The cigar-chomping, one-of-a-kind visage of Ron Perlman has enthralled audiences since his film debut in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire in 1981. Perlman would go on to win a Golden Globe for his performance opposite Linda Hamilton in Beauty and the Beast in the late ’80s, where George R.R. Martin was one of the writers. He is most recognized today, perhaps, for his role in the comic book adaptation of Hellboy and for his terrifying performance as Clay Morrow on Sons of Anarchy.
Now, Perlman is out with a no-holds-barred memoir Easy Street, detailing his childhood years, as well as his struggles in the film industry over the decades. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he opens up on topics ranging from his attempted suicide to his “fat kid” adolescence, and why he came to dislike his Sons of Anarchy character.
Why did you want to write your memoir now? Your career isn’t over.
I feel like I don’t have much time left. No, I’m kidding. I don’t think that, but I do know that I’ve reached the point where there is a concern on my part as to legacy issues. Not a concern, that’s the wrong phrase, but legacy is something that has crept into the conversation. Part of the mortality moment one reaches when one realizes you are on the wrong side of the hill, is that if you’re lucky and you care enough to examine issues about what did it all fucking mean and that shit, you start to say, OK, what are the things that are essential that I learned that I want to chronicle? The notion of sitting down and putting everything in perspective really appealed to me.
You sort of fell into acting right?
Clearly the acting thing was not on the menu. There was nothing to indicate this is where I was going to end up. Although looking back on it, there were so many performance-oriented points of view in my family, especially on my father’s side of my family where his brother was a fiddler, his sister was a singer, and he was a jazz musician in his own right. When they all got together, it was just everybody getting up and performing. When I did finally find acting, it fit like the perfect pair of gloves.
I was basically, as I tell in the book, on the swimming team, loved being on the swimming team, not the best swimmer in the world, but loved fitting in somewhere. The whistle blows at practice one day, and there’s the swimming coach with a very elegant fellow from the drama department. He’s going around the high school because they’re having auditions for the school play, and 35 girls showed up but no boys. So he’s going hat in hand to find some male personage for a heavily male-oriented play that he was casting. Because I was one of the few boys they were able to round up, of course I got one of the leads, and my response was immediate, dramatic, and positive. I felt like I knew what I was doing in this area. That was not a feeling that permeated most of the rest of my childhood experience. It was a little bit like an awakening, and I just stuck with it.
One of the topics you write about quite a bit is the body image problem you had when you were growing up.
I was far and away the heaviest kid all through elementary school, junior high, and high school. The heaviest kid in whatever class I was in. That was my identity, I was the fat guy. In my childhood, if I was going to succeed in anything, it wasn’t going to be because of my Adonis-like qualities, and in fact it was very much the opposite. I was constantly fighting this feeling that on a physical level I was at the bottom of the list. It was negative, and very personal, and most of it was probably my own perception of things. I knew guys who had way more serious physical issues than I did, but they had a great sense of self, whereas I didn’t. So for me, it was a big deal.
You write about your own attempted suicide. What was it like to dive back into that time of your life?
It was very cathartic. The story I tell about my own experience [of trying to commit suicide] has never been told before. Even my wife didn’t know about it until she read the galleys for the book. My mom hasn’t read the book yet, so I hope it doesn’t kill her when she reads it. It’s going to be a shock. That was the first time I shared that with anybody.
My contract with myself once the book got green lit is, I’m just going to write everything out, and then depend on a small circle of friends to make sure I don’t destroy myself, on what to leave in and what to take out. The bout I had with clinical depression was a singular incident—I don’t consider myself someone who has spent a lifetime battling this—it had a beginning, a middle, and end, and because I’ve remained vigilant about it not revisiting me, it never has.
I put it in there and I started getting calls from my dear friends, who said, “Jesus Christ, man, I’ve never told anybody this, but …” Everybody started telling me their own nightmare story that they’ve kept to themselves, and saying that if you went through it, and you’re willing to talk about it, it’s essential it stays in the book. It wasn’t my intention, but I realized I was going to help some people knowing that it’s not just them, they’re not alone. It can happen to anybody. It can happen to the guy playing a badass on Sons of Anarchy.
There’s a lot revealed that’s never been revealed. Have I gone too far, or revealed too much? That’s for the world to decide. There was something profoundly purging about finally grappling with it by putting it into words.
One of the more positive parts of your personal life is your marriage to Opal Stone Perlman, which has lasted over three decades. Do you have any advice for the rest of Hollywood?
Most of it’s those five magical words, “You are so right, dear.” Took me a while to learn to say those, but once I did, it saved a lot of what could have been very destructive impulses. Those are the most important words in a marriage.
What was particularly enlightening for me in the book was the up-and-down of your career, when what seems like a breakthrough turns into waiting for the phone to ring. Is it as soul-crushing as it seemed?
That’s the hardest thing for any artist to deal with—the lack of guarantee of anything. The lack of what you like to believe is a meritocracy. Forget that, that’s bullshit. Somebody told you that in a movie, man. The hardest part of maintaining a career in the arts—and the only one I have a firsthand knowledge of is the acting game—is not when you’re working, because that’s the easy part. It’s a lark compared to sitting around and waiting for the next moment where you’re going to be animated and challenged. The hard part is managing your way through the uncertainty of it all. You’re going to be tested; your resolve is going to be constantly tested. There are going to be moments where you’re like, “Jesus Christ, the writing’s on the wall, I gotta hang this up.” That’s why a lot of people fall by the wayside, not necessarily because of talent, it’s where the breaks fall. It’s random. I know a lot of people who have had to walk away from the business who had immense talent because things didn’t break their way. It’s sobering.
When you’re writing about Sons of Anarchy you talk about playing Clay Morrow taking a toll on you. Why do some actors seem to be really affected by the roles they play, and some don’t?
For the most part, roles don’t have a particularly profound effect on my average day. They’re just basically things that you put on and take off. I think the difference to the Sons of Anarchy character is that when you take on a role it’s the result of a network of decisions you’ve made about whether you want to spend time with this character, whether you want to explore this character, whether you want to go inside yourself and find if that person exists in you. What happened with Clay Morrow on Sons of Anarchy was that he started out with a set of variables, and those variables dramatically changed halfway through to the point where he was on some sort of collision course with this monstrousness that existed inside him. The monstrousness that existed inside him when I said yes to the role was minor, but by the time I finished playing him in the end, it was all he was. I just tried to infuse it with nobility, because he was after all a king. What I was being given to play was decidedly negative and ugly, and made for very uncomfortable moments. For the first time in my life I was playing a character I don’t like, I don’t admire. I’ve played serial killers, but there was something about their wiring, their psychology that I found important to explore, to unearth. There’s an admiration, there’s a conscious enthusiasm to play those characters. It just changed into something quite dark and unattractive with Clay, and was a unique moment in my artistic career. It was very difficult because at the end of the day I’m very particular about who or what I portray, even though it seems random, I have to admire the character I’m playing.
What do you hope people who read this book will walk away from it thinking?
My goal is not for readers to have an impression of me, but more to have an impression of how essential it is for them to find out what they were put here to do. If people could walk away a little bit more energized than they were when they started the book, and realized the amount of things that have been sacrificed to technology, to corporatization, to the desensitization that comes with people keeping their fucking heads buried in an iPhone or iAnything for that matter.
The value my life has served, is that I straddled the fence between the mom-and-pop period in America, which saw the building of this phenomenal middle class and articulating American exceptionalism, and where it is now. The big fish is swallowing up the little fish, so there’s no little fish anymore. It’ s all just fucking who’s got the most money. That’s the only thing it comes down to. Everything is bought and paid for. Congress is bought and paid for, because we’re living in an age where the only thing that matters is money. That offends me. It affects every walk of life. It creates a cynicism in us that is not the most noble of things to dwell upon. What it’s done to the movie business, which is what I’m obsessed with, is every bit as damaging as what it’s done to the middle class. There is no middle anymore, there are just $200 million tentpole movies. That’s it. Or, you’re making a movie in your garage for $400,000.
So as I was writing the book, since it wasn’t going to be one of those actor’s memoirs about how many women I’ve fucked, because it can’t be about that, what can it be about? What is going to make this thing worth spending your time with? It was never about glorifying or trying to change anybody’s mind about me. It was basically saying, this is a precious thing we have, this life, so goddamnit, stand for something. Don’t tolerate the shit that you just can’t tolerate. Just don’t.