Why Do Villains Have English Accents in American Movies?

While living in England, I’ve discovered a common bugbear among the English is the fact that Hollywood frequently casts English actors as villains.

I’ve sometimes wondered if their memories on this subject are a little selective.  I’ve often heard Peter Cushing’s role as Tarkin in Star Wars cited as an exampleBeing a Star Wars nerd, I typically counter that Darth Vader had an American accent, and so did the emperor; whereas the English Alec Guinness played Obi Wan Kenobi, definitely one of the ‘good guys’.  And Star Wars aside, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth can attribute much of their success as Hollywood romantic leads to their ‘charming English accents.’

Nevertheless, my English friends insist that the English-accent-equals-evil thing is definitely real.  There are numerous lists compiled on the internet, and Helen Mirren was recently quoted as saying ‘I think it’s rather unfortunate that the villain in every movie is always British’.  Some typical examples include Anthony Hopkins role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Jeremy Irons voicing Scar in The Lion King, and Ian McKellen as Magneto in X-Men.  It’s worth noting that all these villains are English, not British.  There is not an Irish, Welsh or Scottish villain in sight.  Moreover, there are no regional English dialects represented.  Show me the Hollywood baddie with a Geordie or Liverpudlian accent.   

So if that’s the trend, why does it exist?

One explanation I’ve heard is that English actors are more talented than American actors and therefore better able to take on the more challenging villain roles.  I have even read a suggestion that because American performers are more likely than British performers to train as method actors, they will struggle to get into the mind of an evil character.  As far as I can tell, the main thing this theory has going for it is that it shows British actors in a positive light.

Another, slightly more plausible, explanation I’ve heard is historical: Americans, perhaps only on a sub-conscious level, haven’t forgotten the Revolutionary War and see the British as the original enemy.  This theory suggests the trend of casting English actors as villains is rooted in Anglophobia or Anti-English sentiment.  I’m not convinced.  Anglophobia is thin on the ground in the US.  And the majority of Americans will say that they ‘love British accents’, because they sound ‘so classy’ and ‘so sophisticated’ (remember Hugh Grant and Colin Firth?).  It’s true that occasional ribbing about the War for Independence might occur, but on the whole, Americans admire and even covet British culture.

My theory is that the use of English accents is a storytelling device.  Hollywood films are created by Americans for a primarily American audience.  When crafting a story, a filmmaker needs to make the audience identify with the hero and one way of doing this is to give the hero approximately the same accent as the intended audience.  The villain needs a different accent so we understand that this is a character we shouldn’t like.  The English accent communicates Otherness, while still being an accent that the majority of Americans can easily understand (hence the lack of regional accents).  You may argue that this device is un-nuanced and needs to be challenged, but it isn’t a manifestation of anti-English feeling.  It’s a bit like casting a blonde to play a bimbo.  It may not be accurate or nice but it gets the message across.

But is this the whole story?  I suspect another dimension of the trend relates to America’s deeply entrenched anti-elitism.  Admittedly, American attitudes towards aristocracy are contradictory.  I’ve already mentioned how Americans covet British culture; British aristocracy plays a role in this.  The national hysteria over the wedding of William and Kate revealed how Americans long for this missing piece of their history.  Nevertheless, there is a strong American narrative that tells of the plucky individual who conquers adversity through determination and natural ability, that champions entrepreneurialism over inherited privilege.  I believe this narrative finds its way into the subtext of many American movies.  For Americans, the standard English accent, over all other accents, epitomizes the enemy elite.  Again, we see why an un-posh regional accent won’t do.

It’s worth pointing out that America doesn’t have the diversity of accents that Britain, or even just England, has.  Nor are the varieties of American accents detailed indicators of class, as they are in Britain.  The English accent screams POSH more loudly than any homegrown variety.  While we Americans adore the accent for being ‘so classy’ and ‘so sophisticated’, those qualities also make it perfect for a villain.

14 Comments

Filed under Transatlantic Divide

14 Responses to Why Do Villains Have English Accents in American Movies?

  1. Lindsay

    I agree with your take on the accent being used as a story telling device. The accent makes it clear that you’re dealing with someone who is different. However, the bit about anti-elitism may be true for SOME Americans, but certainly not for all. Yes idea of being a self-made-man is appealing, but that’s because (like the Royal Wedding) it is based in fairy tale. Who doesn’t find the idea of making something out of nothing appealing? Cinderella and Snow White were servants, until they were princesses. I think that idea is universally appealing.

    As for the regional dialects not being used, I think this is simply because Americans couldn’t understand them if they were used. I don’t think the average American knows the difference between a posh accent and a blue-collar accent. Just as I don’t think the average British person would be able to tell the difference between a South Philadelphia accent and a North East Philadelphia accent, or a Georgia accent verses a Mississippi accent.

  2. Lauren

    Thanks for the feedback. I didn’t mean to imply that all Americans were anti-elite, or even that anti-elitism is unique to America (Britain has plenty to go around). I do, however, think that individualism is particularly ingrained in the American psyche and that the narrative of self-made success is particularly potent in the US.

  3. It’s true that most Americans can’t identify different British accents (if they are even aware that a huge variety exists), but the Received Pronunciation English accent still signifies sophistication to them, even though they might not know why. Hannibal Lecter’s classiness is partly what makes him so chilling. If you gave him, for example, a Scottish accent, he wouldn’t be so scary, and that’s not because he would be more difficult to understand.