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: Ron Perlman has, as of late, become one of the entertainment industry’s go-to sensitive big guys, thanks in part to his acclaimed role as Sons Of Anarchy’s brutal but broken biker Clay Morrow. That sort of interest has been a long time coming, though, as Perlman’s been a working actor since the late ’70s, taking roles in everything from episodes of The Fall Guy to the new-to-DVD Frankie Go Boom, where he plays Phyllis, a transvestite. He’s become a nerd icon thanks to his roles as Hellboy and Beauty And The Beast’s beast, Vincent, but he’s also voiced characters in dozens of animated series, from Animaniacs to Teen Titans. To date, Perlman has also appeared in five Guillermo Del Toro films, including this summer’s Pacific Rim.
Frankie Go Boom (2013)—“Phyllis”
Ron Perlman: This thing just appeared in front of me. They were actually sending me the script; my buddy Charlie Hunnam, who I do Sons Of Anarchy with, was already attached and they sent me the script with the idea in mind of me playing something else. But when Charlie’s character walks through the door and he meets Phyllis and Phyllis asks him to kiss her hand… I had such a good time in my little living room reading this. And I’m imagining the looks on the Sons Of Anarchy diehards’ faces. So I called them up, said I loved the script, said I loved the role they’re sending me up for, but asked who is playing the chick. They said, “You’re not serious,” and I said, “No, I’m pretty serious,” and one thing led to another and [Sarcastically.] a star was born.
The A.V. Club: You do make a striking looking woman.
RP: “Striking looking.” That’s a euphemism if I ever heard one.
Sons Of Anarchy (2008-present)—“Clay Morrow”
AVC: I recently talked to Mark Boone Junior for Random Roles, and he had nothing but great things to say about Sons Of Anarchy and all the people working on it.
AVC: [Laughs.] Yeah.
RP: You’re talking about Mark Boone Junior? He had nice things to say.
RP: He wasn’t talking about me, obviously.
I’m just kidding, we all adore each other. This is one of the greatest ensembles I’ve ever been a part of; I’ve actually gotten speeding tickets driving to work, I look so forward to being in the company of those men.
AVC: How did you get cast as Clay? It’s been a bit of a transformational role for you.
RP: No one else would do it. No. I’m kidding, I’m kidding. They were looking for a guy of a certain age who had a kind of gravitas, but also had a gallows humor that you find prevalent in high-pressure environments. You find it in soldiers, you see it in cops; anywhere that there’s a lot of near death experiences there’s this kind of serious guy kidding, gallows, dark humor. I happened to be coming out of Hellboy 2 at the time, and I guess I was on a list of guys. One thing led to another, and they were kind enough to give me this role, which, as you said, has been transformational for me.
AVC: Are you happy with Clay’s current arc? He went off the deep end a little bit last season.
RP: I’m not going to lie; he’s very uncomfortable to play. He has been uncomfortable to play since the fourth season when he started making these choices. Ultimately, it has led to his current situation, where he’s a couple of inches from undone. I don’t know where he’s going because we’re only in season six and Kurt [Sutter, the show’s creator] is the only one who really knows where he’s taking the show. All I know is that the place he’s put Clay in right now is really uncomfortable.
AVC: For a while there, it seemed like he was going to die.
RP: A lot of people have been bent one way or the other on that. I’m not going to weigh in on that; I’m happy to still be at large, I’ll just put it that way.
Pacific Rim (2013)—“Hannibal Chau”
AVC: Another project you did with Charlie Hunnam is Pacific Rim, which a lot of people are incredibly excited about.
RP: I’m included in those people.
AVC: How did you end up in that movie? Why do you think you work with Charlie so much?
RP: That doesn’t have as much to do with Charlie as it does with Guillermo Del Toro. He and I go way back together, back to the very first film he did, called Cronos. Then I was in Blade, then two Hellboy movies, all of which are his movies. We have this burgeoning bond that extends to our professional lives, but also our personal lives. So there was this role in Pacific Rim that he kind of fashioned for me. It’s kind of a minor role, but very flashy. It’s a lot of fun to play and, coincidentally, that movie is co-starring Charlie Hunnam.
AVC: Can you say any more about the role?
RP: I can say plenty about it. I’m a guy named Hannibal Chau. A Jew from Brooklyn playing a guy named Hannibal Chau—you can imagine he’s got to be the most full-of-shit guy you’ve ever met in your life and, sure enough, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s a black-marketeer, he’s a businessman, he’s a hedonist, he has insatiable appetites for very rich things, he’s obsessed with money, and he had fashioned an arrangement with the government whereby he has the rights to these fallen kaiju—that’s the enemy du jour of Pacific Rim, these kaiju, these multiple Godzillas. Anyway, our friend Hannibal Chau has figured out a way to market these kaiju remains. Like for instance, kaiju bone powder is $500 a pound and it’s 150 times more effective than Viagra. Need I say more?
AVC: Are there particular characteristics you’re drawn to? Do you like to play good guys more than bad guys?
RP: I like playing interesting people, I like playing slightly twisted people. I like playing people who have large appetites who are kind of a bit larger than life. So I really, really like reading something where I don’t know where it’s going because it’s so original. And the people that are in it are not stock figures; they’re really original and you can feel the blood coursing through them. And they’re really idiosyncratic and they’re really, behaviorally twisted.
RP: There’s nothing on the books for Hellboy 3, though we’re all hoping.
AVC: Didn’t you go to a hospital dressed as Hellboy for a sick kid?
RP: I didn’t go to a hospital, but we did put the makeup on at the request of the Make-A-Wish Foundation for this kid who had leukemia—who still has leukemia—who had just spent hundreds of hours in chemotherapy, and the only way he got through it was by watching the Hellboy movies. He requested to meet Hellboy, and I said, “That should be easy.” And the guy who requested it was like, “He doesn’t want to meet Ron; he has no desire to meet Ron. He wants to meet Hellboy.” So one thing led to another, and we gave him his wish.
AVC: That’s really sweet.
RP: It was not a press event. What happened was we were in the special-effects shop that does a lot of work with the Del Toro movies and a lot of other movies. He’s a special-effects genius and he’s the one that fielded the request. A couple of the guys in the shop took pictures for their own edification and put them on their Facebook pages and the story went viral, though it wasn’t meant to. But it was gratifying to see people’s response to what a made-up character can do for a person who is actually fighting for his life.
Bonkers (1993)—“Sergeant Francis Q. Grating”
Tangled (2010)—“Stabbington Brother”
Titan A.E. (2000)—“Professor Sam Tucker”
AVC: How did you get into doing animation voices?
RP: We have special agents here in Hollywood called voiceover agents. And they deal in either announcer voices to be the certain voice of an account—like a car or a beer—and they also cast these animated movies and TV shows. And I really just love that kind of work.
I love showing up and giving a performance without the benefit of a lot of rehearsal or dissection. It’s fun to me to act on a kind of instinctual level and go straight for the performance. The first person who gave me a job in animation was Andrea Romano, who used to be the director for all things Warner Bros.
She put me in this show called Bonkers, and she kept bringing me in for Animaniacs and everything she did. Then it kind of became known that I did this and I liked it, and I got a couple of movies out of it. One of them was Tangled, one of them was Titan A.E., and I just did a voice for this very, very top-secret project that Guillermo is working on that I can’t talk about. I just love it; I really love it.
AVC: Is that kind of spur of the moment work something you’ve always been interested in?
RP: Well I think it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with film, because I exclusively did theater when I first got the acting bug, and that requires a lot of time spent in the rehearsal room and a lot of discussion and a lot of dissection, and I was thrilled with that process until I started working in film. When the rehearsal process became more of a luxury and was a very abbreviated thing, you’re immediately trying to solve the problem of what the performance was going to look like the minute you arrived at work rather than let this thing gestate for five or six weeks. I loved that because it seemed like I was working more on a primal, instinctive level. And it just seemed to suit me; it seemed to suit my concentration span, it seemed to suit my personal style of performance, and I have fallen in love with film acting.
Then when you discover voiceover acting, it’s even less rehearsal. You walk in and, boom, there’s a microphone. They say action and you’re giving a performance instantaneously on a very, very primal level. So I just took to it and I seek out as much of it as I can possibly do because I love the challenge of working in general.
AVC: Is there a favorite voice that you’ve done?
RP: Not really. I’ve just been really lucky that there’s been some really great stuff that’s fallen in my lap from the heavens.
Drive (2011)— “Nino”
AVC: Speaking of great projects, you played Nino in Drive.
RP: The reception of that movie was phenomenal, especially here in Hollywood. Nicolas Winding Refn is a filmmaker’s filmmaker; he’s so highly regarded. He wasn’t known in mainstream film circles, but he was known by people in the know here in Hollywood for this film trilogy he made in Copenhagen called the Pusher trilogy, and then for a movie called Bronson. So when it was announced that he was going to be making his first foray into American cinema, there were a lot of people jockeying internally for consideration. And I was one of them, because I had seen the Pusher trilogy and I had seen Bronson and I was a devotee of Refn’s. Then when I heard Ryan Gosling was involved—and by the time I had started prying around, Albert Brooks was involved—and it was just one hero of mine after another.
So then I did something I never do, and I sought Refn out and I asked for a phone conversation with him. He granted it to me, and then I asked him if he’d really consider me for the role of Nino, and he gave me another meeting at his house in Hollywood. We had a fantastic conversation, and I think because of my enthusiasm, he was like, “The guy wants the part this bad, I’m going to give it to him because he’s liable to give a decent performance because it’s coming out of passion.” And I think a lot of people in the movie got into the movie the same way.
I know Carey Mulligan lobbied heavily, because that role was originally meant to be a Latin actress; I think Albert Brooks lobbied. I think all of us that were in that movie were in that movie because we really, really wanted to be and we wanted to work with this guy. It was a true labor of love, a true labor of passion.
AVC: Did you just say Ryan Gosling was a hero?
RP: He’s for sure a hero. I love Ryan’s approach, I love his taste, I love the fact that he hasn’t whored himself out, and he continues to do really, really interesting projects that have no real commercial allure. He doesn’t seem like someone really desperate to pad his bank account; he just seems like someone who wants to leave behind a serious, thoughtful body of work. I just recently saw The Place Beyond The Pines, and it was just another example of Ryan really immersing himself in something that not a lot of people are going to see.
Ryan’s Hope (1979)—“Dr. Bernie Marx”
AVC: Speaking of Ryans, one of your first roles was in Ryan’s Hope.
RP: I have this thing about all things Ryan. I can’t shake it. I’m thinking when I get off the phone with you I’m going to go to the ASPCA, get a dog, and name it Ryan. Maybe a cat, too.
AVC: Do you remember how you were cast in Ryan’s Hope?
RP: I don’t really remember the circumstances of Ryan’s Hope. Christian Slater’s mom was casting that show, and I think I kind of knew her, so I came in and she had me read. I think she pushed for me to get the role, and that’s how I got it. Then later on, I was there for one of Christian’s first movies, The Name Of The Rose, and she said, “Okay, I did you a favor, now you do me one.” And I said, “Okay, what’s that?” And she said, “Keep an eye on my kid.” We were in Europe shooting this film, and he was 18 years old, maybe younger than that. He was an easy guy to keep an eye on. He was a terrific kid.
AVC: When you were starting out, were you selective, or did you say, “I’ll do any role you throw at me”?
RP: I still pretty much feel that way. That’s why there are over 200 things on my IMDB. I really do. Trust me, there’s a lot of shit on there I wish I hadn’t done, but I don’t know if anybody else would say otherwise.
AVC: What do you wish you hadn’t done?
RP: I’m not telling you.
AVC: [Laughs.] Okay.
RP: But when you get really, really old and bored, I’m sure you’ll run into some of it. And then when you get done with it, I bet you’ll say, “Jesus, I wish Ron hadn’t done that, too. And, more than that, I wish I hadn’t spent time watching it.” But they can’t all be Maseratis, you know what I’m saying?
The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1996)—“Sayer Of The Law”
AVC: [Laughs.] But you’ve worked with some interesting people. You were in The Island Of Dr. Moreau with Marlon Brando. That’s a story.
RP: Yeah it’s kind of cool to be able to say, “You know, back when I worked with Marlon…” Then when they hear what it is I worked with him on, it shifts. That probably wasn’t the most interesting retelling of that great H.G. Wells story.
AVC: What was it like working with him?
RP: It was very weird to me. I was at a point in my life where there was a lot of awkwardness because I was awed, and I wasn’t very good at covering my awkwardness when I was around Marlon. I hummina, hummina, hummina’d. Luckily, I only had this one sequence to do with him, but it was a nightmare to shoot because of the approach that was taken. Instead of it taking a day and a half, which is what I was scheduled to be on the shooting schedule, it took five days. And somewhere in the middle of the fourth day, I started to relax enough to where the repartee between Marlon and myself, there became a little bit more ease to it. My sense of humor came out, and I discovered that if you’re at all funny around Marlon, he’s fairly receptive because he was a guy who loved to have a good time.
He was a great raconteur himself, he loved other guys who told great stories, he had this very sort of well-documented whoopee-cushion period with Johnny Depp, where they just kept trying to figure out who could bring in the best fart machine. They became really good friends because they kept trying to outdo each other. But he had this delicious zest for life, and he lived it to its fullest; he really, really loved having fun with people; he adored the crew and he pretty much knew everybody’s name.
I thought he was just a delightful guy, and I’m really glad I had those five days because, like I said, it took four and a half for me to get comfortable around him. By the end of it, there was a bit of a connection.
AVC: You said at the time you were really uncomfortable. Has that changed in general? Do you still get nervous?
RP: No. I’d give anything to have another crack at Marlon the way I am now, because nothing throws me now. I’m real comfortable around people, and it took a long time for me to evolve to that point. But I’d love to have another crack at him.
The same thing happened to me with Sinatra. I had an opportunity to be in Frank’s circle, but I couldn’t take advantage of it because I couldn’t get over how awed I was by him. It was so uncomfortable for me because he meant so much to me, but I just couldn’t be myself, so I fled rather than having those great nights hanging out.
AVC: How did you get over that nervousness?
RP: I grew out of it. As you get older, things change, things evolve.