Trolling IRL: Asshats, does the ass come first — or the hat?!
December 1, 2014 5:09 AM   Subscribe

Ok, I'm studying a new improv role and really struggling to capture my character's essence. How do I act like a subtle but ruthless aggressor... without swerving into TV dominatrix land? Think strong, machiavellian, sadistic and contemptuous. With a kick of prima donna.

I want to model myself after *real* as well as fictional bullies. People who manipulate everyday situations to their own twisted ends. How do they talk and move? What are vocal tricks, facial expressions, & strategies I can use? I'd love to hear personal stories and see movie clips & transcripts. From micro-aggressions to straight up abuse and coercion... I want it all.

Eeeeep! Feeling preeettty creepers right now :|
posted by fritillary to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

Ever watch the tv show House? The title character is very similar to what you're describing.
posted by royalsong at 5:12 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

overt? definitely House as royalsong recommends. Also, Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock as another high-functioning sociopath.

more subtle? perhaps Frank Underwood, the protagonist from House of Cards
posted by alchemist at 5:23 AM on December 1, 2014

What's your motive? I've worked with a bully and for another, and in both cases they were deeply insecure people, constantly in fear of losing their power, or job, or social position. They were mean to folk to try and secure their place, or to place perceived blame for a shortcoming elsewhere than themselves, or to keep control over a situation they felt was potentially threatening to them in some way.

Physically, I'd say practice your fake smile and your fake laugh - they always had a careful facade of being everyone's best mate, presumably on the grounds that if you're mostly well-liked, no-one will listen to your target when they call you out.
posted by greenish at 5:53 AM on December 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think one key, that's actionable enough for acting, is just not liking anyone. Actively disliking them, but putting up with them, and soothing them, to get things done.

The insecurity is possibly the reason for not liking anyone -- you assume that they won't like you.
posted by amtho at 6:02 AM on December 1, 2014

Ok shes definitely a caricature but your description of "strong, machiavellian, sadistic and contemptuous. With a kick of prima donna" immediately made me think of Sue Sylvester from Glee. Next I thought of Karen from Will & Grace.

Then I tried to think of a more subtle version and ended up with Betty Draper from Mad Men.
posted by Ness at 6:05 AM on December 1, 2014

Dwight Schrute (genius Rainn Wilson US The Office) is a great example of someone who is so in love with authoritarian structure that his character conflict is between deference to those in power and his own struggle for power.

Season 3, Epsiode 3, The Coup is a great example of how he behaves when he thinks he's won power.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 6:16 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Raymond 'Red' Reddington from the US television show The Blacklist might be an interesting character to study.

Also from US television: John Malkovich's Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach in the show Crossbones.

Both of these characters kinda chew the scenery, but that's what makes them fun to watch.

Gary Oldman used to specialize in breathing life into 'bad guy' characters. The character he played in Leon: The Professional is scary as hell.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:04 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Real people like this don't treat you like dirt, they will treat you like there best friend while you can do something for them. They will charm the pants off you do to speak to get what they want and you will give it to them because they make you feel special, party of the chill kids club. Until you cross them, then they will willingly focus all that energy on destroying you or if your usefulness is gone they will just move on. Like a switch had been flipped. You are a means to an end not a person. They will lie to you as easily as breathe, sleep with you what ever it takes to push the buttons to get you to do the thing they want. Think of a certain sort of man, the kind with trained attack dogs, not the sort trained well, but trained with a kick, then a treat, shock collars and then pats, now use these methods on people. Hey you swagger because you know how to force another living thing to do what you want. Say no to a person like you would a bad dog if you were a shitty dog trainer. That's the mentality you want.

Based on forty years of watching my brother.
posted by wwax at 7:12 AM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yes, you really should watch House of Cards (US) if you haven't already. Frank is a good, but I think Claire is better. She is superb at pretending to be sweetness and light, caressing her victims with one hand while eviscerating them with the other.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:38 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I agree that motivation here is key. Nobody (I hope!) thinks of their own desires as "twisted ends" - so what is your character driven by? As greenish says, insecurity is a good possibility, but if you're thinking of someone who really is strong internally, maybe they just think they've figured out something about the world that nobody else gets - I've got this quote from Geoff Ryman's Was that I think could easily be taken too far, or the wrong way, and become the mantra of the type of person you're dealing with: "You can work until you disappear; it won't be enough. People don't love a drudge. But sometimes they love selfish people, for doing what they always wanted to do themselves." Maybe your character assumes that everyone else really WANTS to act on their 'Machiavellian, sadistic, and contemptuous' impulses but is too afraid/weak to do so? In that case their own selfish behavior could be a point of pride to them, proof that they're strong, decisive, etc. in ways that most people are not.

This kind of person would probably flout social conventions while relying on them to keep other people doing what they want - there's a certain way of fake laughing or smiling, for instance, that I think you see with this type of person, where the fakeness is fairly apparent and they're relying on social norms to keep you 'playing along' ... I don't quite know how to describe it but it comes across to me as if they deliberately don't bother to put on the buddy-buddy act as convincingly as possible because they don't need to - they don't care what you think; so as long as they're going through the motions, putting the smiles and laughs in where appropriate, mouthing the right words, you can't call them out so you'll just go along ... depending on the power differential, it's almost as if they WANT you to recognize they're being fake because they know you can't do anything about it.
posted by DingoMutt at 11:55 AM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

In addition to the great character examples already provided above, another bully you might want to look at is Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. I don't think you could quite call her two-faced because nobody is really fooled by her pink, simpery, kitten plate-having ways, but she persists with those trappings nevertheless, even as she's blatantly doing some pretty terrible things.
posted by DingoMutt at 12:07 PM on December 1, 2014

Best answer: Talk to the victim, while really addressing the onlookers.

"Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't realise X was an issue for you"

Help publicly, in order to expose weakness.

"It's Latin - it means 'I am human, nothing human is alien to me'"

Forgive, in order to expose guilt.

"I'm sure she won't lose any sleep over it"

Also, the kind of compliment that truly criticises.

"I'm sure you don't have to worry about that in your profession"

Either don't let the victim know about it, or at least keep plausible deniability.

Suppressed surprise is always a good emotion to embarrass someone without looking guilty. What DingoMutt said about social conventions: rules-lawyering etiquette in order to be technically polite, and forcing someone else to be technically rude.

It's never been clearer to me that I'm never going to set foot on a university campus ever again.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:40 PM on December 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These are great! Keep 'em coming.

Motivation? I think DingoMutt had it best... special superiority & entitlement... using & flouting social norms at will. Not insecurity. This character really *believes* they were born for the top.
posted by fritillary at 5:17 PM on December 1, 2014

I have been reading Mira Grant's Parasitology series. I would recommend you look at the character of Dr. Steven Banks as your uber-avuncular, power-hungry model.

"Someone told her that she could reinforce names in her head if she said them at least three times a conversation--said it wold make people trust her more, too, since it came off as a personal touch. Like she actually gave a damn about them. She started doing it, and damned if it didn't work. Everyone loved her."

"I did, and damned if it didn't work again. People like it when you seem to take an interest in them. All sorts of people. Powerful people. I could get anything I wanted, and all I had to do was remember names and children and anniversaries."

posted by jenfullmoon at 5:47 PM on December 1, 2014

It sounds like you're perfectly describing Uncle from Let's Kill Uncle.

I recommend reading it regardless (it's a strange and wonderful book), but I think this would give you a great understanding of the terrifyingly obsequious characteristics you've outlined.
posted by taltalim at 7:09 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I worked with a sociopath once. Worse, actually - I worked FOR a sociopath once. She was creepy and terrifying and dear gods it was a horrible four years. Creepy because everything was just one half step to the side of normal. On the surface, it was perfectly normal, perfectly polite, perfectly cordial, and nothing she said was actually WRONG. But .... it was too perfect. It was too well done, the fact that I couldn't complain about anything she did without sounding crazy myself. She called herself a princess and thought that simply by her declaration, she was one. She had an obvious affair with another department head, and then when his 7 months pregnant wife showed up, told all of us to tell the wife she was out of the office. (I told the wife exactly which office was my boss', because I was so done and had already given my two weeks notice).

Gods. What a nightmare.

So, my recommendation? Read Issendai's essay about sick systems, and act in the role of the antagonist.
posted by RogueTech at 10:48 PM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks RogueTech... Issendai is sheer horror!
posted by fritillary at 4:19 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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