Perls of wisdom
Hollywood star Ron Perlman tells DQ about his most memorable roles in film and television, his friendship with director Guillermo del Toro and why he laughs through life, whatever the reviews say.
Across his 40-year screen career, Ron Perlman has built an extensive list of film and TV credits. Best known for taking the lead in the hit Hellboy movies, he has also starred in small-screen successes such as Beauty & The Beast and Sons of Anarchy.
He will next be seen on TV in the second season of BBC conspiracy drama The Capture, which begins on Sunday (Aug 28), while other recent credits include StartUp, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair and Netflix film Don’t Look Up.
Perlman is equally prolific in his voiceover work, playing characters in American Dad, Transformers: Power of the Primes, Trollhunters and Adventure Time, among many others.
Speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, Perlman reflects on some of his most notable roles, his crisis of confidence and his enduring friendship with Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro.
You were at the forefront of the television streaming revolution with your Prime Video series Hand of God. How has the business changed in the last decade?
I don’t know how the internet has changed TV. Changes that have happened in TV are more endemic to the internal mechanisms of the movie business. I do think, though, that with the internet came all of these ways to turn inward and to stay home. And by staying home, that killed the movie business, because if you don’t go to the movies, then all you have is streaming and cable.
That was the way things were going, then the pandemic came along and people absolutely couldn’t go out of the house, so now they’re doing everything on Amazon and doing everything at home. As for movie studios, unless you’re making a Batman movie or Spider-Man movie – which they make once a week – you’re not in the business. All of that other business of making real content has gone to cable television and streamers.
You’ve worked with director Guillermo del Toro on numerous occasions. How did that collaboration start?
I have this horrible syndrome where I feel like I’m invisible in life. Like right now, I feel like the fact that you know who I am and what I did is a miracle. To me, I’m invisible. But particularly when Guillermo sent me a letter, which was in 1990, I was in the middle of a midlife crisis where I didn’t go out of the house for two years, and I would just sit there in my pyjamas.
I had lost my whole sense of direction, and then I get this letter from Guillermo. The genesis of it was Guillermo was making these little creature television shows in Mexico, but there was nobody to make the creatures. There were no make-up shops in Mexico, so he came to the US and studied with Rick Baker, Dick Smith, Stan Winston and all the great make-up artists. I had already worked with Christopher Tucker, Stan and Rick. I had already done Beauty & The Beast and got La Guerre du Feu [Quest for Fire] and The Name of the Rose.
Then he writes me this letter identifying my work in all of these movies I didn’t think anybody saw. It’s the most beautiful, complimentary letter and, on top of that, he says, ‘I’m a young Mexican filmmaker and I’m sending you this letter with a script, this movie I hope to make as my first film, called Cronos.’ I read the letter and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is like getting a lifetime achievement award.’ Then I read the script and it’s the most beautiful, elegant vampire movie. But it’s not a vampire movie, it’s like if Charles Dickens wrote a vampire film – gothic and layered and very intellectual. We met and that was the beginning, as they say in Casablanca, of a beautiful friendship.
More recently, you took a role in his 2021 film Nightmare Alley…
Pretty much anything Guillermo offers me, I don’t need to read the script. The answer is yes. But with Nightmare Alley, I had seen the [original 1947 version starring Tyrone Power] and I told him about it. I said, ‘This is the only movie I would ever remake because it’s the greatest film noir I’ve ever seen. But if it was done by somebody like you, it would really take on a completely new set of dimensions.’ I told him of my love for the project and he went out and saw it, and he agreed with me.
We had this conversation about remakes, because everyone was doing remakes, and I said, ‘Remakes are basically cowardly.’ That was my opinion, but this was one movie I would definitely remake because the studio never gave [the original] the kind of resources needed for a story of that scope, so it ended up being a really small movie with a big idea. It’s almost like a Greek tragedy – a character becomes hubristic and flies too close to the sun and crashes and burns.
Why do you think remakes are cowardly?
There are some exceptions. But there are so many great original ideas out there, and you make a remake because you really love the original story. You’re never going to make it as good as the original, so just leave it alone. Using the word ‘cowardly’ makes me sound self-important, but it’s like, ‘Do something original.’ There are a lot of writers out there, really young writers. I’m about to do a couple of really small indies with new writers, great stuff, who can’t get the time of day. Find those guys.
What movie or series first inspired you to become an actor?
It wasn’t that I wanted to become an actor, but that ‘this gives me hope as a person.’ It was Charles Laughton in [1939 film] The Hunchback of Notre Dame, because I felt like I was not pretty enough for the world when I was a kid. A lot of kids feel that way, and then I see this movie and the guy is really way more deformed. He’s so repulsive, and he’s the most beautiful character in the whole story.
When I saw that, I realised you could be both things. That was so empowering to me. It turns out – not because I designed it this way, just because the world works in mysterious ways – that I ended up playing my own version of Quasimodo in five different movies. Beauty & The Beast was one, The Name of the Rose is another. I kept playing the ugly guy who was the most beautiful soul. [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] made a huge difference. It was the first thing I saw that I related to myself. I used to watch movies with my dad and I was experiencing the movies as he was experiencing them, but this one was my own personal reaction.
How do you compare your voiceover work to your screen work?
I just love acting and I love it in all the ways you do it. With voice acting, in two hours you’ve given your performance. You don’t even have to put on pants. You don’t have to brush your teeth, you don’t have to shave. You walk in there, you sit down and they put a microphone in front of you. There’s no discussion but it’s pure acting; it’s very distinctive acting.
Then there’s the other kind where you sit around for six months [rehearsing], and that’s amazing because you’re listening to everybody’s input and their reaction to the material. We’re all reading the same thing but we’re seeing it differently. I just love whatever way I get to do the craft.
You also starred in Sons of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter’s biker drama that was among the shows that changed US cable television in the 2000s. What was that like?
We were involved in something that was taking us on this magic carpet ride. We didn’t have any idea when we got on the carpet that it was going to resonate in the world the way it did. I’ve had everything in my career in terms of personal satisfaction, but that was the first time I had a commercial success. The world embraced the show, and it was a big hit.
I haven’t been in a lot of big hits. I’ve been in a lot of movies that were admired, but never in a blockbuster arena like Spider-Man. Hellboy did well but it was not a blockbuster. Iron Man opened at $105m on its first weekend. When am I going to be in one of those? But if I keep talking about working with guys who have nothing to lose and people who are taking a dump on the page, I’m probably not going to be in a blockbuster. I don’t miss it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a nice to experience it just to see how it feels.
I’m still thinking like I’m 19 years old. That’s the main blessing for me, that I’m still looking to do new shit with new people and I’m still searching for the holy grail as an artist. there’s no cynicism, there’s no resting on my laurels. There’s no, ‘I want to go back to that year where everything…,’ I’m not interested. What’s next and how much can we blow people’s minds?
Which have been your favourite roles?
All of them. The obvious ones are Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy and Beauty & The Beast, but I’ve laughed my way through life. I’ve had the best time with creative people doing weird, wonderful shit. Sometimes it’s terrible and we laugh about that too. You have to. It doesn’t always come out like you hope, but you say, ‘OK, I’m really glad I did that. Now I know what the bottom feels like.’
I want to keep finding things I haven’t ever done before, finding new challenges. I want to keep finding young writers who have a completely new set of balls. My favourite line in all of entertainment was when Bob Dylan said, ‘When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.’ And when you’re a young writer and you have no bank account, you can put this shit down on paper, and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, this is out there.’ I like that because there’s no fear. It’s just pure daring and it’s very original. I’m always looking for that.