Comic book movies are a big deal these days and casting the characters in them is, in turn, a big deal as well. Directors and fans alike want to see faithful, memorable depictions of their favourite heroes and villains, which can be quite demanding on the stars taking up the roles.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that actors take their roles in comic book movies very seriously in modern times. Gone are the days when Shaquille O’Neal would be recruited to give a half-assed performance in a comic book movie nobody cared about (Steel really was freakin’ awful) – the comic book genre is now a respected one that attracts top actors and millions of keen viewers.
The preparation that actors do, therefore, is often pretty extreme and/or regimented. Method acting used to be reserved for theatre actors and, later, for actors in the kind of movies that the Academy might consider Oscar-worthy – but not today. Various kinds of both physical and mental preparation have been undertaken by actors readying themselves for comic book movie roles, and that’s what this article is all about – in this case, specifically villainous roles. Here are fifteen extreme ways actors prepared for supervillain roles – the most extreme thing being just how much variation there is in the methods of preparation from actor to actor.
15. Heath Ledger (The Joker)
Let’s start off with the most well known preparation for a villainous comic book movie role – the late Heath Ledger preparing to play The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Pretty much everybody’s aware that Ledger locked himself away in a hotel room for six weeks to get into the character’s head (also keeping a journal as the character in that time). While locked away, Ledger developed The Joker’s tics, voice, and his sadistic laugh.
Ledger also took influence from the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious for the character’s appearance, from the unhinged mannerisms of Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal as Alex De Large in A Clockwork Orange, and from the voice of singer-songwriter Tom Waits for The Joker’s distinctive vocal tone. Ledger’s enforced isolation and dedication to experiencing The Joker’s mindset is what some people believe contributed to his tragic and untimely death in 2008.
14. Jared Leto (The Joker)
Another actor who famously went to extreme lengths to perfect his role as The Joker – in this case in 2016’s Suicide Squad – was Jared Leto. Although his portrayal of the character received mixed reactions, there’s absolutely no doubting his dedication to it.
Some of the things Leto did to get into character were as follows; he stalked the criminal underbelly of Instagram for inspiration, he spent time in mental asylums, he employed a real-life henchman to do his dirty work, he sent gifts (including bullets, used condoms, a dead pig, live rats, Playboy magazines and videos of himself in-character) to his fellow cast members, he performed in-character as The Joker in his band Thirty Seconds to Mars, he slept in a prison, he only responded to being called “Mr. J” on set, he isolated himself from the rest of the cast, and he practised his psychotic laugh in public to see which one got the best reaction.
13. Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor)
Jesse Eisenberg was a surprise pick to play Lex Luthor in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but he was actually one of the movie’s high points (not that that’s saying much). He was certainly different, but that was refreshing and he undoubtedly showed potential to develop the character further in the franchise going forward. His preparation for the role was fairly straightforward, but it was actually also potentially dangerous. Why? Well, because he explored suppressed urges.
Eisenberg explains; “I actually think the best way to prepare for something like this is to explore all those hidden urges that you suppressed when you were younger. Let it all – the decades of polite suppression of feelings – be cathartically released.” Let’s hope he doesn’t consequently attempt to take over the world or target any heroic individuals in real life.
12. Jamie Foxx (Electro)
Jamie Foxx played Max Dillon AKA Electro in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – and he did a couple of strange things in order to prepare himself for the role. First of all, he wrote a poem/song that enabled him to understand how Max felt. It went like this; “I may be black but I ain’t no widow, I’ve just been shadows in the dark. He may be yours, but he’s not my hero, I embrace this malice in my heart. I’ve been patiently waiting, but I’m angry now, he promised me the lightning in the sky. I was told they would one day worship me, yell and scream my name, but they turned their backs on me and lied. So now I’m chasing spiders.”
More disturbingly, Foxx took on the persona of one of his own crazy fans following a scary real-life encounter. An over-fanatical admirer of Foxx’s turned up at his door one day and tried to get inside. The actor tried to portray that level of craziness in Dillon’s own idolisation of Spider-Man.
11. Aaron Eckhart (Two-Face)
Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent AKA Two-Face went a little bit under the radar in 2008’s The Dark Knight, having been somewhat overshadowed by the iconic performance of the aforementioned Heath Ledger in the role of The Joker – however, Eckhart prepared extremely hard for his performance as the character and deserves major credit for it.
Having described Dent as “simultaneously coming from, and being apart from, the same world as Batman,” he prepared himself for the role by – in his words – “looking for the similarities and the tension between the two; to find what’s similar to Batman and then what’s opposite to him.” In addition to that, he also studied the psychological effects suffered by burn victims, as well as studying split personalities in great detail.
10. Oscar Isaac (Apocalypse)
Oscar Isaac portrayed the titular villain in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse and he took his preparation for the role very seriously. He knew nothing of Apocalypse prior to being cast as the ancient mutant, so he read lots of comics in which he appeared, and he tried to find something that particularly intrigued him about the character – and he found something very dark that did.
Isaac explains; “You find something that makes it interesting for you. With X-Men, it’s about why this woman who invented Apocalypse, [writer] Louise Simonson… she was tasked with: make a new arch-villain. She said, ‘OK, I’ll make the embodiment of the Second Coming with the Four Horseman and all.’ That’s scary sh*t. So I’m curious about that. What’s the philosophical expression behind the apocalypse? What apocalypse means, which comes from the Greek for ‘to reveal.’ To lift back the curtain.”
9. Cara Delevingne (Enchantress)
As we’ve previously touched upon, 2016’s Suicide Squad received mixed reactions, but one of the more negatively received aspects of the movie was undoubtedly the portrayal of June Moone AKA Enchantress, who was played by Cara Delevingne. That being said, there’s absolutely no doubting Delevingne’s dedication to her preparations for the role, as she went above and beyond to get into character.
She met with director David Ayer in a London, on a dark and stormy night. He didn’t tell her anything about the movie, but he did show her pictures of “amazing, enlightened, powerful, but very evil women” and spoke to her about addiction and mental illness. She was then told to recite a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which got her riled up and angry, which ultimately won her the part. However, it was what happened after that was most extreme. Ayer asked Delevingne to find a forest and, if it was a full moon, get naked and walk through it with her feet in the mud, which she did (even though it wasn’t a full moon). She also howled like a wolf during her naked forest walk, in order to feel wild and primal.
8. Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier)
Sebastian Stan’s character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bucky Barnes, has undergone some major changes and character development. Having started out as Steve Rogers’ loyal friend and fellow soldier, he was brainwashed into becoming the villainous and lethal Winter Soldier, before realigning with Rogers in Captain America: Civil War – but it’s his preparation for his antagonistic role in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that we’re referring to here.
Stan essentially did a lot of war research – research about wars themselves, as well as the effects of wars on those who fight in them. He explains; “For the first one, I’d done a lot of period-type research. This one was more, I saw it as such a good opportunity to be able to watch great movies from the ’70s, the whole Cold War and spy program and thrillers. I found documentaries about the negative effects of war on people and post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted to understand separately from what I was doing in the movie what kind of movie we were making.”
7. Olivia Munn (Psylocke)
We’re back with 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse now, but we’re not talking about the titular villain this time. No, we’re talking about one of his recruits; the beautiful Olivia Munn’s Psylocke. Munn’s sword-wielding mutant didn’t experience much in the way of character development, so the majority of her preparation was physical – but boy did she go to extreme lengths to get physically ready for the role.
The actress lost twelve pounds doing martial arts and sword training, and her trainer has claimed that Munn treated getting in shape for the role as a “second job” (she spent as much as six hours every day working on her physique and sword skills). Munn stated that “The goal was never lose weight or get in shape, because I actually thought I was fine already. The goal was just to learn these skills. I never realised before what it meant when actors talked about really training for a role.”
6. Josh Brolin (Thanos)
To date, Josh Brolin has only appeared briefly as the Mad Titan Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – once in Guardians of the Galaxy and again in the mid-credits scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron – but he is set to play a much more prominent and pivotal role in the franchise going forward, and he has revealed how he is preparing to play the powerful villain.
In order to ready himself for the role, Brolin has attempted to find something relatable in Thanos – something resembling humanity. Now, that might not seem “extreme” but trying to find something relatable in a seven-foot-tall, purple alien, who’s on a quest to gather six powerful stones in order to impress the personification of death by taking over the universe… it’s probably not so easy!
5. Tom Hiddleston (Loki)
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is one of the greatest comic book movie villains of all time and, given that Hiddleston is a classically-trained actor, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that he prepared thoroughly to play the part – both physically and mentally.
Amongst his various preparation methods, Hiddleston learned the Brazilian martial art of capoeira and read what he described as “a brilliant book” by psychologist Oliver James, called They F**k You Up – which allowed him to relate to Loki finding out that he was adopted. On a related note, Hiddleston actually initially auditioned to play Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, when the casting director saw some potential in that regard, he gave the actor six weeks to bulk up, so he went on a strict diet and gained twenty pounds of muscle. Hiddleston as Thor ultimately wasn’t to be, however, and the end result of that audition was a fantastic on-screen villain.
4. Dane DeHaan (Green Goblin)
When you think of the version of Harry Osborn who became the Green Goblin in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, you don’t exactly think of a lean, mean fighting machine. However, actor Dane DeHaan did, in fact, put in a lot of work – both in terms of training and dietary preparation – for the role. He trained intensely and consumed 3,000 calories a day.
DeHaan explained in his own words, when he had just arrived on the movie’s set in New York City; “We’re already here, and I’ve been preparing. Right now it’s just about getting all my work done and bulking up a little bit. I’ll start shooting fairly soon in New York. I work out incredibly intensely six days a week and I eat every two hours. Mostly proteins and veggies. I consume at least 3,000 calories a day. I’ve already gained seven pounds in six weeks!”
3. Tom Hardy (Bane)
Moving on swiftly from Dane DeHaan, if you really want to talk about bulking up, how does putting on thirty pounds of muscle in just three months sound? That’s exactly what Tom Hardy achieved in preparation to play the formidable and intimidating Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. The English actor is known for transforming his body for movie roles – and doing so to portray the iconic Batman villain was no different.
Hardy’s method was simple – he added a lot of calories to his diet and did a heavy-lifting weight training workout in a 5×5 regimen (deadlifts, bench presses, squats and so forth). There was nothing complex about his preparation, it just involved a hell of a lot of dedication – something Hardy is known to not shy away from, having modified his body massively for previous roles in Bronson and Warrior.
2. Michael Shannon (General Zod)
2013’s Man of Steel was undoubtedly disappointing, but there was no faulting Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod. Following in the footsteps of Terence Stamp can’t have been easy, but Shannon did it adeptly – and that’s thanks in no small part to his preparation for the role. In addition to hitting the gym and undergoing rigorous physical and stunt training, he also prepared for the role by likening the movie’s story to real world environmental issues.
Shannon said “I looked at Man of Steel as a very socially relevant movie, not necessarily a comic-book movie. Here’s a story about some people, a civilisation. They lived on a planet and used up all the resources and destroyed the planet, and they thought the way to solve the problem was just to go get another planet. You hear people bandying that idea around these parts from time to time.”
1. Rhys Ifans (Lizard)
Welsh actor Rhys Ifans portrayed Dr. Curt Connors – a one-armed scientist whose research and experimentation into cellular regeneration in humans resulted in his transformation into the terrifying Lizard – in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, and he prepared extremely thoroughly for the role.
Ifans’ preparation involved actually learning to live as a person with one arm, which resulted in him learning skills such as being able to tie a tie and make a cup of coffee using only a single limb (there’s actually a deleted scene from the movie in which Connors tied his tie with one hand). He also held a heavy weight in the hand that would be missing on film, so the “stump” (as Ifans himself described it) would succumb to gravity, and he spent a lot of time with amputees to hear their thoughts on living with missing limbs and observe them going about their daily lives.