There are plenty of actors who’ve made their living playing tough guys. But Ron Perlman is different than that. With his booming voice and imposing physicality, he simply has a larger-than-life quality that he’s sometimes put to use playing heavies and villains, but as often as not (“Beauty and the Beast,” the “Hellboy” movies) utilized against type in roles defined by their innate sensitivity. He does not, however, have what one might call feminine features. He exudes masculinity. So it’s more than a bit of a shock to see Perlman in his latest role, in writer-director Jordan Roberts’ “3,2,1… Frankie Go Boom,” in which he plays Phyllis, a web-savvy, post-operative transsexual who assists the beleaguered title character (his “Sons of Anarchy” co-star Charlie Hunnam) in taking down a very private video his newly sober brother (Chris O’Dowd) has posted to the Internet. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance recently to speak to the 62-year-old actor one-on-one, about “Frankie,” how he looks as a woman, sex tapes, and his thoughts on Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming, highly anticipated “Pacific Rim.” The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Having talked with Jordan some, it sounds like Charlie was a conduit on this project, and they basically mentioned two possible roles, but the role of Phyllis as kind of a jokey afterthought.
Ron Perlman: Charlie made it quite clear that there were two roles available, but that Jordan would like (me) to concentrate on the role of Jack, although Phyllis was not cast yet. As much as I liked the role of Jack — and I really liked the role of Jack (eventually played by Chris Noth), I really loved the whole script — there was just something about Phyllis and me and my bucket list, and this became an obsession rather quickly.
ShockYa: You’ve had a lot of roles with heavy prosthetic make-up, but when I look at the poster for this movie… well, it’s pretty striking.
RP: It’s the ugliest broad you’ve ever seen.
ShockYa: Yes. It’s no disrespect when I say that you don’t at all make a very attractive woman.
RP: Thank you very much, I couldn’t agree with you more.
ShockYa: The film has these very colorful characters and plays at a heightened level, but is at its core about very recognizable family relationships. What was (Jordan’s) pitch in explaining the character?
RP: There was no pitch. I read the script, and once I knew that I was going to pursue the role of Phyllis, and that they agreed — if he wants it bad enough then obviously he must have some idea of what the fuck he’s going to do here, I guess they thought — there was no discussion. We closed the deal, but there was really no deal to close because we all worked for free, and [Jordan] started thinking about all the other fires he needed to put out while I started thinking about what color nail polish the ugliest broad in the world would wear. We didn’t really meet up until the day (of shooting). I think I went to a costume fitting, or they came to me, I can’t remember, and they took some photographs and made decisions off on their own about what Phyllis would wear. And I think I went to another fitting where I tried on four or five wigs, and I ended up feeling most comfortable in the most boring of all of them, the least statement-ly, because there were other ones that were sight gags in and of themselves. But the wig that we ended up with was something that looked like it could be Phyllis’ hair. And then I showed up on the day, and we had a day to shoot like six scenes. So there wasn’t a lot of time. Jordan saw my approach and what I was trying to do and I think said, “OK, I don’t have to worry about this guy!”
ShockYa: You mentioned your bucket list previously — was the idea of playing a woman something that you’d long contemplated?
RP: I didn’t have actually playing a woman on the bucket list, but I did have wanting to play everything I possibly can before I die, and then when I saw Phyllis, I said, “Oh, well this is definitely one I could check right off the list.” There was something about who she was, and how she came to making this change — what the evolution of that was, from where she started as a “he.” And then, just the downright funniness of it all — I said if there’s ever going to be a shot of me doing this with a kind of wink and nod, then this (movie) is probably the one to go all in on.
ShockYa: I believe the press notes mention that Jordan has a sister who started out as his brother —
RP: (interrupting) I didn’t know about that until we were almost finished giving the performance, and I’m glad I didn’t know it because I don’t know whether it would have made me feel more pressure, like I had something to live up to. But I just went about my business and then found out kind of after the fact that this character was based on someone very near and dear to him. Then I felt great that he had trusted me with this highly personal extension of himself.
ShockYa: This may sound cheeky or impertinent or perhaps flat-out strange, but —
RP: (interrupting) Well, you already called me the ugliest broad ever, so have at it man — don’t even explain.
ShockYa: Well, Phyllis helps Frankie take down this sex video, and I’m fascinated not only with the changing nature of celebrity, but also how that relates to technology. You’ve had a long and very successful career that predates the Internet and gossip sites like TMZ, and there are people now who are famous for things like sex tapes. So I’m wondering, I guess, about your perspective on the very idea of sex tapes… In a way, I feel like I understand the idea — that there are these new technologies emerging, people have these smaller and cheaper cameras and are horny, whatever. But in years past, did you ever hear of anyone making sex tapes?
RP: I think the first mention I ever heard of it was the guy who was on “The West Wing,” Rob Lowe, who was at the Democratic National Convention (in 1988), hooked up with some girl and all of a sudden someone she was filming something or maybe he was filming something. So I think that was the coming-of-age of America, because I don’t think there was any mention of sex tapes prior to that at all, and all of a sudden it became something to aspire to — people were judging their own bona fides commensurate with not only the fact that they had one, but also how good [it] was, and how prolific they seemed to be, etcetera, etcetera. Probably the cherry on top of this highly controversial ice cream sundae that we’re discussing is that there are now people whose entire fortunes are built around the fact that they became known for really being crappy in bed, which is all that revealed. I’m not mentioning any names, but you know who they are.
RP: And, I don’t know — my lack of cooperation when it comes to the candid camera is probably pretty well chronicled. I’ve gone after photographers. I don’t take kindly to being ripped off when it’s my own private time. I don’t take kindly to the notion that, “Well, you asked to be a public figure so everything is fair game.” I don’t take kindly to that. I find it to be cowardly, and the lowest form of human intercourse is making a living on getting candid shots of people who deserve privacy. Everyone deserves privacy. There’s such a thing as manners and human decency. There is. So when you remove all that, what’s left? It’s not a culture that I aspire to be a part of.
ShockYa: Next summer brings “Pacific Rim,” the latest in a number of films you’ve done with Guillermo del Toro. This one certainly sounds like another big show-stopper, and you play a character named Hannibal Chow, which sounds like a protein-rich dog food.
RP: (laughs) I kind of wish that that was the explanation that I give in the movie! Because I do give an explanation for how I came to be called Hannibal Chow, but that’s not it. But maybe I can call Guillermo and say, “We need to re-shoot this! I just ran into this most prolific journalist who explained Hannibal Chow!” Oh man, I can’t get that out of my head, I don’t know what your question is…
ShockYa: (laughs) Well, what can you say not only about the production and character, but what it is about del Toro that makes him such a special director? With a lot of summer tentpole-type films, let’s be honest, the overriding if not the only ambition is how much the money it’s going to make. Guillermo, on the other hand, seems more interested and invested in real monsters, and how are we going to behave in a world where these monsters exist.
RP: I think you’ve hit upon exactly what it is that’s different about how he would explore this material than any other filmmaker. He’s actually done opuses where humans and monsters are kind of upside down — it’s the monsters that behave most like humans and it’s the humans that behave most monstrously. Not that “Pacific Rim” has that same sensibility, because it’s a separate exercise — the monsters in this movie very much are the monsters. But he’s going to imbue them, and the relationship between the struggle that takes place for domination, in a way that can only spring out of the unique imagination of Guillermo del Toro. He’s taken all this amazing research and reading that led up to having his own aesthetic, and then had it evolve to a place to where he doesn’t think like anybody I’ve ever met. His art doesn’t resemble anything else of anyone I’ve ever met. He’s kind of defining and raising the bar to encompass his own incredibly evolved imagination. And so whenever you see one of his works, you’re seeing something that’s as un-derivative as is humanly possible. This is why you can’t use the word tentpole, because it’s not produced in order to elicit a response, it’s produced to explore something in a way that you’ve never seen it explored before. He just loves the big canvas that comes with the summer release, because he gets all the bells and whistles to make that exploration as grandiose as is humanly possible. But I’m looking for a movie that is incredibly nuanced and layered and filled with observations that you would never normally expect to see in a big studio summer movie — that’s part of Guillermo’s unique ability.
Written by: Brent Simon