Now in theaters from Producer Guillermo del Toro and director Jorge Gutierrez is The Book of Life. Gutierrez’s charming and innovative take on the tradition of Dia de los Meurtos embraces the spirit of the holiday and imagines a stunning vision of the afterlife where the celebrated and beloved spend eternity in the vibrant Land of the Remembered, while those beyond recall languish in the desolate Land of the Forgotten. As Xibalba, mischievous ruler of the Land of Forgotten, Ron Perlman lends his signature booming voice, and as usual, brings an undeniable presence and magnetism to the screen.
I recently sat down with Perlman for an exclusive interview in anticipation of the film’s release. We talked about his creative partnership with Guillermo del Toro, why he loved the character of Xibalba, embracing the tradition of Dia de los Muertos, and more. He also talked about his Amazon series Hand of God and whether or not we’ll see more of Hannibal Chau in Pacific Rim 2. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
RON PERLMAN: Yeah, right?
Is it basically like, he calls you up and you immediately say yes?
PERLMAN: Well he’s never given me any reason to not be in something, because every time he calls me – like this last one, for Book of Life was, “Hey I got a fat juicy one for you,” and the script arrives and he’s as right as he ever was. I mean, if you look at the roles he’s given me, who wouldn’t want to jump in with both feet right?
PERLMAN: They’re all kind of gifts. He sees me in a way that no one else does and I love getting to play the roles that he actually envisions me for. So it’s a special kind of relationship on a collaborative professional level, which makes it even more special because it’s a friendship as well.
I would imagine that’s an incredibly rare thing.
PERLMAN: Well, it’s nice. It’s nice. You look back at the guys who worked with each other over and over again, especially the relationship between like a De Niro and a Scorsese, the relationship between Kirk [Douglas] and Burt [Lancaster] back in the day. They just loved working with each other. You could just see it. It oozed off the screen. When you see something like that it just means that there’s this ease, this appreciation, this like, “Okay, I got one less problem here. I know what I’m going to get from Ron and Ron knows what he’s going to get from GDT.” So it’s one less mysterious thing to worry about.
PERLMAN: Well, once again it’s another character that’s got this duality. He’s one thing on the outside and completely something else, there’s a whole subset of things that he is on the inside, which come surfacing at one point or another at some point during the film. So he’s larger than life, and that’s always fun stuff to play because of the layers and the textures. Pretty much when you commit to an idea you can get away with almost anything, because he is such a larger than life character. I like that.
You obviously have a hell of a voice, and you use it a lot for voice over and animated work. What are some of the challenges when you only have your vocal instrument to work with?
PERLMAN: I just don’t look at it like I just have my vocal instrument to work with. That’s all you’re going to see, but I’m hopefully fully engaged in turning myself into this guy that exists in this made up world that I’m trying to make look real. It’s the same whether I’m acting on the stage, whether I’m acting on television, whether I’m acting in a film, or whether I’m just a voice actor. That’s the exercise, and full engagement is what it requires. Creating an illusion that this guy really exists in the world when all it is kind of a made up piece of culture.
Was the image of Xibalba finalized by the time you took the part?
PERLMAN: There was a sketch of Xibalba that pretty much was set at my first session. I think I did about five different sessions. You keep doing it as they keep animating the film, and the closer they get to the final animation of it and the more they see how everything is cutting together, the more refined they are going in the performance. Sometimes they’re cutting stuff, sometimes they’re editing stuff, so you have to keep coming back in, but the sketch of Xibalba was fully realized from the get-go. And he’s something you’ve never seen anything like before, so I wasn’t able to take my clue, which I’m usually able to take, off the physical rendering of him because he didn’t look like anything I could relate to. All I knew was that uniqueness of his physicality was something that I could use as kind of a passport to go anyplace that my imagination would take me.
The whole movie is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, it’s visually stunning. It also has this really nice message about death that we don’t see a lot where death doesn’t have to be an enemy or something horrible to be feared. Was that an element that appealed to you about the story?
PERLMAN: You know since the time I met Guillermo back in the early ’90s with the first film we did I’ve been slowly introduced to Mexican culture and all of the pagan rituals upon which the Mexican culture is built. The Day of the Dead is thousands and thousands of years old, and it performs these functions that – we have nothing that compares to it here in the United States, because it’s this very positive and very joyous celebration of something that here we fear and shun. There it’s embraced, celebrated, and demystified and turned into something that’s very accessible and the opposite of wanting to avoid or fear. In so doing you have this special place you’re able to put those who’ve passed on to the next world, by remembering them they remain alive inside of you. So its this ritual that serves so many different purposes, all of which are amazingly joyous. I love the idea of having this film be the introduction to the American audiences of this thing and I think we’re going to gain a lot of enthusiasm for something that is new to us and that is a phenomenal addition to our own way of looking at life and death.
I definitely want to touch on a couple other things while I have you here. Talk a little bit about working with Amazon on Hand of God.
PERLMAN: Hand of God is far and away the most complex, epic piece of writing that I’ve ever encountered, and the fact that it exists made for television is just an example of why we are truly in the golden age of television right now.
PERLMAN: Television has become the medium that supports complete originality, which is something that I’m desperate to find and unearth as much as humanly possibly, originality. It basically is about this made-up town in Central California called San Vincente and I’m this very entitled, very politically powerful judge who is the grandson of the man who started the town. So I’m rich, I’m powerful, I’m cynical, I own everyone and everything as far as the eye can see, but when you find me I’m naked in a fountain speaking in tongues because I’ve just been saved and baptized, because I have a son who’s on life support who shot himself in the head because he had to witness his own wife getting raped and can’t handle it. So I’m in crisis. It’s this intersection of the guy who thought he knew everything to the guy who now knows he doesn’t know anything, plus he’s getting voices that he’s thinking are coming from god. He’s thinking he’s being directed to mete out his own form of vigilante justice. He’s got a wife, who’s a trophy wife, who’s a powerhouse in her own way. He’s got a hooker girlfriend, who he’s closer with than anybody. And he’s surrounded by people who all need him, whether they are with him because they love him or he’s their meal ticket.
PERLMAN: I do not know where we’re going. I have a general idea of where we would go if we were on for say the next five or six years, but I prefer not to know, because I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Nothing is guaranteed. We weren’t sure we were going to get picked up until about a week ago, so now that we know we’re being picked up the writers room is fully in force and they’re disseminating where we go from here. The writer Ben Watkins knows, but I was very careful to tell them that I’m not one of these guys that needs to know where we go next week. I’d rather read it and play it when it’s there in front of me.
I such a huge fan of Pacific Rim. What do you think the odds are that we see Hannibal Chau again in Pacific Rim 2?
PERLMAN: Good. The odds are good. They’re just putting the second movie together, I think Hannibal Chau is in the plan, we’ll know a lot more very very soon.