IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ron Perlman talks 'Bunraku,' 'Drive,' 'Pacific Rim,' and the future of 'Sons of Anarchy'

Thursday, 29 September 2011 19:43 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ron Perlman talks 'Bunraku,' 'Drive,' 'Pacific Rim,' and the future of 'Sons of Anarchy'

It’s my birthday; I’m sitting in the bedroom I grew up in at my parent’s house in Massachusetts … and I’m waiting for Ron Perlman to call me. Does life get any better than this?

Last week while I was home visiting my family, I had the pleasure of spending the evening of my 36th birthday speaking with one of my all-time favorite actors. I first became aware of Ron Perlman’s immense talent as a performer from his work on the popular ‘80s fantasy series Beauty and the Beast, but it’s his impressive and vast resume of film accomplishments that has made me a fan. I loved his unique portrayal of characters in movies like The City of Lost Children, Alien Resurrection, and Star Trek Nemesis, but it is his collaborations with lifelong friend Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Blade II, Hellboy, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army) that I think marks some of his finest work.

But recently it seems like Perlman’s career could not be hotter. For the past three seasons he’s starred as Clay Morrow on FX’s hit motorcycle gang series Sons of Anarchy, which just began airing its forth season. He is also currently getting rave reviews for his role as a crime boss in director Nicholas Winding Refn’s critically acclaimed movie Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Not to mention that he was seen this past summer playing the father of Conan the Barbarian in Lionsgate’s big screen adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s beloved character. Now the actor once again plays a crime boss in the new film Bunraku, which opens in theaters on September 30th.

The film, which combines elements of both the Samurai and Western genres, is set in the aftermath of a global war where guns have been outlawed but people still fight using knives and fists. Perlman plays Nicola the Woodcutter, a shadowy crime boss who rules over his kingdom with the help of an assassin named Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd), and his lover Alexandra (Demi Moore). Eventually, a mysterious drifter (Josh Hartnett) seeking revenge against Nicola teams up with a samurai named Yoshi (Japanese musician Gackt), and together the two warriors unite to take down the crime boss and recover a family heirloom that he stole from Yoshi’s clan. The movie is directed by Guy Moshe, and also stars Woody Harrelson (Zombieland).

When Mr. Perlman finally called, we had a wonderful conversation about Bunraku, as well as a few of his other projects. The veteran actor spoke candidly with me about his latest film; its commentary on violence, once again playing a villain, working with director Nicholas Winding Refn on Drive, the future of Sons of Anarchy, and whether or not he will appear in Guillermo del Toro’s next film Pacific Rim? Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, I feel like I talk to you every week because you’ve had so many projects come out recently between Bunraku, Conan the Barbarian, Drive, and season four of Sons of Anarchy.

Ron Perlman: You know Bunraku we made like four years ago. So it is a coincidence that it happens to be coming out now amidst all this other stuff. These projects have their own shelf life and their own way of emerging into the light of day.

In Bunraku you play the villain, which you’ve done successfully many times before so when you first read the script, what about it made you think that you could bring something new and fresh to the role and really make this a three-dimensional character?

Ron Perlman: I was really struck with the stylistic manner of storytelling in this instance. He (director Guy Moshe) sets the world in a time hundreds of years in the future so you know right off the bat the immediacy of reality is removed. On top of that he calls it Bunraku, which is a form of Japanese storytelling that involves puppetry, paper mache and elements of comic books. So it's a painting of paintings. It's a multimedia form of storytelling, which employs more style than substance and yet there's plenty of substance. Because what he's doing is by creating a world where conventional weaponry is damned and people are still completely violent toward one another with the legs of chairs, piano strings, chains and belts, you know he's shining the light on this profoundly primal nature in mankind to do damage to his fellow man. That's what struck me on this project was the manner in which this terrible thing tolls. I found the writing to be quite smart, and quite compelling. I found this character Nicola, who the premise of which he owns everything and everyone as far as the eye can see, that the price he pays for doing that requires him to live completely alone, entrusting no one, having no one he can bear his in most soul to, or his dreams to. So he's paying a very high price for this lust for power that he has. Not just power that's psychological, but power that's materialistic and also yet humanistic. He keeps people around him as if they're possessions, but he's a very melancholy soul because there's this knowledge that there's always somebody faster and younger coming down the pipe just like in every western.

The movie takes place in a world with no guns, yet as you said its still an extremely violent place, what kind of commentary do think the film is making about human nature and mankind’s need for violence?

Ron Perlman: Yeah, I find it very interesting. I find that it's easier to imagine that no matter how we legislate our experiences and how we try to cut around man's more sinister angels, they just exist. They will rise, they will never be fully suppressed and I think that's basically what Bunraku is. Yet Guy does it as if it's some sort of dance, it's like very stylized, almost like a ballet of killing. So you know it makes for a great cinema.

As you mentioned, the film is very stylized and full of visual effects, as an actor is it difficult to figure out the tone of a film like this while on set or do you just put your trust in the director and the script and go from there?

Ron Perlman: Well it was very important for all of us to not worry about those things that would ultimately be done to make it stylized. Those things happen sort of post facto. What was very important for the actors was to find the reality, as it always is for actors. You know to find the reality, to find what was true about these people, and the situations that they found themselves in. Then you go see the movie a year later and you realize how it's been cut together, some of the elements that have been added to augment the storytelling and the style that some of these fights and these kills ended up looking like. You realize the filmmaker has added on these values that create kind of a distance between the audience and the storytelling so that it becomes easier to watch and easier to take. Very unlike what happens in Drive, it's another movie that I'm in right now, which is another study in violence but that violence is so real, so explosive so volatile and so unpredictable that the audience becomes terrified. I think its two different ways of looking at the same conundrum.

Well I’m glad that you brought up Drive because it’s my favorite movie of the year, and you give an absolutely amazing performance in it. I wanted to ask you about working with director Nicholas Winding Refn because the movie reminded me a lot of some of Michael Mann’s earlier films like Thief or Manhunter. I was curious if that was ever talked about on set, were those films inspirations for the mood and pacing of Drive, or did that all just come from Nicholas and the way he directs?

Ron Perlman: For a young guy, and he’s really a young guy, he has a rather well articulated body of work already with the Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising and Bronson. If you examine all those movies and kind of do a Nicolas Refn film festival over the course of a couple of nights, you’ll realize that no two of his movies resemble one another. You know they’re all independent of each other stylistically. He just takes the subject matter and decides how he’s going to tell the story, where form and content are going to co-exist in the most theatrical and most believable manner. I actually would compare him more to Ridley Scott because I think Ridley Scott is somebody who is obsessed with never looking at the same genre twice. He wants to do everything. He wants to make every kind of movie that he can make. He makes the best sci-fi movie, he makes the best gal-pal movie, he makes the best period piece and he just doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. He just loves filmmaking and that to me is like a throwback to Howard Hawks, who you could also never pin down. I think Nick Refn is a genius. You cannot see his process when you’re working with him. You have no idea where he’s going, and only he knows where he’s going but he really knows what he’s doing. I mean the performance that I do in Drive is only twenty percent of what I did and eighty percent of what I did is on the cutting room floor. I’ve never been in a movie that I could say that about. Yet I was really happy with what we ended up with because there was nothing about the essence of this character that was left to the imagination, they were all right there on the screen. The intention that he and I created together was completely intact and a lot of the fat was cut away because he’s a great sculptor.

When I spoke to you about Drive at Comic-Con this past summer, you were standing next to your good friend Guillermo del Toro who was there promoting another film. I asked you at the time if it was possible that you might be appearing in his next film Pacific Rim, and you were very coy with me and wouldn’t give me a direct answer. So I thought I’d ask you again and see if I could get you to go on the record, one way or another, as to your involvement with Pacific Rim. Are you going to be in del Toro’s upcoming monster movie?

Ron Perlman: No … you can’t get me on the record. You can try till your blue in the face.

Yeah, that’s pretty much what you said to me at Comic-Con.

Ron Perlman: Yeah that’s still the case. I’m not going say yes and I’m not going to say no.

Okay, we’ll just leave it at that. I wanted to also ask you about Sons of Anarchy, which just began airing its fourth season on FX. Obviously the story can only go so far and we’ve already begun to see some signs that things are going to be changing for SAMCRO this season, has creator Kurt Sutter discussed a timetable for the series with you and his plan on when certain events will unfold?

Ron Perlman: Well we’re almost through shooting season four, we’ve got eleven in the can and we only have two more to go. I read the next to last one and we’re about to start shooting that so I kind of know where we’re going. I don’t know where we’re going in season five, if there is a season five because I don’t know how you top what we’ve done in season four. It’s like so much is revealed, so much is paid for and you can’t believe what you’re watching. I mean I couldn’t believe what I was reading as we were executing it, so season four is a far and away our most daring season.

Do you think the show is still headed towards the inevitable Hamlet type of ending that was promised in the pilot or has that changed as the series has grown and become what it is now?

Ron Perlman: No, I really do believe that the undertones of Hamlet are still intact but you know he has seven seasons to fill, if we go that long. So the structure is going to be toyed with. There are going to be some things that don’t resemble Hamlet that are going to be thrown in the mix as well, but in terms of superstructure I think that I can safely say that he’s sticking to that inspiration.

Would you like to see the series go seven seasons and if so, do you think your character will be on the show until the very end?

Ron Perlman: I’d like to see it go seven seasons; I’d like to see it go longer if there is still a stomach for it in America. It’s cool to be on something that’s as charged as this is, that’s as smart as this is, that’s as well received by the public as this is and those things are really, really rare and I can tell you from experience because I work on a lot of stuff but most of it doesn’t really resonate with huge parts of the film going public. But this show really does. The numbers are through the roof and the enthusiasm for it just gets bigger with every passing season so I know that I’m in rarified air you know and I wouldn’t want to get cut that short.

Finally, I have to tell you Ron that today happens to be my birthday and I can’t think of any way I’d rather end my day then by talking to you sir. It was an absolute pleasure speaking with you and I thank you so much for your time.

Ron Perlman: Well I hope this is not the end of your day. I hope you are going to go out and kick some ass tonight, and maybe get a little shit-faced and celebrate, as you should. Happy birthday, son. 

To read my interview with Josh Hartnett about Bunraku, please click here

Bunraku opens in theaters on Friday.

Drive is playing in theaters now.

Sons of Anarchy is currently airing its forth season on FX.

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