'Ron Clark' broadens actor's repertoire

For Matthew Perry, TNT’s “The Ron Clark Story” was all about upending notions of him as the class clown, a persona that began in grade school and eventually became part of popular culture by way of “Friends,” the NBC megahit on which Perry, as Chandler, cracked wise.

“The Ron Clark Story,” on the other hand, has none of Perry’s trademark snarky humor. Instead, it tells the true story of a white teacher from North Carolina who moves to New York City to teach disadvantaged, minority kids. And just to make sure he got things right, the actor hand-picked Randa Haines (“Children of a Lesser God,” “Something About Amelia”) to direct.

“One of Randa’s main jobs was to stop the camera if she saw any of Chandler in my performance,” says Perry.

Though some thesps would have insisted on spending time with their character’s inspiration before shooting, Perry avoided meeting the real Ron Clark until production was well under way.

“It was important to me not to speak to him,” Perry explains. “I thought there was (the potential for) a bad version of this movie in which I did just an impression of him. So I read his book, ‘The Essential 55,’ and spoke to him about three weeks into the shooting.”

But there was one thing the actor simply had to discuss with the teacher.

“He was instrumental at teaching me how to rap,” says Perry, referring to perhaps the telepic’s most memorable scene. “It’s exactly what I can’t do. Luckily, he wasn’t a fantastic rapper himself.”

Clark’s perseverance was what initially excited Perry about the project.

“I liked that he never gave up,” the actor says. “I also loved that he kind of tricked these kids into learning. When these kids and their parents were giving up on themselves, he never did. That was moving to me.”

“The Ron Clark Story” may prove the demarcation line in Perry’s post-”Friends” career.

“Wanting to be in the game for the long haul,” he says, “this posed an interesting challenge. It was different from anything I’d done. Ron doesn’t look at the world at an angled view, so the challenge was to keep him interesting while not going into my old tricks.”

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