Behind the Mask: Ron Perlman
By Ian Wilson
19 February 2009 Whilst this subsection of Comic Reel-lief remains focused upon the incredibly well-cast actors in the comic book movie genre, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about a man who has voiced Batman, Hulk, Clayface, Slade and Orion. But above all, Ron Perlman is Hellboy. And he's bloody awesome in the role, too.
For some reason, Ron Perlman has only had three leading roles in his entire career. Obviously there have been his incredibly solid performances as Hellboy in the 2004 film of the same name and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Through his acting talents, Perlman has managed to make a somewhat obscure comic book character recognizable in the mainstream consciousness, and serves as the anchor of the franchise. Should director Guillermo del Toro leave the series, it wouldn't be so disastrous as long as the aging Perlman remained in the role. Given that his other leading role was in a French-language film released nine years before the original Hellboy, what has been Perlman been up to in the meantime?
Let's clear something up right away; Ron Perlman is damn impressive. Whilst I have profiled older actors in Sir Ian McKellan, Magneto does not get down and dirty when it comes to physical fighting in the X-Men trilogy. And whilst I'm sure Perlman has had a few stunt doubles in the past, the fact remains that Perlman's red chest is the result of conditioning. And whilst certain actors change their body mass all the time to prepare for roles, rarely is this a process they continue in their later years. Ron Perlman was born in 1950 and stands at just over six feet tall, much like my own father. But Mr. Wilson would never be confused as an ass kicker. There is a quality to the actor that makes him believably unnatural as a person, which would explain why Ron Perlman has a long history of taking on roles of non-humans or the deformed. In his own words, Perlman has said of his childhood:
"I was not dealt the best physical hand in the world. My nose didn't fit my mouth. My forehead didn't fit my cheeks. And those are traditionally the years when a boy is judged primarily on his looks. So, consequently, I suffered from very low self-esteem. In a sense, I had a beast inside me. That beast was fear and insecurity."
Later in his career, that monster would manifest itself and lead to Perlman's best-remembered roles. In any case, his adolescent insecurity was not enough to stop Perlman from pursuing the stage academically, gaining a bachelor's degree in Theatre in 1971 and moving on to do a master's degree in Theatre Arts, graduating in 1973. Notwithstanding appearing in a couple of episodes of TV soap Ryan's Hope, Perlman spent the majority of the 1970s as a theatrical actor, performing the works of Chekov, Brecht, Ibsen, Shakespeare and Pinter, amongst others. Whilst not necessarily typecast in unusual or villainous roles, notable roles include the satirical Hitler figure of Arturo Ui in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and the tortured alcoholic genius Eliot Lovborg in Hedda Gabler.
It was the 1980s when Perlman truly hit celluloid, with the French-made Quest for Fire a film about caveman tribes which saw Perlman act as a thickset, hairy Neanderthal. Using an invented language created by Anthony Burgess, best-known as the author of A Clockwork Orange, the film won an Oscar for its makeup and a Cιsar award in the Best Picture category. This led to more screen roles, both on television and in films, such as Ice Pirates and The Name of the Rose, where he took on the role of a demented hunchback opposite Sean Connery's monk detective. But it would be the small screen where Perlman became part of the mainstream consciousness, playing half-man / half-lion Vincent opposite Linda Hamilton in Beauty and the Beast. A ratings hit to begin with Hamilton would quit the show after the second season, and the show ended after the third season Perlman was nominated for Emmy awards in back-to-back years and took home a Golden Globe.
In the 1990s Perlman started to become prominent in films without the aid of cosmetics. In a diverse mixture of film choices, he became a police officer battling werecats in the adaptation of Stephen King's Sleepwalkers, a sleazy private investigator in Double Exposure, Huck Finn's father in the Elijah Wood-fronted Disney version of Mark Twain's classic novel and a major right-wing pundit taking on Cameron Diaz and a clan of murderous left-wing students in The Last Supper. (There was also the fact that he played a Russian in the seventh installment of Police Academy, but we'll skip over that.) He had a few roles in high-profile films such as Alien: Resurrection, Enemy at the Gates and The Island of Dr. Moreau, a film in which he returned to heavy prosthetics for the chance to work alongside Jor-El himself, Marlon Brando. Although Perlman was an established actor across three different mediums, he remained known for a long-cancelled TV show. Whilst this would frustrate other actors, Perlman has stated in interviews that he takes obscure roles, as well as roles that physically obscure him, to avoid the celebrity status that too often comes with those in the entertainment industry.
The 1990s not only signaled Perlman's redoubled foray into movies, but his introduction to voice acting. The first role he took was actor-turned-monster Matt Hagen, the Clayface of the classic animated show Batman: The Animated Series, a role he would reprise up until Hagen's final appearance in the DC Animated Universe in an episode of Justice League. This wouldn't be Perlman's only association with said universe, as he played minor villain Jax-Ur in Superman: The Animates Series and Orion in both Justice League cartoons. Nor would this be his only involvement with Batman-related media, switching from Clayface to Killer Croc in the more recent cartoon The Batman, and portraying the central villain of Slade in the anime-influenced Teen Titans. The diverse range of Perlman's voice work led him to appear on shows such as Animaniacs, Aladdin, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Danny Phantom and the animated Mortal Kombat series. He also played the Hulk in the Iron Man and Fantastic Four cartoons. In addition to cartoons, Perlman lent his voice to a number of video games as early as 1995 with the DOS-based adventure game Chronomaster. Other credits would include both Halo sequels, and narrating every installment of the Fallout series. Whilst comic-based games would see Perlman portraying both the Abomination and Batman himself. But the story of how Perlman famously became associated with Hellboy above all other comic book characters begins with his working relationship with Guillermo del Toro.
Perlman first worked with del Toro on the film Cronos, the director's first full-length film. Agreeing to a major pay cut to maintain the film's solvency the budget of $2 million was a Mexican record back in 1993 Perlman and del Toro became friends over the making of the horror film based upon a 450 year old mechanical spider-like device that makes those in its possession crave blood. The two would reteam as del Toro directed Blade II, in which Perlman was cast as Reinhardt, one of the lead antagonists to the titular hero. Instead of directing Blade: Trinity, del Toro dropped out so that he could work on what he considered his dream project: Hellboy. During a meeting with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, both men named Perlman as their lead choice to play the character. Revolution Studios, however, wanted someone with more box office appeal, such as noted thespian Vin Diesel. But del Toro was adamant, and after sitting studio executives down and making them watch Perlman's performance as Reinhardt, the director succeeded in getting his Hellboy.
It's hard to understate just how important Ron Perlman is to the relative success of the two Hellboy films. Unlike an ensemble film such as The Dark Knight or the X-Men franchise, or a film where the main character is in danger of being overshadowed by the big bad guy (Batman), the gorgeous love interest (Ghost Rider) or the hilarious cameo roles (the appearances of JK Simmons and Bruce Campbell in the Spider-Man franchise) Hellboy is reliant on a strong, central performance from Ron Perlman, which makes the concerns of the studios somewhat justified. But Perlman delivers just that; he's fully comfortable in the guise of a demon who quips, smokes, drinks beer and lusts after the love of his life. An adolescent in a large man's frame, Perlman worked out to achieve the muscular frame shown in both films. This is particularly impressive when you consider he was 53 for the first movie and 57 for the sequel. Whilst the films have only been minor hits, the fact remains that they have been hits, which is important for comic companies that aren't Marvel or DC. A third film is something that del Toro and Perlman are both keen to work on, and whilst the former's commitment to the upcoming Hobbit films and the latter's age might be considered as setbacks, both of the released films have been different enough to remain interesting without undermining the continuity between the two films.
Happily, Perlman remains very much in demand and has already completed six films that are currently awaiting release, whilst other films in the pipeline will see him play a knight alongside Nicolas Cage in Season of the Witch, taking over Bruce Campbell's role of Elvis Presley in Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires and returning to voice acting as the title role in Conan: Red Nails. And there is always the tantalizing prospect of seeing him take on the mantle of Hellboy once again, of course. For an actor so totally at ease with playing the grotesque, the ungainly and the brutish roles of Hollywood's imagination, it is easy to forget that under all that makeup is a darned good actor. Though he isn't Hollywood's biggest star, Ron Perlman proves that talent shines through any disguise. And that man has worn more disguises than most.