The Terminal List Star Jai Courtney Is More Than Happy To Play Villains [Interview]

Jai Courtney relishes playing the villain. It's something he's thrived at over the years, and he often brings a glee to those performances, especially in a delightful comedy called "Buffaloed." In Amazon's "The Terminal List," when nefarious tech billionaire Steve Horn lets out a smug smirk, it's obvious Courtney is indeed having a great time. 

The actor's role is fairly minimal in the first few episodes in the Chris Pratt-led revenge series. Without spoiling anything, Horn is pulling some strings behind-the-scenes in the conspiracy thriller. The character is a big shot, one that Courtney infuses with smarminess. Villains are, more often than not, more fun to watch than the heroes, and for Courtney, they're a lot more fun to play as well. In a recent interview, we spoke with him about his character's introduction, challenging himself as an actor, and more.

'You can't go around playing characters that everyone loves all the time'

You play this guy as pretty calm and cool for an antagonist. Not too many eccentricities.

I know what you mean. I think one of the things that I enjoy most about approaching a role like this is trying to find a way to make him a little more enjoyable for audiences. It's a funny thing with a character like Horn, without hanging myself on the hook too much with giving stuff away, he kind of does weave himself into the story as somewhat of a polarizing figure, but he wouldn't see himself that way. I feel like there's a clue in that, in how to play something like this. He's responsible for some really interesting stuff, where someone else might have a conscience or some moral code that might break. Looking at those facts, you've got to wonder where to place a dude like this.

I just try and have fun with it and hope that audiences do as well. I think for me, when things are reduced to sort of two dimensions and it all gets very predictably nasty or villainous or whatever, it's not as fun to jam with as an actor. It just robs you of the opportunity to create something later on that people will experience as well.

I kind of try to, with roles like this, never judge them too harshly, even for things I wouldn't necessarily agree with. You try and find a way in through humanizing that on some level. Hopefully, that creates something that people want to spend a little more time with when they're watching the film or the show.

A lot of actors say that a lot, to never judge. But you judge them sometimes, right?

Oh, for sure. For sure. I mean, I think that's an old acting thing of not going in like that, because you'll rob yourself of the chance to empathize with it and therefore uncover more. I mean, look, sometimes you get a line of dialogue and you're like, you don't even want to say that sh*t out loud, but you got to also be in service to the material and we're trying to put good drama on screen, good comedy, whatever it is, and that's our art form. So, you can't go around playing characters that everyone loves all the time. There's no fun in that.

When your character is introduced on his lunch break and in a tactical training exercise, what did that tell you?

Horn is this kind of kingpin, billionaire, head of a highly successful investment firm that have their kind of finger in all these pies and from like pharmaceuticals and fashion. We meet him at a time where it's all about military trends and innovations. He's like one of these dudes who's part tech bro, part wannabe weekend warrior, ultra-rich guy.

I've had the pleasure of working with some amazing veterans from all different branches of the community. We kind of serve to give that a lot of authenticity within the show. There's a lot of former SEALs and operators and Marines on the screen as well as who collaborated in the production of making it. But in saying that, it's interesting because like these guys are super legit and I thought it was really fun to engage with a role with a guy who really wants to be that, but knows he never will. It's almost like he could have gone down that path. He kind of idolizes that culture, but he went into investment banking and went down a totally different route. It's really fun to look at as an actor because I have seen it in the real world as well. I get it. So to be able to put that on screen with a character who's got the budget to support it and has his own little kind of paramilitary sort of security force, it was a lot of fun.

Were there any tech billionaires you were influenced by?

Not really. I couldn't really find anyone that fit his mold. There were a few people around that I kicked about some articles. I mean, I would love to know what some of these guys get up to in their spare time. I bet you there's some examples that don't fall too far from the tree of Steve Horn. That's for sure.

'You can be a nasty motherf***er and people have a lot of fun'

How is Steve Horn in the book? How is he portrayed on the page?

A lot of similarities. I'm positive he's a little older in the books. He leans slightly more into that darker side of him, not really caring about what he's motivated by, in order to just get what he wants. I had to find a way to humanize a little bit. I think that feels like the right thing to challenge myself. The trap is to play guys like this with only one set of intentions and really just focus on their function within it, but that doesn't feel as inspiring to me.

I think the books are great. I mean, not to say that we lacked anything there, but you have to elevate that stuff. It's a different format and what jumps off the page to a reader isn't necessarily what we need on screen.

You often have this sly smirk in the show.

I was having a great time.

I think people get that impression when you're playing villains. It's fun.

I appreciate that. Honestly, that means a lot to me. If there's one thing I feel like resembles a goal when it comes to those roles, it's that people have fun with it. You can be a nasty motherf***er and people have a lot of fun and you can do that with an enjoyment in a way that you almost create some charm that people don't know why, but they want to see more of you around. If I've achieved that, then I'm stoked, man.

How've you found playing heroes compared to that experience?

I find it harder. I find it harder, honestly. I feel like playing characters that are more earnest are trickier. It's because there's a different kind of conflict going on. Some actors are really built for that and some aren't. I'd hate to think that I have a strict kind of lane, but I do enjoy playing villains and I've had the opportunity to play some great ones.

I mean, it's great coming out on top as well, but it definitely presents a different set of things to adhere to and a different bunch of challenges as far as what we experience as an audience and how to get there as an actor. So, yeah, it's different, man, but that's what keeps us engaged and interested in what we do as well.

How else do you want to challenge yourself going forward?

I'll tell you, the next frontier for me is development. There's some stuff I've been working on that I'm putting together. I'm not going to drop the dime on it, but something that's been coming together for a couple years that I'm really excited about, which will stretch me in a way I haven't before, both physically and mentally for a role. Stay tuned for that. I got some really exciting stuff in the tunnel. It will open up my involvement in the business in a different way as well, which I have been enjoying the development process and look forward to producing content as well as starring in it.

Now you'll help create the roles instead of chasing them, right?

Well, that's it, man. I mean, it's not that hard really to get those wheels in motion, but I think the challenge is getting stuff made, of course. But yeah, that was something that I realized a few years back. If you partner up with talented people and you've got ideas, then you don't have to have the end figured out at the beginning, you just crack it open and things will start to take shape. And I'm really, really enjoying that process.

'You're really acting your f***ing brains out'

With shows like "The Terminal List," how's it different than feature film acting for you?

I think it's a real gift. A story like this, it's hard to imagine when it would ever end. There's so much. The source material is still being written as Jack Carr, as books continue to come out. The narrative is so dense. I feel like audiences love that, even though we're in this kind of crazy binge culture now, where even if something has 10 parts, we want all 10 hours tonight. We're just digesting content at that rate nowadays.

I guess if that's the beast, then we got to keep feeding it as well. It's cool as an actor, because you get the room to move where you might not in just a two-hour thing. That's fun. Even if there's a lot more air between and a lot more going on, it can raise the stakes and give you more to do. I love it. It was kind of new to me a few years ago, but I've had the opportunity now to work on a couple of great things in the limited field. I'm really, really enjoying that format.

"Love, Death + Robots" is one of those fun shows to binge. You were in a very cool episode in season 3.

So sick, dude. So sick.

What was unique about your experience on that show?

It's a weird thing to make, let me tell you. Because I've done mo-cap stuff before and operated in that space a little bit with films like "Terminator,” where you are kind of stretching it, stunts and effects-wise, in a real way. It was hard. It was different operating with these halo cameras, capturing all this micro data from your face, and yet, the space you're playing in is completely unimaginative.

It's like being in drama class and you've got great boxes that you're moving around, pretending they're fricking, whatever it is. It was this weird mash-up of this ultra-high tech innovations being put to use, and then you're in this room where you're really acting your f***ing brains out because there's nothing to draw from.

It was tough, I'll be honest with you. It was one of those weird little new things where I was like, "Damn, this is hard." It's hard not having anything practical to draw on. Really, it makes you feel it when you're working for it, which can be quite awkward for an actor. We kind of love to just slip in and believe wherever we are. So, that was interesting. I was thrilled with how it came out, and got to work with some great people. Jerome Chen directed that, Joe Manganiello and those guys were awesome to work with.

"The Terminal List" is now streaming on Prime Video.