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Ron Perlman fights the power in 'Season of the Witch' and 'Sons of Anarchy'

Ron Perlman at the New York City premiere of "Season of the Witch"
Ron Perlman at the New York City premiere of "Season of the Witch"
Getty Images

For decades, Ron Perlman has been a respected actor best known for his work in sci-fi or fantasy projects such as the TV series "Beauty and the Beast" and the "Hellboy" movies. In the thriller film "Season of the Witch," set in the 1300s, Perlman plays a former Crusader knight named Felson, who is among a group of men ordered to transport an accused witch (played by Claire Foy) across treacherous terrain so that she can go on trial. Felson is the loyal sidekick of fellow knight Behmen (played by Nicolas Cage), the leader of the group.

Although Perlman became famous for his sci-fi/fantasy roles, in recent years, he has found new audiences with a role that is very much set in the real world: In "Sons of Anarchy," Clay Morrow, the leader of an outlaw motorcycle club in present-day California. According to Nielsen Media Research, the show’s third season that aired in 2010 averaged nearly 5 million viewers per episode, making it the highest-rated series ever to air on the FX network.

I recently caught up with Perlman in New York City while he was promoting "Season of the Witch." In this exclusive interview, we talked about the scene in the movie that the cast members had to do over and over because they couldn’t stop laughing, what he thinks will happen in Season 4 of "Sons of Anarchy," and why his first movie (1981’s "Quest for Fire") was the most physically challenging film he ever made. Perlman also talked about two of his other 2011 films ("Drive" and a remake of "Conan the Barbarian" ), as well as what he thinks about a third "Hellboy" movie.

What did you like most about doing "Season of the Witch"?

There were a lot of things I liked about this movie. I loved working with Nic [Cage]. I really loved working with [director] Dominic Sena. And then I just the horseplay the swordplay, the transportation back to this time that actually took place in history, but I can only imagine. I had to access that portion of my brain in order to figure out who I was in that world.

I think for the movie that it is — and there’s a lot of components to it — it almost makes it impossible to pigeonhole as any one genre. It is a supernatural thriller, but it’s also so many other things. It’s a buddy movie. It’s a road movie. It’s an examination of what happens when a universe gets messed with and gets out of balance and out of whack how karma can come back and bite you in the ass. So there were an awful lot of experiences about this experience that I really loved. And I love the fact that it’s finally coming out!

You faced some brutal weather conditions when you filmed "Season of the Witch." How was the experience dealing with those conditions compared to other physically difficult experiences that you’ve had as an actor?

I had the very good fortune of having my first film be "Quest for Fire," in which I was barefoot for six months. And when I mean barefoot, I mean barefoot up to here [he points to his neck]. I had no clothes on, except for some furs that were strategically placed over my shoulders. We started out that film in the Highlands of Scotland in early winter, with no shoes, walking on frozen heather. Heather can grow up to about a foot. And when it’s frozen and you’re walking on it, it’s like walking on stalactites. And we were running on it and performing on it.

We would do these long takes, and the wardrobe department would have to run and would actually have to hug us and hold us so that we would stop shaking uncontrollably. So that was my trial by fire. And I said to myself, "After this movie, as long as I’m wearing shoes, I’ll never complain again." So whatever the hardships were, and ["Season of the Witch"] was not the easiest movie to make — we shot for a month of nights in winter, and the temperature dipped down well below zero — I was wearing shoes, so I ain’t complaining.

How would you describe Dominic Sena’s directing style and how it worked for you as an actor?

Dominic has this aura around him that’s elfish, in a way. He’s very, very positive and very quick to smile. He’s really appreciative of seeing something that surprises him and he wasn’t expecting. He’s just very effusive with praise and appreciation. He’s really, really easy to work with. The only time he’s ever really going to interfere, I would imagine, is if he’s not getting anything at all that he can use. But that was never the case in my dynamic with him. He was just a joy to work with.

He’s in that class of one percent of the best eyes that can be behind the cameras. So I would come back and watch playback after we shot something and saw the way it was frame, which augmented the drama of the situation. I just saw the way his eyes depicted how what was rather ordinary while we were doing it became extraordinary on the screen. I have nothing but positive things to say about Dominic.

After all these years that you’ve been an actor, how do you feel about seeing yourself on screen?

I’m in that majority of actors who are not fond of watching their own work. I know that I don’t see myself objectively. I know that the experience I have of doing something is way different than the experience I have when I’m no longer doing it but just watching it. I have some trouble with that. I’m looking at the wrong things for the wrong reasons. So I try to stay away from watching myself. And I really, really try to stay away from having an opinion about what I’m watching when I’m forced to watch it. But I go to premieres, and I eventually end up seeing almost everything, but there are movies I’ve been in that I’ve never seen.

So you just flip the channel when you see one of your TV shows or movies on TV?

I flip the channel. I actually missed about six or seven episodes of "Sons of Anarchy" [in 2010]. I was very busy when the show was airing. I was making three movies back-to-back. And I was fine with it. If they happen to come on TV, I’ll switch to a ball game or Turner Classic Movies. I’m not a big fan of watching my work, but I love doing the work.

Don’t you get curious to see the final results of your work?

Sometimes you really want to see how it turns out. There’s a movie that’s about to come out that I just finished shooting, with Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn, called "Drive," also with Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston. I’m dying to see how that turns out, because I have no sense of what kind of movie he was making. He’s just a filmmaker of uncommon ability. I’m curious to see that one and all the different parts. I only ever worked with Albert. I didn’t have any other scenes with almost anybody else in the cast. I did a little bit with Bryan Cranston and a little bit with Ryan. It was mostly Albert and I, so I’m really curious to see how that all comes together.

Your "Season of the Witch" co-star Robbie Sheehan says that when the group was filming the campfire scene, you were the only one who came close to keeping a straight face without laughing. What do you remember about filming that scene?

I positioned myself so that I had my back to the group. And I was kind of lying with my back to the fire. There was me with my back to everybody, kind of lying down, eating some soup and getting ready to go to sleep. And I adopted that position because I couldn’t keep a straight face, because Nic was improvising this scene about how he and I met. And it was hysterical! Every time he did a different take, it was a different story. So just for self-preservation, I said, "Let me just not watch this." I was doing my own little movie at the time. It was different from "Season of the Witch," that’s for sure.

The success of "Sons of Anarchy" has been amazing. What are you most proud of about the show, in terms of how the show has evolved?

I’m very proud of the way this [motorcycle club] world is being depicted. It’s very nuanced, even though there’s a huge amount of violence and talk about sex, but it always seems to be earned. There’s nothing in it that’s gratuitous. There’s nothing in there that’s just there to titillate an audience. It always springs out of the situation. The violence is deserved. It’s almost what the audience wants to see, based on the things and events that lead up to it.

And I’m very proud to work with the cast. It’s one of the best ensembles of actors I’ve ever worked around. We’ve now done [three seasons], and I’ve never seen a bad script. I’ve done other television series before, and it’s really hard to sustain the level of quality that consistently.

At the end of Season 3 of "Sons of Anarchy," several of the characters were imprisoned. It’s been reported that Season 4 of "Sons of Anarchy" (due to air in late 2011) will show what happens when they get out of prison. Which of the characters do you think will be changed the most by this prison stint?

I think that the character Jax has got some stuff. There were signals at the end of Season 3 when the Irish lady puts the letters in Jax’s satchel, and they’re discovered by Tara, his girlfriend. They’re these letters that went back and forth between John Teller [Jax’s father] and this Irish lady; they became a separate family from the one that John Teller had in California. It describes the circumstances of his death. And it describes the circumstances of his death.

And I think when Jax comes out, it seems to me that he’s going to have to start dealing with things he put on the back burner, because he was most concerned with getting his son back. Now that he’s gotten his son back and that’s all stabilized, he gets to turn his attention to what is right and what is wrong with the way the club is set up. So he’s probably got the biggest arc of all of us.

Clay is always going to be Clay. He’s too old and set in his ways to change. He may adjust a little bit from circumstance to circumstance, but he’s never going to fundamentally change his true north. That’s my guess. I don’t know what happens in Season 4. I think Kurt [Sutter, "Sons of Anarchy" creator/executive producer] is the only one who knows what happens in Season 4, and he hasn’t shared it with anyone.

The audience for "Sons of Anarchy" has continued to grow. How have the fans changed from the show’s first season?

The fans have become more possessive of their little show, because we were so under-the-radar foe Season 1. It was a real slow burn. We started off really slow. We had a small core audience, which kind of grew over the course of Season 1. And then during the break [between Season 1 and Season 2], there seemed to be some sort of word-of-mouth sea change.

Then we started Season 2 with the rape of the matriarch, and that whole season, the after-burn is on, and it gets really sick. And that’s when we really built a major audience. And the word of mouth was helping: "You’ve got to see this show." Nobody was initially interested in a show about a motorcycle club, but it was sort of this grassroots evolution that took place. The second season really helped us, because we found that we did do well differently than other shows, and we really hit a stride.

Now in the third season, we have this rather magnanimous audience. Now they’re possessive: "Well, he should never have done that!" In other words, everybody’s got an opinion. So there’s all this sh*t that’s going back and forth on the Internet and in blogs and in these chat rooms. I don’t read any of it, but I have people on the show that do, and they report and distill it down for me. And people are becoming very possessive about "their show." It’s an interesting thing to watch, because now they have expectations, whereas in the first two seasons, we could do whatever we wanted.

What can you say about your role in the 2011 remake of "Conan the Barbarian"?

I play Conan’s father. There’s big-time sword action. But I’m only in the movie for 10 minutes. I can’t tell everything, but the first sequence is huge. It’s epic. All I can tell you is that I work with the Conan who’s 11 years old. And there’s a jump cut to Conan the adult, and I’m no longer on the scene. I don’t want to give away anything.

I never worked with [Jason] Momoa, who’s the adult Conan. I only worked with this kid [Leo Howard], who’s a phenomenal actor. And he’s like a North American champion of swords since he was 4 years old. He had a black belt [in martial arts] by the time he was 4. He’s a swordsman and he’s mind-boggling. He made me look like a piker.

You’re expected to work with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on "Hellboy 3" and "At the Mountains of Madness." What’s the status of those movies?

He was trying to do "Mountains of Madness." That’s been his number-one labor-of-love movie that he’s been trying to do for a number of years. I think that was the one he identified as the next one he’d like to do. Because I’ve been away working and he’s been away doing other stuff, I haven’t had a chance to catch up with him personally to see everything’s going and where everything is at.

I hope there’s a third "Hellboy," simply because he always thought of it as a trilogy. And when he set up that [Liz Sherman, Hellboy’s love interest] is pregnant with twins at the end of "Hellboy 2," he kind of sketched out what the third "Hellboy" movie would look like. It’s so theatrical. It’s so epic. It’s so dark.

And also, we have to find out about the Hellboy destiny. It’s written in stone that he’s going to destroy mankind. That’s what he’s been brought to Earth to do. So the whole dialogue between nurture and nature gets to live itself out in the third "Hellboy" movie. But if there’s no third one, then the audience doesn’t get to see any of that.

Well, there are lots of people who are hoping there will be a "Hellboy 3."

I hope so too. It’s worth doing.

For more info:

"Season of the Witch" website

"Sons of Anarchy" website


Interview with Ron Perlman for "Mutant Chronicles"

Interview with Ron Perlman for "Sons of Anarchy" (Comic-Con 2011 panel)

Interview with Ron Perlman for "Sons of Anarchy" (Comic-Con 2011 interview)

Interview with Robert Sheehan for "Season of the Witch"

"Season of the Witch" New York City press conference

"Season of the Witch" news and reviews