Ron Perlman is in a defiant mood. “I’m always getting into trouble – I love it,” says the star of Hellboy with a devilish grin.
It’s unsurprising, then, that he has a sharp reply to critics of his new film, Don’t Look Up. Perlman plays a dim-witted military officer in Adam McKay’s starry climate crisis satire, which became one of Netflix’s most-watched releases over Christmas – but had its fair share of scathing reviews. He has two words for the film’s detractors, which then turn into several more.
“F*** you and your self-importance with this self-perpetuating need to say everything bad about something just so that you can get some attention for something that you had no idea about creating. It’s corrupt. And it’s sick. And it’s twisted. But I understand that it’s part of how the internet has almost killed journalism. And now journalism is trying to do everything they can to co-opt and maintain their importance.”
Marginally below Perlman’s contempt for film critics is his regard for Republicans, anti-vaxxers and people who watch Fox News: “I really don’t give a f*** [about them]. I’ve given up on those people. They’re all vaccinated and telling you not to be. They know everything they say is a lie but they’re doing it anyway. They’re all f***ing pieces of s*** that can go f*** themselves.”
At this point, his deep voice is wobbling. “The heartbreaking thing is 74 million people voted for a man who has been impeached twice, groped 26 women, inflated his personal wealth and then deflated it when he needed to. I hope there’s a special place in hell for people who have exploited others’ vulnerability.”
Clearly, Perlman does not do bulls***. The veteran character actor has survived a lifetime in Hollywood without ever becoming a part of the machine. A natural rebel, he has made a career playing outsiders, whether that be bikers (Sons of Anarchy), black market organ traders (Pacific Rim) or half-demons summoned to Earth by Nazis (Hellboy). And with his wide jaw and creased forehead, the 71-year-old has a face carved for the wicked delights of film noir.
Perlman took a role in Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley remake without looking at the script, breaking his golden rule in the process – but then, he breaks all rules for del Toro. It’s his sixth collaboration with the Mexican Oscar winner, a partnership that began in 1993 with the cult horror Cronos. At that time, Perlman was best known as the man behind the mask, having starred in a hit TV adaptation of Beauty and the Beast beneath a mound of prosthetics. He picked up a Golden Globe for his performance, but the nature of the role meant nobody really knew who he was – except one particular horror aficionado south of the border.
Del Toro and Perlman’s paths first crossed when the director sent him a letter asking him to appear in his feature debut. To this day, Perlman still treasures the letter: “It was a letter you don’t get very often in life. The type of letter you save and when you have the money, you frame it. Reading the letter, it was like I’d won a lifetime achievement award. I was an obscure character actor behind these masks. Nobody recognised me, let alone knew my name, but he did.”
Nightmare Alley actually pollinates from those early correspondences between actor and director: Perlman gave del Toro the novel, by William Lindsay Gresham, upon which the 1947 original film was based. Even in those early days, Perlman knew del Toro was something special – that one day they were going to be the outsiders who made it to the top together. Through the course of their working relationship, del Toro and Perlman have gone from lower-than-low-budget horror movies to tentpole blockbusters. He says, quoting Casablanca: “I knew it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
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Nightmare Alley sees del Toro operating on a slightly different level than before. It’s a tale of a conman, played by Bradley Cooper, on the run from the fires of his past. When he joins a travelling carnival as one of its menagerie, Perlman is its kindly strongman, Bruno – a deconstruction of the many tough guys he’s played over his long career. The gothic imagery, the malevolence creeping up from the surface, the bursts of insidious violence, that’s all there – but the film is less away with the fairies than the fantasy of The Shape of Water, less camp that Crimson Peak. The result is the director’s best work since the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth and also del Toro and Perlman’s most distinctive collaboration since Hellboy.
Perlman played the leather-trenchcoat-wearing, red-skinned demon-turned-superhero in the brawny, impish take on the superhero film. It was the role Perlman had waited a lifetime for – the chance to be front and centre of a major commercial film that was still twisted, bold and challenging, and kissed with del Toro’s trademark dark humour and gothic aesthetic.
They made two Hellboy films before the series was unceremoniously rebooted by Neil Marshall, with Stranger Things star David Harbour in the title role. The reboot bombed. It was an ugly disaster that Perlman could not bring himself to see. He and del Toro have both publicly said that they were planning a third film – so would he play Hellboy again? “Am I eager to do Hellboy 3? No, I’m 71 f***ing years old.” But he can’t wrestle himself away from the role either, despite the demands it puts on his body to be in superhero shape at 71. “We owe this to the fans,” he says, “and we should give it to them because it would be an epic conclusion. So Guillermo, if you’re reading, I’m not done pounding you to get this f**king thing done.”
Perlman is an open book. He’ll pour praise one minute, vitriol the next – yet the one subject he is cryptic about is Kurt Sutter. Sutter was the creator and showrunner of Sons of Anarchy, the hit TV show in which Perlman starred for six years as biker king Clay Morrow. He departed from its spin-off Mayans MC amid claims of “unprofessional behaviour”. Of his former boss, who also appeared on the show as Otto (usually in the series’ most grotesque scenes of violence), Perlman says: “He was very tough. Power is something that shouldn’t be given to everyone. It’s a tricky thing and given to the wrong guys, it’s always something you have to navigate around. And that’s all I’ll say.”
There was a point – in the mid-Eighties – when Perlman contemplated walking away from acting. He was getting little more than guest spots in TV shows. Over three decades later and through sheer talent and perseverance (and a spot of luck), he’s become a favourite of one of the most acclaimed living directors in del Toro, and worked with others such as Nicolas Winding Refn on Drive and Jean-Jacques Annaud on The Name of the Rose.
It’s a journey that has also led to him working with “heroes” such as Marlon Brando, Albert Brooks and Sean Connery. He holds Brando, with whom he worked with on The Island of Dr Moreau, in particularly high esteem. “He’s my acting idol,” he says. “But being around him made me very quiet. I wasn’t me around him. I felt like I wasn’t worthy.”
That marvellously expressive face falls a little. “I wish I had another shot at Marlon. He just loved to laugh. If me and Marlon were hanging out now, we’d have a great f***ing time.” I bet they would.
‘Nightmare Alley’ is in cinemas now
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