Perennial Badass Mark Pellegrino on the Science of Playing Villains

Mark Pellegrino is a nice guy who's played some killer villains.


His memorable roles include Lucifer on Supernatural, Paul Bennett on Dexter, Jacob on Lost, and the guy who asks, "Where's the money, Lebowski?" while dunking the Dude's head in the john in The Big Lebowski. The 49-year-old has been working steadily since the late '80s, amassing a slew of credits, and while he's best known for television, he's also made the jump to film. This month saw the release of Bad Turn Worse, an indie crime thriller directed by Simon Hawkins and Zeke Hawkins. Pellegrino plays the crazed bad man Giff, and his performance has earned comparisons to Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Pellegrino recently chatted with NYLON Guys about playing evil characters, the differences between television and film, and the importance of being patient with yourself.
Congratulations on the movie, it seems like it's gotten really great reception.
Yeah it seems so. I haven't seen it yet, but I'm really pleased with the reactions.
It feels like a really well toned indie movie, which is the most fun kind of movie to watch. You've done so much work in television. What is the most fun thing about doing a movie?
I think it's about the project and the people that you are working with. I like being with people who are stimulating, and whom I learn from regardless of how old they are. This is a young cast, but they've taught me quite a bit. It was first-time directors, but I learned something from them and their ability to communicate their ideas and filming style. For me, the fun is in who your with and what your working on and figuring out the mystery on how you guys can make this thing come to life in a way that's entertaining for other people.
And it's nice to see you on the big screen, rather than going episode by episode. Many actors say there are pros and cons to television. You get to live with the character, but on the other hand, you don't get to dive as deep as you do with a movie. Would you agree with that?
I don't know about that, because a movie is just one time, and I find that the serial nature of television allows you to really explore something deeply, and if your wrong you can correct those mistakes and sort out your character over time. That's the thing that an actor needs in any medium that they are working in that they don't often have. Every actor probably has different impressions about that. Obviously some people think that in movies you can delve in more deeply than something on TV. I think that's just the nature of the writing. I think that network television is written expositionally, and that lends itself to a more superficial acting and lends itself to being more of a talking head than a character. However, I think that TV is changing, because they're getting filming actors and cinematic directors, and the writers are also learning that less is more, and to make the audience reach for things a little bit instead of spoon-feeding them everything. This is making TV more filmic for me.
I just did a TV series that was like that, and I did a series before that that was very TV-ish; this one was very filmic and cinematic and not afraid to pause. It has moments in-between the words that are more important than the words you are actually saying. For me, the main element is time. The thing that can make film great is the relaxation and lack of stress that can enable you to find the moment. As long as everyone is patient on the set, which is hard on TV, because you’re rushing through—you've got to get nine pages in a day. Film is a little bit easier in the sense that you can find it.
You're great at playing a villain. What attracts you to these roles? Are we ever going to see you in a slapstick comedy or something more lighthearted?
I have done that stuff in theatre, but it's more character-driven type comedies like John Patrick Shanley plays and things like that, where there are broad characterizations and everything comes out of who and what you are in the situation. Those types of comedies I can do, and I have a great deal of fun doing them, but I am attracted to the antagonist in stories. I think that without them, there would be no hero, and there would be no story, because these are the people who are pushing for what they want, and they're the ones who define everybody else in their world. I really like that. It's such a fundamental element of storytelling, but with that said I would love to do something like that. I don't think that people see me as necessarily that lighthearted guy. It depends on the part, and all you have to do is one of those things for people to start changing their perspective of you.I think that people saw a shift when I did The Closer. I think that they saw a different side of me than they had seen before.
You've done so many great villains. Who is the baddest dude you've ever played?
I think that Lucifer has to be up there as the badest dude around. But I played this character on Without a Trace who I thought a very interesting guy. He was the head of the Albanian mafia, or something like that. He was a very interesting character to play, and he was the equal of the main character on that show. He was just on the other side of things. I thought that they matched wit and physicality in a really great way. He was really interesting to me. I don't even remember the character's name at this point, but I liked it a lot.
This film takes its cues from both the hard-boiled tradition and the heist-movie tradition. Were there any great villain performances you tapped into and were inspired by?.
I've never really done that for bad guys. I didn't do that for Lucifer, and so many great actors have played Lucifer, and so many great actors have played memorable villains. I try to draw from what I think the scene and story is telling me. My motivation is what I think the character should be. With the exception of Hamlet, which I did a few years ago with my wife, and where I did watch every single film production of Hamlet to see how they did it. I might have stolen from a few of them for all I know. I don't do that with any of the people I play on TV because I think that they're not archetypal. With Lucifer, he was written in a very everyman way, and I don't think that there was any precedent for it in film. Likewise for most villains, they're so unique so you just have to put your own signature on each one, as Heath Ledger did so freakishly brilliantly in Batman. That was just a completely original performance.
At least one reviewer has said that your performance is like a toned-down version of that.
Well that’s a huge, huge, huge compliment. There are aspects of my own straight behavior in there even though I have a dialect from that period and a different physicality. But what Heath Ledger did for that was completely different, and it was a transformation that defied the mortals in a way. The way he spoke and the way he did everything was like chaos in one guy, and that's something to aspire to.
That's also charisma, even though he's disgusting.
I think that bad guys need that. You need to get on their side. You either have to understand their fundamental flaw and empathize with it, or they just have to be kind of charming. Like King Richard III—he's a bad guy, but he's done well, and you kinda like him.
Lots of people get their start doing serial television in the way you have. Do you have any advice for young actors going the same route?
Yeah, I think what they need to remember is that it's not permanent. Even if they have a show that goes on for a while, it doesn't mean that they're going to be on the forefront of everyone’s consciousness forever. I think people forget that even though they're famous now, 15 or 20 years from now, very few people will have that kind of longevity. They need to not get caught up in that and make it all about something else. Make it about craft, make it about being not only a good person but the best actor you can be, and then regardless of what you're doing, you'll be happy.
A mantra of mine is to be patient with yourself. Sandy Meisner—my mentor, in a way—said that it takes 20 years to be an actor. That's very disconcerting to a generation that has OCD and ADD who can't focus, want a quick fix right now and can't delay gratification at all. To hear that it takes 20 years to be an actor is quite distressing. What takes the 20 years is getting out of your own way and not caring what other people think about you. Also: patience, humility, knowing who you are and how long it's going to last. You need to be content with that and take your moment when it's there.
Were you able to instill any wisdom to your costar Mackenzie Davis and the rest of the cast?
Mackenzie strikes me as the kind of girl who knows what she is at a very young age. I was very impressed by her. She told me a story about her experience at The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, and I don't know many people her age who have that kind of insight into themselves and confidence to do what she did, which was walking out and saying, "This isn't for me." Especially at such a prestigious school. That's where Sandy taught, and folks from The Group Theatre. It's got a huge history; a great lineage of actors have come out of the playhouse. So for her to do that makes me think she knows what she wants.
I've actually interviewed Mackenzie before, and she's just the greatest. She's fantastic in this movie.
I did a scene with her, and often, even with really great actors, you don't always feel received when you’re talking to them, because they've got their own thing going on. I always feel seen and received by her. At one point, I remember getting outside of myself during a rehearsal and going, "She's going to be a star." Because that, to me is the X factor. It's when you're there and are present. That's what people respond to. It's presence.

Words by Leila Brillson