Ron Perlman talks about selling black market monster parts on the set of 'Pacific Rim'
Del Toro's favorite actor discusses his role in the summer's weirdest blockbuster
Most of Ron's scenes in the film are with Charlie Day, and he was asked about how they collaborated on the moments they share. "It’s like a collision in a way because, you know, he’s this very kind of small kind of nerdy guy, and I’m this like big kind of like carnival barker who’s completely, you know, living in a world that has nothing to do with reality. Whereas, he’s into the minutiae and he’s into the details and he’s into, you know, these scientific imperatives and everything. Then there’s the fact that he’s about five foot four and I’m about six foot four, and, you know, when they put the shoes on and everything like that, it’s almost like we need to take the show on the road. I look at him and me on screen together before we actually even open our mouths, and it’s a sight gag. Then that plays out in the dynamic of the thing. Once he reveals why he comes to me, saying he’s gonna eradicate this creature from the face of the Earth, you know…"
Someone interjected, "He’s taking away your livelihood there."
Ron agreed with a growl. "He’s threatening my livelihood. Fortunately Hannibal looks at him and says, 'You don’t have what it takes, kid, so you’re not a threat to me at all. But I’m gonna belt you and I’m gonna give you what you need. You know, you go off into your little scientific world, I’ll see you down the road.' But there’s a tension between them because Charlie’s intention is to take away my livelihood." He went on to talk about how much he enjoyed working with Day as an acting partner in the film. "It’s terrific because he does come from a world of comedy. And comedians, I find, work from the gut, rather than from the head. They know what works. They know what’s funny. Comedy is very result-oriented, very disciplined. There’s not a whole lot of analysis. There is a lot of let’s try this, let’s see, I’ve got a feeling about how this moment should play. It’s terrific because I’m kind of working the same way as Hannibal, so we’re both out there, and sometimes the arrival of a scene goes through a lot of different gyrations, you know, ninety percent of which we have to throw out because they just are wrong. But we’re constantly trying stuff like a comic might do when he’s trying out material to see what elicits a response. It’s been really, really fun, every moment that I have in the movie with Charlie."
I think one of the great things about being a filmmaker is that you become the very first audience for each of these moments, and we asked Perlman how Guillermo is as an audience. "You know, the first few moments when we were staking out the joint, he was not a good audience. And then he started to become amused once we started listening to him. At that point, he turned into the best audience. Because, you know, there’s nothing like listening to him in video village getting a joke he just thought of. It’s pretty immediate." Ron went on to say, "He’s a fun, fun, fun guy to work for. Because if it’s not working, he manages to tell you very directly without really hurting your feelings. And if it is working he loves, loves, loves the shit out of you and shows you so much approval. It’s really fun, and it’s very lighthearted. His sets have always been very lighthearted, from 'Cronos' all the way to the present, no matter how small or big they are."
He continued, discussing how Guillermo has developed over the years. "I’ve watched him evolve as an actor’s director and I say this having done over a hundred films with a lot of different filmmakers, but 98 percent of the filmmakers that I work with don’t say anything to an actor about performance. They just hope that you know what to do. Another one percent say things that are bad. You have to actually forget what they just fucking said. Then there’s a very tiny percentage of directors that actually have trained themselves to think like an actor does, which means in a very kind of behavioral sort of idiosyncratic way where you do a little bit of a strange gesture but it’s sort of represents a bigger psychology which gives you a stronger point of view about, you know, how a moment’s supposed to be played. And, you know, moments can be played in a million different ways. As long as they’re true, they all work. As long as there’s truth. But the whole exercise here is finding something that suits both the filmmaker, because he is concerned about the whole piece, and the actor who’s doing piecemeal work and concerned about one character at a time. The joy of it is arriving at something that works for both the actor and the director. With Guillermo, he wasn’t much of an actor’s director when I first worked with him, but I’ve watched him become more and more specific and give me directions that have completely changed the trajectory and made it so much better and more interesting than what I was originally thinking. That’s like water in the Sahara. That’s really hard to come by."
Ron said it's not about him having a special shorthand with Guillermo. "I’ve seen him do it with other actors as well. It really started on the 'Hellboy' movies. He was giving me things to do that I hadn’t thought of, and the minute I heard them I went, 'Oh my God, that’s fantastic.' And then suddenly my whole point of view changed, and then I started watching him do it with the other actors in the scenes. And I said, 'He’s really thinking this way now.' And, you know, it’s not just for any one particular character. It’s for everybody. And trust me when I tell you, it’s very rare and very helpful in his case, because he really is good when it comes to behavior that’s entertaining and interesting to watch, you know, rather than saying, 'Oh, I needed for this to go louder, faster and funnier.' Which is, a lot of times, all the direction you’re gonna get."
Asked to elaborate on the process of building a character when working with Guillermo, Perlman said, "He started sending me little emails, giving me little clues months and months ago. 'Watch this movie. Watch this moment. Watch this.' He was sort of training me to be this carnival barker, this larger than life, completely full of shit, everything I say is a lie and a bill of goods. I’m just selling the world a bill of goods. That’s kind of the mindset I showed up with, and then I asked if he would sketch what Hannibal physically looks like, and he sketched something very similar to what you’re seeing now. He kind of looked like a croupier out of Bat Masterson, you know, in a horrifically low budget parallel universe to Las Vegas in 1865."
Ron took out the shoes that he wears in the role, and when you see the final film, you'll see quite a bit of those shoes. "These are just the ones I work in, but the real ones are actually made of 14 karat gold. Hannibal has these gold shoes and he has these gold teeth. They don’t serve any purpose other than decorative. He’s adorned himself in a way that’s completely full of shit as well, but that shows his net worth."
Ron described some of the things that Guillermo told him to watch to prepare for the film. "He and I are both big fans of Burt Lancaster, and he knows that I worship at the feet of Burt Lancaster. I actually turned Guillermo on to 'Elmer Gantry.' He hadn’t seen 'Elmer Gantry' when we first met. He turned me on to a lot of movies. From that point on he got, you know, my perspective. The reason why I love Burt so much is because he just is one of these guys that put it all out there, and he was like a guy’s guy, you know, a kind of guy you really wanted to go have a beer with. So he said this is the movie where we start channeling Burt. I was telling you about when we were failing… you know, when we couldn’t quite get the character. I just basically was doing Hannibal as if I was Burt Lancaster. And he said, 'Okay, now we got that. Now let’s throw that away and make him your own.' That’s why it was a kind of a cool evolution because it wasn’t immediate. It didn’t happen right off the bat automatically. In some movies you show up to and they start printing immediately. This took a while to find something."
Not every film allows you the time and the freedom to find the character as you're shooting, and Perlman knows that it's a gift when it happens. "You’re on the set, and in a movie this size, there are about 150 human beings around, and still he’s created an environment where you don’t mind failing. You don’t mind looking silly or stupid because it’s okay. We’re here, this is our laboratory, and we’re here to find something interesting together. So, yeah, you know, that’s not a given. That’s an extra added little gift working with this guy."
As always, a conversation with Ron Perlman seems to go by too quickly. You'll see the results of all his work with Del Toro very soon, and I think it's safe to say that Hannibal Chau is another great example of the alchemy that exists between these two artists.
"Pacific Rim" opens everywhere July 12.