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Ron Perlman On 'Sons Of Anarchy' And His Many On-Screen Transformations


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Ron Perlman made a name for himself in Hollywood playing genre roles with extensive special effects makeup and prosthetics, then launched another career playing memorable tough guy roles. In his early years in TV and the movies, Perlman played the demonic title role in "Hellboy," the lion-like co-starring role in "Beauty And The Beast" and similarly-disguised roles in "Quest For Fire" And "Star Trek: Nemesis." More recently, he's been able to appear on-screen with his features not transformed by makeup. In the 2011 movie "Drive," he was a mobster. On the FX series "Sons Of Anarchy," he played the ruthless, brutal leader of the motorcycle gang. And in his latest TV series "Hand Of God," he plays a ruthless, small-town judge transformed by what he thinks are religious visions. Perlman also has written a memoir, which is now out in paperback. It's called "Easy Street (The Hard Way)." Terry spoke with Ron Perlman last year, when his book was first published. Let's start with a reading by Perlman, from the first chapter of the audiobook, in which he's looking back on himself in the year 1969, when he was an intern at a theater company.


RON PERLMAN: (Reading) This guy - whose future would have him being a Neanderthal, a lion-faced man, a red-tailed, red-bodied, wise ass devil, a Romulan, a hunchback, a cross-dresser, a cop, a lawyer, a biker and a hundred other personas - was just a 19-year-old kid back then. He was 6-foot-2, with piercing blue eyes and curly, blondish hair. He was thick-boned - as they used to call it - though not noticeably overweight, as he had been the majority of his childhood. He did, however, have a unique face - a distinctive kisser - as he had been told a thousand times - with a pronounced jaw and high forehead. He was the kind of face that was not ugly but surely one of its kind. And he had gotten accustomed to people sometimes taking a double look. He had learned to counter this seemingly endless barrage of negativity with a tough guy, good-humored bravado, which he had learned as a necessity to survive - when growing up on the streets of Washington Heights, New York City.


Ron Perlman, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is going to be fun. I love your voice, so I'm looking forward to hearing it.

PERLMAN: I'm excited to be here.

GROSS: Since you were self-conscious as a kid about your face and about your body 'cause during about eight years of your childhood, you say, you were considered, like, the fat kid in school. Was it...

PERLMAN: No, I wasn't considered. I was the fat kid. (Laughter).

GROSS: You were. (Laughter).

PERLMAN: Yeah. That wasn't made up. That was the reality. I mean, you know, I was, like - I was up around 300 pounds by the time I was 12 and a half, 13 years old. And it stayed that way for - till I took my college physical, which I failed.

GROSS: Yeah. So you had to go on a diet, and...

PERLMAN: I had to - had to finally, you know, pay the piper.

GROSS: Right. So since you were self-conscious about your body and your face when you were coming of age, was it helpful for you to literally have a mask to be behind in some of your early roles?

PERLMAN: Having a physical layer between myself and the outside world that I was performing to really enabled me to kind of free myself up and not worry about all of the things that my inner voices were saying were in the way of giving the kind of free performance one wants to give. It was kind of like a pattern. I mean, it was one heavy duty prosthetic make-up transformation after another, you know, starting with the very first one, which was "Quest For Fire," then "Name Of The Rose," then "Beauty And The Beast." Those things happened in succession and gave way to the "Island of Dr. Moreau" and "Hellboy" and a number of others.

GROSS: So in "Sons Of Anarchy," it's kind of like the opposite of "Beauty And The Beast." Like, you're a real tough guy in this, and you have - you have, like, no scruples. You're the head of a very violent motorcycle club. This is like a criminal operation. And you became the president of the club after you plotted to kill the person who had been the head - John Teller. And the person you plotted with was Teller's wife, Gemma, who became your wife. And I want to play a scene in which Gemma has figured out that you actually ordered a hit on her daughter-in-law. And the - this is the woman who's married to her son, Jax. So Gemma is furious, and she has a gun.


KATEY SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) What's the matter, change your mind, get a refund 'cause they didn't kill her?

PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) I don't know what the hell you're talking about.

SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) You promise me. You looked me in the eye, and you promised me you wouldn't hurt Tara.

PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) You're insane. I had nothing to do with what happened to Tara.

SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) You took money out of that safe this morning. Hours later, somebody goes after Tara. She'd probably be dead if Jax wasn't with her.

PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) You need to stop right now.

SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) You didn't know that Jax was going to be with her, did you, or the boys? Jesus Christ. Those babies could have been hurt.

PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) Enough.

SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) Maybe Jax needs to know that truth. You stay away from me you son of [bleep]. You stay away from my family.

PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) Or what, you'll kill me, Gemma, huh, like you did the first husband?

SAGAL: (As Gemma Teller) You killed John.

PERLMAN: (As Clay Morrow) No. Baby, you killed him. You played me for a chump, and I was. I was no match for that tight, [bleep] broken, angry heart. Yeah, maybe Jax needs to read some of that truth.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Sons Of Anarchy" with my guest, Ron Perlman, playing Clay Morrow. And Ron Perlman has written a new memoir, which is called "Easy Street (The Hard Way)." How did you get the part? Did you have audition for it?

PERLMAN: I did have to audition for it. They had already shot the pilot with another actor playing Clay Morrow. And the network decided that they weren't getting what they were hoping to get and that they were willing to - they loved the series enough to - if they thought they found the right actor, they were willing to reshoot the pilot and start - restart the clock and green light the show for a whole first season, which is 13 episodes.

GROSS: Did you have any idea what the original actor had done wrong that they thought was not quite right for the part?

PERLMAN: The original actor is a brilliant actor. I won't mention his name, but he's - I'm a huge fan of his. But he's a very subtle guy. And he has a very kind of a quiet, understated presence about him, which, in terms of this particular guy, Clay Morrow, they were looking for way more dynamic. They were looking for higher highs and lower lows and a lot of very, very kind of...

GROSS: Volatility?

PERLMAN: …Resonance, yeah. So I understood going into it that, you know - that they were looking for a more operatic version of this guy. And it just so happened - you know, I happened to be free that week.

GROSS: (Laughter) Had you ever ridden a motorcycle?

PERLMAN: I had learned to ride a motorcycle for a movie that never happened. So just as I was getting my sea legs under me, it got pulled out from under me. And I never rode any more than that until "Sons Of Anarchy" came around. And depending on who you ask, I never did much riding after the fact, either. Me and the bike - we - let's put it this way - I'd rather be eating Haagen-Dazs.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PERLMAN: That's my wheelhouse, baby.

GROSS: Did you feel like you should meet any motorcycle gang members before doing the series?

PERLMAN: That was all done for us. You know, Kurt Sutter created the show. He spent a lot of time in Northern Cali, hanging out with the real deal guys. What you see in a lot of movies - you see a lot of movies about motorcycle gangs, Aand everybody's scratching, and everybody's fat and everybody's hairy. And, you know, it's kind of like - it's almost like a caricature version.

We really - not we, but Kurt really went out of his way to make sure that we had the endorsement of the MC world because we took the time to be as authentic and as subtle and as gray - rather than black and white - as we possibly could be. So I laud him for that.

BIANCULLI: Actor Ron Perlman, speaking with Terry Gross last year. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation from last year with actor Ron Perlman. The entire first season of his new TV series "Hand Of God" is available to stream on Amazon, and his memoir "Easy Street (The Hard Way)" has just come out in paperback.


GROSS: Your character really goes off the rails after a while. You know, he betrays everyone, including, you know, everyone in the motorcycle club. He goes to prison. He bites off parts of a guard's face. And you write in your memoir that when your character started becoming a pariah after betraying everyone he knew, you felt like you were becoming - being treated like a pariah on the set, as if everybody could sense that your character wasn't long for the world and therefore, you weren't long for the set. What were you picking up on?

PERLMAN: I was experiencing being cut from the herd - you know, being isolated - truly isolated. I mean, you know, that last season I spent on the show, I pretty much never saw anybody that I had been working with for the prior six years, until the last episode, when they offed me. I was - you know, I was doing kind of a separate show. And the isolation and the kind of exile was not just caricatures. It was also physical in nature. And...

GROSS: 'Cause you are in different scenes?

PERLMAN: Yeah - but, I mean, the closeness that had characterized the first few years of the show when we were all getting to know each other and all getting so swept up in what it was that we were a part of had turned into something else - something much more lonely, much darker, much - OK, this is it. This is - I'm done. I'm out of this world. And pretty - and surely enough, in short order, I was.

GROSS: How did you find out your character was going to be killed off? Did you find out about that through the script you were given? Did the - did Kurt Sutter, the creator of the show, tell you?

PERLMAN: He brought me in at the beginning of season six and told me that I would not make it to the end of the season. So that's how I found out. So season six was rather uncomfortable for me on a lot of levels, partially because of how much I grew to love the guys and the world of the show and what we had built together. And, you know, it was what it was, and it was never anything that was in my control. The places the character went were places I felt very uncomfortable going as an actor, things that he was given to do...

GROSS: You mean like biting off a guard's face?

PERLMAN: Just how completely Machiavellian he had become - how completely overwhelmed his own humanity became by these events that he created for himself.

GROSS: Can you describe what it's like to experience the death of a character you've inhabited for six years, where, you know, like the character's shot in the neck you have to give as realistic a performance as you can, not having experienced anything like that, obviously? So what are you thinking in that moment where - where you're shot?

PERLMAN: Well, what you're thinking is let me get this moment right, you know? Did I like the fact that I was shot in the jugular, that Jax readjusts his aim to make it even uglier than it needed to be? No. I mean, you know, Ron and Clay are two separate entities. But Ron is hired to play Clay. And so Ron doesn't exist in that moment. All that exists is getting it to the point where everyone who's playing that scene is on the same page and you make it look as - as realistic as possible. It's a brutal moment. Is it fun? No. But is it inevitable? I mean, the minute you start something, it's going to end. And if you get a chance to go as long and make as much noise as we did, then, you know, there's - the good far outweighs the parts of it that you're probably hearing in my voice right now, which is that it's difficult.

GROSS: Let's talk about your early years. Your father was a musician - he was a drummer - before - before the children were born, he played in swing bands. You say he played with Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others. Was he a regular member of the bands, or did he sit in with them on tour?

PERLMAN: He never rose to that level. He never played with those guys - devoted to those artists by the way - you know, those were his heroes. But he never played with those guys. He was just kind of a blue-collar guy who - you know, gig from here and there and scratched out a few bucks, but never enough when it came time to raise a family to really feel like he could stick with this as his bread-and-butter.

GROSS: So what did he do professionally?

PERLMAN: So then he went to technical school and learned television and radio. TV was kind of just in its infancy at that point. So…

GROSS: Television and radio repair?

PERLMAN: Television and radio repair, so that he would go to people's homes whose TV didn't work and fix them. And he became known as honest Bert Perlman because he charged $3 for a house call...

GROSS: Gosh.

PERLMAN: ...And never raised his prices. That's probably why he was such a lousy TV repairman is because he didn't change with the times.

GROSS: And then he became a teacher?

PERLMAN: And then - yeah, in his mid-40s, he started realizing that kneeling down behind TVs and pulling out picture tubes was probably losing its charm. So he found out that if - he could use his practical time that he spent in the business and apply them to educational credits. And he started teaching in a vocational high school in New York - TV and radio technology. And that's when he found out what he was really born to do. He was really born to be a teacher. He only got a chance to do it for about three or four years before he was failed by this massive heart attack that actually took his life at the age of 49. But he found out what he was supposed to do before it was too late, so for that I am eternally grateful.

GROSS: Since he had initially wanted to be a professional musician, did he support you in your teenage years, or do you think he would've supported you later on in your ambition to become a professional actor, to have a life in the arts?

PERLMAN: Well, he was wary of any noise that either of his sons made to sort of pursue a life in the arts because he knew how precarious it was. And he knew what the odds were of success or of just even scratching out enough of a living to, you know, be able to use the word security. And, you know, him having grown up as a Depression baby, security was really paramount to that generation of parents. And then this thing happened where he saw me in a play in college. And he came the first night with my mom and, you know, the whole rest of the family and then came back the second night by himself. And then the following day in the car, he pulls over as he's driving me someplace and he goes, you know, I just came back last night to see if what I saw the night before was an illusion or whether it was reality. I said what are you talking about, Pop? He said I think you got to do this. And I said do what? He said I think you got to be an actor. I think that's what you've got to do. And I came back a second time to have another look at it because it's a very hard thing for me to say because I know how hard it is to make a living, but I think this is what you have to do. And a year later he was gone, so this was the ultimate, like, almost like a deathbed wish, where he gave me permission - not only gave me permission, but gave me a certain resolve that only a father can give to a son. It was beautiful. And it's taken me to where I am, you know, to this day.

GROSS: So I want to thank you very much for talking with us, for sharing...

PERLMAN: My pleasure.

GROSS: ...Some of your life with us. It's been a pleasure. And good luck with...

PERLMAN: It turns out...

GROSS: Yeah.

PERLMAN: It turns out I really like talking about me.


PERLMAN: So it's been really a pleasure. It's been a lot of fun and thank you.

BIANCULLI: Actor Ron Perlman, speaking with Terry Gross last year. The entire first season of his new TV series "Hand To God" is available to stream on Amazon. And his memoir, "Easy Street (The Hard Way)," has just come out in paperback. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Spotlight," about the reporting team at the Boston Globe investigating priests accused of being pedophiles. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.