Jason Bateman, Bob Odenkirk and 8 More Drama Actors Sound Off on Playing Unscrupulous Characters

7:00 AM 6/4/2019

by Scott Huver

Eric Bana, Morris Chestnut and Benicio Del Toro also are among the stars who reveal the most challenging part of portraying men with unsavory sides: "If you don't play them as dark as they are, you're doing a disservice to the tone of the piece."

Jason Bateman, Bob Odenkirk and Benicio Del Toro
Jason Bateman, Bob Odenkirk and Benicio Del Toro
Photofest (2); Atsushi Nishijima/SHOWTIME

  • Eric Bana

    'Dirty John' (Bravo)

    Jordin Althaus/Bravo

    "One of the most important character traits was being a masterful manipulator, and so I really concentrated my efforts on 'What is John's objective? How is he manipulating the person in front of him, and to what end?' You would never just turn up to work to get from point A to point B — everything had a hidden journey embedded in it. It was a hell of a lot of fun to play because it was so challenging. Once you're confident that the production has good intentions, it's easy to not shy away from the darker side of those characters. If you don't play them as dark as they are, you're doing a disservice to the tone of the piece."

  • Jason Bateman

    'Ozark' (Netflix)

    Jessica Miglio/Netflix

    "I'm just a middle-of-the-road type person; the characters that I fit are usually middle-of-the-road type of people. What's always been interesting for me is searching out what the cracks in that generic thin air might be. I'm pretty practiced and really enjoy showing to the audience these little fissures: showing flashes of Marty being less decent than what he appears to be is really fun, as opposed to challenging. Those little hints, those little flashes of 'Uh-oh — they might be turning right when they should be turning left. Is decency going to correct this, or are they going to fall down a hole of temptation again?' I'm playing a guy who is, by design, meant to be us. He's meant to be somebody that is appealingly relatable, in that he's not super-complicated, at least on the surface. He's tried to cut some corners and gotten into some ethical areas that make it worthy of a television show, asking people to be interested in something other than what the generic surface might look like. I'm able to really focus on not doing any sort of 'acting,' but really trying to just be believable and real."

  • Benicio Del Toro

    'Escape at Dannemora' (Showtime)

    Wilson Webb/SHOWTIME

    "Episode six was the most vicious one, because we showed exactly why he's a bad guy and why he's in jail for life. [Director] Ben Stiller and I made a decision to just hold off on revealing the viciousness of the character until then, when the truth, the evil side, came out. You just try to be in the moment as much as you can. I've heard people say that they'd become engaged and were almost rooting for them to get out until episode six, and then it becomes a little bit complicated — when they're free, out on the run, we're not exactly rooting for them."

  • Bob Odenkirk

    'Better Call Saul' (AMC)

    Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

    "Saul isn't that hard to play. He's a very one-dimensional person, relatively — by his own choice. He's chosen to live in the world as just one aspect of his personality. It's a compartmentalization that people do to protect a damaged part of themselves. In Jimmy's case, I have a little bit of sympathy for the ways in which life has been disappointing to him. He's unable to get the love and respect that he wanted and yearned and strived for. Yet it's a bad choice to then diminish yourself and just play this one part of yourself because you risk less of your heart. He's got a lot of pain inside him, but it's very buried [People like him] look at the world cynically, and the world is happy to vindicate that point of view so they feel like they're right most of the time. But of course their world is a thin one. It doesn't have a lot of idealism in it, and that's Saul. I don't think Jimmy is cynical. He becomes that."

  • Morris Chestnut

    'The Enemy Within' (NBC)

    Kenneth Rexach/NBC

    "Jennifer Carpenter's and my character are both professionally very good about what we do, and we put our work above our personal lives. But we're still having to deal with that while we're dealing with this deep emotional turmoil that's very conflicted. There are a couple of incidents that I filled in to his childhood that affected him right about the time he was about to go to college — that's what I did to make the character very personal and close to me. I'm the type of person that goes into a room and I do a lot more listening than I do talking. And I find that to be more interesting, because you learn a lot about people, you learn a lot about behavior and, quite frankly, you're able to decipher most often what is true and what is not just by listening."

  • Jared Harris

    'Chernobyl' (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    "My character is the smartest person in the room that nobody listens to, and he has a sense of deep, deep frustration about that. There is a sense of resignation — until the stakes are high enough that you realize you have to speak up and step into that moment. I like the idea that he was a reluctant hero, more than a sort of traditional superhero, those people that rip off their shirts and run toward danger. Human beings have a natural instinct toward survival. It's that fight-or-flight instinct. I like the idea of someone with instinct toward flight more than fight. He constantly had to force himself toward the decision that he is going to fight this one. That felt more courageous, because it wasn't something that was naturally instinctive to him."

  • Kevin Costner

    'Yellowstone' (Paramount Network)

    Courtesy of Paramount Network

    "The hardest thing is when you have a character that is so blind to the world because his family is the only thing that's important. In truth, family is the only thing that's important. But when the morality is such that only my family matters, that's been a hard thing for me to grasp. Because I know what loyalty to family is all about, but we're a melodrama — we're into murder, we're into all kinds of things like that. Only the ranch matters, the family matters, and nothing else matters except that. That's not emblematic of how I live."

  • Brian Cox

    'Succession' (HBO)

    Courtesy of HBO

    Succession (HBO)

    "I did actually say to [series creator] Jesse Armstrong, 'Does he love his children?' and Jesse said, 'He absolutely loves his children, even though he seems brutal toward them.' And that was a great opener for me, because I realized that they don't get that this thing he's involved with is an enormous game he's been playing since he was very young: the game of being successful, of actually being able to ride with the current like a surfer … Sometimes he hits a bad wave, but then he gets back up and does it again. That love has been put on hold in order to pursue something else."

  • Sam Heughan

    'Outlander' (Starz)

    Courtesy of Starz

    "Barring the time-travel aspect, we are pretty historically accurate and authentic. Once Jamie believes Claire is from the future, it becomes quite a simple fact … so it's about approaching everything with an authenticity and a truth. But you do have to put yourself there: I remember that scene where Claire says she's from the future. What would you say if someone says that to you? What are the thoughts that go through your mind? It's almost like she's just from a different country or a different town where they do things differently. And that for him is always a great source of amusement."

  • Cody Fern

    'American Horror Story: Apocalypse' (FX)

    Courtesy of FX

    "I never played evil. I never really even played the Antichrist. What I played was a flesh-and-blood human being struggling with who he was. The thing that I was able to latch on to and get into the minutiae of is, what is it when you are essentially fatherless? Because he had this connection with Satan, but it's not a physical entity playing baseball with him and teaching him how to shave. As an actor, playing something that's taboo or that you don't get to express in your everyday life is fun in most instances, because there is some element of fantasy. I played them with glee, because I don't judge Michael at all, and I don't judge his actions."

    This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.