Ron Perlman Talks About His Early Career, Taking on Makeup-Heavy Roles Like ‘Hellboy’

ron perlman Illustration First Time in Variety
illustration: michael Hoeweler; reference: Marion Curtis/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock

Hollywood has long recognized Ron Perlman for being unrecognizable. Some of his most iconic roles — including “Hellboy,” “Quest for Fire” and the late-1980s CBS series “Beauty and the Beast” — required extensive, transformative makeup and prosthetics. The actor is returning to television, a medium he describes as “the one area where the storytelling is really rich, really deep and really human,” to join the Crackle drama “Startup” in the series’ second season, which premieres Sept. 28. Perlman’s initial break in the industry came not from television or film, but in the Tommy Tune-directed stage musical “Sunset,” which led to his first mention in Variety on Oct. 5, 1977.

What was it like auditioning for Tommy Tune?

I was wired early in my career for failure. So anytime anyone liked what I did, much less actually hired me, it was a shock. Tommy Tune was a singular validation that I had never experienced before.

What do you remember about working with Alexis Smith in “Sunset”?

My dad taught me how to be a devotee to the golden age of Hollywood, which was the ’30s and ’40s, and Alexis Smith was this symbol of everything that was magical about that period. For me to have been a part of it, those are the things I deeply felt. Lisa Mordente was one of the girls in the show, and her parents were Tony Mordente and Chita Rivera, so Chita was up there all the time hanging out, and I’ve become drinking buddies with Chita Rivera and Alexis Smith. These girls could party. Alexis Smith said to me, “Do you drink vodka?” And I said, “No I don’t.” And she said, “Well if you hang out with me you’re going to have to learn how because that’s my drink.” And from that moment to this moment, vodka has been my jam. She allowed me to escort her around Buffalo because she knew I really adored her and couldn’t get enough of the stories of the great old days of Hollywood. She was one of those women who never ever looked back at the past, but she also knew that I was the most captive audience she’d ever met. Just the fact that she liked having me as a dinner companion meant the world to me. It was so incredibly validating.

Was acting something you always wanted to pursue?

I knew that I loved it from the moment I started doing it in high school. I was told by my parents and their family, who are all Depression kids, you want to have as much security as you can, and show business is totally not the right way to. My dad came to see [me in] “Guys and Dolls.” The next day he says to me, “You know you have to do this, right? This is what you were born to do.” And he was dead, like two years later. So it was almost like a death-bed encouragement slash permission. He had been a musician, and he understood the uncertainty of being an artist. If this man who has given me everything, my taste, my point of view, my aesthetic, my value system, this is his final act of guidance, who am I to say no?

Who were some of your role models when you started out?

The [third] movie that I ever made was “The Name of the Rose” and Sean Connery was the star. I followed him around like a fanboy. When he found out that I couldn’t get enough stories about Hitchcock and John Huston and all the people he’d worked with, he would basically sit there for eight hours between shots and download all these stories onto me and see the delight coming out of me. On my days off, I would come to set and watch Sean work. I never had more of a mentor than him because he was one of these movie stars that made it look effortless. But when I watched him craft these performances, it wasn’t effortless at all. It was incredibly well thought out, it was incredibly respectful to the material, and there was a real aesthetic to the actor bringing an inanimate role to life that I had never looked upon that way before I watched him do it. His respect for the written word was gorgeous and illuminating, and I probably never had an acting mentor that meant more to me than him.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten?

My first agent was a guy named Richard Astor in New York when I was in my 20s, and he said, “You mustn’t expect to get any real, important work until you’re in your 40s, and you’re probably not going to get real work that’s going to mean anything to you until you’re in your 50s.” And I said, “I’m 27. Why did you bring me in here?” He said, “Well, you never know. I’m going to try to get you work, but you have this old soul, and nothing juvenile comes off you. Your destiny is not right now, it’s down the road when you grow into it.” He turned out to be perfectly right. The best parts of my career didn’t happen until I was 50. It was not easy to hear, because when you’re 27, you just want instant gratification. But now that I have the luxury of perspective, the guy was dead on.

Did you have any particularly memorable auditions?

I’m a horrible auditioner, and I don’t think I ever really got a great job from an audition, except maybe from “Sunset.” I always felt this overwhelming amount of pressure that completely screwed up my freeness, and if you’re not free while you’re being an actor, then people are definitely not going to get a sense of whether you can handle the role or not. The days where I was free and relaxed and easy, they were very few and far between. “Sunset” was one; “Quest for Fire” was the other. I thought I was making this crap caveman movie. I found out that this guy (Jean-Jacques Annaud) had won an Academy Award for “Black and White in Color” and he was a distinguished filmmaker. By the time I got nervous, I had already had the role, so I didn’t trip myself up.

You’re known for roles that require extensive makeup. Do you remember the longest it’s ever taken you to get into character?

The first day of “Name of the Rose,” not only did they have to create the makeup on my face, but they also had to apply this hunchback, which needed to be revealed shirtless, so it needed to be perfect. I was in the makeup chair for 12½ hours. So by the time I get to the set, we only had about an hour and a half to shoot.

Did the long hours ever deter you from wanting to take on a role?

I’m told there are not a lot of actors who can handle the four to five to six hours in the makeup chair. I’ve never had a problem with it, but if you look back at the roles in which I did that, first one being “Quest for Fire” then “Name of the Rose” then “Beauty and the Beast,” then “Island of Dr. Moreau,” then “Hellboy,” I was always so thrilled to be playing those roles that whatever I had to go through to get onto the set and be that guy, playing those roles, kind of paled in comparison to the joy and the honor of playing the part. I always kept saying to myself, “There’s a million guys that wish they were you right now and there’s absolutely no reason you should ever complain about the fact that it’s taking four hours to get on set. Because by the time you do get on set, you’re Hellboy.” It’s never been a burden to me because the roles I was playing as a result of all that work in the chair were phenomenal.