When will the film industry realise a scar doesn’t make you a villain?

Iwas 19 and in my second year of drama school when I was hit by a car. I was thrown into the air and came smashing down on to the bonnet and windscreen. The car was a write-off; I was seriously injured.

It was almost a week before I saw my face. Shampoo suds mixed with dried blood as a nursing assistant washed my matted hair. After she was done, I sat naked on a plastic stool and looked in the mirror. My forehead was sewn up with black stitches: there was a crude, bulging line of them from my hairline to eyebrow – and I knew then that I would never play an ingenue.

An ingenue doesn’t have a scar. A romantic heroine doesn’t have a scar. A scullery maid or a rape victim or a gold-digger or whatever role awaits a young actress doesn’t have a scar. Pretty much nobody in cinema has a scar. Unless they are a male villain.

From Scar in The Lion King, to the Joker in The Dark Knight, to Darth Vader in Star Wars, scars have long been an easy and lazy shorthand in film. To have a scar means to be evil – and the trope is as common in children’s movies as it is in grownup cinema. Now, though, the British Film Institute is challenging that notion, and has announced that it will no longer fund films in which the villain has scars, marks and burns.

The charity Changing Faces launched the #IAmNotYourVillain campaign earlier this month, calling for more positive representation of people living with “a visible difference”. Only seeing scars, marks and burns on characters that are terrifying or wicked perpetuates a stereotype, the charity says, leading to stigma and bullying. Speaking about the BFI decision, its deputy CEO, Ben Roberts, said: “This campaign speaks directly to the criteria in the BFI diversity standards, which call for meaningful representations on screen. We fully support Changing Faces’s #IAmNotYourVillain campaign, and urge the rest of the film industry to do the same.”

In line with this decision, the BFI film fund has given financial support to Dirty God, a 2019 drama about an acid-attack survivor living in south London. The lead role is to be played by a newcomer Vicky Knight, who, as a burns survivor, has facial scarring.

To me, it is this move to fund films with positive representation that is most important. I do not want scars and marks and burns to disappear from film. Actually, I want to see more of them. As a person with a scar, I’ve only ever felt positively about seeing an actor with a real scar onscreen – even if they’re playing a villain.

The Wire’s Omar Little is one of TV’s most terrifying (and most beguiling) characters. Omar – and the actor who plays him, Michael K Williams – has a scar running from his forehead past his nose, down his cheek. Because his scar is authentic and not the work of a makeup artist, it can be beautiful, strange or barely noticeable, depending on the light or the angle. It can be a symbol of vulnerability or of bravery.

Most people who have a scar know trauma. It’s why the innocent-sounding question “how did you get your scar?” is so insensitive. A person with a noticeable scar is likely to know blood, pain, fear, surgery, a 999 call. A makeup job will never capture that – it’s something that exists beyond prosthetics and adhesive.

I understand that there will always be a need for fake scars in cinema and TV – when a character has an accident after the action starts, say. But real scars must be part of the picture. People with scars, burns and marks fall in love and triumph after adversity. They scheme and plot. They can be gentle and sexy and, yes, villainous. They deserve to be all that on screen, too.

I gave up acting more than a decade ago and my scar isn’t very noticeable any more. Still though, on the rare occasions I see a scar like mine in the cinema – when Tina Fey grins or when Chiwetel Ejiofor broods – I feel a little flicker of recognition. I feel proud, even. The BFI’s support of the #IAmNotYourVillain campaign will help many more people living with disfigurement feel that way.