Ron Perlman has played a red-faced demon in Hellboy, an outlaw motorcyclist in Sons of Anarchy, a thoughtful and sensitive lion-man in Beauty and the Beast—and roughly 209 other characters in his 35-year career in television and film. (Seriously, scroll through his credits on IMDB sometime. It takes a while.)
But despite all this experience, he says he wasn’t sure he could play the lead in the new series Hand of God, which tells the story of a judge who suffers a mental breakdown and goes on a vigilante quest to track down the rapist who tore his family apart.
“My first reaction was to run for the hills,” says Perlman. “Because the judge is so emotionally and morally compromised that it would have required a performance where I really needed to be more out of control than in control. And it was scary. And it was coming at a point in my life where I thought, ‘Do I need to put myself through this shit? Do I want to fall on my face and fail?’ You know, when I could just do something easy for like CBS?”
“I was desperate to do another TV show because I believe that that’s where all the best shit is right now.”
Eventually, after meeting with creator Ben Watkins (Burn Notice) and director Marc Forster (World War Z), Perlman decided to take the role—his first big TV job since wrapping Sons. And with all 10 episodes dropping this Friday on Amazon Prime, we took the opportunity to sit down with him in a New York hotel suite for a lengthy conversation. Topics included his career in Hollywood, his advice to young actors, his propensity for late-night jokes and the genius of Sean Connery. Also: Genghis Khan.
Saw the first five episodes of Hand of God and really enjoyed them. It’s a highly binge-able show.
What was the No. 1 thing that drew you to the project?
I was really 50/50 when I read it. You know, it’s really weird. I sometimes will ask my people who send me a script to not tell me what role I’m supposed to be looking at. And that strangely happened when they sent me Hand of God. And as I’m reading it, I’m going, “They couldn’t possibly be thinking of me for the judge because this is going to require a performance that I’m not sure anybody would put into my hands.”
And I finished reading it and sure enough, it was confirmed, no, they’re thinking of you as the judge. Well, fifty percent of me said, “You’d be a pussy if you say no to this shit.” And it came down to me walking in the room with Ben Watkins and Marc Forster and saying, “Do you think I could do this?” And they looked at each other and went, “Why are you asking us? Don’t you know? We were hoping you’d know.” And I said, “No, I don’t know. I really don’t know. But if you’re willing to take a chance on me, I’ll give it a shot.” And we all agreed. And it was the biggest challenge I’ve ever experienced.
We heard you tell someone that this script was unlike anything you’d read in your career. What was so different about it?
Well, it’s really hard to describe Hand of God in a logline. Like, we’ve defied everybody to just describe it in one or two sentences. Some great writers have been able to do it. But they’re really only scratching the surface in terms of the discussion about power, fidelity, loyalty, religion, morality, right, wrong, the fine line between insanity and inspired, what is something that is blatantly corrupt and what is something that you can talk your way out of. And these are things that, you just watch the news for an hour, and you’ll see all of it, and this show actually tackles all that stuff in a way where you never really see the medicine. You never really feel as though that’s the discussion, and yet it is.
And when I walked away from reading the pilot, I realized there’s nothing about what fascinates me about human beings and how fucked up they are and how beautiful they are all in the same breath that’s not touched upon in this world that Ben created. I don’t know how he did it. It defies description because he chooses never to stay in one place. He’s moving swiftly forward. As you watch the whole 10 episodes, you’ll see what I mean. And I knew that this was going to be a different kind of stroll than I’ve ever taken before.
Were you looking for something much different than Sons of Anarchy?
Well, I was spoiled by the experience of Sons, because the hallmark of that show was its originality. And FX did an amazing job of selling it, marketing it and keeping it on for the exact right amount of time. And I said to myself, “Okay, cable television is doing shit that’s dreamlike.” I mean, you wish in the best times of cinema for what’s taking place. And it’s because it has so much originality happening. So I just knew that if I was going to do another TV show—and I was desperate to do another TV show because I believe that that’s where all the best shit is right now—that it needed to be unlike anything else I’d ever seen before.
I never expected to find it as quickly as I did. I mean, this was the third script I read after Sons. I was still acting on Sons when we were out selling Hand of God. And it must have fallen from the heavens. If you believe in that kind of stuff. It must have just been an act of God that brought me to this piece of writing. Because it’s exactly what I would have hoped for.
OK, this is a question from my father, who’s a huge Sons of Anarchy fan. Did you have any say in how you died on that show?
No. In fact, I was supposed to be shot in the head in the first draft, and then for some strange reason, it turned into a neck shot where he takes close aim and shoots me in the jugular, which means I had to be wired and rigged in this strange contraption. Which I thought, really?
You would’ve preferred the head.
Just a head shot, man. It would’ve been so much easier and so much cleaner. You just get it over with. So there was contention all the way to the very end. I had no say in any way. I mean, I did in the performing of it. And I think there was sometimes some tension brought about by the fact that I refused to play black and white. Even in his most malignant evilness, I was looking to find the high ground for the guy. That it was always a decision that came from a place that was pure. And I don’t think that that’s what was intended. But for me that’s the only thing that made the guy interesting. And when I’m playing somebody, I prefer to make him interesting.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but writer/producer Brian Koppelman has a podcast, and he had on the actor James Le Gros, and at one point your name came up. They said you were the best late-night joke teller in show business.
[Big smile.] I spent some good late nights with James. We did a movie together in Iceland. Of all places. James and Connie Britton and Kevin, uh, I can never remember his name. One of my favorite dudes. [Editor’s note: Corrigan.] Anyway, yeah. Larry Fessenden film. There were a lot of late-night joke tellings.
Do you have one you could share?
No, I can never think of a joke when I’m asked to. They always just come when they come.
Are they originals?
No, these are all things that have been passed down from generation to generation. My dad was a big joke teller so I became the heir apparent.
Was he in theater?
No. He was a TV repair guy and then he segued into being a vocational high school teacher here in New York City.
OK. So he was in TV…
Yeah. He was, as they say, behind the scenes.
You’ve had such a long and interesting career. Who is your favorite actor or actress to ever work with?
Oh, I could not possibly narrow it down to one. I love actors so much. Especially the ones that I’ve worked with. I’ve been really lucky to be in the presence of some of my god heroes. I did a movie alongside Marlon Brando and got to watch him for about five days. I did a movie alongside Sean Connery. He’s a giant. Those are guys who completely tongue-tied me.
What makes Connery so good? Because we asked this same question to the actor Ray Wise, and he also said Connery.
Sean Connery is so good that you don’t even think he’s good. He’s one of those guys. It’s like, probably one of the best film actors of all time is John Wayne. And everybody said, “Well, he was always playing himself.” Bullshit. He was playing a guy that you couldn’t see acting. And that’s the whole trick is to make it look like he’s not acting. And John Wayne did it every single time. Except maybe when he was Genghis Khan. [Chuckles] Not a good idea.
But that’s the way Sean was. You know, you look at Sean, you think, “OK, this is just the guy.” You don’t really see that there’s a man in there giving a performance. And yet he is. It’s so natural and he’s just got this reality to him, this gravitas as a human being. If he’s onscreen with 40 other guys, you’re looking at him. And that’s a movie star.
We just learned recently that you were the beast in the 1980s TV show Beauty and the Beast.
I just learned that pretty recently myself. I kind of relearned it.
That was a terrific show while it lasted. Which was the harder makeup process, Beauty and the Beast or Hellboy?
They were both pretty much the same. They were, on their best day, four hours. And on certain days, six hours. The difference between the two is that, after six months of working on Hellboy, you went home. It took three seasons to kill the beast. So that was like nine months a year for two and a half years. That was a challenge.
What do you do for four hours in a chair?
I just collect my thoughts. I have quite a collection now.
We’re sure it’s very organized.
It’s just the opposite, my friend. So disorganized. There are a lot of voices in my head that are screaming to get out.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to play?
No. The roles that I’ve actually played have gone so far beyond anything I would’ve dreamt—and I’m a big dreamer—that I just basically realized life has overtaken fantasy. Reality has overtaken fantasy in my case and I just can’t wait to see what happens next.
Do you have any advice for a young actor?
Just keep acting. It’s the same advice I give my daughter or any of her friends. If it’s student films, if it’s films you make with your friends, whatever chance you get to act, if it’s a theater company in the Valley or in Ohio or in Marin County, just keep acting. It’s like the opposite of inertia. The more movement you have, the more you’ll keep moving. And also you just want to learn the craft and the only way to do that is to do it.
And aside from earning a living and a status and all this other bullshit that comes with the success element of it, at the end of the day, the only thing I am is addicted to creativity. So even if nobody saw what I was doing, as long as I was solving the problem of taking something that’s one-dimensional on a page and making it three-dimensional in life by applying my creativity to it, I’m happy. I could be making no money at all. I would still be very, very, very satisfied. And actors need to learn that that’s the most important thing.
It’s the process itself that is the reward.
Just the act of being creative. Of applying yourself to this beautiful thing of storytelling.
We tell ourselves that when we work out. Don’t worry about the results. It’s just about being on the treadmill.
I tell myself a lot of shit when I’m working out.
We should probably wrap this up soon. Anything else you’d like to add?
No, I think this has been a pretty holistic little chitchat.
Got any general advice for men?
I’m the last guy that wants to give advice to men. If you’re married, the best thing that you can possibly say is, “Darn, you are so right, darling.” That’s my advice.
Speaking of wives, your wife on this show, Dana Delany, looks amazing.
Yeah. She’s still got it. That was one of our big takeaways.
Amazing. Wait till you see further down the road.
Yeah, that’s a good reason to get into acting.
Yeah. I recommend it. Cheat legally.