The Evil Genius of David Anders

Cult TV's premier bad guy reflects on his career playing the character you hate to love.

Photographer: Catie Laffoon; Groomer: Kim Bragalone

In the first scene in David Anders acting debut, he's dressed in all black, gleefully brandishing a shotgun before assassinating someone in broad daylight on a crowded street. The show was J.J. Abrams' spy thriller Alias, where he made that bloody entrance as Mr. Sark, the baby-faced supervillain who would go on to torment Jennifer Garner's heroine for literally the entire series. Typical story rules would've dictated Mr. Sark's demise after awhile, and while the character had definite cockroach qualities to be the type of bad guy who could believably survive for so long, it was deeper than story. Mr. Sark simply couldn't die, because David Anders was having too much fun playing him and it translated to the viewers. In a climate where many series craft their "villains" as either bland ciphers or mustache-twirlers, Anders found the right mix of smarm, charm and menace to make Sark as likable as any of the show's de facto heroes.

Not surprising then, that in the decade and change since, he's gone on to craft a niche playing the guy you love to hate. It's a niche he didn't quite seek out, but nevertheless acknowledges and embraces, which is why it was the first thing to come up in a conversation I had with him in honor of his latest Evil Dude role on The CW's iZombie, which returns for a second season tonight. "We either have J.J. Abrams to thank or to blame for me forever being pigeonholed. You know what? I love to do it. It’s a lot of fun. I think everybody has a villain in them. It’s just not okay to show it. I get to tap into that every week for pay. We don’t go looking for the villain parts, the villains seem to find us." The last time Anders went looking himself, he was "peddling khakis in the Gap" on some Kanye shit and auditioned for Alias on a fuck-it-why-not whim. 

Fast forward thirteen years and it's a safe bet Anders appeared as a rogues gallery member in your favorite cult show in that window, sometimes even as a stimulant for an otherwise weak season (i.e. Heroes season 2, the last season of 24), with a carefully perfected approach for being evil yet compelling. "You got to be careful with playing it too hard. You could run the risk of twisting your mustache too hard. I think you have to play these parts thinking they’re in the right as far as the are concerned. They are just trying to meet their end game." The secret to his formula of being diabolical yet likable is evident in his picks for best pop culture villains: Tywin Lannister, Hans well as Shooter McGavin and Stan Gable from Revenge of the Nerds. The traveling rogue niche has kept him in steady demand, but now he appears to have settled again, (spoiler alert if you're lost and haven't yet watched) surviving iZombie's first season under even more inexplicable circumstances than any of his previous roles. ​

For the woefully uninitiated, the series (adapted from a popular graphic novel of the same name) follows Olivia Moore (Liv Moore, get it?), a med-student-turned-zombie who now works at a morgue to satiate her brain pangs lest she become a George A. Romero neanderthal. The catch? Every time she eats a brain, she gets sporadic flashes of the deceased's life—and takes on their personality traits—thus turning her burden into a tool for good as she uses her visions to help the police solve murders (they think she's just a psychic). Anders plays Blaine, the zombie who turned Liv, who's trying to use his zombie-dom to launch a criminal enterprise by turning the city's one percenters into zombies who must then rely on his brain-catering service to function. And the way he provides those brains? Kidnapping and killing wayward and at-risk teenagers. And despite all that, he's one of the funniest, most enjoyably despicable characters on the show.

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By season's end, in addition to his heinous kid-killing operation, Blaine has kidnapped a beloved astronaut just to meet a client's request, and endangered or killed both of Liv's love interests and her kid brother. Yet here we are, season 2, and David Anders is a main cast member, playing the same unapologetic narcissist asshole, much to every fan's delight. In his portrayal of Blaine, he's bringing a twist to the lovable villain role he's perfected. He's not an arch-villain, more of just a casually selfish dick. "There’s a smarmy charm about him. It’s a lot of fun to play. That’s what drew me to this show in the first place. I’ve played the bad guy, I’ve played the heavy, but I haven’t been allowed to play the humor to this point. I’ve been sarcastic in past work, but there’s a lot of great funny lines that I get to say."

That twist on his wheelhouse is what attracted Anders to the show, but that's not to say he hasn't thought about breaking the mold. But after nearly fifteen years, his reputation precedes him. "I’m sure there has been auditions where I go in for the male lead and they are like, “You know what? Why don’t you read these pages? Can you step outside for a minute and take a look at these and come back in?" Still, despite a wisecrack about being pigenholed here or there, he's proud to have established a stigma in the first place, going back to Alias which he still ranks as his favorite role to date and a veritable "wet dream" of a job. And much like Blaine's operation, a career in villainy still has room for expansion. Imagine Anders' charm paired with an auteur like Joss Whedon's words, who has crafted similarly beloved villains under Anders' same philosophy of coaching actors not to play their motivations as evil. When I broach that pairing, Anders expressed how "amazing" it would be to work with someone so "brilliant." The sentiment might be mutual—apparently Joss gushed to fellow iZombie co-star Rahul Kohli how big a fan he was of the show.

Of course, a career spent playing villains can be limiting on a personal level too. Not only with casting directors, but viewers themselves tend to identify David Anders the man with the rogues he portrays, down to demanding performances of Mr. Sark's British accent ("I’ll sometimes oblige. That’s like being asked to be a monkey. It’s so funny. I’ve gotten from English people things about my accent.") It's why Anders doubles down on expressing his personality through his hilarious, often no-holds-barred Twitter account whenever he can. "A lot of people, their parts are fairly similar to them in life. They get to play a variation of themselves. I always play the people that are so far away from who I am. I feel like Twitter is an opportunity for me to give people who the hell I am. I make a joke here and put my foot down about this there. [And sometimes I] put my foot in my mouth."

Whatever the future brings, though, whether it's more bad guys or transitioning his reputation to the big screen, David Anders patiently welcomes the day some brave soul offers him the chance to switch it up. "I can play the good guy. I got a good smile. I could be the ingénue. I could be the romantic lead. In time. In time I think that will be coming. I’ll wait."

Frazier Tharpe is a staff writer at Complex, and as far as he's concerned, Alias is one of the best shows of all time. Follow him @The_SummerMan.

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