Sometimes an actor inhabits a role – and sometimes they create it from something within themselves, something intangible and innate. When you think of scary film villains, Heath Ledger as the Joker and Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lector are two examples of great actors disappearing into an iconic role. They transform into the character to become scary and unnerving. With both these men, we’ve seen them in far different roles, showing their talent and diversity.
For actors though, it seems far easier to become intimidating; they don’t have to don make up or masks. It’s not that they are naturally frightening or serious (though that can be the case too), but there is something about them that makes them just naturally more inclined to see them as formidable, imposing and someone to obey. That is, they can come off as intimidating without much effort if the part calls for it.
There are those actors that simply have certain auras about them, which can be good and bad. I suppose the more talented the actor is, the more able he or she is at breaking the mold or type and surprise people. Then again, it’s pretty easy to assume a role that embraces his or her reputation, and in fact, they can make a role more believable by being cast in it. If a role is underwritten or the plot a bit trite, a veteran actor with a certain proclivity for such roles, or a preceded reputation, can raise everything up.
Regardless, there are those tough, serious, fierce actors that when they appear on screen, they command attention and make you just a bit warier of what is happening. They can be playing good guys or bad, but they seem larger than life, even unpredictable. These are the ten most intimidating male actors working today.
10 Clive Owen
The man who was almost James Bond has had an interesting career, but often finds himself with a gun in hand and foes to dispatch. Tall, dark and handsome, Owen has a brooding stare and a measured, deep voice. From turns in Sin City, Killer Elite and the forthcoming White Knights, Owen finds himself in gritty action adventures, and those that underestimate him pay the price. He is also now on HBO in The Knick, as unnerving a role as he has had, and of course, featured in the fantastic Children of Men in one of the most tense scenes in movie history.
9 John Malkovich
John Malkovich likes to yell – a lot. He does it better than most actors, and he does it often. He frequently portrays a villain, as in Con Air and In the Line of Fire, or confident, strong leading men, in TV’s Crossbones or the recent Cut Bank. He has a Larry David quality to him, where he seems to be always irritated or on the verge of snapping. However, he also has a maniacal quality to him as well, where when he snaps, he will unleash not only a barrage of verbal insults, but probably a lot physical violence as well.
8 Russell Crowe
Russell Crowe always seems to be a bit bothered by something. While like the other men on this list, he is a great actor, Crowe often takes roles where he leads as a conflicted man who is quick to fight. Gladiator was an incredible film, and Crowe, in other movies like Noah, 3:10 to Yuma and even Robin Hood, is this grizzled figure fighting for what he believes in, even if misguided. He has a reputation for being serious off the screen, and even when he showed he wasn't the greatest of singers in Les Miserables, he was still the kind of person you didn't want to make fun of for fear he would flight you.
7 Javier Bardem
The Academy Award-winning actor is truly deserving of his accolade, giving a stirring performance in Biutiful, but also demonstrating range with his resume. While he has played dramatic roles and love interests, and does those quite well, it seems Javier Bardem can so easily slip into something scary and deranged. In No Country for Old Men, Bardem played one of the scariest maniacs on screen, and he does so with the similarly psychotic villain in Skyfall. He even is uncomfortable to watch in The Gunman. Why he is great is that these off-kilter characters aren't larger-than-life; he just adds so much to the screen, you’re so enthralled – and scared.
6 Kevin Spacey
Sure, he can sing and dance and goof and do impressions, but even when he is doing that, it seems like something is happening underneath. Something sinister. The acclaimed veteran actor has found a role that will look to the one he will forever be most associated, as he has assumed Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician rising to power in House of Cards. He even took a recent turn as the villain in the video game Call of Duty – and the character looks just like him. That is, Spacey doesn't need to transform to be scary, he just is. He was even part of a joke about it at the 65th Emmy Awards: he just looks at the camera, sneers, and everyone gets shivers.
5 Christoph Waltz
This Academy-Award winner is a different kind of intimidating. It’s not with his physical prowess like some other actors on this list, it’s his look and mannerisms. There is something about Christoph Waltz that seems to suggest he is not having any of you. Of course, he played one of the greatest villains on film in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as a loquacious, murderous Nazi, but even in Django Unchained where he’s the hero, he’s still scary. While he has shown to be a funny and humble man in real life, even while acting in Horrible Bosses 2, he was reportedly very serious and didn't have any bloopers.
4 Willem Dafoe
Here is a talented actor with a distinct look that can’t help but fall into creepy, strange and unnerving roles. There is no one like Willem Dafoe. He’s like a scary man’s Christopher Walken: sort of mainstream but also rather eccentric. He can play villains in mainstream films like Spider Man or John Carter, or then he teams up with Lars von Trier and things get weird. Even in The Boondock Saints or The Hunter he is one scary protagonist. Even when he smiles, Dafoe can send shivers down your spine.
3 Idris Elba
Rising to fame playing a character like Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire, Idris Elba was always going to carry with him an air of mystery, confidence and danger. He is also quite the physical specimen, and despite his charming British accent, Elba has regularly played intimidating men, and they are on all points of the moral compass. Sometimes he has been virtuous, like in Thor or Pacific Rim, or someone more complex and divisive, like in the TV series Luther. Regardless, the handsome and talented leading man is one of those who can easily slip into the role of intimidating hero or villain.
2 Sean Penn
In part because he always seems so serious off the camera and in interviews, Sean Penn can so quickly fall into any intimidating or dedicated role. While he has proven incredible range with performances in Milk, and has at times shown he can joke around, with films like Mystic River, Gangster Squad and The Gunman, Penn is a grave force. He takes what he does seriously, and he himself is a proven and tireless humanitarian, and then when he takes to the screen, he is not to be trifled with.
1 Christian Bale
It’s well established that Christian Bale is a dedicated, serious and focused actor. Most infamously, he was caught on tape yelling at a crew member during the time he was shooting the Terminator: Salvation film. Bale was so in character that getting distracted lead to some very aggressive verbal assaulting. Then there are films like American Psycho, Out of the Furnace, The Machinist and The Fighter, where Bale disappears into these desperate, monomaniacal characters that are physically and emotionally frightening. Like the other men on this list, he is incredibly talented and worth the price of admission every time. That doesn't mean you want to be in any of these movies with him.