Hand of God — a one hour drama about a judge, Pernell Harris (Ron Perlman), with shaky ethics who claims God is guiding him in his quest for vigilante justice — is Amazon Studios’ newest streaming show to hit the waves. Before season one completed production, Rotten Tomatoes was invited to a set visit to check out the studio digs, watch some shots, hear a table read, and chat with the stars.
Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy), Dana Delany (Desperate Housewives, China Beach), Julian Morris (Once Upon a Time, Pretty Little Liars), and Alona Tal (Cult, Veronica Mars) talked passionately about their new show and how Amazon has recently been breaking new ground. But we also got to talk about other cool things too, like taboo TV topics, heated spiritual conversations on set, going to dark places, televangelists, and home shopping networks!
While most shows veer away from topics like religion, Hand of God takes a more confrontational approach. Delany said of the hot-button topic, “We tend to be making fun of it or go fundamentalist. We tend to go to extremes in our country.” But that’s not the case with HoG.
The show thrills Perlman “in its portrayal of the stuff that we tell ourselves and build up for ourselves; to make us feel like we’re happy, and we’re whole, and we’re functioning, and we’re good citizens. But there’s this darkness that is always lurking underneath; every single piece of light has got a shadow behind it, and every shadow has light.”
Perlman told us the show examines everything we do in society that “kind of anesthetizes us into thinking that we have an order and conscionable life, and then there’s all the other s—. That’s the stuff we suppress with things like career, family, religion, God, etc. So there are these lines that keep getting blurred and then crossed out in this show… It’s so daring, and it’s not afraid to look at everything including God and religion in the most exposing of lights.”
When asked about discussions of spirituality that abound on the set, Morris said it can get heated. “But it’s a smart show,” he said “You need to have that debate.” Alona Tal agreed. “Dialogue is always a good thing,” she said. “Your mother always said ‘don’t bottle it up;’ all of it is important.” She feels that discussing things and trying to see the other perspectives are essential for any communication. “Not necessarily [regarding] religion on its own,” she continued. “It’s intolerance, impatience, judging — in all walks of life.”
These actors have got to go to some dark, dark places in Hand of God. How do they get there? Delany, who plays Judge Harris’ wife Crystal, finds it cathartic playing such somber roles. “That’s pretty easy for me — the darker, the better,” she laughed. “I don’t have a problem going to dark places at all. I find it enjoyable because we don’t get to do it in our life.”
Perlman and Tal agreed that it’s important to keep it light on the set while playing with heavy material. “I find that I have to be super light to keep my sanity,” said Tal. “It’s not healthy for me to be in that state all the time.” Perlman feels supported by the excellent, vivid writing, which allows him to “get there” more easily, not just once, but for up to 35 takes. To do that, though, he must accept certain conditions of human nature. “I’ve made peace with myself a long time ago as an actor that the human genome is capable of everything and anything,” he said, “and that the reasons we don’t go down certain paths is not because they don’t exist inside of us, but because we’ve been socialized… [in a] kind of Pavlovian way… But that doesn’t mean we’re not capable of horrendous and horrific things if put in the right circumstances.”
Playing a preacher comes easier to Morris from his time as a youth watching television preachers… and home shopping channels. He was drawn to the preachers’ charisma and confidence, and the comparison to the shopping networks is evident. “Listen, you’re selling something,” he said. “The shopping channels have a lot to thank televangelism because if you go back to early TV, you had blocks of time when there was just dead air. At first that was filled around the country with televangelists. And then after that, the shopping networks saw, ‘Ok, well, they’re selling, you know, Heaven — let’s sell recorders! Or binders, or jewelry, or coats!’”
The televangelists that have intrigued Morris from the get-go include Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and T.D. Jakes. “These people are the most magnificent performers,” he said, “outside of what they’re preaching. And none of it is really motivational or really fantastic, but their powers of performance are incredible. Could you imagine T.D. Jakes playing any role in Shakespeare? You give him Richard III — he would be phenomenal. And they’re electrifying in spite of what they’re saying.” He feels that marrying the televangelical sales technique with salvation as a product may bring a great deal of power. “So when you have that much power, you can do a lot of good. You can also do a lot of bad. And that, to me, is why Paul is such a fascinating character because he does have the chops to be one of these great televangelists. He has that charisma. But he’s also kind of bent.”
Perlman is a consummate pro, always coming to set having completely done his homework, which includes making decisions about the scene’s arcs and the writer’s intentions. “It’s kind of like you’re a musician and you’re just deciding what’s legato, what’s staccato, what’s fortissimo, so there’s a lot of that.”
And he doesn’t believe in staying in character when the cameras aren’t on. “I really, truly believe that the only time you should be playing the role is between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’” he told us. Once properly prepared, Perlman can focus fully on the reality of the scene at hand and the presence of the character. If someone is too preoccupied , that actor can get ahead of — or behind — himself, which doesn’t serve the material. “I know a lot of guys who get wrapped up in things and stay in character,” he said. “I just think that’s complete bulls—… When you’re doing it, you’re doing it; and when you’re not, you should not be doing it.”
Hand of God is a spiritual journey of divine intervention. Perlman’s character is convinced that God is leading him to avenge injustice. Whether or not it’s true in the reality of the show is yet to be seen, but we were able to hear from the cast about what they would accomplish with a little bit of divine assistance.
Perlman would choose to tackle hatred. “Hate is basically just an offshoot of fear,” he said. “Everywhere you turn, there are these hate-based actions taking place all over the globe. Tribal. ‘We’re going to destroy you so we can feel safe.’” He believes people need to “understand that they’re part of a community, know that nobody is better or worse than anybody else in their core, and live and let live. I just don’t get that. I don’t get why if you believe something, somebody else has the right to destroy you for it.”
Delany immediately thought of natural earthly disasters. “Things like earthquakes in Nepal,” she offered. “More of the environmental thing, because [resolving] that would take care of people for years and centuries to come.”
Tal, born and raised in Israel, would make everything peaceful on that side of the world. It’s one thing to wish for peace anywhere, but since she has first-hand life experience in such a tumultuous environment, she wishes she could just say, “I command thee, peace! Boom!” or offer guidance on how to create that peace.
This cast of characters would make for an awesome team of superheroes!
Hand of God premieres Friday, Sept. 4 on Amazon.