Die-hard Sons of Anarchy fans know him as ruthless, leather-clad SAMCRO president Clay Morrow, ready to protect the club at any price. Kids watched him in awe as the soft-on-the-inside demon in Hellboy. He melted hearts as Vincent, the larger-than-life lion in the acclaimed 1987 television series Beauty and the Beast, taking home a Golden Globe for his performance. But underneath the layers of roles (and insane costume makeup prosthetics) he has passionately took on, Ron Perlman continues to exude the badass, cigar-smoking, All-American personality generations of people have grown to love.
Perlman just wrapped up a role in Poker Night, a cat-and-mouse thriller with subtle hints of films Kiss the Girls and Memento—minus the confusing memory loss and hot Ashley Judd. Creepily hair-raising enough that I wouldn’t advise watching the film, now on VOD and DVD, at 2am, Perlman seamlessly portrays a semi-retired Lieutenant who has a wealth of field knowledge he wants to pass on to a rookie cop. Playboy got to talk with Perlman about his role in his new film, how growing up in New York shaped his acting and what seeing his first Playboy issue was like. Spoiler: It was pretty fucking great.
What about Poker Night’s script was intriguing, and what was it like working with director Greg Francis?
It’s all in the script you know. You can tell when you are reading a genre movie, a psychological thriller—whatever it is you want to label this. Whether it’s generic and it’s just you know writing a genre movie and you write a genre movie, and seeing how many screams they can get and how much they can push the envelope in terms of freaking out an audience. And then you can tell when you are reading something that’s written by somebody who is really fascinated with the world and is putting their own passion and fascination into the mix in the writing and with the execution of the storytelling. This was the latter—this was a very smart script. And this could have been a script for a Silence of the Lambs kind of thing. I’m not comparing the two but there are similarities—the whole serial killer thing and the world of sick twisted guys who really turn murder into an art form. But Greg does it in a way that is very smart, sophisticated and draws you in and doesn’t insult your intelligence.
You could easily pass for an actual cop. What are some things you have in common with your character Lieutenant Calabrese in the film?
I grew up in New York and I have had a lot of interaction with cops because everything in New York happens on the street. So you know everybody and you know everybody from every walk of life. And when I got out of school in my early days of finding acting work, I had kind of a civilian job at a boutique in Greenwich village and I got to know all the guys from the 6th Precinct. They used to come into the boutique and sit around and bullshit with us, drink coffee and tell stories. And I got to be really good friends with them. The 6th Precinct, if you don’t know, it’s the Barney Miller precinct; probably the most colorful precinct in the United States. Everyone in there is either a guy who tried to be an actor and turned into a cop instead, or is a cop and longs to be an actor. They have the greatest stories and the way they tell them is the best you’ve ever heard. So it’s like a showbizzy precinct even though they are doing the Lord’s work, and they are doing real hard-core stuff on behalf of the community. But the way they get through the heaviness of the job is through gallows humor. I learned a lot about playing a cop from those guys.
You starred with a pretty impressive cast, including Giancarlo Esposito and Ron Eldard. What were the poker scene outtakes like between a group of veteran actors?
Well, in the story it’s about a bunch of guys who all share this history and these hair-raising adventures that they have now turned into entertainment value. And going from a life-or-death subjective experience to objectifying it, kind of like “this is how I got through it and compartmentalized it.” When we were between shots it was the same thing. It was a bunch of actors who hadn’t seen each other in a while who all knew each other and admired each other and we were all telling stories. So you couldn’t tell where they said action and when one scene started and another one ended. And that made it a real pleasure.
You always play the lovable badass and I always enjoyed that about Clay’s character from Sons of Anarchy. A lot of your roles end up being that way—especially in Hellboy.
No one is black and white. I am attracted to playing bad guys, or sick guys, or guys that are driven by something because there is something fascinating about that wiring that will make them that way. And as an actor, the whole joy of it is getting to explore behavior deep inside of you and pulling it out and accessing it. And that’s always going to be a combination of attributes. It’s never just going to be one thing. And that’s what makes it interesting.
What was your first exposure to Playboy?
That was the first time I ever saw a boob in my life. It was in the ‘50s. The Playboy of my generation was as young as I was. You know, I was four years old when Playboy was first invented—so I saw the whole trajectory of the magazine. That was the first erection. That was the first masturbation. That was the first everything for me. Every young boy starts out like this and for a kid of my generation to show a woman topless, that was so outside of the realm of what was done back then. It was exotic and really was shocking and it really added a dimension to the world of a culture that had only existed in kind of the dark and lonely places before. And it was regarded in a very non-mainstream way. And then Hugh Hefner comes along and turns the whole thing on its ear.
What movie scared you the most as a kid?
The Tingler. Vincent Price.
What’s your pop culture blind spot?
Heaven forbid you’re on death row, what would you want your last meal to be?
Pizza. And a hot fudge sundae.
New York style pizza?
Lots of meat on it. Meatballs, sausages, pepperoni, maybe some mushrooms. And as much garlic as I could because I would really want to fuck up the guy who is strapping me on the table.
What was your first car?
My dad had a Rambler that he passed onto me when I got my drivers license. It was a '64 Rambler. That year it was the car of the year. It was quintessential Detroit. And it was back when Detroit was still making cars of the year.
What’s the first song you knew all the words to?
“All of Me.” That song by Frank Sinatra. I think the album was called Songs for Swingin’ Lovers.
What’s your favorite mistake?
Becoming an actor.
[Laughs] Really, though. I was going to ask about your book Easy Street: The Hard Way. You talk a lot about some things you went through when you were younger. Did you make any mistakes when you were younger that you are happy you made?
I made nothing but mistakes when I was younger. And they all turned out to be phenomenal assets down the road once I realized that there was a reason for everything. If you really hang in there, pay attention and don’t let anything take you completely out of the game, you can use it as a building block and become more stronger, smarter and more streamlined. Then every mistake becomes an asset. And then you get into this mindset when you are in the middle of making mistakes or fucking up and failing, and you are able to step aside for a second and say “Hey, Ron: Stick with this.” Because this is what all of the next layer is going to bring you from.
Nicole Theodore is an editorial assistant for Playboy.com. In another life she’s riding a motorcycle down a lonely dirt road at all times, wearing nothing but leather.