Are we British people really as evil as portrayed in Hollywood films? Why, when Hollywood looks to cast the lead villain in their films, do they so often seek out a British actor? Sir Christopher Lee practically made a career from it. Why not the French, Germans, or even Cubans, all of whom the US has had somewhat of a historically antagonistic relationship with. Our two countries are supposed to have a ‘special relationship’, a historical friendship going way back, so why then are Brits cast as the character you ‘love to hate’.
The main argument goes back to ideas of colonisation. The cultural memories of “No taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party have sure footing in the national psyche. Britain was and always will be the first enemy of the US, the country whom they broke free from, and maybe this plays into the British-villain psychology.
But The US has made far more enemies since: Germany, Russia, Cuba, North Korea, Middle Eastern countries, South American countries, and the list goes on. Granted these nations do make up a large Hollywood villain roster but the most memorable villains are always British, and more specifically English, and even more specifically than that, well spoken English men.
This continuity of well-spoken Englishmen playing villains leads us on to the next possible hypothesis for English nefariousness. Often master villains are very intelligent, slightly eccentric, and often quite rich. To name a few: Alan Rickman in Die Hard (1988), Tom Wilkinson in Rush Hour (1998), Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs (1991), Peter Cushing in Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), Charles Dance in The Golden Child (1986). And who do Americans associate all these attributes with? Well-spoken English people. They fit all of these tropes, often providing a nice concurrence to the wise cracking American (the likes of Bruce Willis, Chris Tucker, and Eddie Murphy).
As Helen Mirren put it in a speech she gave in Los Angeles in 2010, celebrating the success of Brits in Hollywood; “’It’s just nice to say we’re not snooty, stuck up, malevolent, malignant creatures as we’re so often portrayed. We’re actually kind of cool and hip!”.
So is that it, is it our perception as “stuck up” and “malignant” that affords us such villainy?
A further factor could be the unwillingness of American actors to take roles as evil villains. Actors like Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, and Brad Pitt very rarely play bad guys. Why? Because US audiences do not like to see their acting heroes, who often personify traits of rugged individualism, in a negative light. The “snooty” Englishman provides a pleasant juxtaposition to the American protagonist that the audience is rooting for.
It does also help that so many of the English actors who often play villains are some of the finest actors our small island has to offer.