We had the honor of sitting down with Ron Perlman to discuss Sons of Anarchy, how he got started in acting, and his own favorite television shows. Here’s what he had to say:
How did you get started in acting?
R. Perlman: I couldn’t make it on the swimming team in high school. In fact, I got thrown off the swimming team and was forced to audition for the school play because they had at the audition about 35 girls show up and no boys, so my swimming coach suggested that I might be able to do the drama department more good than I was doing the swimming team. Why he had that instinct I don’t know, but the rest is history.
How did you come into this part on Sons of Anarchy? I mean, did you audition?
R. Perlman: Kurt Sutter asked to have lunch with me and told me that they were interested in exploring the idea of me playing Clay and that I was going to have to audition for the network, and so I did and here we are.
What attracted you to this show?
R. Perlman: The writing. End of story.
What was it about the writing?
R. Perlman: It’s incredibly smart, very, very, very vivid, completely ungratuitous for a show’s that as hardcore and violent and explosive and radical behavior, these are not your average conservative Republicans, these guys are ruthless and badass. And the way it’s depicted is very organic, which you could only do if you’re a brilliant screenwriter, as Kurt Sutter is, and as an actor you know you’re always going to be supported by – you’re never going to be made to look gratuitous or silly because everything is incredibly well supported in a very organic and very brilliant way.
How much research did you do into biker culture?
R. Perlman: Not as much as I would have liked. I’m continuing to do research into biker culture. I got kind of thrown into this thing with no prep time so I just basically dove in with two legs, with two feet, and started playing him and have picked up things. You know, we have a tech advisor who’s a member of the Oakland Chapter of the Hells Angels named D.L., he’s one of the most famous guys in that club, and he – whenever I get a break in the action, I sit and chitchat with him.
Charlie’s done time up there, he’s spent serious time up there learning, immersing himself in the subculture, and whenever I have a minute I pick his brain, I learn from him. And I feel as if I have enough of a foundation where I’ve got a pretty strong point of view about where Clay is coming from and what his core values are, but I really would like to learn more because the more I know about them the more fascinating they become to me.
So you didn’t really know anything about the biker culture before this project?
R. Perlman: I knew zero. I’d see motorcycle clubs whiz by like the rest of us and just consider it to be very loud and an annoyance and I just thought that these guys were men without a country, just purely rebellious. I never thought about it beyond that. I’d never been on a bike, I don’t have that in my own fun psyche, so everything I did was kind of filling in a very blank slate, and my eyes got really opened to the sociopolitical aspects of the impulse to start these clubs.
And most of the guys who are members of these clubs were veterans, probably most of them fought in wars, in different wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the current Iraq war, so they’re warriors to begin with, and they come back to America after the most patriotic of acts, which is the act of self sacrifice for their country and not only are they not welcomed as heroes but they’re kind of shunned because their psyche is such that it’s okay for a warrior to go kill and die but it’s not okay for them to come back to the United States and marry your sister.
So it’s kind of like, if you don’t mind a little salty language, f*** me, f*** you.
I’m out of here. I’m going to go create my own reality. I’m going to show you what patriotism really looks like and I’m going to be patriotic to what I consider to be things that are worth living and dying for. And that’s the impulse behind the motorcycle club and it’s very, very anarchistic and very sociopolitical. It’s a reaction against something, which turned into a huge disappointment.
Those are the things that, when my eyes were really opened as to how compelling these clubs are.
That’s really interesting. I didn’t even think about that.
R. Perlman: I hadn’t either.
How does the effect of the club being like a family balance with the toughness of the jobs the guys go out and do and everything else on that side of things?
R. Perlman: These clubs are a subculture that are unique to themselves but you can parallel them as every club as its own sovereign nation with its own set of laws and its own earning capacity and its own code of behavior and its own ruthless need to protect its borders and its national interests, and you can take any country in the world and set the same description to it.
So it’s more than a family but there are certainly family values to each of these clubs because at the end of the day they’re there to protect their own, they’re there to support their own, and they’re there to sacrifice themselves for their own family.
Were you surprised at the level of violence in the show?
R. Perlman: Well, I’m not surprised by the level of violence in the show. I knew these were pretty ruthless, rough guys, but there are certain things that we’re doing that shock even me, and I thought I was shockproof. It’s pretty hardcore. I mean, you start getting to the third episode, the fourth episode, the fifth episode, I mean, we do stuff that is like – I finished reading it and I was just like, I’ve got to lie down. It’s definitely – the envelope is being breached.
Your character, Clay Morrow, is described as someone who exerts ruthless control over all areas of his life thanks to his struggle with acute arthritis. How easy or difficult is it to portray that aspect of Clay, meaning his need for control as result of certain things in his life he can’t control?
R. Perlman: Well, the aspect of him beginning to lose control, the arthritis, it’s not acute yet, it ‘s the onset of arthritis which is basically the first signal that somebody who always considered himself unbreakable and invulnerable is starting to see the beginnings of cracks in his armor. So when we meet this guy he’s going through changes as is Gemma, because she’s now 51 years old. These guys who started out as kids and thought that they had the world figured out are now finding out that there are certain things that there aren’t answers to, and it makes for a very charged situation.
What was it about Clay Morrow that got you interested in the first place?
R. Perlman: To tell you the absolute truth, the first time I read it I wasn’t sure I could play the guy. I’ve never played anybody like him. No matter how sociopathic or psychotic the character was that I was playing, I always saw something in there that made them that way so that there was always some sort of a duality, like Hellboy is a badass but he has this really soft center. He’s got a very strong feminine side.
There was always a duality in all the characters I’ve played no matter how radical they were. There’s no duality in Clay Morrow. He’s got one gear and it’s win at all costs, and he’s not big on sense of humor. He has no feminine side whatsoever and I really didn’t know whether I could, whether I had the chops to pull it off. So I said to myself, there seem to be more people on the periphery who thought I could do it than I thought I could do it, so I figured I’d put my trust and faith in them and use it as a big challenge because the one thing I do love is to be challenged and to be kind of on the tree limb, where one false move either way and you’re toast. I kind of like that, so I took this thing as a challenge and we’ll see. So far I’m having a good time, I’m exercising different muscles than I’ve ever used before.
I was wondering if there are any of your own personality traits which… Clay Morrow’s which may help you tap into that kind of criminal archetype?
R. Perlman: He’s about as far from my own approach to life as anyone I’ve ever played but having said that, as an actor you’re always using your own facets behaviorally to loan the character his reality, and I can only play Clay as I can access him from my own field of experience. But he’s really, really, really different from me and, as I said before, a challenge because of that because I’ve got to adjust my point of view and my way of processing a situation. I don’t process situations the way he does.
There’s been some talk about how the superstructure of Sons of Anarchy is Hamlet. That, I suppose, would make you Claudius. Can you conceive of a situation where Claudius and Jax would face off other than – not Claudius and Jax – Clay and Jax would face off other than perhaps at the end of the season when presumably Jax finally makes his move? Are they pretty tight or is there a little bit of an adversarial strain underlying their relationship?
R. Perlman: Well, I’m only reading it one episode at a time and I’m just a little bit ahead of you. I have no idea how it’s going to play out. I pretty much have an idea of what is going to happen, particularly in light of the fact that I’m sure they’re going to stick to the structure of Hamlet all the way to the end, but how it happens and when it happens we’ll have to just see one episode at a time. But yes, they’re very tight. I mean, there’s a real affection between Clay and Jax, a real affection.
There’s a scene in the second episode where Gemma is looking for John Tyler’s manuscript and she finds a photo of herself and John and Clay and a fourth person, a woman, presumably. Did Clay have a first wife that you know of, according to Kurt Teller? Is Gemma his second wife, and do you think he has any kids?
R. Perlman: He has no kids, I can tell you that for sure. I don’t know whether he’s had another wife. That was a wedding photo, could’ve been a girlfriend at the time. I haven’t seen the second episode so-
They’ve got to send you stuff.
R. Perlman: Yes, I know. I guess I’ll see it on September 10th-
It’s good stuff.
R. Perlman: Along with the rest of America. So no, I’m sorry, I can’t answer that on whether he was ever married.
How long has John been gone, how long have they been a pair?
R. Perlman: John, I think, died in ’93, so it’s a while since I think Jax was 15 at the time and he’s 30 now, so it’s 15 years that he’s been without his dad and that Clay and Gemma have taken up the relationship.
With Clay and John both being founders of the club I would think they’d be pretty close friends, so I was curious how Gemma and Clay ended up married.
R. Perlman: I don’t have an answer to that. I would suspect that Clay probably felt that John got the prize when he got Gemma and wouldn’t be surprised if Clay maybe always had a secret design on Gemma. I’m not giving you a definitive answer because I just don’t know the answer, but I’m telling you some of the things that I’m thinking as the actor playing the guy, and I think that knowing what I know about how thorough Kurt Sutter is in answering all these questions we will all find out at pretty much the same time.
What has been your favorite scene to film so far?
R. Perlman: I couldn’t answer that. Every single scene that I’ve done has been, like, I can’t even put into words what a great writer Kurt Sutter is and what an amazing staff he’s assembled because every script is just filled with scenes you can’t wait to do.
The most surprising episode was, I think, the fifth episode. It’s called AK51, and it was written by a woman named Nicole Beattie and it’s basically a script that could only have been written by a woman and it deals with one of the things I alluded to earlier, the fact that Katey’s body and my body are going through these changes and there’s some amazing stuff in there that comes as a surprise to both of us and the playing of those things was pretty surprising and revealing. I just can’t wait to get to work every day because these scenes are just like hanging fastballs, hanging curveballs, as the pitch is coming in you just lick your lips waiting…
Can you take us through a typical day on the set?
R. Perlman: No, because we don’t have any typical days. Every single day is a complete different set of problems. Every single day is not like any other day. You just try to make sure that you’re well nourished and you’ve got enough energy to get through it because they’re very often 14, 15, or 16 hours long and we’re moving at a really quick pace because we’re shooting an episode in seven days, and the workload is overwhelmingly concentrated and focused.
What kind of audience do you think Sons of Anarchy will draw?
R. Perlman: A big one. I don’t know, I can only hope. I can never second guess what happens when you take a piece of culture and try to funnel it into the mainstream. I’ve been wrong almost every time before so I’ve stopped guessing. I hope people like it for its uniqueness and for the effort that everybody’s putting in, which is a pretty magnanimous effort.
Katey Sagal’s character is pretty tough on the show. What’s it like working with her?
R. Perlman: She’s a doll. I mean, I just saw the pilot episode. You guys are kind of ahead of me because I haven’t seen the second one at all and I only just saw the pilot episode the night before last, and it was staggering to me that the baddest ass on the show is Katey. I mean, we’re all trying to play these big swinging dudes who are completely ruthless and fearless and in watching the first episode, I didn’t realize that she’s the bad ass of the show.
She even makes me look a little weak, which is a complete dichotomy to how she is in real life. She’s so sweet, she’s a great mom and a beautiful working companion and full of kindness and caring. She’s kind of like a hippie, she’s like how all of us who came through the ’60s turned out, a little left of center, very liberal-minded, and that’s a complete performance she’s giving on the show, but it is complete.
If Sons of Anarchy returns for a second season what do you think viewers can expect from Clay specifically and the show in general?
R. Perlman: Aside from the fact that I know we’re sticking to the superstructure of Hamlet, I don’t know anything and I don’t want to know. I mean I’m really, really, so overwhelmed with every time they give me the new script, which is usually about four or five days before we start shooting it, just at the point where we’re in the midway point of shooting one episode we get the next one, and for me it’s so overwhelming to deal with the present that I can’t begin to get caught up in the future.
I mean, if I went to the writers and asked them what’s going to happen in the second season I’m sure they’d tell me, but I really don’t want to know because I don’t want to jump ahead of myself. I don’t think it’s valuable, and that’s just my own personal feeling. If you ask 10 different actors that question you’re going to get 10 different answers. I’d rather just concentrate on the right now and if I have a question about how the history of something or the future of something is going to affect the behavior of what I’m doing right now, then I’ll call the producers and try to get the answer to that question. But other than that I’m just trying to play it one minute at a time.
Do you prefer to play the bad guy if you can?
R. Perlman: I don’t have any preferences. I feel as though my criteria are based more on how challenging the role is, it doesn’t have to fit into any particular profile, is it something that I’ve never done before, and is it something that I feel like I can really feel challenged and therefore fully engaged in, and that’s when the work gets to be the most fun.
What kind of different challenges do you find between working for television as opposed to movies, since you’ve been in a lot of movies?
R. Perlman: Well, the approach is the same. The general work is the same. The only difference is with a TV series you go a lot faster, you have to get more stuff done in a day than you do in a movie because the constraints of the schedule are really austere. So it’s speed, and it’s concentration and focus because it’s relentless. I mean, you finish one episode at midnight on a Tuesday and then on Wednesday morning at seven you’re in the makeup chair getting ready to start the next one without having a chance to take a breath in between. So that’s basically the difference, but fundamentally you approach the work the same way.
I’m always interested in what the people I watch on TV watch, so I was wondering if you get a chance to watch much television and, if so, what types of shows you like to watch?
R. Perlman: Two channels, MSNBC and Turner Classic Movies. That’s it. And if there’s a Yankee game on I’ll watch it and if Tiger’s playing I’ll watch golf.
And Ron, this is where you say FX too.
R. Perlman: Oh, and anything that’s on FX.
R. Perlman: Just so I could see the trailers for Sons of Anarchy. I’m not a big TV guy but I love, I’m completely engaged in this political season we’re in, and I love old movies.
Interview By: Emma Loggins