Helen Mirren: It’s unfortunate British people “always play the villains”

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When I first read Helen Mirren’s statements about how Hollywood treats British actors, I thought “The crazy old broad is at it again.” Then I read it again, trying to give her a chance. Now that I’ve fully assimilated Helen’s point, I still think she’s off the mark, but she’s got a good start towards making a good generalization about Hollywood. Dame Helen’s theory is that Hollywood always makes British actors and characters “the villains” of big Hollywood films. She claims that the British people are portrayed as “snooty, stuck up, malevolent, malignant creatures” and that it‘s “very important to let Americans know that we’re not just the royal family.” Um… okay. Not really true, Helen. But here, read her whole statement:

Dame Helen Mirren has urged Hollywood to stop portraying villains as British. The actress, 64, wants film companies to end their frequent casting of British actors in the role of “bad guys”.

A host of stars from this side of the Atlantic, including Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins, have played villains in Hollywood films in recent years.

Dame Helen, speaking at an event in Los Angeles to celebrate British success in American movies, said: “I think it’s rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British, we’re such an easy target that they can comfortably make the Brits the villains.”

The Oscar winner added: “It’s just [a nice way] to say we’re snooty, stuck up, malevolent, malignant creatures as we’re so often portrayed.”

Notable British performances as villains include Sir Ian McKellen who played the role of Magneto in the X-Men films and Paul Bettany, who was Silas in The Da Vinci Code.

Sir Anthony Hopkins played one of the most infamous villains – Dr Hannibal Lecter while Christopher Lee was cast as a villain in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and in the Lord of The Rings trilogy.

Sir Ben Kingsley is to play Nizam in the soon to be released Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Dame Helen, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the Queen in the 2006 film of the same name, also said it was “very important to let Americans know that we’re not just the royal family”.

“There’s more to us than that,” she added.

[From Telegraph]

Except Ben Kingsley has also played Mohandas Gandhi and Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List, as well as his morally ambiguous Behrani in The House of Sand and Fog - you know what all of those characters have in common? He was nominated for Oscars for all of them. And Anthony Hopkins played one of the most (if not The Most) incredible, delicious, amazing villain in Silence of the Lambs (for which he got his Oscar), but he also played lovely, interesting, complicated men in films like Howards End, The Remains of the Day, and Amistad, amongst others. And f-cking Ian McKellan played Gandolf, for the love of God! The good wizard!

Sure, I get what Helen is saying – but I’ve also seen enough interviews with some of the best actors to know that most of them love playing villains. Villains are more fun to play, and actors love it, especially if a big Hollywood paycheck comes along with the opportunity.

But what Dame Helen should have been complaining about, in my opinion, is the tendency of Hollywood to simply villainize non-Americans. If it’s not British actors, it’s Arab actors, Persian actors, French actors, German actors, Semitic actors, Asian actors. All get to play villains, hoodlums, freaks, psychos and general bad dudes all the time. And don’t get me started on what Hollywood does to African and African-American actors. See what I mean?

You know what Dame Helen’s comments made me think of? Alan Rickman’s brillant performance as Hans Gruber in Die Hard. A British actor, doing a German accent, as one of the most awesome film villains ever. And it made Rickman’s career!

Dame Helen also made me think of my favorite British villain (in the bedroom, because he’s so bad he’s f-cking fine), Clive Owen…

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39 Responses to “Helen Mirren: It’s unfortunate British people “always play the villains””

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  1. Dorothy says:

    That’s the best Alan Rickman picture you could find?? Dear Lord I love that man…

  2. Vi says:

    ugh shut up helen mirren. i have no patience for her idiotic thoughts since the “don’t report date rape ladies” incident

  3. Pooky says:

    You forgot Hollywood rent-a-villain Gary Oldman! And Ben Kingsley’s turn as the most terrifying cfilm character EVER in Sexy Beast. And while it’s certainly true that there are an awful lot of Brit bad guys out there, surely that’s a good thing? Evil overlording is fun, lets an actor spread his thespian wings and usually steals the movie – witness Alan Rickman chewing up both the scenery and Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves.

  4. Melanie says:

    That picture of Clive is beautiful thing.

  5. vic says:

    the best line is from Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda. “You English think you’re so superior”

  6. Eloisa says:

    Oh boy, what remains to Latin Americans who always are show us not only as bad but in the lowest point of society?

  7. susan says:

    Hate to be that guy…but it’s GandAlf!!

  8. padiddle says:

    Oh poor Helen Mirren, she’s so put upon. Suffering under the indignity of million dollar (or more) film roles as villians. Somehow with that paycheck I think I would survive the indignity of being seen as a cunning villain.
    Besides, plenty of Brits play the role of “wonderfully cute boyfriend material with accent” – see almost all of Hugh Grant’s films here in the states.

  9. viktorygin says:

    I believe that there is an element of truth to this statement, whether or not one wants to take it in whole. A few years ago I happened upon a list of Hollywood cliches on the internet. One of the cliches that stuck out the most to me was that villians always speak English…with an English accent. I, then, went through my mental catalogue of Brit actors who have played conspicuous villains and the list is many: Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Rufus Sewell, Paul Bettany, Ralph Fiennes, the ones mentioned above, and many more.

    Now, I don’t think that there is an intentional campagin to “villainize” Brit actors, but I do believe that there are many Americans (and casting directors, by extension) who still operate under a image of “stiff upper- lips” and “sticks up the asses” where the British are concerned. This is changing thanks to the likes of Winehouse and Pete Doherty. Ironically, I don’t even think that this is where the casting comes from. I think to effectively play a villain there is a certain a intimidating, imepenetrable aloofness that an actor has to exude. I think the Brits are effective on this front due to theatrical training and…dare I say…a national collective character. Very generally speaking, they aren’t the happy-go-lucky, grinning-from-ear-to-ear optimists that Americans are.

    I do, however, whole-heartedly agree about the virtual demonization of non-Americans.

  10. Heather says:

    Eddie Izzard made the same sort of comment years ago, but he did it much better (and funnier, too).


  11. annaloo says:

    Please… please.

    This is not the only image of Brits, and I don’t buy it. I love Helen Mirren, but Prince Charming, cheeky good-natured drunks (male and female), clucking Mother Hens who are prepping a roast dinner with yorkshire pudding and cherry ale..strong British stereotypes, but ALSO perceived as very friendly!

    there are so many Brit stereotypes.. but the sinister villain is not the only one. I think brits are cast when it REALLY NEEDS to come across that there is intelligence and there is ice.

    Ian McKellan played Gandalf, Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Cary Elwes as Westly and who doesn’t love Kate Winslet in all her roles?

    C’mon Helen. Let me buy you a glass of wine (or five), and I’ll debate you down on this.

  12. fabgrrl says:

    Alan Rickman, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kinglsey – amazing, talented actors. Maybe the issue is that the Brits turn out these great actors (not movie stars) who can handle challenging roles and who aren’t afraid of getting ugly/dirty/mean.

  13. annaloo says:

    Oh, and don’t forget the British nanny stereotype!

  14. Feebee says:

    But the villians are so much more fun to play, surely she doesn’t want that taken away.

    I wish she stop her gross generalisations though. Firstly the Brits have their own film industry so they’re hardly beholden to Hollywood and it’s typecasting. Secondly, I never really notice that the Brits are the bad guys. I find it’s more telling from the political climate that the baddies are based on. Current villians are mainly Asian notably Chinese or North Korean and Middle Eastern. Of course there’s the Central and South American standbys and a healthy dose of Europeans, mainly Eastern Europeans. I don’t really get her point. Love her acting though.

  15. Marta says:

    Try being Russian- we get the worst of it!!!!

  16. L says:

    You notice all the actors she names are men. Prob because most baddies in movies are guys, but I think it also has something to do with the actual talent of male actors coming out of the UK. Can anyone name any US actors that they could see in those roles? Hannibal Lector etc?

    And the X-men is a horrible example since the very fine Patrick Stewart played Francis Xavier. I mean, the entire freaking group is named after the man for pete’s sake.

  17. Pooky says:

    Spookily Marta, Helen Mirren is half-Russian!! Her birth name (from Google, not memory!) is Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov.

    Your fact of the day.

  18. Vibius says:

    Id think the Russians and Chinese would have a right to complain before Britain.

  19. padiddle says:

    @L: Brian Cox ( I believe it was him) played Hannibal Lector in Michael Mann’s Manhunter in the 80s before Silence of the Lambs came out. He was pretty good, though nowhere near as iconic or excellent as Anthony Hopkins. But anyway, he’s American and just faked the accent. and it’s a great movie, far superior to the other version of the book, “Red Dragon” IMHO of course.

  20. GatsbyGal says:

    It’s beacause the best villains are always super smart and classy, and the British accent just lends itself to that.

  21. CaramelKiss says:

    Um, welcome to the dark side, ethnic groups are JUST now starting to get better parts. Blacks have played maids, butlers and pimps for years. Hispanics have played janitors, field workers and Asians have always played the nerd with the pocket protector who has no game with the ladies.
    GTFOOH. I’m just sayin’…

  22. ien says:

    her statements make no sense considering none of those actors actually played BRITISH VILLAINS. they were BRITISH ACTORS playing villains.

    Anthony Hopkins did not have a british accent in SOTL although he did speak very very properly.
    Ian Mckellen did not have a british accent as Magneto in the Xmen movies (from what i can remember)
    and Paul Bettany in DaVinci Code spoke latin and italian for most of the movie, and when he did speak english he had a latin sounding accent.

    so is she mad about British actors playing villains, or is she mad about villains being portrayed as British? because there is a difference.

  23. anon says:

    Damn, Clive Owen’s head looks monstrous in that picture.

  24. Michelle says:

    Maybe Dame Helen just hasn’t seen many blockbusters?

    This past weekend alone we had a Brit playing a hero: Kick-Ass is Aaron Johnson, an Englishman.

    And Christian Bale (Welsh) is the goddamn Batman! I mean really…

  25. Mairead says:

    Firstly *shakes fist at Kaiser for choosing such a woeful photo of Alan Rickman* grrrrrrrrrr

    No2 – on a point of information, isn’t Brian Cox a Scot? I know all the roles I think of him in he plays an American (Bourne, L.I.E.), but his real accent is Scottish.

    No3 – I think the stereotype was for a while that if there was a British character in a film, he was automatically the baddie. This held more true some years back, hence Eddie Izzard’s skit. I think it’s this that Helen is picking up on (albeit half an hour late and a dollar short), rather than just casting British actors as baddies. And as someone else said, they often have the Classical training to allow them to pull off a bad-guy without it descending into a caricature.

    But if you want stereotypes, very very rarely in a British soap or drama has there been an Irish character that hasn’t been at one point in their story-arc as dodgy as f*ck (at best) or an absolute nutbag (at worst) – how about that for stereotyping Helen? :roll:

  26. Ruthie says:

    Dear Padiddle,

    Brian Cox is Scottish. Not American.

  27. velcrodots says:

    No, I’ve always thought the British were stereotyped as the butler. Niles and Gefforey, anyone?? (I know they are actually American actors, but they put on English accents)

  28. Shay says:

    That’s funny I thought British actors were playing every character in American movies and TV shows these days.

  29. Jillian says:

    I love British actors. And I love the “evil” characters in films more because they are waaaaay more interesting than the cookie-cutter heroes.

    So. British actors playing villains is like candy for me.

    But I don’t really connect the roles they play with Britain and the British people.


  30. Amy says:

    It is true, whenever there is a baddie in the film, he or she tends to have some kind of accent. Usually it is British or Russian. I feel like the last few movies about espionage and international crime (like James Bond movies) that I’ve seen always seem to have Russian terrorists…

  31. Hel says:

    I have read interviews of each of the actors mentioned and ALL have said they loved, and in the case of Alan Rickman preferred, playing the baddie.

    A baddie generally requires a better actor than the good guy and the actors listed are at the top of their game.

  32. Aspen says:

    Oh…my Mr. Rickman is MUCH handsomer than that photo. Sigh.

    As for the British-only-get-to-play-villains thing?

    Yeah, sorry…but no. You have to reach pretty hard for that one. Sorry.

  33. Hugh says:

    I think I get what Dame Helen means. Why do they give villains upper-class British accents especially in films which children can watch *and* especially in animated films? Think of Scar, Frollo, Jafar, Drake, Cat R Waul, and most of all…the Grand Duke of Owls!
    I think there exist many American children who think British are villainous people.

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  35. Neil Bartlett says:

    Of course they say it is fun. They’re promoting the film. Yes, there are examples for and against the case, but it the general portrayal that she is talking about. I’m sure it is fun to play the villain, but the problem is that Americans think that English people are villainous or untrustworthy. I have read interviews where the director has admitted that freely.
    It is a racist stereotype. There, I’ve said it. How often are Americans portrayed in such a light in British productions?

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