• Actors like Jackie Chan, Dwayne Johnson, Emma Watson, and Gwyneth Paltrow have chosen not to play villains to protect their established public image and career trajectory.
  • Some actors fear that playing villains would be perceived as a loss of their likability or that they wouldn’t be able to convincingly portray darkness.
  • Actors like Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lawrence, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Sylvester Stallone, and Anne Hathaway have mostly avoided playing villains due to the audience’s expectations of them as heroes or morally upright characters.

Many actors refuse to play villains because of how it might look for their careers, choosing instead to build their reputations around playing the good guy. In the days when the studio system had enough control to keep actors under contract for years, an actor had to be prudent and careful about what roles they played, or else they would be typecast, and heroes were much more successful than heavies. Now, actors have a little more control over how they’re perceived and can experiment with their filmography, selecting roles that challenge them rather than reinforce their public image.

Plenty of “good guy” actors have played villains, but for likable performers like Robin Williams in One Hour Photo or Tom Hanks in Elvis, the choice can have disparate results, and either be applauded for stepping outside their comfort zone or ridiculed for trying to portray darkness they don’t internally have. Actors refuse to play villains for various reasons as simple as not wanting to lose face in front of their audience or because they don’t think they can do so convincingly. Some actors have established themselves as a brand so thoroughly that playing a villain would do more harm than good to their bottom line.

10 Jackie Chan

Rumble in the Bronx Jackie Chan in front of an explosion from the movie poster

Early in his career martial arts superstar Jackie Chan could be spotted playing heavies and thugs ready to mess up the hero of classic Hong Kong action films. After he found success stateside in 1995 with Rumble in the Bronx, however, he was firmly established as an action comedy star, and while plenty of comedy actors have nailed playing villains, he never took on roles that deviated from that. Audiences went to see Chan perform jaw-dropping martial arts stunts and make them laugh in the process, and playing a villain might have compromised that and perhaps even threatened his trajectory.

9 Dwayne Johnson

dwayne johnson in 2022's black adam

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson started his film career playing a villain – The Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, and when a spinoff was made featuring the origin story of the warrior, it was turned into an antihero story, and that basically became the template for Johnson’s career. Except for the live-action adaptation of the video game Doom, Johnson hasn’t played a villain, instead choosing to focus on building franchise after franchise around his brand as a hero who always saves the day. Even when he had the chance to play the villain in Black Adam, he had to make him a misunderstood antihero, and then bring in a worse villain for him to fight.

8 Emma Watson

Emma Watson As Belle In Beauty And The Beast Ravenclaw

Emma Watson became a sensation when she was still a child playing Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies. She’s continued to play roles that feature clever and brave protagonists, like Belle in the Disney live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast or Meg in Little Women. It’s possible that casting directors can’t see her as anything other than Hermione in every other role she plays, making it difficult for her to break out of a certain archetype.

7 Adam Sandler

Adam Sandler sitting on a couch in You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah

Adam Sandler might play unlucky characters such as in The Waterboy, Hubie Halloween, or Hustle, but he doesn’t play villains. Even if, as in Uncut Gems, his actions are downright selfish and reckless, it’s easier for audiences to root for Sandler playing a schmuck than taking him seriously as someone with malevolent intentions. After a string of Sandler box-office bombs, his recent comedies like You’re So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah have been successful, but Sandler’s next movie role should really bank on the unhinged chaos he brought to Uncut Gems and be a villain.

6 Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part Two

Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout role was as YA hero Katniss Evergreen, and in the decade since that she’s been seen in different roles, they all have one thing in common; they’re not a villain. While her X-Men character Mystique was somewhat villainous, she never made her as brutal as the character could have been in the comics. From Passengers to The Silver Linings Playbook, she’s played neurotic and complicated characters, but none of them have gone against the resilient archetype Hollywood set for her.

5 Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow in historical garb in Shakespeare in Love

Not only does Gwyneth Paltrow embody the effervescence of spirit and lightness of being in her everyday career as the founder of GOOP, but she’s also never played a part that has threatened her wholesome image. In Shakespeare in Love she played the fae-like object of The Bard’s affections, in Se7en Brad Pitt’s unlucky wife, and Tony Stark’s right-hand in the MCU. Her ethereal qualities could belie dark intentions, but so far she hasn’t explored that route, and it doesn’t look like she will while she focuses so much on her business.

4 Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood as William Munny in Unforgiven.

Despite the fact that Clint Eastwood kickstarted the gritty Spaghetti Western that turned the romanticized version of the American West into something more authentic, he was never much for playing a villain after the early parts of his career of questionable morality. Even in later years when he starred in Dirty Harry he wasn’t a crooked cop, just an unconventional one. William Munny in Unforgiven and other parts have been morally ambiguous, but he’s always tried to make them sympathetic with actions dictated by a strict code of conduct.

3 Jimmy Stewart

George looking sad in It's a Wonderful Life

Like his pal John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart rarely donned a black hat in the Western genre, preferring to play heroes and men of good conscience. Even his contemporary Gregory Peck, who often played stalwart men of integrity occasionally dabbled in villainy, but Stewart remained on a straight and steady path with roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and Harvey. Stewart was America’s favorite son, and projected too much self-righteousness, warmth, and gentleness to ever be convincing as a villain.

2 Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo

Sylvester Stallone might look like a heavy with his sloping brow and crooked mouth, but the Rocky star rarely plays into his looks. He’s currently playing a mob boss in Tulsa King, but his capo has a heart of gold, as has been the case with most of his rougher characters. The star of such huge action franchises as Rambo and The Expendables comes from a time when audiences went to the theater to cheer for the hero and boo the villain, and Stallone has mostly remained somewhere in the middle, bringing complexity to what would normally be beefcake roles.

1 Anne Hathaway


Since her career took off with The Princess Diaries and continued with The Devil Wears Prada and Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway hasn’t ever played anyone wicked or malevolent. With her doe-eyes and her ready smile, she doesn’t seem capable of causing anyone harm. She’s played morally ambiguous characters like Catwoman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but for now, it seems like the general public is perfectly capable of rationally disliking Hathaway all on their own, so she may be staying away from villain roles.

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