20 Actors Who Excel at Playing Unlikable Characters


An unlikable character does not need to be a villain, per se. They can be someone who is just plain annoying and yet still serves the story; they can be characters who do bad things but are not the main source of evil; or, yeah, they can be a necessary form of evil in a movie. With all that being said, there is no doubt out there that there are some actors who can play a role you love to hate really well. Some have even made a career out of playing roles like this.

Most names on this twenty-entry list may not ring a bell based on their names, but you definitely know them by face. Some are character actors; others are A-listers, even Academy Award winners. Some have played the meanest and baddest characters of all time. All in all, they have the face to make you prey on their downfall.

20 Anthony Michael Hall

We’re starting with an unlikely one. Anthony Michael Hall rose to fame in the 1980s in many of John Hughes’ classic teen comedy-dramas. Hall was even the original Russ Griswold in the first two National Lampoon Vacation movies in the early 1980s. He also had a brief stint on Saturday Night Live. As his career has gone on, he has starred in shows like USA’s The Dead Zone and more recently yelled “Evil Dies Tonight!” countlessly in Halloween Kills. Anthony Michael Hall is now a genre film superstar.

Bullied to Bully

Let us not forget that at the start of the 1990s, he played the bad guy in Edward Scissor Hands. Hall played Jim in the movie, the overbearing boyfriend of Winona Ryder’s character. He took things to a violent level when squaring up against a kind, somber Edward. It was a change of pace for him in the bad guy role, but very convincing nonetheless. Audiences hated Jim and were glad to see him thrown off the top of Edward’s worn-down home. Hall also shows up in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as slimey Gotham reporter Mike Engel, who feels the wrath of the Joker in the third act. It’s a rarity that he goes for roles like this, but Anthony Michael Hall can sure get under your skin when he wants to play bad.

Related: Most Intimidating Movie Villains of All Time, Ranked

19 Paul Dano

Paul Dano could have just been another nerdy-looking kid in a teen comedy like The Girl Next Door. Instead, over the last fifteen years, he would go on to co-star in some serious dramas that had some serious undertakings. As he has gotten older, he has definitely proven himself to be capable of playing darker roles that jaunt audiences. Even if he is only on-screen for a few minutes.

Dano Gets Dark

The first real glimpse at the kind of range that Paul Dano has was in There Will Be Blood, where he plays a preacher man who matches wits with Daniel Day-Lewis’ greedy oil tycoon character. Dano plays a man of God with an agenda quite well. He is also chilling in the crime drama Prisoners. He is a prime suspect in the disappearance of a little girl and gets beaten to a bloody pulp, which is not fun to watch. More recently, Dano entered the world of Gotham City as the sadistic Riddler. Although he only has a few moments of screen time, it’s clear how dark of a take the role is this time around with him in the part.

18 William Atherton

William Atherton has never been known to play a full-on bad guy. But he is more known as the jerk in ’80s and ’90s films who you can’t wait to see get punched in the face. More on that in a moment. He’s mainly a character actor, but he was actually one of the leads in Steven Spielberg’s early film, The Sugarland Express. But we may remember a few other roles as well.

Guy Who Got Punched in Die Hard

Atherton had a string of playing slime ball, jerk roles in 1980s movies. One of which comes to mind is his role as a news reporter named Richard Thronburg in Die Hard. He’s cutthroat to get the story on the hostage crisis, so much so that he brings Holly and John McClaine’s kids into the mix. In the end, Holly punches him in the face. A few years earlier, Atherton got owned big time in a highly memorable scene in Ghostbusters, seen below.

17 David Patrick Kelly

David Patrick Kelly may sound like a name you have not heard of, but you have definitely seen him in many movies. A character actor whose career dates back to the 1970s. Kelly was known for bad guy roles throughout the 80s and 90s. But for those unfamiliar, below is the scene from The Warriors where he iconically uses some empty glass bottles for taunting purposes.

Warriors, Come Out and Play!

In the decades that would follow, Kelly would be a little unrecognizable in the drama K-Pax with Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. In the 1990s, he suffered a brutal death at the hands of Brandon Lee in The Crow, but most know him for one certain bad guy henchmen role of sorts, Sully in 1985’s Commando. Yes, David Patrick Kelly is the man who Schwarzenegger promised to kill last, but of course, he lied.

16 Billy Drago

The late Billy Drago has a resume of films that have gone on from the 1970s up until his death in 2019. Drago usually played villains in the movies he was in. He had that glare about him, that sinister twinkle in his eye. Outside of movies, he showed up on shows like The X-Files, Hunter Street Blues, Supernatural, and True Blood.

Al Capone’s Right Hand

Drago had played bad guys in Chuck Norris films and co-starred with Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider. But it was Brian De Palma’s 1987 film, The Untouchables, that got him a ton of praise. Drago played Al Capone crew member Frank Nitti. A dirty, murderous, slick-looking gangster who ends up getting tossed off a building by Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness (although in real life this never happened), Drago knew how to play bad so well that when he got what was coming to him, you couldn’t help but cheer.

15 John C. McGinley

John C. McGinley is an actor who has been around for many years. Always playing a bit of an obnoxious character. As a testament of his talents, he’s highly likable in a show like Scrubs. But can turn on a dime in man other films. He can do macho, too, as a SWAT officer in movies like David FIncher’s Se7en. He’s a highly versatile actor that bites off any part he’s cast in.

Nobody Is Annoying Like John C. McGinley

McGinley can play a role in a setting where you have no choice but to do wrong. Case in point, he plays Tom Berenger’s sidekick in Platoon, who just wants to go home. He can also be extremely annoying as a cop in a forgetful 2000s comedy like Stealing Harvard. Lastly, he was perfectly cast as someone in charge of doing some firings at Initech in Office Space.

14 Faye Dunaway

Notice how up until this point, the list has been all men? Here’s a change of pace: Faye Dunaway is an Academy Award winner who knows how to play anything from the anti-hero to the overall villain. She may be one of the most accomplished talents on this list, with a career that dates back to the 1960s. She’s even an ambassador for the arts in her everyday life because, in 2011, France awarded her the title of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters.

She Can Do Bad

Dunaway has even gotten an Academy Award for playing a tough-as-nails, ruthless television executive in the film, Network. She played one half of the iconic crime duo in Bonnie and Clyde. Yeah, you kind of root for the two in the film, but they were basically murderous bank robbers. Let us not forget about Mommie Dearest, where she plays an emotional wreck by the name of, well, actress Joan Crawford. Lastly, let us not forget her villain role in the kids’ movie, Dunstin Checks In.

Related: Here Are 5 Movies Where Actors Played Other Famous Actors

13 Billy Zane

Billy Zane has nearly forty years of appearing in movies under his belt. His resume dates back to Back to the Future and weaves his way into thrillers of the late 1980s and early 1990s. His career would really prosper in the late 1990s, with one certain bad guy role we all remember him for. He was always perfectly cast as a suave individual, and he could always double that look with a character with evil intentions.

Billy Zane Survived the Titanic

Zane most notably played the role of Caledon Hockley, the upscale, rich fiancée’ to Kate Winslet’s character, Rose, in Titanic. It was the role of a lifetime—the perfect bad guy role for a film about one of the biggest tragedies in history. Zane was the perfect rich snob, and when the ship started to sink, he thought about himself more than anyone else. He’s played the villain in many other roles, like the thriller Dead Calm and Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight, but none more memorably than Titanic.

12 J.T. Walsh

J.T. Walsh is a character actor whose career has seen him play roles in comedies, action movies, and Stephen King adaptations. Walsh was an actor who didn’t need to look like a Hollywood star; what worked for him was that he didn’t look like anyone else. Walsh had a background in being on stage, including a version of Glengarry Glen Ross in 1984. He would appear in 50 feature films before his death from a heart attack in 1998.

J.T. Walsh’s Last Roles

Walsh played a bad guy or two here and there, as well as a spiteful authority figure, or he would just appear in roles as a sleazy character of sorts; case in point: 1995’s The Babysitter. 1998 saw the release of a few films that were dedicated to him: Pleasantville, The Negotiator, and Hidden Agenda. However, a year earlier, Walsh would play a sadistic villain in the Kurt Russell-led thriller Breakdown. Walsh turns from polite good ol’boy to one bad son of a gun at the flip of a switch. He also gets one of the coolest death scenes ever in that movie.

11 Adam Scott

Adam Scott in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
20th Century Studios 

Adam Scott is known for being a character you can root for in comedy shows like Parks and Recreation. More recently, he appeared in the hit show Severance on Apple+. His humor comes from playing the role of a smart guy in a room full of dummies in much of the work he’s done. But, with that kind of persona, it can lead to him playing an utter jerk from time to time.

The Other Brother in Step Brothers

It’s funny how quickly we can like Adam Scott and then find him utterly annoying. Case in point: his role in Step Brothers. Scott plays Will Ferrell’s older brother Derek in the film for a few scenes and goes a full-blown alpha male, narcissist at a family dinner who needs to get his family home because the Dane Cook special is on pay per view. Adam Scott also works out as the fiancée you don’t want Amy Adams to end up with in Leap Year or the new boss in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, who is rude and disrespectful to those he has to fire.

10 Michael Rooker

Michael Rooker has been around for four decades, mostly in bad guy roles. Rooker has softened up to the public since appearing in Marvel movies. But it never seems like he’s acting when he plays a bad guy. He looks like the guy who would be involved in a world of crime and harm to other people. It’s nice to see him play more sympathetic roles as of late, which makes us not worry that they actually pulled him out of prison to do a movie.

A Portrait of a Serial Killer

The real reason why Michael Rooker is perfect on a show like The Walking Dead or playing a murderous KKK member in Mississippi Burning dates back to none other than his role in 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Rooker is the title role in this film, and he’s utterly terrifying. His signature gravely voice, mixed in with a sadistic glare in his eyes, gets in your head and never lets up. He’s the real deal; it’s one of the best portrayals of a murderer because it feels like he is that guy and isn’t acting.

9 Michael Ironside

From one guy who looks like a natural-born villain to the next. The Canadian-born Michael Ironside has been appearing in genre films for most of his career, and he is still going strong. He could be in a straight-to-video horror film or appear in the recent blockbuster Nobody. We’re sure Ironside is a nice guy, but he has that glare in his eye that makes one wonder if he’s capable of doing something harmful.

Minds Blown

In the past few years, Ironside has had a resurgence in the indie genre film world as a bad guy in movies like Turbo Kid and a small role in the horror movie Still Born. He was the ultimate villain in movies like Total Recall and The Next Karate Kid. He co-starred in Top Gun. But we all must mention his big break in David Cronenberg’s Scanners as Darryl Revok and how he makes a guy’s head explode with his own mind.

8 Clancy Brown

From voice acting to Starship Troopers to indie horror films and Stephen King adaptations, Clancy Brown has been all over the place, and his career just keeps getting stronger as he gets older. Brown has a face and voice one can recognize. He’s one of those actors who played a character you loved to hate, and when seeing him in something new, it makes you think of that past character that made you feel that way, all the while you watch him give you another antagonist to get under your skin.

Career Longevity

Brown has played it smart over his career. He is in a lot of franchises or big-budget movies, playing smaller roles. On television, he has appeared in Gev V, Dexter: New Blood, Invincible, The Flash, and Ahsoka, and that was more recently. His most spiteful role to date, though, may have been in The Shawshank Redemption as the warden’s brutal right-hand man, Captain Hadley.

7 Christopher Lee

Very few can play characters that make us yearn for their comeuppance like Christopher Lee. In 2007, Lee was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records, for at the time, he had the most screen credits of 244, and there were still nearly a dozen movies he was set to release during that time. He is best known for always playing a villain in horror franchises and even big-budget studio franchises.

From Dracula to Lord of the Rings

Lee had quite an era in the 1970s. He appeared in classic horror films like The Wicker Man and was even a Bond villain in films like The Man with the Golden Gun. Most famously in his early career, he appeared as Dracula in the Hammer films version of the character. At the turn of the century, he popped up in a lightsaber battle with Yoda in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. His last huge role must never go unseen, though. He played The Lord of the Rings villain Saruman.

6 Christopher McDonald

Christopher McDonald as Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore
Universal Pictures 

Christopher McDonald is another perfect version of a character actor who does multiple movies and television shows a year. But he is mostly remembered for one role in particular. More on that in a second. McDonald has been all over the place in genres. His resume dates back to television in the 1980s, with shows like Cheers, Matlock, and Knight Rider.


The role we are getting at here is that of the Happy Gilmore villain, Shooter McGavin. Arguably, the character is one of the best villains in sports comedies. Compliments to McDonald here; he blends the snob-like vibe that can come with golfers while also having funny scenes in the movie to line up perfectly with Adam Sandler’s humor. Another great thing is that McDonald has never tried to get away from the role, which has helped him stay constant in the business. He seems to be glad to have played a famous comedy villain in pop culture. Roles like that are few and far in between.

5 Paul Gleason

When you think of the 1980s, there’s a lot you can dig up in terms of movies and pop culture. Many stars rose to fame in that era and have been instilled in the minds of movie lovers. But let us not forget the snobbish acting performances of none other than Paul Gleason. Remember him? Think of any teen comedy in this era. Gleason was usually the older guy who was dissatisfied with the kids in the film.

The Disciplinary Vice Principal

Most notably, Gleason was the VP of the school in which the film The Breakfast Club takes place. Richard Vernon is the tough as nails head of detention in the film, and he plans to make the kids lives a bit of an uphill battle that day. Gleason would reprise the role in a spoofing manner in Not Another Teen Movie a decade and a half later. He would also play the world’s most annoying Deputy Police Chief in Die Hard, who gets overpowered when the FBI shows up at Nakatomi Plaza. Gleason oozed unlikability in movies, and he did it with grace and respect for the material at hand.

4 Alan Rickman

On the topic of Die Hard, we must transition into arguably the biggest villain of the 1980s. Hans Gruber, played incredibly well by Alan Rickman. The English actor’s start as a bad guy in movies dates back to the late 1970s, when he appeared on a television production of Romeo & Juliet, where Rickman played the big bad, Tybalt. The rest is history.

Different Kinds of Bad

Rickman in Die Hard as a bad guy Hans Gruber was the perfect actor and role to combat Bruce Willis’ John McClain. Gruber always seemed like a constantly annoyed European criminal, but he never let that role keep him in a box. He would translate that persona into other roles, like Sheriff George of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a few years later. The Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest isn’t necessarily a bad guy role, but boy is he grumpy in the movie. Lastly, was his role as Snape in the Harry Potter series, a complex character who evolves throughout the adaptations of the series but is at first very hostile towards a young Harry Potter from the moment he steps foot in Hogwarts.

3 Louise Fletcher

Louise Fletcher has one notable role to date that bumps her far up this list. But her talents go far beyond that role. Fletcher grew up in Alabama. Both her parents were deaf, and it was her aunt who introduced her to acting and helped her develop speech. She would go on to become a BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Academy Award-winning actress.

Nurse Ratched

Indeed, it is Nurse Ratched that we all know Lousie Fletcher for. Her performance was so iconic in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that it even got a prequel series on Netflix. Fletcher would go on to play other film roles like Firestarter, Flowers in the Attic, and Invaders from Mars. But her appearance in the nurse’s outfit is that of a cold-hearted woman who ran the hospital and its patients like a tyrant. It’s a character that goes down as one of the best villains of all time.

2 Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Dennis Hopper’s career dates back to the 1950s. He was an actor and filmmaker who was at the forefront of the new way of making movies in the late 1960s. Hopper directed the cult classic Easy Rider. But as his career went on as an actor, he always played somewhat loose-canon, crazy characters. They would be roles that defined his career. Even if he was playing a protagonist, he was always a guy with an edge to him.

“I’m Smarter Than You, Jack.”

Dennis Hopper became a go-to bad guy in big-budget movies in the 1990s. Waterworld and Speed all come to mind as roles where Hopper brought us the perfect villain. However, a decade earlier, he would creep the hell out of us in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Hopper plays Frank Booth; he’s unhinged, sadistic, abusive, and in a split second can have extreme violent outbursts. It’s hard to judge Hopper’s performance because he gets lost in the character so well.

1 James Spader

James Spader was the bane of any hero’s existence in the films of the 1980s. He has made a career out of playing characters who make morally ambiguous decisions. Spader worked as a yoga instructor prior to getting gigs in television movies. He then became a member of the Brat Pack of the 1980s, where he always played a bit of a villain.

We All Wanted to Punch a James Spader Character in the Face

For starters, it was a genius casting choice to have James Spader be the voice of Ultron in the second Avengers movie. His voice carries a tone of “your feelings mean nothing to me,” perfect for a murderous robot with world dominance on their mind. But back in the 1980s, Spader looked like a guy who deserved to be canceled in today’s world and even acted like it on screen. Off-screen, he’s most likely a nice guy. But in movies, boy, didn’t you just want to punch him in the face? Spader tops this list because even the sound of his name brings up memories of a character he played who people loved to hate. It’s almost like we knew that guy in our own lives. Sometimes they get away with a lot, and one can hope karma gets them. Spader has made millions off of a persona like that in film and television.



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