With an epic voice and cigar smoke pouring from his mouth, actor Ron Perlman has emerged as a top Hollywood badass.
Ron Perlman was born in Washington Heights, New York, and after earning a master’s degree in theater arts he began his career on the stage. Since then, his career has exploded to the tune of 115 movie roles and nearly as many television appearances. Thanks to his deep, imposing voice that he says comes from “really big dry wines and great Nicaraguan tobacco,” he has been in huge demand doing voice-overs, adding 33 video games to his resume.
Perlman, who is known for being a big (6-foot-1), cigar-smoking tough guy, is happy that numerous early roles he took required him to wear a mask while he developed as an actor, including the television series Beauty and the Beast and his blockbuster superhero movie Hellboy. He became a little more mainstream as everybody’s favorite motorcycle gang leader in Sons of Anarchy and is currently starring in the smart drama StartUp. Early December saw the release of Asher—a movie about a former Mossad agent turned hitman at the end of his career—which Perlman starred in and produced.
Cigars & Leisure: When did you first realize you wanted to be an actor?
Perlman: I came from a family where everybody did something. My dad was a professional musician, my brother was a professional musician, all my dad’s family were singers or played an instrument or told jokes. So in order to survive in my family, you had to have some sort of performance skill, and I discovered at a very early age that I didn’t have the discipline or the conviction to learn an instrument. But I knew I wanted to be a performer, so I needed to find an outlet that required no skill and no discipline, and so when I found acting, I said, “Oh yeah, anybody can do this shit.” (Laughing)
I’ve heard you make jokes like that before, but I know you take your craft very seriously. At the same time, you’ve said that you know not every role you take is destined for an Oscar. How do you balance that dichotomy in your mind?
I haven’t had to do a lot of jobs that I regret, but there are a few that I have said “yes” to that I wished I hadn’t, but I needed to pay a month’s rent, or keep the kids in school, or whatever. I have no real regrets because, yes, I was trying to build a career, but I was also trying to raise a family, and a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
So you say to yourself, “I have kids at home, I have a wife, and I have responsibilities, and I know why I’m taking this job. And if anybody else has a problem with it, go fuck yourself.”
When did you first truly believe you could make it as an actor?
I was hoping I would have a career as an actor from the get-go. I put it off and put it off. I went all the way through graduate school just so I didn’t have to declare myself as a professional actor, and then I realized there weren’t any more degrees I could get for acting. So, I started in ’73, and I think the first 20 years was me hoping I could just sustain a career. It wasn’t until I was in my late 40s or early 50s that I realized, “OK, it looks like I’m going to have a career, and I’m going to be able to pay for my kids’ schooling and pay my rent in doing this.” But it was touch and go for a long time. But those slim times are what strengthened my resolve and kept me understanding how much I loved the game.
I have been incredibly blessed with an assortment of phenomenal filmmakers that I’ve gotten to work with on projects that are characters of a lifetime. If I had played just Hellboy and was known for just that, then I would have been one of the fortunate few. But then there was Beauty and the Beast, Sons of Anarchy, and Hand of God. For some strange reason, God has blessed me with a bounty that is so vast and insatiable. I don’t know why it happened that way. I don’t think I’m all that good. I just think I’m lucky, and I’m not going to try to overanalyze it or dissect it in any way because that’s when it will go away. It’s like saying, “Oh, shit, there’s no traffic today,” and then you know you’re going to see nothing but brake lights. But yeah, very blessed.
Can you point to a role that you enjoyed the most?
I can’t. I enjoyed so many of the ones I mentioned to you on such a huge scale that there’s no way to say one would have the edge over the other. But I am very, very proud of this movie that’s coming out, Asher, a culmination of five years of us trying to produce this film. It’s the first film my company, Wing and a Prayer, ever optioned. We went broke twice trying to make it. I lost a lot of friends, I lost a lot of money, I lost a lot of everything, but I just kept at it with this project because it seemed as though it was a very personal kind of valedictory for me as an artist. I’m as proud of that accomplishment as anything I’ve ever done. If I had to name one thing that I’d like to be remembered for, it’s Asher.
Are there any actors that to this day you can’t believe you got to work with?
I have a great deal of regret because I put myself in the “I’m-not-worthy mode” with Marlon [Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau]. And I really didn’t take advantage of how much time I could have spent with him, just hanging out and having dinner and drinking and him just telling jokes. He was a guy who loved to do all of that and so am I, but I stayed away from him because I was so intimidated by the legend of Marlon Brando, and I shouldn’t have been. So that’s a regret because he was the best who ever came down the pike.
Sean Connery [The Name of the Rose] was somebody who was a much larger-than-life movie star, out of the mold of the great movie stars of the ’30s and ’40s—the Clark Gables and the Humphrey Bogarts. Sean Connery was the last of that great generation. And he didn’t disappoint. He really wore his stardom the way you imagine it should be worn: with great pride and leadership and wit and wisdom and gratitude.
Kim Coates, from Sons of Anarchy. I’ve never worked with a better actor than he [is]. He’s right up there with anybody I’ve ever seen—he’s amazing. As is Garret Dillahunt from Hand of God. He does shit that can’t be described or analyzed or dissected. He’s got these muses that are indescribable.
How many years of your life do you think you’ve spent sitting in a chair having makeup applied?
We could do the math on that and it might take more than a few minutes (laughing). I’ve said this many times: Those first few years of my career where I was exclusively doing makeup and mask roles, Quest for Fire, The Name of the Rose, Beauty and the Beast, The Island of Dr. Moreau …. During those years, I loved acting, but I wasn’t particularly comfortable being myself. I wasn’t very comfortable in my own skin. And thankfully I got to wear those masks and create a kind of a barrier between myself and the people who were watching the performance I was giving. It was very comforting. It was very freeing. It allowed me to ply the craft without the burden of self-consciousness. It was really, really useful that it came at the early part of my career, and it began to fall away as I began to get more comfortable being me, which happened kind of later in life.
StartUp, one of my favorite shows on now, is launching season three. How did you get involved in that?
It’s an amazing ensemble, some of the great actors I’ve ever worked alongside of. And the subject matter, which I initially thought I was going to fall asleep listening to and hate—startups and [the] tech world—the way [creator, writer, and director] Ben Ketai is able to juxtapose that against things that are really, really huge that are happening in the world made it one of the most interesting roles I’ve ever gotten a chance to explore theatrically. I’m very proud of that show.
I started in season two. I got a call because they were looking to add this character, and I got on the phone with Ben, and the conversations were phenomenal. I immediately had an incredible amount of respect for his work ethic and the aesthetic he was describing. And then I had the added benefit of getting to watch an entire season that had already been produced and aired, and I was so blown away by the quality of the work by that ensemble that I actually doubted that I had what it took to fit in. But Ben massaged me and comforted me enough to say, “Why don’t you come on by and jump on in and we’ll solve this together.”
It’s a really smart show, and Ketai is really one of the truly great minds I’ve ever collaborated with. He’s a really terrific filmmaker.
Your character on StartUp, Wes, like so many other characters you’ve played over the years, almost always has a cigar in his hand.
Up until recently I used to smoke five or six cigars a day. It was a passion of mine. But, as I’m approaching 70 now, the doctors have asked me to slow it down, so I’ve been taking it a little easier. Cigars are a weakness of mine, and I became quite good at cigar smoking in terms of knowing the playing field, knowing what I loved, experimenting with different labels, different countries, different wrappers, and different blends.
Just to make sure I was smoking throughout the day, I started adding cigars to some of the characters that I played as an excuse to keep smoking even as I was working. Then it became a thing where people would hire me, and they’d go, “You know, we like this guy smoking like we saw you do in this other picture,” so it started to become a thing and it kind of came to a crest on Sons of Anarchy. Clay Morrow, the character I played on there for six years, was a degenerate cigar smoker.
So … your doctor made you stop smoking?
He would prefer I stop. So, I never ever, ever smoke in his presence. It’s one of the sacrifices I make. And I don’t make very many. But there are only so many hours during the year that I actually see my doctor, so let’s just say the rest of the time I’m on my own recognizance.
What qualities do you look for in a cigar?
Boldness, a complexity. Nothing harsh, but very strong and bold. Great cigars are like great wines in that regard. Your palate develops. When you start drinking wine, you start off lighter and then eventually end up going to things that are incredibly complex and very, very dry and very big. I would say that exact same thing happened in the evolution of my cigar life.
What are some of your favorites?
The cigar I smoked in real life and then talked the prop department into suppling me with for Sons [of Anarchy] was a Joya de Nicaragua Gran Consul. It’s perfect, a modified torpedo. Every single one I smoked was perfectly rolled. It had the exact same flavor, which is really hard to find. Cigar rolling is an artform. It’s not something that is done in a factory-like setting. To say that every single one was rolled perfectly and tasted perfect, that was quite an achievement. They also had the perfect blend for me. Very, very strong, very powerful. Incredibly satisfying.
I smoked a shitload of Cubans. My favorite cigar on the planet is Hoyo de Monterrey Churchills. But I smoke Montecristos, Bolivars, Partagas, and you name it.
Beyond acting, you’ve been very active as a producer lately. Are you starting to prefer being on the other side of the camera these days?
Acting for me is like taking heroin. I’ve never been a druggie, but I get a drug-like charge when I’m acting on set. I’ll never quit doing that. But these last six years, producing projects has been a thrill for me because of how holistically involved the producer is on every aspect of a production. The actor comes in, he says his lines, he goes home. He comes a year later to see the movie and that’s it. But a producer is there from the time the project gets identified, to getting funds, to every single hire of the crew, cast, director, etc., all the way down to the font that’s on the poster, and is just engaged and challenged in ways that are truly fun and thrilling at the same time.
With all your work in the superhero genre, did you know Stan Lee?
Met him a lot over the last 10 years. He and I did a bunch of Comic-Cons. We got to have some great conversations and spend some quality time. One of my regrets, and I don’t have very many, is that I never got a chance to work with him on a project. From what I’m hearing in the aftermath of his departure, he was quite a guy to collaborate with so I missed out on that.
Early in your career, you tried stand-up. How did that go?
Not well. I think I had two dates, and the second one was my last. We were playing at a discotheque in a very tough neighborhood in the Bronx, and we got heckled, and we heckled back, and these 18 very tough guys started toward the stage. Luckily there was a backdoor we got out of and jumped in a cab, and that was the end of my stand-up career.
You’re a big guy who has played some badass roles. Do people ever get confused and think you really are some badass biker or whatever?
Yeah. All the time. You want to be terrified by me and intimidated? Go right ahead. I have no problem with that.
Do you ever forget that you’re really not that badass biker?
My wife never lets me forget that.
To watch StartUp, visit sonycrackle.com/startup.
The spring issue of Cigars & Leisure is going to feature the never-shy, fun loving, cigar-smoking professional golfer Rocco Mediate. Knowing Ron Perlman was also an avid golfer, we decided to ask him about his game.
Cigars & Leisure: In addition to all the Hollywood stuff, we hear you are a golfer?
Ron Perlman: I enjoy golf, but to call me a golfer is really an overstatement. I’ve been playing for about 35 years, and my handicap is exactly the same today as when I started, which is around 18. It’s not great. When you’ve been playing as long as I have, you hope to get down to a 13 or 14, but I never really had the talent.
For all of us who are devotees of the game of golf, I’ve had amazing holes and I’ve had amazing runs. I have shot a 78 in my time. I remember on that day it was like I couldn’t do anything wrong. So that’s what kept me going: the idea that maybe I could hit this patch where I’d be consistent and recreate those days where you get into that amateur’s version of the zone. But I never really did.
I could have answered that question a number of different ways and say I didn’t put enough time in or didn’t take enough lessons (laughing). I put plenty of time in and I took plenty of lessons. I suck!
For more, check out our interview with Colman Domingo of Fear the Walking Dead!