When Ron Perlman published his autobiography back in 2014, he called it Easy Street (The Hard Way). You couldn’t wish for a better title for this American actor (and now producer), famed for playing the demonic, cigar-chomping comic book character Hellboy. If he’s found his way to easy street — he’s happy to voice animations, video games, you name it — he really has done it the hard way.
“It just comes down to… I like acting,” he says, gruffly, when we speak over Zoom. “I like acting in all forms. Every single time you’re given a character to play, it’s a different challenge. If you’re into crossword puzzles, you just do them as much as you can. For me that’s like acting. Whenever it comes my way, if it’s a character that I find cool and interesting and has a compelling set of qualities, I say yes!”
Wearing a black T-shirt and silver chain, perfectly offsetting his white hair, Perlman turned 70 in April, but there’s no sense of retiring quietly. He started up a company Wing & A Prayer Pictures back in 2013, producing indie pictures like Run With The Hunted and Pottersville. The latest is crime yarn The Big Ugly, which came to Perlman via his British co-star, and old friend, Vinnie Jones.
“When Vinnie turned me on to the project, he knew that I had been down the road of checking off the boxes one needs to check off when making an independent movie outside of the studio system,” says Perlman. “And when he invited me to come on board as an actor, he also invited me to come on board and help with the producing as well.”
He calls Jones “one of the coolest dudes on the planet”, jumping at the chance to spend more time with the former Wimbledon FC footballer. “He’s a lot of things all at once,” he remarks. “When he was a player, he had this reputation of being just this killer badass. And you’re never gonna meet a more big-hearted, soft, sentimental dude who has as much loyalty to his friends and family as exists. He’s an interesting guy to be around.”
In the film Perlman plays Preston, an oilman who agrees to launder money from Malcolm McDowell’s British mobster, who arrives in West Virginia with his entourage, including Jones’ enforcer. As gangster-cliché as this all sounds, the script by writer-director Scott Wiper toys with expectations smartly; one scene sees Preston rip down the Confederate flag proudly displayed by some redneck idiots he confronts.
It was the scene that convinced Perlman to make the film. “It was very emblematic of the fact that we’re dealing with a guy — no matter how much you think you do, you don’t know him at all. He’s able to operate in this world that he knows all too well, but comes at it with almost an opposite kind of frame of values and notions of what our responsibilities are here on earth. And so he’s unique and allowed me, the actor, to approach him without any clichés.”
It’s yet another fascinating addition to Perlman’s rogues’ gallery, which stretches back to his 1981 debut as a tribesman in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s prehistoric tale Quest For Fire. Perlman, who grew up in Washington Heights, New York, was raised by Jewish parents, with roots in Hungary and Poland. His mother Dorothy worked in the Department of Health, but it was his father Bert, a jazz drummer, who inspired him towards a career in the arts.
“I definitely took everything about my aesthetic from my Dad,” he says. “I mean, all of the things I love to watch, all the musicians I love to listen to, all of the filmmakers that made the stuff that …no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you want to see it again. All that stuff came from Dad but the other part of it was he had already tried his hand in the arts and it broke his heart and he had to get out of it because he couldn’t make a living.”
Later his father worked as a repairman, and “sleep-walked his way through life, putting food on the table for the kids and the wife”. Nevertheless, every chance he got, Perlman’s father would perform with his brothers and sisters.
“This environment of music and fun and performing was the soundtrack of my youth growing up. So the die was cast. I felt, ‘Oh, these people are having real fun.’ The only reason I didn’t become a musician is because I was too undisciplined to practise!”
The arts also run through Perlman’s kids from his marriage to jewellery designer Opal (which came to an end in 2019 after 38 years together). His 30-year-old son, Brandon, runs record label LA Club Resource and DJs under the name Delroy Edwards. “He’s pretty much a major force in underground house music.” His daughter Blake, 36, a singer-songwriter, has also acted in several Perlman productions, beginning as a newscaster on Hellboy II.
Much of Perlman’s Hollywood career is down to developing surrogate families with acclaimed directors. In the case of Guillermo del Toro, who doggedly fought to cast him as Hellboy, the Mexican director wrote Perlman a letter ahead of del Toro’s 1993 debut Cronos. “When I received it, I was at this point in my career where I didn’t know anybody even knew I existed, much less was recognising that there was a body of work there.”
This came after Perlman’s Golden Globe-winning run in TV show Beauty and the Beast — but it was his association with del Toro, starting with Cronos, that elevated his career into the realms of cult fandom. They’re currently working on an animated Pinocchio and Nightmare Alley, a remake of the 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power. But for Perlman, it’s all about the friendship. “As if I needed any more gifts from the great Guillermo del Toro… but the feeling of being part of a family is sensational.”
The Big Ugly is available on demand from July 24.