Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Harold Perrineau got a bit of a bad rap for Lost, given that his character, Michael, devolved into a broken record of a man, perpetually running around yelling about his lost son. But before he became known as the “Walt!” guy, he was a dancer on Fame in the ’80s, a stage actor, a film bit player, and an eventual HBO star, taking the lead role as the wheelchair-bound narrator of Tom Fontana’s Oz. Most recently, he appeared in the Nicolas Cage vehicle Seeking Justice, out on DVD June 19.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)—“Mercutio”
Harold Perrineau: What I remember most is how exciting and dangerous that time was. We got a warning when we got to Mexico City to be really careful about jumping into taxis, and what we did on the street, and I’m like, [dismissive noise] “Yeah, yeah, right, right, cool.” When our costume person was kidnapped in a taxi and then returned for $400, when one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s friends was almost thrown onto these spikes on a fence, I was like, [queasy voice] “Oh. Okay. I got it.” [Laughs.] So really, really dangerous, but it was exciting and weird and creative. You had to really think on your feet. I remember just always thinking about something. Creating something. And Baz Luhrmann is creative.
The A.V. Club: What was his approach to the Shakespearean dialogue?
HP: One of the things that was really great was that he had thought through this process so much—every little bit of it—that it opened it up for lots of exploration. It was so specific, we knew exactly what realm we were playing in. He wanted to make sure that we did this as modern as we could. He also wanted us to find very American-sounding voices for the characters, so even if we were saying these words, these very Old English sort of words, you’d still understand the pattern. For instance, at some point, we were experimenting with two characters sounding like Beavis and Butt-head. Doing lines, [Butt-head laugh] “Huh huh huh,” like that, but you understood what was going on. Eventually we got rid of that, but we definitely played with a lot of those sounds. He left this thing in there once: I was trying to find this sort of rap rhythm, and I remember doing this Biggie [Smalls] thing, and I was like, “Where da caaash at?” I was doing it out loud in my head, and it’s actually in the film, right before the fight with Tybalt. He left it in, which I thought was really funny and interesting. So that was the approach, the language sounded like this, in this very hot and lusty world. It was really fun to do. Baz’s mind, I don’t know how it works, but it’s really fascinating.
HP: That was an amazing, fun time for me as well, just starting out my career. I was a dancer for a really long time. I was on the road doing Dreamgirls, and my manager at the time said, “Hey, I’ve got an audition for you for Fame back in New York,” so I flew myself back to New York, expecting to walk into this audition, and there were honestly a thousand people on a line. I was like, “What?” I remember getting there, standing in line, and waiting. We’d dance, and then they’d cut, and we’d dance and they’d cut. I think they hired 10 people in New York and one person to come back to Los Angeles, and that was me. I was like, “What just happened?” I was really honored to be there. I was the only person out of all those people. I came to Los Angeles thinking, “This is it! I’ve done it! I’m here!” And there I was [Laughs.], in a lot of episodes really quickly, but I got to dance a lot. Jaime Rogers, who was the choreographer at the time, was wild and crazy. I had fun.
AVC: You’re just credited as “Dancer,” but you were in a lot of episodes. Did you have dialogue or were you entirely a featured dancer?
HP: I was entirely a featured dancer. We were a tight-knit group of people, so we were in a bunch of episodes. As it worked out, that was the last season of Fame. I had been watching Fame through high school, and I wound up getting there on the very last season. Anyway, the core groups of dancers, when we weren’t filming something, we were rehearsing something new, or trying on costumes, so it was a really busy time. Even without dialogue, you still felt very much a part of the cast. You’d dance with or interact with every single speaking character there. It really felt like you were part of this family, this phenomenon that was Fame.
AVC: Was dance an intended career or more of a sideline? What was the goal back then?
HP: The goal was always to be an actor. Dance is something I could do, and I really studied and found out how extremely hard it was. I studied at the Alvin Ailey school for almost two years, then started doing country dance and stuff like that. I always thought dance was going to be my way into acting. As it turned out, it wasn’t. Once you get a reputation, it’s really hard to break that mold. Some people were saying that to me, but I kept saying, “No, it’s not true. It’s not going to happen.” I remember at the time thinking, “Fame: This is how I’m going to do it. This is how I’m going to transition from being a dancer to being an actor.” That wasn’t exactly how that went. [Laughs.] Eventually, I was like, “Okay, if I really want to be an actor, I really have to go back, hone my craft, and start from the beginning.” That’s what I did. I had been dancing for 10 years or so. I just went back and started waiting tables and went back to school, and pushed and pushed and pushed, until nobody even remembered that I danced anymore.
King Of New York (1990)—“Thug Leader”
HP: At the time, one of the things I was really trying to be conscious of was not to be a young black thug, a young thief, a young whatever, but King Of New York was so wacky and wild. It was the second movie I’d ever done, and it wasn’t like I could say no to every single thing. I had turned down a number of auditions at the time, but this was like—Christopher Walken! There was no way to not be there. I took it and didn’t have a lot to say, but I got to be on set with a bunch of amazing people: Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Walken, and Wesley [Snipes]. I couldn’t believe I was even there. It was a lot of fun.
Smoke (1995)—“Thomas ‘Rashid’ Cole”
AVC: Was there a particular project where you got your feet under you as an actor, where you figured out what film acting was about?
HP: I would say Smoke was the first time. I had stopped dancing for a while and had been studying with as many people in New York as I could. I had been doing regional theater and all this stuff. This was the first time I got to work with Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. After that experience, I vowed to myself never, ever to judge an actor onscreen, because it was so much more difficult and intricate than I had understood at that point. It changed my appreciation of the amount of work everybody puts into film. However the film comes out, the amount of work and effort put into it, and sometimes not, is always really interesting. Since you can never know all the experiences people have collectively on a project, I just stopped really judging specifically like, “Oh, this is a bad director,” or “That’s a bad actor.” I just went, “Yeah, they probably had to do a lot of work,” whether I like the project or not.
Oz (1997-2003)—“Augustus Hill”
HP: I love Tom Fontana’s voice, so I felt really lucky to be the person who was able to give a face and a body to that voice. At the time, the character of Augustus Hill was basically slated as the “commercial break,” because it was the first time we were doing an hour dramatic show on any cable network. There was so much action and hard subject matter that you really needed a break, and the character Augustus was that break. It was challenging trying to figure out how to make this character seem interesting while he was confined to this—he was paraplegic, so I only had the upper half of my body. All of my dancer instincts are suddenly of no use to me. [Laughs.] Or it felt like it at the time. They actually wound up being really useful, because I could use the top half of my body [expressively], but it was a real challenge, and a scary prospect. Like I said, nobody had done this type of show before, so it was a little scary. We were lucky that 1) we had great writers, and 2) people responded to it in the way that they did.
AVC: The ability to recite poetry and to bring across physicality while stuck in a wheelchair were really important parts of that role. Did you audition for it? What was the process?
HP: I auditioned for it many, many, many times. I auditioned for it across the country. I auditioned for it maybe three times in Los Angeles, and then they flew me to New York, and I auditioned for it a couple times there. I remember honestly walking out of the last one in tears, saying, “I can’t believe I just blew that audition. I can’t believe after all this work, I just blew it.” I felt like I overthought it, and I couldn’t come up with it. The final audition was with Darnell Martin, who was one of our big directors at the time. She was amazing—and [show creator] Tom Fontana—and I thought they just hated me. Then a couple hours later, I was packing my stuff up, and my agent called me and said, “Unpack, buddy. You’re here. I don’t know what you’re talking about, they loved you.”
AVC: How much of his story did you know in advance? Did you know when his death was coming, for instance, before you got the script for that episode?
HP: [Laughs.] Fortunately, we definitely found out a little bit longer than when we found out with Lost, for instance, but not until the beginning of each season. Tom would create these story arcs, then we’d figure it out. So I had a little bit of lead time, at least a couple of weeks. It was good. It gave me time to learn and prepare lines. As they integrated Augustus more into the prison, not just as this voice in another world, it became a lot more interesting for me to work on.
Lost (2004-2010)—“Michael Dawson”
AVC: Do you get people walking up to you and yelling, “Walt! Walt! My boy!” as a result of your Lost role?
HP: You cannot imagine how often. [Laughs.] And every time it happens now, I go, “Do people still think it’s funny? Is it just a thing that’s burned into their minds?” I was working last night, I’m working on Sons Of Anarchy, and I walked on set, and the director goes, “There’s Harold Perrineau. You’re not screaming, ‘Walt!’” I was like, “Really? You too?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Is that the only thing people yell at you?
HP: For many, many years, no matter where I was, someone would scream, “I can’t believe you can walk!” I was like [dryly], “Yeeeeah. Right. Haven’t heard that one yet.” [Chuckles.]
AVC: What else stands out for you about Lost?
HP: I was just saying to someone that Lost was one of the only jobs that wasn’t just a job; it was fully an experience. It was a full mind-body-soul experience. From being cast in it, to moving my family to Hawaii, to the ups and downs of not knowing. Sometimes standing outside, underneath this brilliant Hawaiian sky, going, “I don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s beautiful, but I really don’t understand.” And it just went on and on like that, for so long. It really was a full experience that my whole family went through with me. And for the entire cast, crew, and running staff, it was a real experience. I imagine everyone was pretty tired after that.
The Matrix Reloaded & The Matrix Revolutions (2003)—“Link”
HP: After getting the job, I got there, and I was still just a fan. So the first day on set, it was really hard to focus, because I couldn’t believe I was sitting on the Nebuchadnezzar. [Laughs.] It was like, “Look, it’s this!” I had seen the movie so many times. My daughter and I used to watch it at home. There I was, sitting on this ship. And the Wachowskis, who had been so involved in it, were just so cool about the whole thing. I couldn’t believe it. “How are you guys so cool? Look at this ship!” But they were really great and interesting. They gave really interesting direction. I’m sure the way they direct everything is a little different, but I remember one day they said, “Yeah, so Harold, this guy, this time he’s all like crrrssssshhhhh, I mean like you grrrrrrrmmm, get in there and gaaaaplluuuushhh!” And I thought, [tiny voice] “Umm, okay. I think I got that. I think. I think? Let’s try it.” [Laughs.] It was really kind of funny.
AVC: Have you had many experiences like that, where you’ve joined a project after being a fan?
HP: I’m doing this show right now, Sons Of Anarchy, that I was already a fan of, so it’s cool to be in there with the motorcycle gang. Most of the stuff that I’ve been in—other than Romeo + Juliet, with being a fan of Shakespeare—was different. I think The Matrix was the biggest thing.
The Cosby Show (1989)—“Scott”
AVC: You were also on an episode of The Cosby Show. Were you familiar with that show going in?
HP: Ah yes. I had been, although I didn’t watch it as much as many people. At that time, I was always dancing. I was always in a dance class or waiting tables or bussing tables or bartending or going to rehearsal, so I didn’t get to see many of them, but I saw a number of them. I was a big fan of Bill Cosby. Yeah, that was definitely one of those things. When you walk on and the Cos is there, you almost stop in your tracks. I won’t do the awful thing of trying to impersonate him, because I cannot, but he has such an iconic way of speaking that you’re kind of mesmerized by that. I remember the first day we were going to film, I had been working really hard with the directors. My scene came up, and I was prepared, and I was ready, and I did it! And I hear Mr. Cosby go, “Son, you’ve got to cut out all that acting,” and I was like, “Oh damn.” [Laughs.] “Oh damn. Here it goes.” I did the best I could. I tried to reel it back in, but I was pretty nervous at that point—no, I was really scared. So maybe I was only acting from fear.
Seeking Justice (2011)—“Jimmy”
HP: Before I went to New Orleans, I was a little scared of New Orleans. I don’t know why. I had only been there a few times. Something about it made me feel nervous, knowing a bit about the history. My last name comes from there. My grandfather grew up there, and it just spooked me. When I went back to do Seeking Justice, I just went, “I’m just going to go, and if it’s spooky, it’s spooky, and we’ll figure it out.” And I had this amazing time and started exploring the city, because I think Jimmy loved the city. I was just mind-blown to find that New Orleans is just so much more fun and interesting than I had ever thought. I don’t know what I was afraid of, other than I might be out ’til all hours of the night, drinking, listening to music [Laughs.], having a great time. Maybe I was just scared I was too young for it before. That was the experience I had. It’s so rich with culture, and so much to love. That’s where I drew inspiration for Jimmy. I imagined that Jimmy loved this place he lived in, and was trying to do everything he could to make it a great place.
AVC: Any particular venue or band or part of the culture you would recommend?
HP: I guess for me, the music was a huge thing. It’s so part of the culture. I remember going down to the Quarter, and there’s a band that plays on the weekend. They just sit out on the corner, and they play. Had you walked by these people at any other time, you would have thought, “Oh, okay, these people… eh.” They all had jeans on, nothing fancy. But the woman started to sing this song, that was a really beautiful song, and then she did this really interesting sort of patois. Then the next verse was in French. And then she whipped out her saxophone. When she pulled out a trombone, I was like, “Holy—what’s going on?” It’s like drinking water for a lot of people. The music is just so rich and part of the culture there. I suddenly felt like I needed to go on this mission to make sure we save New Orleans because—not that I can save anything—but it’s so much part of what this country is, this whole mix of people coming together and doing this thing. All the music that’s coming out of there that’s so influential: the music that we listen to now, and will listen to, it was just phenomenal. It’s really rich with culture. If you go there, go to Frenchmen Street, and it just never stops. It never stops. Really great.
AVC: You’ve said you took this role primarily to work with Nicolas Cage. Was it what you expected it to be?
HP: Yeah, it was. He was intense and really interesting and fun to work with, and challenging sometimes. So yeah, it really was. I wanted to see what that was like. He’s been such a part of my consciousness for a long time, having watched his work for years and years. I was really excited about that. It was what I thought, which was, “I couldn’t have predicted it.”
AVC: Challenging to you as an actor, or as a person?
HP: Challenging because he’s always working. You want to be on your toes; You don’t want to be in a Nic Cage movie and just have him blow by you as an actor. I really had to stay on my feet. We had some scenes together, and we’re friends. Trying to not overdo him or underdo him, there’s a constant playing with the balance, playing with that ebb and flow between the characters. Like I said, he’s always, always, always working. So it was challenging to make sure I could stay as focused and as in the moment as I felt he was.