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About the last thing the sodden swords-and-sorcery movie Season Of The Witch can be accused of is having a sense of humor, but the few moments of levity come courtesy of Ron Perlman, who plays the bearish companion to Nicolas Cage’s AWOL 14th-century Crusader. Best known these days as the wisecracking, beet-colored demon Hellboy, Perlman came to prominence on the TV series Beauty And The Beast, one of many roles in which he was buried under layers of makeup. On film, he’s enjoyed fruitful collaborations with Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City Of Lost Children, Alien: Resurrection) and Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Blade II, the Hellboy films) and kept company with genre eccentrics like Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter) and Glenn McQuaid (I Sell The Dead), as well as landing the role of Elvis in Don Coscarelli’s long-rumored Bubba Nosferatu. While promoting Witch in New York, Perlman called up The A.V. Club to talk about crossing swords with Nicolas Cage, working with the worst director in the world, and the role for which he finally put on a dress.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been hoisting a sword a lot recently, as a knight in Season Of The Witch, in the upcoming Scorpion King: Rise Of The Dead, and in Conan The Barbarian. Have you been taking lessons?
Ron Perlman: All I can do is take roles I’m enthusiastic about playing and that I feel like I can contribute something to, and then the rest are all details. Every job has a unique situational circumstance. And outer factors are usually having to do something that’s pretty far off from your own everyday experience, riding on horseback or dressing up as a woman, which I just got finished doing.
AVC: What was that for?
RP: It’s a movie coming out called Frankie Goes Boom. It’s maybe the funniest script I’ve read in 15, 20 years. They gave me a choice whether I was going to play this aging movie star that’s always in and out of rehab and can’t get arrested, so he’s completely losing himself and out of control, or else I could play someone who used to be a guy who’s now completely transformed into a woman. And I chose that because I think it’s a hell of a sight gag when that door opens and they see that it’s me.
AVC: I don’t think you’ve done drag before.
RP: I’ve never done that before, and chances are I’ll never do it again. But at least I can say that I’ve done it. I play a guy who’s had the full operation and had all his plumbing transformed.
AVC: Season Of The Witch director Dominic Sena comes out of commercials, and some of the people you’ve worked with numerous times, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillermo del Toro, have strong visual perspectives. Is that something that particularly attracts you to a director, or are those people attracted to you?
RP: I’m just the recipient of great good fortune to have been able to work with the people you just mentioned, who I consider to be real filmmakers, real men of cinema with a capital C, because not only are they great storytellers, they have this unbelievable eye to make beautiful frames and have things move through the frames that are dramatically compelling. There’s always an elegance to their work that elevates it to a higher form of art. I don’t vet people as much as one would like to believe I do. I say yes to almost anything that comes my way. But the fact that I’ve had the chance to work with the guys you’ve mentioned is such a thrill for me, because I know I’m in amazingly good hands. I know regardless of how the film is received, which no one ever has any control over or has any idea about, I’ll be involved in something that’s nice to watch.
AVC: While we’re on the subject of saying yes to anything, what was the experience of making In The Name Of The King like? Uwe Boll has a reputation as the worst director in the world. Did you know that going in?
RP: By the time they got around to casting my role, they already had an amazingly compelling cast of actors. Jason Statham was signed on already, as was John Rhys-Davies, and Burt Reynolds and Leelee Sobieski. So I actually felt like, “Oh man, I can’t wait to get to do this.” And I read the script, and the script was decent. It had a lot of room for improvement, and I liked the guy I was playing. After that, nothing is in your control. Let me just leave it at that.
AVC: You’ve said that one of the things that interested you about Season Of The Witch was getting the chance to work with Nicolas Cage. That was a big plus for you.
RP: Huge, huge plus. And it continues to be, because the experience we had together was really top-drawer, as good a working relationship as I’ve been able to have with any other actor. He’s a real professional. He’s a really nice person. He’s got a great warmth, a great generosity, he loves to watch other people shine around him. So that was a primary point of interest for me, and it remains one of the things I’m most proud of, how that relationship was acquitted over the course of time.
AVC: There’s a good deal of hero/sidekick banter between the two of you that lightens the mood of the film. There’s a quality of irony and understated wit to your performances.
RP: I thought that what was true about the banter in this thing was that these guys are constantly looking in the jaws of life-and-death experiences, and they’re also professional soldiers. This is not their first barbecue, not their first time around the park, and they’ve developed a type of mental sensibility for themselves to keep everything light and loose and never really indulge in the true dangers that are lurking. But they remain, like all great warriors, relaxed and ready for anything. So the humor and the banter that takes place between us is really an offshoot of that set of circumstances.
AVC: It’s not your first barbecue, either. You’ve played a lot of physically involved roles, whether it’s fight choreography or working in heavy makeup. Does that sort of humor help keep you in the game as well?
RP: There’s something about playing characters who are walking on that tightrope by choice. They’re most comfortable out there when there are life-and-death situations. It’s almost like a drug for them. There’s something amazingly interesting about the intellectual and emotional makeup of these guys. There’s always a fearlessness. Maybe when they know, “Okay, my number’s up,” you see a tinge of “Holy shit, this is it.” But up until that moment, they know that they’re not gonna lose, and they know nobody is ever going to be able to hold an advantage over them. So there’s a swagger and a fearlessness that comes along with these characters that I seem to have a bunch of in the can, coincidentally, that make them really interesting to watch. Fearless people are interesting to watch.
AVC: Is fearlessness hard to play? It isn’t a vulnerable characteristic. There’s no motivation.
RP: I actually think it’s harder to play vulnerability, because you’re having to delve deeper into portions of your own psyche, what it is that makes you human. Those to me are part of things to play and to access as an actor, but not as much fun.
AVC: You’ve done four movies with Guillermo del Toro and are gearing up to do a fifth. What about your working relationship endures?
RP: When he ultimately approached me to do Cronos, he was forced… He’s fixated on monsters and demons and these heavy makeup roles. There was nobody in Mexico to service the characters he wanted to put on the screen, so he became his own special-effects makeup artist, and opened his own shop in Mexico. And while he was researching how to go about becoming the Rick Baker of Mexico, he started watching all these films that had special-effects stuff, and thereby ended up watching a lot of my work. I still to this day don’t know what I was doing in Cronos. It was a Mexican film with an American actor who spoke no Spanish.
In general, I feel like, “If I’m going to jump into this thing, I want someone around me who I can consider like a rabbit’s foot, like a good-luck charm.” And he wrote me this beautiful letter and sent me the script, and the script was unlike anything I’d ever read, and it was all systems go for me. From the moment we met, there was an ease to the way we communicated and an ease to all of our time spent together, whether it was actually working or just breaking bread, or going out and having a pleasant evening together. And we became fast friends. He knew that I adored his aesthetic and that I was really eager to share what I had found in Mexico with the rest of the world. I really championed him and Cronos, because I said to myself, “My God, I just worked with a real, real filmmaker.” They don’t come around that often. You don’t get a chance to be around guys like that often. So to me it was a transformative experience, which has evolved into just a fantastic friendship.
AVC: It’s been amazing to watch Del Toro’s rise from Cronos to the success of the Hellboy movies, and he’s brought you along with him. You’ve had a great career as a character actor, but he’s one of the few to see you as a leading man.
RP: I actually have no doubt in my mind that him winning me the role of Hellboy has completely transformed the shape and trajectory of my life and career. I have no doubt about that. I spend a lot of my waking moments actively being grateful to Guillermo for these last few years, where I’ve really, really seen the impact of him championing me like he did has had on the opportunities that have come my way.