It's hard not to root for Ron Perlman.
He's a character actor but he gave one of the summer's best performances in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" and now we have the privilege of seeing him on a weekly basis in FX's new motorcycle drama, "Sons of Anarchy".
Perlman plays Clay Morrow, the leader of the biker gangs whose main trade is the firearms.
We spoke to Perlman about being FX's newest badass and his thoughts on how Morrow compares to his past roles.
"Sons of Anarchy" premieres Wednesday, September 3rd at 10/9c on FX.
How did you get started in acting?
Ron Perlman: I couldnít make it on the swimming team in high school. In fact, I got thrown off the swimming team and was forced to audition for the school play because they had at the audition about 35 girls show up and no boys, so my swimming coach suggested that I might be able to do the drama department more good than I was doing the swimming team. Why he had that instinct I donít know, but the rest is history.
Well, as a follow-up to that, how did you come into this part?
Perlman: Kurt Sutter asked to have lunch with me and told me that they were interested in exploring the idea of me playing Clay and that I was going to have to audition for the network, and so I did and here we are.
Thereís been some talk about how the superstructure of Sons of Anarchy is Hamlet. That, I suppose, would make you Claudius. Can you conceive of a situation where Claudius and Jax would face off other thanónot Claudius and JaxóClay and Jax would face off other than perhaps at the end of the season when presumably Jax finally makes his move? Are they pretty tight or is there a little bit of an adversarial strain underlying their relationship?
Perlman: Well, Iím only reading it one episode at a time and Iím just a little bit ahead of you. I have no idea how itís going to play out. I pretty much have an idea of what is going to happen, particularly in light of the fact that Iím sure theyíre going to stick to the structure of Hamlet all the way to the end, but how it happens and when it happens weíll have to just see one episode at a time. But yes, theyíre very tight. I mean, thereís a real affection between Clay and Jax, a real affection.
Iím sorry. How long has John been gone, how long have they been a pair?
Perlman: John, I think, died in í93, so itís a while since I think Jax was 15 at the time and heís 30 now, so itís 15 years that heís been without his dad and that Clay and Gemma have taken up the relationship.
With Clay and John both being founders of the club I would think theyíd be pretty close friends, so I was curious how Gemma and Clay ended up married.
Perlman: I donít have an answer to that. I would suspect that Clay probably felt that John got the prize when he got Gemma and wouldnít be surprised if Clay maybe always had a secret design on Gemma. Iím not giving you a definitive answer because I just donít know the answer, but Iím telling you some of the things that Iím thinking as the actor playing the guy, and I think that knowing what I know about how thorough Kurt Sutter is in answering all these questions we will all find out at pretty much the same time.
What attracted you to this show?
Perlman: The writing. End of story.
Was there anything in particular about the writing?
Perlman: Itís incredibly smart, very, very, very vivid, completely ungratuitous for a showís that as hardcore and violent and explosive and radical behavior, these are not your average conservative Republicans, these guys are ruthless and badass. And the way itís depicted is very organic, which you could only do if youíre a brilliant screenwriter, as Kurt Sutter is, and as an actor you know youíre always going to be supported byóyouíre never going to be made to look gratuitous or silly because everything is incredibly well supported in a very organic and very brilliant way.
How much research did you do into biker culture?
Perlman: Not as much as I would have liked. Iím continuing to do research into biker culture. I got kind of thrown into this thing with no prep time so I just basically dove in with two legs, with two feet, and started playing him and have picked up things. You know, we have a tech advisor whoís a member of the Oakland Chapter of the Hells Angels named D.L., heís one of the most famous guys in that club, and heówhenever I get a break in the action, I sit and chitchat with him. Charlieís done time up there, heís spent serious time up there learning, immersing himself in the subculture, and whenever I have a minute I pick his brain, I learn from him. And I feel as if I have enough of a foundation where Iíve got a pretty strong point of view about where Clay is coming from and what his core values are, but I really would like to learn more because the more I know about them the more fascinating they become to me.
What was it about Clay Morrow that got you interested in the first place?
Perlman: To tell you the absolute truth, the first time I read it I wasnít sure I could play the guy. Iíve never played anybody like him. No matter how sociopathic or psychotic the character was that I was playing, I always saw something in there that made them that way so that there was always some sort of a duality, like Hellboy is a badass but he has this really soft center. Heís got a very strong feminine side. There was always a duality in all the characters Iíve played no matter how radical they were. Thereís no duality in Clay Morrow. Heís got one gear and itís win at all costs, and heís not big on sense of humor. He has no feminine side whatsoever and I really didnít know whether I could, whether I had the chops to pull it off. So I said to myself, there seem to be more people on the periphery who thought I could do it than I thought I could do it, so I figured Iíd put my trust and faith in them and use it as a big challenge because the one thing I do love is to be challenged and to be kind of on the tree limb, where one false move either way and youíre toast. I kind of like that, so I took this thing as a challenge and weíll see. So far Iím having a good time, Iím exercising different muscles than Iíve ever used before.
Clay is described as someone who exerts ruthless control over all areas of his life thanks to his struggle with acute arthritis. How easy or difficult is it to portray that aspect of Clay, meaning his need for control as result of certain things in his life he canít control?
Perlman: Well, the aspect of him beginning to lose control, the arthritis, itís not acute yet, it Ďs the onset of arthritis which is basically the first signal that somebody who always considered himself unbreakable and invulnerable is starting to see the beginnings of cracks in his armor. So when we meet this guy heís going through changes as is Gemma, because sheís now 51 years old. These guys who started out as kids and thought that they had the world figured out are now finding out that there are certain things that there arenít answers to, and it makes for a very charged situation.
If Sons of Anarchy returns for a second season what do you think viewers can expect from Clay specifically and the show in general?
Perlman: Aside from the fact that I know weíre sticking to the superstructure of Hamlet, I donít know anything and I donít want to know. I mean Iím really, really, so overwhelmed with every time they give me the new script, which is usually about four or five days before we start shooting it, just at the point where weíre in the midway point of shooting one episode we get the next one, and for me itís so overwhelming to deal with the present that I canít begin to get caught up in the future. I mean, if I went to the writers and asked them whatís going to happen in the second season Iím sure theyíd tell me, but I really donít want to know because I donít want to jump ahead of myself. I donít think itís valuable, and thatís just my own personal feeling. If you ask 10 different actors that question youíre going to get 10 different answers. Iíd rather just concentrate on the right now and if I have a question about how the history of something or the future of something is going to affect the behavior of what Iím doing right now, then Iíll call the producers and try to get the answer to that question. But other than that Iím just trying to play it one minute at a time.
Katey Sagalís character is pretty tough on the show. Whatís it like working with her?
Perlman: Sheís a doll. I mean, I just saw the pilot episode. You guys are kind of ahead of me because I havenít seen the second one at all and I only just saw the pilot episode the night before last, and it was staggering to me that the baddest ass on the show is Katey. I mean, weíre all trying to play these big swinging dudes who are completely ruthless and fearless and in watching the first episode, I didnít realize that sheís the bad ass of the show. She even makes me look a little weak, which is a complete dichotomy to how she is in real life. Sheís so sweet, sheís a great mom and a beautiful working companion and full of kindness and caring. Sheís kind of like a hippie, sheís like how all of us who came through the Ď60s turned out, a little left of center, very liberal-minded, and thatís a complete performance sheís giving on the show, but it is complete.
Do you prefer to play the bad guy if you can?
Perlman: I donít have any preferences. I feel as though my criteria are based more on how challenging the role is, it doesnít have to fit into any particular profile, is it something that Iíve never done before, and is it something that I feel like I can really feel challenged and therefore fully engaged in, and thatís when the work gets to be the most fun.
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What has been your favorite scene to film so far?
Perlman: I couldnít answer that. Every single scene that Iíve done has been, like, I canít even put into words what a great writer Kurt Sutter is and what an amazing staff heís assembled because every script is just filled with scenes you canít wait to do. The most surprising episode was, I think, the fifth episode. Itís called AK51, and it was written by a woman named Nicole Beattie and itís basically a script that could only have been written by a woman and it deals with one of the things I alluded to earlier, the fact that Kateyís body and my body are going through these changes and thereís some amazing stuff in there that comes as a surprise to both of us and the playing of those things was pretty surprising and revealing. I just canít wait to get to work every day because these scenes are just like hanging fastballs, hanging curveballs, as the pitch is coming in you just lick your lips waiting Ö
Can you take us through a typical day on the set?
Perlman: No, because we donít have any typical days. Every single day is a complete different set of problems. Every single day is not like any other day. You just try to make sure that youíre well nourished and youíve got enough energy to get through it because theyíre very often 14, 15, or 16 hours long and weíre moving at a really quick pace because weíre shooting an episode in seven days, and the workload is overwhelmingly concentrated and focused.
I was wondering if there are any of your own personality traits which help you tap into that kind of criminal archetype?
Perlman: Heís about as far from my own approach to life as anyone Iíve ever played but having said that, as an actor youíre always using your own facets behaviorally to loan the character his reality, and I can only play Clay as I can access him from my own field of experience. But heís really, really, really different from me and, as I said before, a challenge because of that because Iíve got to adjust my point of view and my way of processing a situation. I donít process situations the way he does.
How does the effect of the club being like a family balance with the toughness of the jobs the guys go out and do and everything else on that side of things?
Perlman: These clubs are a subculture that are unique to themselves but you can parallel them as every club as its own sovereign nation with its own set of laws and its own earning capacity and its own code of behavior and its own ruthless need to protect its borders and its national interests, and you can take any country in the world and set the same description to it. So itís more than a family but there are certainly family values to each of these clubs because at the end of the day theyíre there to protect their own, theyíre there to support their own, and theyíre there to sacrifice themselves for their own family.
What kind of audience do you think Sons of Anarchy will draw?
Perlman: A big one. I donít know, I can only hope. I can never second guess what happens when you take a piece of culture and try to funnel it into the mainstream. Iíve been wrong almost every time before so Iíve stopped guessing. I hope people like it for its uniqueness and for the effort that everybodyís putting in, which is a pretty magnanimous effort.
Now as a follow-up to the question about bike culture and everything else like that, did you know anything about bike culture before starting the series and had you ever been on a bike, did you know anything about the ins and outs of anything?
Perlman: I knew zero. Iíd see motorcycle clubs whiz by like the rest of us and just consider it to be very loud and an annoyance and I just thought that these guys were men without a country, just purely rebellious. I never thought about it beyond that. Iíd never been on a bike, I donít have that in my own fun psyche, so everything I did was kind of filling in a very blank slate, and my eyes got really opened to the sociopolitical aspects of the impulse to start these clubs. And most of the guys who are members of these clubs were veterans, probably most of them fought in wars, in different wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the current Iraq war, so theyíre warriors to begin with, and they come back to America after the most patriotic of acts, which is the act of self sacrifice for their country and not only are they not welcomed as heroes but theyíre kind of shunned because their psyche is such that itís okay for a warrior to go kill and die but itís not okay for them to come back to the United States and marry your sister. So itís kind of like, if you donít mind a little salty language, fuck me, fuck you. Iím out of here. Iím going to go create my own reality. Iím going to show you what patriotism really looks like and Iím going to be patriotic to what I consider to be things that are worth living and dying for. And thatís the impulse behind the motorcycle club and itís very, very anarchistic and very sociopolitical. Itís a reaction against something, which turned into a huge disappointment. Those are the things that, when my eyes were really opened as to how compelling these clubs are.
Thereís a scene in the second episode where Gemma is looking for John Tylerís manuscript and she finds a photo of herself and John and Clay and a fourth person, a woman, presumably. Did Clay have a first wife that you know of, according to Kurt Teller? Is Gemma his second wife, and do you think he has any kids?
Perlman: He has no kids, I can tell you that for sure. I donít know whether heís had another wife. That was a wedding photo, couldíve been a girlfriend at the time. I havenít seen the second episode soó
Theyíve got to send you stuff.
Perlman: Yes, I know. I guess Iíll see it on September 10thóAlong with the rest of America. So no, Iím sorry, I canít answer that on whether he was ever married.
If you could write any scene for Clay or have him do something, what would you choose for him to do?
Perlman: First of all, Iím not a writer. Thatís why Iím an actor is because if I could do anything I wanted I would write but I donít have those bones, and second of all Iím in a situation here where the writing goes so far beyond my limited imagination that it blows my mind every time I read a new script. Iím just happy to be able to portray what theyíre giving me. I donít have anything that could top or add to what Iíve already seen.
What kind of different challenges do you find between working for television as opposed to movies, since youíve been in a lot of movies?
Perlman: Well, the approach is the same. The general work is the same. The only difference is with a TV series you go a lot faster, you have to get more stuff done in a day than you do in a movie because the constraints of the schedule are really austere. So itís speed, and itís concentration and focus because itís relentless. I mean, you finish one episode at midnight on a Tuesday and then on Wednesday morning at seven youíre in the makeup chair getting ready to start the next one without having a chance to take a breath in between. So thatís basically the difference, but fundamentally you approach the work the same way.
Were you surprised at the level of violence in the show?
Perlman: Well, Iím not surprised by the level of violence in the show. I knew these were pretty ruthless, rough guys, but there are certain things that weíre doing that shock even me, and I thought I was shockproof. Itís pretty hardcore. I mean, you start getting to the third episode, the fourth episode, the fifth episode, I mean, we do stuff that is likeóI finished reading it and I was just like, Iíve got to lie down. Itís definitelyóthe envelope is being breached.