Ron Perlman is visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time, but it’s too soon for him to have formed an opinion. “For a guy like me, last night I just finished watching the grand debut of Z’s movie and all I want to do is go and have a drink and I realized that I’m not in Kansas anymore,” he tells Variety at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah.
“Z’s new movie” is the debut feature from Kuwaiti filmmaker Zeyad Alhusaini, “How I Got There,” an entertaining crime caper in which two friends accidentally come in possession of a truckload of weapons. Perlman plays a shadowy American mercenary. “Z sends me the script. And it answers all of my criteria. Very original, very exotic. Then I met him and he’s a formidable man.”
Also showing in Jeddah is Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio,” for which Perlman voices the key role of a fascist official, the Podestà, and authoritarian father. “It’s a blending of some of the original qualities of the Carlo Collodi novel. Some of the majesty of what Disney captured. But you’re learning so much as you go along. Like every Guillermo del Toro film.”
The “HellBoy” and “Sons of Anarchy” actor detects a contemporary resonance in its version of a fascist society dominated by ideas of obedience. “Right now, we’re being reminded: we can’t take our eye off the ball, ever, because there are people who have so much lust for sheer power, juxtaposed with bad intentions. That’s what fascism is. So we’re seeing, even in my own country, in a place where I was always brought up to believe it can’t happen here… well, it’s happening. Fifteen years ago, Guillermo began to ruminate about making the movie, conditions were different. But the timing of the release of the film couldn’t be better.”
Perlman’s vocal talents will also be heard as Optimus Primal in “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” due out next year. Is it different working on such a large project? “I never think of scale. I never think of who’s producing; how much money is being spent? If I did, I’d be crippled by fear. Acting’s a very intimate form of discovery. It’s something that happens in stages. First, you read it, to try to understand the world you’re entering into, and your place in that world, then you give your interpretation of it. You’re being watched by a filmmaker who has the whole thing in his mind. It’s almost like sex. You’re performing something and you’re hoping you’re satisfying. Sometimes somebody will whisper, ‘Go a little bit to the left.’ So it’s very intimate, and it’s very, very personal.”
Appearances in the Amazon TV show “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” starring Donald Glover and Maya Erskine as well as Rian Johnson’s “Poker Face” for Peacock are due alongside more film work, but despite the work from streamers, Perlman is unhappy about its dominance. “The advent of people not leaving their homes to get their culture is taking away one of the great dimensions of the way we get our culture. You should leave your fucking house. The idea of going into a theater with 3,000 strangers in a dark room eating popcorn, walking out transformed, sharing that experience. That’s basically one of the essential strengths of cinema, to experience our commonality. It’s great, the fact that we’re all trudging through the malaise of the human condition. And we’re all feeling the same. Movies are a way of reminding us we’re all in this together. And if you do that in your home, in your underwear, and you take away the formality of making something special by going out to go get it. For me, that’s a tragedy.”
“When you take the specialness of something, and make it ordinary, by having it happen in your house, where you can press pause, go to the bathroom, have a meal, have sex, come back to it, forget where you were… for somebody like me who has made it his life’s work, it’s a bit saddening. A bit unfortunate,” he says, with wry understatement. “And yet, my kids, who only know streaming, don’t know what they’re missing. I’ll never be able to explain to them the majesty of going into a 3,000-seat theater and walking out with this group who’ve all had this communal experience. I’ll never be able to explain what they’re missing. Because if you’ve never had it, you don’t miss it.”
Perlman sees hope in the Middle East. “There are more theaters now in the Middle East than there ever have been. People have a hunger now that things are evolving here. People are hungry for the culture that they’ve been missing. So the very opposite of what’s happening in the States is happening here, where there’s a thirst and so people can’t wait to go to the movies, which is great. But I wish it was as important in my home country as it used to be.”