On those days when Michael C. Hall is called upon to enact some grisly murder on his Showtime series “Dexter,” people tend to give him some space, figuring the intensity of the scene requires some heavy lifting on the 39-year-old actor’s part.
“Actually, it’s just the opposite,” says Hall, a two-time Emmy nominee for “Dexter.” “Those times are actually the fun of it. What’s exhausting, as it is for Dexter, is when I have to simulate the facade. The murders? Those are the days when I really have no weight on my shoulders when I leave work.”
Hall is one of many actors today making waves (and a good living) portraying morally complex bad guys. And to a man, they’re raving about playing their characters’ rage.
“I get a rush from playing Clay. … It’s almost like an aphrodisiac,” says Ron Perlman of his role as the president of a violent motorcycle club on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.” “The power of this guy is intoxicating. I feel like I’m being asked to reach a little bit beyond my grasp every week.”
Adds Bryan Cranston, a two-time Emmy winner for playing meth-dealing high school teacher Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad”: “This is the character of my career. He has such broad parameters that I can go from being sensitive and concerned to heinous and evil in the same episode. You never know what to expect when you get the script.”
That’s a big change, Cranston says, from when he began his acting career playing cookie-cutter villains on police dramas and action-adventure shows. Cranston met his wife playing such a part on an episode of “Airwolf” 23 years ago.
“I was the ‘bad of the week’ and she was the ‘victim of the week,’ and that’s how men’s and women’s roles were written back then,” Cranston says. “Fortunately that’s changed, and we’re seeing a more equal-opportunity bad guy come forth.”
That shift arrived in force in the form of James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, the complicated crime boss at the heart of HBO’s landmark series “The Sopranos.” In his wake, other anti-heroes began popping up, establishing intense love-hate relationships with viewers.
“My guy was such an asshole that I figured he’d be dead by the end of the first season,” says Josh Holloway of his character on “Lost.” “I figured I better find the humanity in him. I’m happy they let the character evolve, but I gotta say: I miss the asshole. I was having so much fun playing him.”
Much of the enjoyment, according to these actors, comes from the shows’ nuanced writing and the characters’ complexity. Perlman’s biker does some heinous things, but the violence never comes across as gratuitous. Likewise, Timothy Olyphant’s hard-ass marshal in FX’s “Justified” gets to leaven his anger with healthy doses of humor and charm.
“The character is light on his feet, just like everything that comes from Elmore Leonard,” Olyphant says, referring to the author of the show’s literary source material. “If it was just a guy with anger issues, it’d be boring. The fun of it is that you feel there’s a constant opportunity to keep people off-balance.”
And that kind of spontaneous combustion offers tough-guy actors the kinds of experiences that few people ever have the chance to taste.
“It’s delicious — in a safe and sanctioned environment — to get away with what Dexter can get away with,” Hall says. “To entertain the capacity of someone storing deep dark secrets is a blast. If you’re gainfully employed as an actor, that’s great. Going around enacting righteous serial murders is just icing on the cake.”
ROAD TO THE EMMYS: THE ACTOR
• Anger is all the rage at Emmys
• Newbies on parade
• Former noms remain in Emmy race
• Actors shine in revelatory seasons
• GALLERY: Actors in Contention
• GALLERY: Returning Actors