While he’s become best known for portraying a red, horned antihero in Guillermo del Toro‘s popular comic book adaptations Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Ron Perlman has long been a favorite character actor among fantasy and science fiction fans thanks to his work in films like Quest for Fire, The City of Lost Children, Cronos, and Blade II. This week, the classically-trained actor (who is between seasons on his critically acclaimed FX series, Sons of Anarchy) stars in Mutant Chronicles as Brother Samuel, a monk dedicated to guarding a set of scriptures that predict the coming of an ancient enemy.
Rotten Tomatoes talked with Perlman about his favorite movies and directors, whose films he watches when he’s having a rough day, and his remembrances of working alongside one of his idols, Marlon Brando.
The two films that have to be tied for first — and this is probably a hackneyed answer, but it is the way it is — are The Godfather, Part 1 and Citizen Kane. The Godfather is a perfect film. There is not one shot out of place, there’s not one performance that’s not the best thing that actor has ever done. There is not one thing about the film, visually, that’s not mind-bogglingly beautiful and elegant and astounding. And it shines a light perfectly on its subject matter.
I think that there’s a gravitas, because of the presence of Marlon Brando, in the first film, that elevates it [as opposed to The Godfather, Part 2]. Not to say that the second and third films aren’t great films also, but when you have something as historically important as the performance that Brando gives as Vito Corleone, as the kind of central fulcrum point, then it goes into a class all by itself. He achieved that three times in his career, as far as I’m concerned. One was On the Waterfront. One was A Streetcar Named Desire. And one was The Godfather. And although he was the prevailing genius of the day, on those three occasions he just elevated phenomenally brilliant films into a place that became uncategorizable. How did he do that? It’s so ethereal, and so indescribable, that you could try to analyze it from now until the end of time and you couldn’t begin to put your finger on it. That was an otherworldly gift, that he had.
Citizen Kane (1941, 100%) is tied for first with The Godfather. It just has to be, it’s such an amazing achievement.
I don’t think I would name films as much as I would name filmmakers. You have to have a Frank Capra movie, you’d have to have a John Ford movie, and you’d have to have a Steven Spielberg movie in there. And then as a specific film, Pan’s Labyrinth would have to be in my Top Five. Because what Gabriel García Márquez was to fiction, that movie is to cinema. It’s magical realism, and it’s something that can only exist cinematically. It cannot be confused with any other medium. That makes it the perfect film. It’s also unlike anything you’ve ever seen before or will see again, it’s completely unique and not derivative, and it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Setting fascist Spain — or fascist anything, for that matter –against this fantasy world created by this perfect, pristine, beautiful, pure girl.
He identified in a way that was so joyously American; an innocence and a humanism. Just a beautiful heart, that he had, and was able to put into his work. Adding screwball comedy elements to it, but at the center of which were these important thoughts about how lucky we are to be alive. He was able to do that in ways that are cinematic and entertaining as well. And eliciting these performances — like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, 96%) and Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941, 92%), Cary Grant and everybody else involved in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, 90%)…
I’d have to have a John Ford movie; there are four or five movies of his that are tied in my book. He added a secular audience involvement in what was the beauty of cinema. In other words, he was the first guy that I think made movies live up to the potential of what they could be, and continued to do so throughout his career. He was able to be, to me, the most profoundly humanistic bridge between the potential of cinema and how it relates to the human condition. (Pictured: 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, 100%)
He has to be in the discussion. He made one masterpiece after another, and you can’t even pick which is the best. What are you going to say, that Close Encounters (1977, 95%) was better than E.T. (1982, 98%), was better than Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982, 94%)? You just can’t do it. You can’t do it with Ford, and you can’t do it with Capra either.
Next: Why Ron Perlman would love “another crack” at his one-time co-star and idol, Marlon Brando, and what films he takes on the road to cure his bad days
You once worked with Marlon Brando, on The Island of Dr. Moreau. What was that like?
Ron Perlman: I did work with him. The film I worked with him on does not fit into the category that we are grappling with at this moment in time [laughs], but it was amazing just to be in his presence.
Did you ever talk to him about how much you admired his career?
RP: He had two rules: You could talk to him about anything under the sun, except movies, and except the movie you were working with him on. Movies meaning acting; he refused to talk about acting to anyone. And if you happened to not know those rules going in, you know… that was going to be pretty much the last conversation you had with him. But he was a really cool dude, a very warm, friendly guy. He just didn’t want to talk about acting or the movie you were working on, almost like, “Hey, I don’t know how this stuff happens and I don’t even want to discuss it.” He was a magician; he was a Merlin. But he didn’t want to open it up for discussion, even with himself. It was just a magical thing.
How do you feel about talking about your own craft?
RP: I’m more eager to talk about my craft than he was, but you know, I don’t compare myself to him at all. I don’t compare anybody to him. He occupied a place that is — I don’t know if I would say unachievable — but we haven’t seen anything like him before or since.
I’d love another crack at him, but you know… he loved, loved to laugh. The only time I had a really, really good day with Brando on the set was, I happened to be pretty funny one day and I got him going. From that point on, there was a kind of new gleam in his eye. But the first three or four days I was on set with him, I was so intimidated and so nervous that I was a complete asshole. And he never got to see the more relaxed, easy-going version of me, which I really regret. Which is why I’d love to have another crack at him now, but… it is what it is, and I thank God that I even got to be in his presence, just for a moment.
What other actors or filmmakers did you idolize when you were younger?
RP: Gary Cooper. Errol Flynn. I think my number one guy, if you asked me, “Ron, we’re sentencing you to a month in your living room and you have to only watch one actor’s work,” it would be Cary Grant. I think he was the most entertaining, well-rounded, elegant gift to cinema that ever existed. Because his body of work is mind-boggling. He hit all the bases. To be able to have the same guy be the buffoon in Arsenic and Old Lace, and also the most sophisticated thing you’ve ever seen in Hitchcock movies like North by Northwest… he was fearless in his work. Fearless. There was nothing he was afraid to do or try. He had this elegance and handsomeness that’s also undescribable. You can’t put your finger on what made Cary Grant Cary Grant, you’re just thrilled that he existed.
Monty Clift, Paul Newman, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Gene Hackman. I carry around with me a couple of those CD carriers with movies wherever I go in the world, and that’s my kind of guilty pleasure — watching those guys’ work whenever I’m depressed and just got the s*** beat out of me on the set that day. I just go home and turn on one of those movies, and I’m all well again.
Watch Ron Perlman, Thomas Jane, and John Malkovich in Mutant Chronicles, which opens this Friday in select cities and is available now on Video on Demand. Get the latest reviews and trailers here and check out more Five Favorite Films in our archive, including:
Five Favorite Films with Bai Ling
Five Favorite Films with Greg Mottola
Five Favorite Films with Guillermo del Toro
Five Favorite Films with Judd Apatow