It’s hard to picture Brown not playing Hadley, but he said he was offered the opportunity to audition for Hadley or the treacherous inmate Bogs. The choice was clear to him.
“I liked that Hadley didn't really care if somebody was guilty or innocent,” he said. “If he thought they deserved a beating, they were going to get one, so he was the more attractive to me for some reason.”
On what makes a movie villain so memorable: “Well, it has to be well written. Movie villains or villains in any medium are only effective if they're the worthy foil of our hero. And in America, that means that the villain usually has some kind of action, has some kind of motivating agenda that has to be stopped. The heroes are always agents of arrest. They have to stop something. They have to keep the status quo in place, so they have to stop the bad guys from executing his plans because that will upset the status quo. So I've always thought that was a really interesting thing, that heroes are basically people that want to defend life as it is and villains are usually people that are motivated to change it somehow. So you have to have that.”
On ‘80s movie villains: “There was a horrible thing that happened in the ‘80s. And it was kind of hard to overcome for the longest time and I blame my friend Andy Robinson for it, who was the bad guy in ‘Dirty Harry.’ There was this tendency to make the villains sort of agents of chaos. They're just kind of crazy. They're just kind of not normal. They're mentally ill. They're just deviant somehow. And so they have to be eliminated. There's some kind of weird, malevolent virus that’s loose on society. And so there was no explanation given in a lot of scripts, they were just saying he's crazy. He's evil. He's crazy. He's damaged, he's infected. And so then Sly Stallone could just, like, go in and kill all sorts of people in black hats or of a different race or whatever it was. It was really a horrible time I think for heroes and villains back in the ‘80s.”
On Hadley not necessarily being a villain: “Did Hadley believe he was evil? Now, hell, no, but there's something that was just kind of predatory about him to begin with. And he found himself with an enabler with Warden Norton, and he found himself in a uniform. And so he could go ahead and do whatever he wanted. It was his little kingdom there.”
Perhaps one of the underappreciated aspects of being a villain in any movie is the fact these silver screen heels are helped by other bad guys. Nowhere is that more apparent than in “The Karate Kid,” which featured the (literal) one-two punch of Martin Kove as diabolical Sensei Kreese and William Zabka as his prized student, Johnny Lawrence.
The characters are not developed in the 1984 film, but they have been given a rich backstory in the Netflix spinoff “Cobra Kai,” which helps explain why they are the way they are — perhaps the only time supporting characters have grown more than three decades after audiences first met them.
“He was written so well, but he was written one-dimensionally,” Kove said of Kreese in the original film. “The character I play now, as Sensei Kreese, the writers of the series have written him differently.”
Kove is quick to point out that the writing is essential when creating a bad guy that stands the test of time.
“I think what makes any character really memorable is the material, is the script," he said. "In ‘Karate Kid,’ without Robert Kamen’s talent of writing words like ‘wax on, wax off,’ ‘no mercy,’ ‘sweep the leg,’ ‘mercy is for the weak,’ if he didn’t write these words, then the talent couldn't really, you could save them, but you couldn't really be memorable.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with Kove, either: His son, Jesse, played a bad guy in the third season of “Cobra Kai,” portraying a jock who bullies Kreese as a teenager. Kove is beloved for playing Kreese, but he doesn’t necessarily believe he's as much of a louse as people may think.
“I don't look at him as a villain. I never did. I didn't look at him as a villain back in ’83 when we made the movie. He was always just a misunderstood character, who had a great deal of integrity for Cobra Kai. And if it was ever violated, then he would strike back,” he said.
Kove, who said fans have always respected Kreese, also said it was important to keep the Cobra Kai members away from Daniel (played by Ralph Macchio) during the movie.
“We were not friends on the set,” he said. “‘Hello.’ ‘Goodbye.’ ‘Good morning.’ ‘Good afternoon.’ (Director) John Avildsen did not want us to mingle, you know, be pals, like maybe today we would on the set of ‘Cobra Kai.’”
In addition to “The Karate Kid,” Zabka played memorable bad guys in ‘80s favorites “Back to School” and “Just One of the Guys,” cementing his status as a bankable scoundrel. Kove praised his work in those films, but said Zabka ultimately made his mark as Johnny.
“I think the best work is in ‘The Karate Kid’ movies. I really do,” Kove said.
On wanting to distance himself from Kreese to show he can do other things: “Well, I felt that, but I’ve always mixed it up. I’ve always mixed it up, trying to do different things. … And you go off, you do those things, you constantly pepper your career with other things that are exciting. I went off and did ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ with Quentin (Tarantino). … So, you pepper your career with different things so that you don't get pushed in that slot of only doing action movies, only doing tough guys.”
On working with William Zabka: "I love playing scenes with Johnny because there's such a history with William Zabka and I that whenever we play a scene together, everybody sees the history, they see the breaking of the trophy, they see me telling him ‘no mercy’ and ‘sweep the leg,’ ‘Do you have a problem with that, Mr. Lawrence?’ All those lines, everybody knows. And they see all those lines and that form of communication with me and Johnny whenever we have a scene together in ‘Cobra Kai.’ So it's all in the eyes of the beholder, whether he's a villain or not."
On Zabka’s other villainous roles from the ‘80s: "You got to remember that none of those movies had the emotional impact of ‘The Karate Kid’ on everybody and when everybody feels that way, you feel the metaphysical energy of the work. ... What rings true, honestly, is I believe when you are reciting incredibly valid material, dialogue, that project rings true for you the actor as well as the audience, much more than just a movie that's good because ‘Karate Kid’ not only is great, but it's a classic."
On how to portray an effective villain: "This kind of subtlety, this kind of misdirection and thrusting, it's a pseudo form of love and affection, (it) is, to me, the most exciting thing to play as a bad guy, you know. You just make it so like, ‘I'm your pal, I'm the fullback who’s gonna run with the ball and just give it to me anytime and I'll get 10 yards for you. I'll create the first down.’ And what you're really doing is you're setting him up for a loss in your own way through the confines of the script and you're going to trip, you're going to create a foul, you’re going to do some holding, you're going to do something that's going to create a problem for our quarterback, and he doesn't even know it."
Kurtwood Smith is an unlikely bad guy. Perhaps best known as curmudgeonly dad Red Forman on “That ‘70s Show,” he made his way around doing guest spots on TV shows in the early ‘80s before hitting the jackpot in 1987 as sadistic gang leader Clarence Boddicker in “RoboCop.” Two years later, he turned in another memorable performance in the Oscar-winning “Dead Poets Society,” portraying the authoritarian Mr. Perry, whose insistence on dictating his son’s life leads to tragic consequences.
After Smith burst onto the scene in “RoboCop” and “Dead Poets Society,” it may have been easy to label him as a go-to bad guy, but that was not something that appealed to him.
“I was less concerned about being typecast as a bad guy than I was concerned about being typecast as a type of bad guy,” Smith said. “I didn't want to be the crazy psychotic street thug, middle-aged street thug. And I didn't want to just be mean Mr. Perry, either. I was careful, you know, for somebody who had been kind of banging around doing guest-star stuff on television.
“Doing those two films that close together, and having them both be the success that they were at the time certainly, that allowed me to be seen. I was seen as an actor first, you know? And then bad guys second, I think, and then eventually, just an actor, especially if you were looking for something different in terms of roles, I think. That's what I was aiming for.”
Smith does not believe his character in “Dead Poets Society” is a bad guy, despite the fact his controlling nature led to his son Neil’s suicide.
“Mr. Perry is not a villain,” he said. “He fulfills that function in the movie. He was doing everything he was doing out of love for that kid. He loved that kid. He wanted what was best for that kid. It's just that — and so many parents can be like this — what he wanted for that kid was not what that kid wanted, or should be allowed to investigate. He had it in his head that he had to do this. He wanted what was best for Neil and that was it. He knew what was best, and that was what he was going to have, so that he's just destroyed when that happens at the end. And it just breaks my heart all the time. That was a really tough scene to play.”
Like all films, the villain – whether or not you think Mr. Perry is one – serves a vital role. In this instance, his position as a strict father wound up having an impact that transcended the silver screen. He said “Dead Poets Society” is the film that most people talk to him about when it comes to the impact on their lives.
“They say to me, ‘You know, that movie changed my life, that movie changed my relationship with my father. I made my father go and watch that movie.’ Or, ‘I have a friend of mine. You know, he had a horrible relationship with his father. He went to see the movie. He begged his father to go, the father went. It changed the relationship.’ That just takes my breath away,” he said. “To be a part of something that so positively affects people's lives, it's just wonderful.”
While Smith played a character without an ounce of humor in “Dead Poets Society,” he said director Paul Verhoeven gave him flexibility in playing Clarence in “RoboCop.”
“I got to be nasty, and yet that character has a terrific sense of humor,” he said. “And the director and writer allowed that to come forth, they were very encouraging to have me throw in catchphrases and that kind of stuff, and to really mold that character myself.”
Boddicker wore distinctive horn-rimmed glasses in the movie, which Smith and Verhoeven intentionally gave him.
“We were very much aware and worked towards making him different, and yet at the same time, I mean, we wanted him with the glasses, so we had this intellectual look,” Smith said.
“There's something reminiscent of the Nazis about it, which was very big for Paul because Paul was a kid and a very young kid, but he was a kid at the end of the Second World War, when Holland was occupied by Nazis, and how much he actually remembered about that, and how much he remembered through his parents and everybody else.
“So that definitely has a feel in there, rather than, as you say, the big tough guys that we have seen in the past, and the other films. It’s also what made Clarence such an interesting villain, and in a way scarier.”
On how people reacted to him after "Dead Poets Society" and "RoboCop" came out: “Well, you know, there were a few years people would kind of, I could tell people recognized me. I actually, at times, I could tell people were afraid of me, and they didn't know why. It wasn't like, ‘Oh, that scary guy from TV.’ It was like, you see somebody and you have an immediate reaction to them, and then maybe you settle down and think, ‘Oh, he's just this stupid actor.’ But you know, at first, when you see someone you may not immediately realize they're an actor, they're just some scary person for some reason in your life. I could feel that for a while, you know, a period of time until I became much more well known to the public. And of course, ‘Dead Poets Society’ didn't help that, you know, between those two, yeah, they're, you know, I can tell I was making people nervous at times.”
On the dwindling appreciation of “Dead Poets Society”: “For years, that film was shown in English classes, and there was hardly anyone who didn't know ‘Dead Poets Society’ because it fits so well into literature classes. And just in general, people liked it and then the next generation, and now I feel that a lot of that is going away. There are people that don't know about ‘Dead Poets Society.’ ‘Oh, yeah, I heard about that.’ And then, ‘Isn't that the movie with Ethan Hawke or something?’ That's what I mean about it's kind of drifting away.”
On whether he was brought on “That ‘70s Show” because of “Dead Poets Society”: “They must have. They never mentioned that. I think that they liked my work. And I think the only thing they said was that they always saw a sense of humor. Now, of course, ‘Dead Poets Society’ is probably one of the roles, one of the few roles, in which the character has no sense of humor. But I don't know, I don't recall them saying that, but for the people that put ‘’70s Show’ together, Bonnie and Terry Turner and Mark Brazill, I can't imagine that they weren't aware of and thought of ‘Dead Poets Society’ because you needed that strong father figure.”
On playing a bad guy: “Well, yeah, it's more fun to play a bad guy, sure. Good guys are basically, they're just, they're good guys. They're trying to keep the peace. They're showing everybody what a loving, happy person they are and bad guys are just tearing the place up and just setting fire to everybody's dreams and hopes. And that's fun to do when it's not real.”
In 1997, “Friends” star Lisa Kudrow and Oscar winner Mira Sorvino teamed up for a comedy that would develop a following that's still going strong years later. In “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” the duo star as awkward friends who concoct a ridiculous lie (they invented Post-its!) to appear successful at their high school reunion. Julia Campbell stars as Christie, the classmate who was mean to them in high school and continues to belittle them at the reunion. It’s an enjoyable film that has endured, in no small part because the movie has the ending fans want when they discover Christie’s life is not all rainbows and unicorns, like she makes it sound.
Campbell said it’s possible Christie is the first so-called “mean girl.”
“She might have been the original,” she said. “I think I heard that somewhere there's a list of the meanest mean girls, and she's No. 4. And I kind of felt that was an honor.”
Campbell initially thought she was auditioning for Michele because she identified much more with that character.
“I was the girl in the back brace, which Michele wears. So when I auditioned, I thought that I was going to audition for the Michele character because that's who I was,” she said.
“The geeky brace face. And then I had spinal fusion and had a back brace for three years and a body cast for a year. I was just a mess. And I remember how, simply because of how I looked, I just was shunned. And everybody, for one reason or another, has experienced that kind of treatment.”
While Campbell may have felt a connection with Michele, she said she's “had a bunch of Christies in my life” and noted that others have as well, which is why the character and her mean-spirited nature appealed to moviegoers.
“I've had people say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I had an experience with a Christie when I was in high school,’ but, mostly, they enjoyed watching her,” she said.
“I think she's an iconic character in that everybody's known one and she's so fun to make miserable,” she added. “At the end of the film, people feel so much better after they find out she's married to a drunk, and she's unhappy, and her dress flies up and she's humiliated. They feel better after that happens. But people enjoy her. And I think it's because of the arc that she starts out so terrible. And she gets her comeuppance.”
For Campbell, playing someone like Christie represented a pleasant break from the nice characters she usually portrayed, and the role led to more work, although it came at a cost while shooting the movie.
“After a month or so, it's not so much fun to play the mean girl because people kind of think of you that way after so long on a set and you had to remind the crew, ‘Hey, hey, that’s just the character,’” she said.
The idea of villains may also conjure images of men, but women can certainly hold their own.
“It’s becoming more equalized,” Campbell said, while pointing out the work of Tilda Swinton and the women on “Ozark.”
“I guess there's violence, it seems, with male villains, and female villains seem to be a little more cerebral,” she said.
“I think you used to not be able to get, as my old acting coach would say, you wouldn't be able to get dirty doing a villain as a woman. But now I think you can get down and dirty and it's acceptable,” she said.
On whether Christie would still be mean today: “Oh, gosh, yes. Because Christie is so much about appearance and hierarchy. And I think that she would probably have married again and she'd probably be on one of the ‘Housewives’ shows.”
On her kids seeing the movie and reacting to her: “When I showed them, they were 14. And they were mortified. They were like, ‘Oh, my gosh. You’re so mean!’ And eventually they had friends who watched the movie and loved it and so they could distance themselves a bit through their friends.”
On pulling from her own experience to play Christie: “I channeled every experience I had and sometimes it was hard. Like, the magnets, when I put the magnets on the back of their back brace, that was really powerful for me and painful to shoot. And I had to just keep remembering everything comes out OK and this is just a movie, but it triggered me. It really did. So I had to go back in and take care of myself for a minute and then go back out and channel all the mean girls that would whisper about me in the bathroom like, ‘How does she go to the bathroom in that thing?’ Like, the odd questions, the odd looks, the giggles.”
On possibly doing another “Romy and Michele” movie: “Oh, my gosh, would that be divine? Oh, my gosh. Yeah, and where everybody is right now. And have another reunion? That'd be fabulous. And I think it's been long enough that there could be some really fascinating twists and turns with, of course, Romy and Michele and Christie, but also Janeane Garofalo and Justin (Theroux). I think it could be fantastic. … I hadn't thought of it. I thought it kind of was a one-and-done. I guess so many years later, I see how, yeah, that that would be fascinating. And, you know, it does have kind of a cult following. So it probably would get an audience, I guess.”