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Tough to be bad: The psychological impact on actors who play bad guys to be loved

In exclusive interviews, Jim Sarbh and Justin Prentice share the emotional intensity of actors who play the bad guy

brunch Updated: Oct 23, 2017 12:42 IST
Samreen Tungekar
Samreen Tungekar
Hindustan Times
justin prentice,jim sarbh,neerja
Jim Sarbh (left) played terrorist Khalil in Neerja and Justin Prentice played Bryce Walker in Thirteen Reasons Why.(Neville Sukhia)

You probably hate actors Jim Sarbh and Justin Prentice with a passion. If you do, they’ve done their jobs really well. Because Jim Sarbh played terrorist Khalil, the worst of the three hijackers in the film Neerja (2016), and Justin Prentice played Bryce Walker, the truly nasty teen in the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why.

For both Jim and Justin, playing the villain meant going deep into a kind of emotional intensity that neither actor was truly prepared for. Both talk about how difficult it was to get into their scenes – and how much harder it was to pull out of their respective roles and get back to being themselves when their scenes were done.

Here’s what the two actors went through as they set out to be hated, so that they could be liked.

‘In reality, i’m a really nice guy’: Jim Sarbh defends himself and describes the ordeal of playing a terrorist

Actor Jim Sarbh is not keen on being stereotyped as the bad guy. (Ashish Shah)

He came, he strangled, he terrorised… He is the guy who you hated while you sobbed over Neerja’s ordeal on screen when terrorists, especially Khalil, hijacked her first flight as a head purser. There were three terrorists, holding the plane hostage, but Khalil was the worst. He was played by Jim Sarbh, an actor who is not keen on being stereotyped as ‘the bad guy’.

About a boy

Jim was seen in A Death In The Gunj and Raabta, and will soon be seen in Neerja. (ERRIKOS ANDREOU)

He has done A Death In The Gunj (2016) and Raabta (2017) after Neerja, and he will be soon seen in Padmavati playing the lover of Ranveer Singh. But I’m still talking about Neerja, the film that made us sit up and take notice of him. Jim thinks the focus should be on an actor and not on the role so much.

Having studied at the American School of Bombay and then living in Australia for a couple of years, Jim didn’t know Hindi too well. Yet, there he was in the shoot for Neerja, having to speak broken Hindi and then learning Arabic. “We had an Arabic coach and for about a month and a half, we went over Arabic, learnt it, literally had exams,” he says. “The best part about learning Arabic was that before the film started, I knew the entire film, dialogue by dialogue. Just like a play. It was beautiful.”

Basic weapons training formed another aspect of the learning he required to get into his character; for one thing, his role needed him to be able to brandish a gun at Neerja. “But we weren’t supposed to be well-trained with weapons; after all we screwed it up at the end!” he laughs.

The exhaustion of being bad

Jim kept his distance from people beyond the set too. (Aalok Soni)

The hijack sequence of the film was shot for 13 days straight. “My life was go home, sleep, come to set, be Khalil. I made it a point to be in character the whole time,” says Jim. “I would do the scene, walk off quietly, and not talk to anyone till the next scene. It was tiring to be that guy. I’m really a nice guy!”

To pull into and out of a scene, Jim had to ensure he kept his distance from his fellow actors. “It’s harder to scream at someone you just chatted with at lunch,” he says. “I mean, if you’re a superb actor you might be able to do that, but I couldn’t do it. So I just kept to myself, and that was a good way to continue being in character.”

He kept his distance from people beyond the set too, not that he had much time to socialise. “I did not hang out with anyone, socialise, did not meet anyone, or talk to people,” says Jim. “My character had to be unforgiving, serious and just really intense. So I thought it was best to not let myself out of that zone at all.”

Was that difficult? “Not really. I appreciate being known as ‘best character’ rather than as the ‘best bad guy’,” he says.

‘I had to hold myself from breaking down’: Justin Prentice on the mental trauma of being ‘rapist’ Bryce Walker

Justin Prentice. 23. worked very hard to play Bryce Walker.

If you binge-watched 13Reasons Why, it probably didn’t take you more than three episodes to start hating Bryce Walker more than anyone you know, and you weren’t the only one. Actor Justin Prentice, 23, was also the subject of thousands of hate tweets. Which explains why Justin will make you realise that the struggle to be Bryce was probably way more than he signed up for.

Still, Justin says, he loves how much he is hated. “When this role came to me, I was immediately intrigued. I mean look at the way the character is written! I know he (Bryce) is not a good person on the show, and I thought that would be interesting to play,” he says.

How to be bad

Bryce is mean, he’s hard, and he is a bully. Playing him definitely needed a lot of rehearsal – and there had to be a therapist and an advocate on set. “I did a lot of research to be Bryce, and having access to a therapist really helped,” says Justin. “The role was so intense, I needed that kind of reassurance. Also, we focused a lot on making sure he doesn’t come across as a sociopath, because it’s easy to paint him like one. We didn’t want to do that.”

Intense emotion

Justin felt like breaking down after shooting the first rape scene of the show. (Isabelle Battaglin)

In the series, Bryce rapes his friend Justin Foley’s high-school girlfriend Jessica Davis when she’s too drunk to even react. He is Hannah’s 12th reason to kill herself when he rapes her too. Both the scenes are hard-hitting because even though we talk about rape, the graphic representation of the act by two young people is too much to deal with. So how did Justin get into Bryce’s head?

“Alisha and Katherine (Jessica and Hannah) are like sisters to me. They showed immense trust in me, and I did in them too. We rehearsed quite a bit, and the crew was really helpful. I rehearsed after going home as well,” he recollects. “Simulating rape is tough, really tough. You’re naked there, in front of people, and there’s a girl with you. It’s intense pressure. But also, it was important to do it. After the first scene with Alisha, she kind of broke down. I also wanted to break down, because I felt it was my fault she felt like that. It took us time to pull out of the scene.

“However, it was an emotional scene and an important topic. We felt we owed it to rape survivors. It’s our responsibility to tell people how terrible this is. I can’t even imagine what these girls go through, their ordeal,” he says.

Justin flinches as he talks about the scene where he rapes Hannah. “That scene lingered on; I had to take a break to let it go. I took the weekend off after that scene. Kathy also took time to pull out of it. In the rape scene, the camera is on her face after a point, just to capture her reactions, and the discomfort. It showed how she stopped resisting the attack after a point because her soul was crushed,” he says.

Anger and hatred

People often forget that there’s a line between fiction and reality, but in a way, this works for the actor. “In person, people have been nice to me. They want to take pictures with me, want to take autographs. But on social media, the hatred pours in! I actually like it. When people say hateful things about Bryce, it means I’ve done my job,” Justin smiles.

Justin doesn’t want to justify the negativity Bryce has, but he has logic behind it. “Bryce has a back story, like everyone does. It’s not so much in detail on screen, but he has issues. His parents are never there, he’s practically raising himself. He’s a wealthy guy with luxury, the kingpin of high school. But still, he’s just the kingpin of high school. He’s a teenager. There’s a lot that goes into making up that kind of mentality,” he says.

Being Justin

Justin says the good part about having to prepare for a role like Bryce is that he is nothing like the character. “Bryce assumes he can take whatever he wants, he doesn’t think of consent. He thinks women are inferior, and doesn’t respect them. I’m nothing like that in real life. Respecting women is something I’ve imbibed since childhood,” he says.

This is exactly what made him take on the role. “Devaluing women that way and embracing the character’s mind was a challenge. I think I took on the role because in real life, I’m not an asshole!” he laughs.

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From HT Brunch, October 22, 2017

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First Published: Oct 21, 2017 22:58 IST