Ron Perlman on Pacific Rim: 'It's not like Hellboy'

He has one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood – so why has the Pacific Rim star spent so much of his career hiding behind prosthetics? And why is that all changing now?

The living embodiment of John Waters' clarion casting-call for "faces that startle, not soothe", actor Ron Perlman has the hardest-working face in show-business. His head, that giant windswept crag of a cranium, is a thing of beauty that's usually been cast in ugly roles. His film debut was as a Neanderthal in Quest for Fire; his most famous role, leonine, not simian, was opposite Linda Hamilton in Beauty and the Beast – I'll let you guess which he was; and his happiest collaboration and hugest success was playing the son of the devil himself, in Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy.

That's the other thing about that head. More often than not in Perlman's career it has been swaddled, daubed, be-horned, encrusted and variously garlanded with the work of the great pioneering makeup technicians of the last 30 years, including Rick Baker, Dick Smith and Stan Winston (Perlman is, all else apart, a crucial figure in the history of movie makeup). They've added cro-magnon eave-brows to Perlman's forehead, vastly accentuated his already prominent jut-jaw, given him teeth and fangs of every imaginable kind and generally buried his expressive and intelligent face – yet every prosthetic face still has Perlman inside it, busy at work on the serious job of making his monsters and uglies into coherent and relatable characters.

We meet in San Francisco to talk about his role in Del Toro's new action movie Pacific Rim, in which monstrous Godzilla-sized creatures emerge from a rent in the ocean floor and wreak havoc in the world's cities. Humankind fights back with equally giant – 2,000-feet-tall – fighting robots controlled from within by two-person teams functioning through heightened degrees of empathy. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, and yes, Del Toro freely admits he's making his version of a bubblegum monster movie, but that doesn't account for the conviction, attack, heart, sincerity and mind-boggling attention to detail that Del Toro, as always, brings to the project.

Perlman thinks that throughout their six-project collaboration over the last 20 years (since Perlman was in Del Toro's debut, Cronos), the director has kept him around as "an amulet, a lucky penny, a talisman," – though he laughs long and hard when I say he's really the Marlene Dietrich to Del Toro's Josef von Sternberg. In Pacific Rim, Perlman – who has resisted makeup for some years now ("Unless it's for Guillermo, then I'm on"), has a toothsome cameo as Hannibal Chau – a black-marketeer in a shriekingly loud Gangs of New York pimp-daddy outfit, with gold shoes, gold rings, and gold teeth.

"I got the impression that that character was supposed to be played by someone of a different ethnicity," says Perlman, "and when Guillermo took over, he thought how about if we went with a completely oversized Jew from New York who dressed like PT Barnum, a purveyor of all things materialistic? It took a character that's completely full of shit to start with, then added a whole other layer of full of shit-ness, a double dose."

It's an eye-catching side-narrative character part, certainly not the lead like in Hellboy, but Perlman's scenes were mainly with Charlie Day from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the pair have terrific chemistry. "I felt like we were doing a vaudeville act - I mean, it's a sight-gag, I'm six-two, he's about five-two, so there's this immediate visual thing, you've almost won the game before a single pitch is thrown."

Perlman is a surprisingly lean and put-together 62-year-old who looks a good 10 years younger. You'd never believe he was once a deeply unhappy 300lb fat kid in high school, relentlessly picked on, as he had been throughout his schooldays, for his alleged resemblance to a monkey and for his vaguely menacing appearance. Now he's got a great head of wavy white hair and I swear, when he smiles that great toothy grin of his, I always think: wow, James Coburn! We're in a claustrophobic room set up for to-camera interviews, I've taken the low chair and Perlman's in the immoveable elevated canvas chair that keeps him on camera. We're like sovereign and supplicant, but Perlman, at once bearish and boyish, remains a plain-spoken kid from the northern end of Manhattan, not anxious to lord it up or sound too clever.

Acting was a kind of rescue for him, he says in that deep, rich, growly voice, and he's grateful that his working-class Washington Heights household was also a place of culture. "My father was a musician but he couldn't feed a family with it so he got a real job, but after that, musicianship and his former professional status were the things he leaned on to make everyday life bearable. So there was music in the house. My older brother, who's no longer with us, became a pro drummer and did that until the day he passed. So it was almost expected that I would become a musician, but I would rather be playing ball than practicing piano. I took five years of piano and I still can't play Chopsticks – I just didn't have the discipline. It took years to find a way to express myself that required no discipline and no real talent – so I found acting!"

Perlman in Pacific Rim.
Perlman in Pacific Rim. Photograph: Warner Bros Photograph: Warner Bros

His first epiphany came during a high school version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel in the high school auditorium before 1,500 people. "Onstage, with the light, you can't see the audience, but you can feel them, when they're quiet or you're getting laughs. You have this unbelievable control over them, a room filled with thousands of people, it's like an aphrodisiac. And that was kind of 'the Healing of Ron Perlman'. That was the beginning of me feeling that maybe I can do something for an hour and a half a night and I can be in control of something, and the master of how it turns out."

That night, weighing 300lb, he played Mr Snow. The following semester, in a college production of Carousel, having shed over 100lb, he played the villain Jigger. "So I went from being that fat, happy guy to being the angular threat. Which was a neat trick because there was only about two and a bit months between the two!" His dad the musician saw Ron in a high school version of Guys and Dolls and knew immediately what his son should be doing. Not many actors get that kind of parental dispensation and blessing, the son has often recalled. (I'm just sorry I didn't ask him to sing for me.)

Has success been the best revenge? "I don't think of it as revenge as such. I think of it more as me on this personal quest to feel more happy and comfortable with myself. And I'm happy to report that I'm incredibly happy with who I am, and with how many feelings that once caused no small amount of discomfort have been completely eradicated and thrown into the wind. They become different things that I can use in my work. Best revenge?" He pauses a beat, and laughs, "Okay, I guess I have had my best revenge!"

Well, your face has certainly been your fortune, has it not? "Well, yes and no. The thing is that now, finally, when I'm 62 years old I'm finally getting to traffic in my own actual face. I would say that the first 20 years of my career was spent behind masks, and these days that's the minority of my roles. The only time I'm ready to submit to that any more is when someone like Guillermo says: let's make Hellboy. Then being covered in red paint and six hours in the prosthetics chair really is worth it."

That's one of the delights of late-period Ron Perlman – we do see his face more now. He's the vengeful and brutal biker patriarch Clay Morrow in the much loved FX series Sons of Anarchy, a complex and rewarding part for the actor. He glowered brutally in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, and Conan the Barbarian only saddled him with a dense dreadlock beard.

Perlman in Hellboy.
Perlman in Hellboy. Photograph: Sportsphoto Photograph: Sportsphoto

The mention of Refn reminds me that foreign film-makers were much quicker to see the cinematic qualities of the Perlman look. Indeed, Perlman has said he scarcely got any worthwhile American film offers in the decade after Beauty and the Beast was cancelled in 1990 (he made a fortune in voicework, though). And the foreigners have remained loyal to him; six collaborations with Del Toro, whom he plainly adores and idolises, three with Jean-Jacques Annaud, two with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and a third that fell apart.

And one, The Island of Doctor Moreau, by South African Richard Stanley, which fell apart so badly that Perlman was able to spend five days on set with Marlon Brando, instead of a projected one and a half, "because it was such a cluster-fuck of a movie otherwise, after the original director [Stanley] got shanghaied by this studio motherfucker I won't name. But any time you get to act with Marlon Brando, you drop everything and you run, you don't walk. Luckily, I had those extra three days to find out what a sweet and unthreatening guy he really was, and there was an ease in our relationship that I'll cherish for the rest of my days."

"If you look at the faces that adorn international cinema," says Perlman, "they're a lot more varied than they are archetypal. Those guys are drawn to things that might be more interesting even though they're not pretty, or conventionally pretty. I don't want to say anything too much about what that means for American culture, but I think I've answered the question," he chuckles.


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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