On the left: Jensen Ackles as Soldier Boy holding his shield in The Boys. On the Right: Austin Butler as Benny stands with his arms on propped on a pool table in The Bikeriders
(Prime Video/Focus Features)

Why Do We Love Watching Nice Guys Play Bad Boys Onscreen?

In Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, Benny is a biker who, when asked to choose between his wife and his motorcycle club, picks the latter. And then there’s Austin Butler, the actor who plays this bad boy onscreen—and a particular juxtaposition we’ve all come to love.

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In a promotional interview for the film, he gushed over an interviewer’s pet bunny. Butler has this quintessential nice-guy-turned-Hollywood-movie-star vibe that makes him likable. If you’ve watched his interviews, you’ll notice how he makes whoever he is talking to feel like they’re the most interesting person in the world. Butler even has great chemistry with his co-stars. Take Jodie Comer and Tom Hardy, his co-stars from The Bikeriders. Or Timothée Chalamet, his onscreen nemesis and offscreen fun interview buddy from Dune 2. Those videos were a delight.

And yet, watching him play a bad boy onscreen in The Bikeriders, and the menacing Na-Baron Fyed-Rautha Harkonnen in Dune 2, just mixed some red into this green flag and hyped up his sex appeal amongst his fans. It’s not just Austin Butler. There’s a phenomenon when actors who are known to be nice guys in real life play bad boys onscreen and become more attractive. 

Why does this happen? Just like Jodie Comer’s Kathy in The Bikeriders, we all think we can fix these bad boys, or that they’d change just for us. Call it the perfect balance of black and white, red and green, fiction and reality, if you will. The assurance that a fictional version embodies all your deepest darkest desires, while their IRL version fulfills all your healthy emotional needs and gets your girl gang’s approval on the group chat, does something to a girl’s feelings.

One of the earliest occurrences for me of “the nice guy playing a bad boy onscreen” was Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. He was the hero’s arch nemesis, but offscreen, he was Emma Watson’s crush, and the sweetest guy. When Draco and the Malfoys got a tiny redemption arc in the books in the end, it only added to his appeal. Similarly, when all-around good guy Daniel Radcliffe played the antagonist in Now You See Me 2, he was a hoot, wasn’t he?

I hear there’s a new Young Sherlock series in the works from Guy Ritchie, with Hero Fiennes Tiffin in the lead. And wouldn’t it be cool if Daniel Radcliffe were cast as his Moriarty (or a similar nemesis), a character whose portrayal on TV by another good guy playing a bad boy, Andrew Scot, was quite popular?

Challengers Art and Patrick via MGM
(Amazon MGM Studios)

Speaking of British actors that we love offscreen playing characters that make us angry, cringe, or maybe a tad turned-on is internet boyfriend Josh O’Connor. IRL, Connor is a gentle guy who loves doing ceramics and gardening in his spare time. But on camera, we just love to hate him as Prince Charles on The Crown, and find him sexy and pardonable for all his sins as the tennis ace Patrick Zweig in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers.

Lately, we’ve had quite a few actors who are known to be nice, sweet guys take on bad boy roles and absolutely crush the performances. And watching them let go of their inhibitions, act from the id, and act on the most uncensored emotions we humans feel, has been quite the spectacle.

Antony Starr as Homelander pointing at something in The Boys
(Prime Video)

Currently, Antony Starr as The Boys’ Homelander is poised to join the ranks of the most iconic villain performances of our time. And if the latest episode, where Homelander goes back to the Vought facility where he grew up, is any indication, there might be an Emmy with his name on it in his future, or at least a nomination. 

In fact, The Boys has been the perfect playground for this phenomenon. Just last season, the much loved Supernatural star Jensen Ackles, who wasn’t even allowed to swear on The CW’s show, got to play the foul-mouthed daddy of bad supe behaviour, Soldier Boy, and Ackles fans went berserk over how it made him seem hotter.

Jensen Ackles as Soldier Boy in 'Gen V'
(Prime Video)

It’s no wonder that with news of Jared Padalecki agreeing to showrunner Eric Kripke’s offer to star on The Boys, Supernatural fans want him to play a bad character, preferably a supe. After watching him play Meg Sam, Soulless Sam, and Lucifer on Supernatural, fans think the Walker actor in a bad boy role has been a long time coming.

Funnily enough, every time I think of good guys playing bad boys, it takes me back the scene from Bridget Jones’ Diary when Bridget (Renée Zellweger) tells Darcy (Colin Firth) that good guys don’t kiss like that, and he swears as he tells her, “They bloody well do.” We girls have been chasing that thrill, the perfect mix of good guy and bad boy in one, all this time, haven’t we? Well, now you know where to look!

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Jinal Bhatt
Jinal Bhatt (She/Her) is a staff writer for The Mary Sue. An editor, writer, film and culture critic with 7+ years of experience, she writes primarily about entertainment, pop culture trends, and women in film, but she’s got range. Jinal is the former Associate Editor for Hauterrfly, and Senior Features Writer for Mashable India. When not working, she’s fangirling over her favourite films and shows, gushing over fictional men, cruising through her neverending watchlist, trying to finish that book on her bedside, and fighting relentless urges to rewatch Supernatural.