Ron Perlman has done Ibsen, Chekov, Pinter and Shakespeare, but since his burly physique first filled screens in 1981’s “Quest for Fire,” the 59-year-old actor has become known as someone who can give strong performances under layers of facial prosthetics. (See also: “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and the TV show that launched his stardom, “Beauty and the Beast.”) It’s almost strange to see the demon hero of “Hellboy” without all the make-up, as Perlman can currently be seen au naturale (above the neck, anyway) as Clay Morrow on TV’s biker drama “Sons of Anarchy” and his new film, “Mutant Chronicles.” Based on a pen-and-paper RPG, director Simon Hunter’s post-apocalyptic horror actioner co-stars Perlman — alongside Thomas Jane, John Malkovich and Devon Aoki — as Brother Samuel, the leader of an ancient monastic order in a steampunk-esque future where four warring corporations rule all. Hideous, bloodthirsty “necromutants” have escaped from a portal below the earth, and Perlman must help lead a charge of soldiers to destroy the mutant-making machine. I spoke with Perlman about the intelligence and terrifying prescience of “Mutant Chronicles,” whether he likes cartoons, and how he ended up starring in Spanish and French films when he didn’t speak either language.
You’re a classically trained thespian, but the screen projects you’re most well known for tend to be genre works. Do you ever feel like you want to break away from those kinds of roles?
No, no, no. I don’t want to change anything. I’m really happy with the way things are going. Even though there’s been a huge amount of genre, it’s all been treated with intelligence and integrity. There’s always a larger sort of issue than the one-dimensional, obvious trappings of the world that we’re looking at. There are always great deals of humanity in the characters that have been offered to me. Yeah, Hellboy is big, he’s red, he’s got horns, he’s a demon, but you’re never able to describe his heart [so simply] because it’s so human, nuanced and admirable. It’s something to aspire to. As an actor, that’s what we do this for.
In a movie like “Mutant Chronicles,” that’s set in an otherworldly time and place when you’re grounded in the real world, do you ever just lose it and crack up when your dialogue concerns something called a Necromutant?
The thing that was so attractive about the “Mutant Chronicles” script was that it was smartly rendered. You didn’t find yourself having to fix hokey shit, you know? Sometimes you look at something and realize, “Holy shit, I can’t say this. I have to find a new way to express this same thought and hopefully make it more intelligent.” With “Mutant Chronicles,” I never had that problem. [It’s set in] this theoretical world some few hundred years in the future being divvied up into corporations. There are no more nationalities. Patriotism is only reflected in a pure economic sense. That’s the way the world was headed when we made this movie. The corporations were winning. We found out in the last few months, as our new president took office, that was a bankrupt set of values, and we’re paying for it now. Hopefully, it’ll be a wake-up call that you can’t forget the guy with the lunch pail. His needs will eventually kill you.
So you no longer see the world of “Mutant Chronicles” as an ominous disaster in the making?
I thought it was very prescient when I agreed to do the film three years ago. If you’re going to theorize what a world might look like a few hundred years in the future, it was as smart a guess as I thought could’ve been made. Then there’s the perpetual warfare element — these corporations are constantly at war with one another, [and] this “Machine” buried in the bowels of the earth unleashes this truly diabolical force that’s even more impersonal than the corporate one. [laughs] This soulless, bloodless corporate mentality is trumped by something even more soulless and bloodless, and I found that rather compelling.
The film made me think of Ewan McGregor griping about acting against a tennis ball in a “Star Wars” prequel. You’re no stranger to CGI backgrounds and effects, so is it challenging for you to stay focused when you’re performing against green screen, or is it like some Brechtian stage play?
Every time you get on a stage or in front of a camera, the whole exercise is about imagination. You’re constantly depicting something that doesn’t exist, and trying to find the reality of it. Once you settle on that premise, everything else is a matter of degrees. We’re working against green screen, so what? You’re still going to be imagining this world. After all, if it’s a $12 million set, which I’ve been on in big studio movies, you’re still using your imagination because you’re still just standing on a set. I don’t think it’s that big a stretch. Would Ewan McGregor prefer to be shooting this thing on Mars? Maybe that’ll help his work? It wouldn’t help mine. I need the craft service table nearby and an air-conditioned trailer to go take a nap. [laughs]
As much time in your life as you’ve spent in a make-up chair, how do you not get bored out of your mind just sitting there for hours?
Generally, I like the guys I’m hanging out with. All the guys who put make-up on me are salt-of-the-earth people where the conversation flies, the music is cool and we take a lot of cigarette and food breaks. We’re getting ready to do something that most people wish they could do, so it’s never been a problem. It’s always been a joy.