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Ron Perlman talks The Big Ugly, Hellboy, and more - Exclusive interview

The Big Ugly is a new movie out now by writer/director Scott Wiper. It's about an oil deal gone bad after someone disappears. The movie boasts a solid cast, highlighted by Vinnie Jones, Ron Perlman, and Malcolm McDowell. Perlman plays Preston, a West Virginian oilman who gets a loan as part of a money laundering operation. He's old friends with British gangster Harris (McDowell), who offered the loan. Even though he's tough as nails and respected in his community, he has a problem: his son Junior, played by Brandon Sklenar. Junior is stubborn, selfish, and sociopathic — and causes problems that lead to a revenge mission.

Looper conducted an interview with Ron Perlman recently about The Big Ugly and a variety of other topics. Here is our full Q&A — in which we discussed playing a contradictory character, working with screen legends and rising stars, and what he's doing down the line.

Playing an environmentalist oil man in The Big Ugly

What attracted you to The Big Ugly?

I thought it was a really good script, but I was really fascinated by the compendium of characteristics in this fellow Preston that I was being asked to consider playing. He's an oilman, but he's a conservationist. He's a southerner. He believes in the causes of the Union or the heart of the Union. He's a badass, probably had quite a youth himself, but he's trying to steer his young son into the straight and narrow with love and compassion and toughness. He's a lot of different things that don't go together, and yet they do. And it was my job as the actor to try to thread that needle and find a humanity where all those things can coexist.

One of the things that's very striking about your character is that he's very much into oil, but he's also very much into protecting the environment. And you mentioned a whole bunch of other contradictions. How would you as an actor find a way to square those contradictions?

I just feel as though somebody who thinks as originally as that is already a man who is infused with strength and power and integrity because he doesn't march to the beat of anybody else's drum but his own. And so that's the first thing that you have imbued the character with, it's just this unbelievable single-minded strength, power, and the fact that in whatever community he finds himself, he's the big dog, he's the top dog, he's the leader, he's the guy that everybody follows behind. And so that's what made him fit so well into... Hopefully, I'll let the audience decide, but for me, the exercise was to try to figure out what kind of a man is able to be that unique and unavailable for pigeonholing as a categorization? And it has to be somebody who has amazing strength and power and self-confidence.

Your first scene in the movie sees you tear down a Confederate flag. Did you have any idea how topical that would be when you were making this movie?

No, I didn't. And in fact, a couple of weeks ago, when the furor was reaching a fever pitch, I asked the filmmakers to cut that scene together so that I could post it on all my social media sites. And it got 3 million views on my Facebook page. This is what's so great about culture. Culture usually leads the way in discussions that ultimately end up being legislated and are now our normal lives. But it's always culture that starts the head scratching. Like is this something we want to turn our attention to? Is there something unjust that needs to be addressed, blah, blah, blah? It's usually culture's job to identify it first before it becomes a discussion that ends up being like gay marriage or civil rights, voting rights, et cetera. And so here we were right on the cusp of putting our finger on something that we're watching live out in real time.

So for your role as an oilman, did you do any research into what the oil business is like or what West Virginia is like? Or did you just make it up as you went along or figured it out?

I did a small amount of research. I read some stuff on oil guys. My partner in the business is from West Texas, which is oil country. Had a lot of discussions with him about the mindset of wildcatters. Whether a guy like Preston, how we would be looked upon in terms of his personal philosophy in that world, whether it's even conceivable that you could have a guy like that in the oil world. So those are the kinds of things I wanted to answer before I dove in and gave it my own spin.

Tough guys on set

What were your best moments on set? What moments on set really stand out to you?

I love this cast. I love Vinnie Jones. He's just such a great guy and he's somebody that is such a pleasure to be around. He's got a great sense of humor. He's like Preston. He's a compendium of incredible qualities that you hope for in a friend, a family figure, a son, a father. And being in his presence, being able to work around old pals like Bruce McGill, being around Malcolm McDowell for the first time, being introduced to this young kid who plays my son, Brandon Sklenar, who I think is going to have an incredible career, a real powerhouse of an actor and a real beautiful dude to just be with. Yeah, those are my memories. For me, it's always about the collegiality of the experience, about the moments that you share whether it's the crew or the cast. That's the beautiful thing about making movies, is they do it in a group, in a large group, and everybody's rowing in the same boat

A lot of you are "tough guys" — Malcolm McDowell, Vinnie Jones and you. Was it intimidating being around everybody that tough? Are they nicer in person? Is it easier? Is there a clash of some kind?

Vinnie is, I think, the only one among us that was actually a professional athlete. So he would know better than anybody, but it was kind of like playing for leads. You're either on a soccer team or basketball team or baseball team. Everybody was constantly just completely ranking on everybody else all the time. And it was beautiful. It was obviously stuff you see in the locker rooms. There was a huge amount of wit. There was a huge amount of testosterone, but it was all done in great, good fun. And nobody got hurt, nobody's shorts got burned. It was like, "Who's going to get the last word today?" was always the big contest.

So what's Malcolm McDowell like? You worked with some pretty big-name actors and he's got to be up there. So what's working with him like?

He's a lot of fun. He's somebody who lives large and he is not afraid to tell you what he thinks, which I love. I love being around guys who shoot from the hip. Malcolm does. And he, like me, loves what he does. Loves movies. Loves to talk about old things that happened to him on Stanley Kubrick sets. And for a guy like me who can't get enough of that s***, he's a ball to be with.

Perlman thinks Brandon Sklenar is a star in the making

We also mentioned the actor who plays your son [Brandon Sklenar]. He is phenomenal in this movie. How do you get in the head space of being the father of a bad kid?

Well, Brandon was really challenging to work with because I kept thinking of myself as somebody who, by dint of what I was responsible for, always needed to be in complete control of everything and everyone around him. And in working with Brandon and playing opposite Brandon, I would come into each scene saying, "This is the law and this is how you're going to behave. And this is how it's going to go. And if not, then blah, blah, blah," whatever. But, so there was always this implied thought that I was either going to kill him or beat the s*** out of him or take him out of the will. And it never had one iota of an effect on Brandon Sklenar's playing of Junior. And it was as if, finally, this most powerful guy you ever met is dealing with an unmovable object.

And no matter what resource he employs, he's not having any effect on this kid, the one person in the world that he needs to affect because everything is now hanging off this kid's behavior and this kid's ability to upset the apple cart and throw all of these delicate moving parts out of sync and into chaos. And the way Brandon played this thing, I realized that I was... It was humbling. He made my character, he made me playing my character feel like I had no power and I had none of the things that I took for granted, charm, persuasion, leverage, nothing worked.

What do you hope audiences take away from this movie?

I just hope that they have a great time watching it and they tell their friends to go watch it because it's really important that it gets seen. As far as I'm concerned, a lot of beautiful intentions were put into it and a lot of work was put into it. And I just hope it's received in the manner in which it was made.

Relax and pay attention

You've been part of a lot of different genres, franchises, everything. Is there something you haven't done yet that you are dying to do?

This is going to sound like a complete bulls*** answer like you get so much of it in this little business of ours where journalists ask actors, as if their opinions matter about anything, but I will say this. I'm a big dreamer and I've always had big dreams. The roles that I actually ended up playing I could never have dreamed big enough to have included those things, which leads me to the answer of your question, which is I stopped looking for something that's going to top everything else, because it keeps happening. It keeps coming to me whether I look for it or not. So what I've done is I've basically decided to like in that Carlos Castaneda book... The Teachings of Don Juan... where the basic takeaway of the thing is just relax and pay attention. That's all I'm doing these days, is just relaxing and paying attention.

I don't want to reduce your career too much, but when people think of a "Ron Perlman role," they think of this kind of guy, someone who's tough, someone who's in control. Have you ever wanted to play a character who is just weak and passive and the opposite of these kinds of roles?

Yeah, I'm always looking to do things that I've never done before. That's where the fun of it is. I must say, it's scary when you play somebody who is not in control when you're so used to... It's much easier to play characters who are calling the shots because you have the final word rather than the recipient of something that you maybe don't believe in, but have to do anyway. Those are hard things to play. But, I'm looking to play everything.

I'm constantly looking for new ways to challenge myself. I found playing Judge Pernell Harris in The Hand of God was emotionally out of control for the whole three seasons. And we did it. I found that to be one of the more scary, uncomfortable, challenging things I had done because he had all the trappings of power and yet zero control because God was using him as the recipient of some sort of strange, weird Apache dance.

Hellboy, Del Toro, and what the future holds

Do you see a future in Hellboy for you?

I never give up hope. I wake up every morning and I go, "Geez, I'm somebody who has been the recipient of so many pleasant surprises that you never see coming." But I've just learned never say never. And never give up hope. In my mind, we still owe the public a third iteration of Hellboy. We still have unfinished business in the fact that we never completed the trilogy. Do I think it's going to happen? No. But do I think it could happen? Maybe.

Do you have any thoughts on the Hellboy remake that was made, then?

I have zero thoughts on that.

Probably the safe answer, yeah. And just to mention an upcoming project and speaking of Guillermo del Toro, you're going to be involved in the new Pinocchio movie?

I'm doing two of them [with Del Toro] right now. One is Pinocchio and then the other one is we're halfway through filming Nightmare Alley.

Anything you can tell us about either of those?

Well, his take on the Pinocchio saga will be something that will be completely unexpected, incredibly provocative and probably take its place in the pantheon of the Pinocchio myths, unlike anything that you've ever associated with it before. It's set in the run up to fascist Italy under Mussolini and I won't say much more about it than that, but it's incredibly provocative.

Catch Ron Perlman in The Big Ugly, now at selected theaters, drive-ins, and VOD.