'Arrow's' Neil McDonough on Channeling Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman for Damien Dahrk

"As the season progresses, we're going to keep the fun going," the actor tells THR.
Katie Yu/The CW

Arrow's scariest villain may also be to be its funniest.

Season four's big bad Damien Dahrk (Neil McDonough) has already made quite the impression on The CW's comic book drama. After one episode, the character has inspired fear in the hearts of all of Star City, including Team Arrow, after they witnessed him killing a man just by touching him. Dahrk employs a HIVE of ghost-like agents who have terrorized the city for months. And he's even managed to manipulate Capt. Lance (Paul Blackthorne), arguably the show's moral center, into working for him.

And yet, in every scene, Damien manages to exude joy and confidence in ways that Arrow has never seen from its main villain. And that's why McDonough packed up his life, along with his wife and five kids, to move to a new country just to take on this role.

"Without question, I'm having the time of my life as an actor," McDonough tells The Hollywood Reporter. "My wife and I talked for months about doing the show, and I was like, 'I can't, I can't, I can't.' I'd love to do the character and [executive producers] Marc [Guggenheim] and Greg [Berlanti] are absolutely brilliant and wanted me to do the show. But I didn't know how I could do it. I can't travel back and forth for nine months back to my wife and five kids. Until finally I said, 'You know what? Screw it. Let's pack everything up and let's all move to Vancouver.'"

McDonough credits how well this role has translated from the page to the screen to the fact that he now lives where he works.

"I think it makes a big difference in my acting, because flying back and forth at 49 years old all the time, you get tired and you get a little short, but here, I work after getting a full night's sleep," McDonough says. "I wake up in the morning feeling completely refreshed and I'm like, 'Who do I get to kill today? This is awesome!' When I watched my first episode, I was like, 'Wow, I'm having fun!' I know I'm having fun on the set, but when I can see myself having fun on the show on the television, then I know that Marc, Greg and I are creating some kind of magic here."

When it came to preparing to take on the character, instead of doing what most actors have done after landing a comic book role, McDonough didn't crack open a single comic book. He didn't even watch a single episode of Arrow.

"Marc and I had spoken for a couple months about how Damien Dahrk is such a smaller character in the DC universe that it's a fresh canvas," he says. "Marc really dissected it so beautifully for me as a more Jack Nicholson Joker, Gene Hackman Luthor than just evil, dark, bad guy."

Although McDonough agrees that the character "basically has no heart at all, no soul, and is just pure evil," he does find the humanity in the villain through his humor.

"I don't do really well with just a dark character or a completely light character," McDonough says. "My wheelhouse is more in the gray area. And you have to find the humor in him. That's what we've done so well is finding the humor in this character to allow the audience to kind of giggle as he offs people in completely absurd situations."

The Arrow showrunners have made it clear that Damien is going to be nothing like any of the villains they've had on the show in the past, but McDonough has no knowledge of that.

"I didn't want to steal from somebody like Ra's [Matt Nable] or something from Malcolm [John Barrowman]," he says. "I wanted to make it a new character in the DC universe. Marc gave me the guidelines and then he was like, 'All right, we're going to let you loose. Now go play.' That was just so enjoyable for me."

Damien has already made a strong impression on the show, but McDonough promises that the audience has only just gotten a taste of what's coming.

"As the season progresses, we're going to keep the fun going," McDonough says. "But about a third of the way through the season, maybe about half way through, something is going to happen where I get to speed it up even more. That humor that Damien Dahrk has in the first part of the season starts to ebb because the clock is ticking and he needs to get the job done. The Arrow keeps getting in my way, which drives me bonkers."

In addition to humor, Damien is also introducing a new aspect to the show: magic and mysticism. 

"Marc and I talked about an episode where we are going to do a flashback ... and we are going to learn about Damien, who he is and why he's turned into this incredibly complicated dark, villainous, soulless megalomaniac with powers," McDonough says.

When McDonough filmed scenes for the Arrow/The Flash spinoff series Legends of Tomorrow (debuting midseason), he had no idea that Damien was actually 122 years old. 

"The backstory of how the League of Assassins got this human back in the 1800s and what happened to Damien Dahrk before that to get to this point to sell his soul to this League, that's what we're going to see in an upcoming Arrow episode," he says.

While McDonough loves playing the confident side of Damien, he's actually most excited for fans to see him lose control. 

"I can't wait for everyone to see the wheels come off for Damien," McDonough says. "And you're going to find yourself rooting for him. If it's a good villain, you're going to root for him. In a sick and twisted way, you want to see him succeed. It's going to be awesome."

Arrow airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.

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