Before Hand of God, Ron Perlman had never spoken in tongues. Then, his character, Judge Pernell Harris, had an religious epiphany, so the 65-year-old actor had to learn quickly. “There’s no right way of doing it, there’s no wrong way of doing it,” says the actor, who looked up YouTube clips to see how those touched by the Spirit speak. “It’s one of these things that comes out differently depending on who it’s coming out of.” The trick, he says, was figuring out how a tough-as-nails character like Harris would react to the Lord flowing through him. “Some people do it very calmly and collectedly, and some people are just shaking and out of control,” he says, speaking typically slowly. “I tried to find something that honored both extremes.”
In this particular case, that meant standing in a public fountain naked, shivering and blathering. Hand of God — which premieres on Friday, September 4th — finds Perlman in familiar territory, playing a flawed and conflicted antihero beset by change around him, but he’s one of the few actors skilled enough to navigate it without a compass. What’s somewhat different for the actor, who is known best for unique outsider roles like Clay Morrow on Sons of Anarchy and the titular demon in Hellboy, is that his well-to-do pillar of society finds himself in the process of becoming an outsider.
The pilot for the Amazon show finds the Honorable Judge Harris grappling with a litany of conflicting feelings: His son is comatose following a suicide attempt; his daughter-in-law was recently sexually assaulted; he’s married but he’s trying to break off an affair with a call girl. Most troubling of all, Harris has begun seeing visions, leading him to carry out brutal, murderous acts of vengeance. And that’s after he just found God.
“I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I read the script, that I found a role with all of the characteristics about what’s interesting in mankind rolled up into one,” says the monolithic actor, leaning back on the couch of a Manhattan hotel room. “Loyalty, infidelity, fidelity, love, zealotry, insanity and inspiration — all these things are dealt with in this show. He possesses a compendium of characteristics that would be the envy for anybody who aspires to call themselves an actor.” Here, Perlman tells Rolling Stone how he embraced those heinous-to-holy qualities, as well as how his experiences on Sons of Anarchy and working with Guillermo del Toro helped him get his footing on Hand of God.
What’s the most challenging part of playing someone who’s drawn in so many different directions?
Harris is compromised emotionally, and he’s in emotional pain. He’s a guy who’s gone from being completely sure-footed in every situation to someone who, for the first time, is now possibly dealing with self-doubt.
And he deals with it partly through this new religion. How was your baptism scene? It looked cold.
It was cold, and that scene took half a day. They lured me in there by saying they heated the fountain. Of course it’s an acre and a half, so you’re not going to heat an acre-and-a-half fountain in San Pedro. But when they turned it on to do the scene and those gusts of water came, it was like “Gah!” I had a lot of trouble just speaking because I was being pelted and assaulted by very, very cold water.
I figured it was cold because you were shaking.
Yeah, that’s for real. I’m not even going to mention what it did to my penis.
Please don’t. Hand of God is your first digital-only series. Previously, you’ve done network TV with Beauty and the Beast and cable with Sons of Anarchy. How has the experience of making television changed as the cultures have shifted?
The act of doing it is exactly the same regardless. It’s all just filmmaking. But it’s an exciting time to be doing television because it’s where all the greatest, most original storytelling is taking place. The best writers are working in TV now. The quality of the storytelling is mind-blowingly original. When Sons of Anarchy was coming to an end, I wanted to find something in this medium.
“Sons of Anarchy changed the courses of all of our lives.”
Speaking of Sons of Anarchy, what has surprised you about how it evolved from being a cult-TV show?
It’s really interesting. Somewhere in the middle of Season One, the audience responded almost immediately in time to the plot turning dramatic and shocking. That’s when we on the show realized what we were and what we weren’t. From that point on, we got momentum that nobody could believe; even the network was surprised by how we kept shattering not only their own records for viewers but our own each year. But when you look back on it, you realize it was a singular event. It’s phenomenal when you happen to be one of those guys that gets to enjoy that kind of juggernaut experience. It has probably changed the courses of all of our lives, those of us who were involved in it day to day.
Your character on the show was an antihero. Do Sons fans still give you love-hate reactions when they meet you?
Yes. They always will, I think.
That’s got to be disarming.
It’s very positive because everybody knew that he was the antagonist. Everybody knew this was the guy that you were supposed to love to hate. And at the end of the day, the “hate” stuff I get, I guess, is because I pulled it off. I remember Robert Ryan, who played a lot of bad guys and was a wonderful character, once said the best compliment he ever had was when he was walking down the street in New York and someone said, “Hey, are you Robert Ryan?” He said, “Yeah.” And the guy spit right in his eye. He said, “I knew I did my job right when someone wanted to spit in my eye.”
Has a fan ever done that to you?
They might be too afraid. What is the appeal of playing antiheroes?
They are flawed. An antihero is a hero who is fighting against his own demons in order to do things that are ultimately altruistic; that’s an interesting thing to watch. The struggle to overcome the darker sides of yourself and then ultimately doing something that leads to self-sacrifice is basically the definition of heroism.
How do you throw yourself into an antihero role like Hand of God’s Judge Harris?
It’s a tightrope walk. How do you play a guy who is capable of doing incredibly reprehensible acts that almost make him unwatchable, and yet do it in such a way where there is always redemption inferred in the conversation? There is always a chance he is going to be better than these horrific things that are driving him. But is he going to go too far to the left or too far to the right? Or is he going to find a way to keep some sort of balance? That is compelling.
Do you think Judge Harris is a good guy, or has he just lost it?
He’s a complicated guy. I think that watching him deal with this loss, and seeing aspects of himself that were not even apparent or evident to him or the people closely around him until he realized he was losing this thing, is worth watching. There’s something very moving about his pain, which he experiences by the notion of losing his son and grappling with what a shitty dad he maybe was, how he probably should have played it differently, how he never should have taken for granted the fact that this is his one and only heir, and just purely the love he has for the kid and the innocence that all engenders. There’s something quite beautiful about that. Whether you characterize him as a good man or not a good man, that that redemptive aspect of him is where the balancing act comes in.
“When you play anger as if it means nothing to you, that’s when it becomes scary.”
You’ve worked closely with Guillermo del Toro over the years. How does his directing style affect you when doing a role like Judge Harris?
Guillermo has become a really good “actor’s director” over the course of the six films we have done together. Somewhere halfway through the journey, he became the person that took you off to the side and made a behavioral comment that showed you a whole side of a character that you hadn’t considered of before. Very few directors ever make those insightful directions to actors where the whole trajectory is altered in a positive way. And Guillermo has turned into that guy.
So when he is not around, you say to yourself, “OK, what would he say in a situation like this?” Fortunately we work with great directors on Hand of God. Mark Forster has got that same amazing insight; he’s able to say a word or two and you go, “Holy shit, I hadn’t considered that.” For instance, if you have a scene where you are supposed to be completely out of control with anger, he’d say, “Play it as if it means nothing to you,” and then the anger becomes scary. Because it’s implied in the writing — so when you decide not to play it, you are actually playing it twice as hard. It’s counterintuitive but it’s great direction.
What sorts of things would Del Toro tell you on movies like Hellboy?
They are quite personal. But he is somebody who can put a key in something, put a crack in the door that takes you to a different room that you’ve been in before and all of a sudden there is a whole new world of discovery there.
Has there been any talk about Hellboy 3 lately?
Haven’t heard a word.
Lastly, you recently tweeted that Donald Trump will be “a president like you wouldn’t believe!” What do you mean?
That’s because he keeps saying, “I’m going to build a wall you’re not going to believe,” and “I’m going to talk to Iran like you wouldn’t believe.” Like, what does that fucking mean? The whole thing that is being thrust on all of us is carnival-like. When he was on Meet the Press, he probably said “like you wouldn’t believe” about 40 times. I sent out that tweet this morning for my own edification and enjoyment. I’m having a ball watching all of this. It’s very theatrical.
He’s a character.
It’s been fun seeing people make an about-face with him. People are now treating him like he’s a serious contender. Weeks ago, he was a joke to those same exact people, and he’s done it through Pirandello-ish showmanship, like, “If I say it’s this way, than it is this way.” Even if it’s not, it is. And that’s what the people who have got him in the lead are reacting to. It doesn’t matter what he’s saying, he just believes in it so much that they’re like, “Yeah, we’ll buy that.”
Yet he seemed a bit unnerved in the debate.
You want to be most powerful man in the free world and you get pissed off because somebody’s asking you a tough question? And you’re going to say, “They didn’t treat me fairly because they asked me a tough question”? And then [Fox News chief] Roger Ailes ends up apologizing to him, and Megyn Kelly gets a week off? What the fuck is going on, man?