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A brotherhood of ‘Sons’

When the “Sons of Anarchy” motorcycle club swerves around the mangled debris of a car crash, then wheels over a dismembered chain-link fence as its members do in the Season 3 opener of the hit FX show Tuesday, it isn’t the derring-do of stuntmen. The faces of “Jax,” “Opie” and the rest of Sons’ motley cast are all clearly visible as they bully their way through the streets on mix-and-match Harley-Davidsons ridden by the actors themselves.

Not bad for a bunch of guys who barely knew how to ride two years ago.

Charlie Hunnam, who plays the pretty-faced bad boy Jax, had done only “a tiny bit of riding,” he said. Kim “Tig” Coates rode as a teen but stopped after totaling a bike in 1986. Mark “Bobby” Boone Junior also rode as a teenager, as did “the Chief” Dayton Callie — until he T-boned a ’56 Ford and his dad said, “That’s it.”

Ryan “Opie” Hurst had one hour of lessons before filming a scene riding next to an 18-wheeler. Ron “Clay” Perlman had never been on a motorcycle before shooting the show’s pilot.

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It is highly unusual for actors to perform their own stunts. But Kurt Sutter, who created “Sons of Anarchy” and executive produces, writes and directs, said, “I want everyone to look like they live on those bikes. These are cowboys, and those are their horses.”

Or to put it in show lingo, these guys are members of a notorious outlaw motorcycle club who’ve banded together to run guns and protect their way of life in the fictional California town of Charming, and they just can’t do that on four wheels.

“I love it when we get a chance to burn out or park the right way, because it shows we’re real riders,” said Coates.

It wasn’t always that way. Coates and other cast members recount a first season riddled with near misses and wipeouts as these actorly outlaws worked to master the machines upon which their craft depended. Perlman got pinned under his bike. Tommy “Chibs” Flanagan inadvertently took flight over his handlebars. Off set, Boone laid his bike down, and Hunnam’s foot peg got stuck in a car’s wheel well.

“There’s incidents all the time,” said Coates, his scraggly hair unaffected by his beanie helmet, his piercing blue eyes just as unnerving in person as they are on screen.

Like many members of the cast, Coates now has his own Harley. “Tig” is pinstriped in purple on its rear fender.

I was meeting with Coates and several other cast members as a sort of prospect — to go for a ride and experience firsthand how they’ve blurred the line between the bikers they play on TV and the motorcyclists they’ve become in real life.

Theo Rossi was first to arrive, wheeling onto the “Sons of Anarchy” set and parking his blacked-out Dyna in front of its Teller Morrow garage.

“Am I the first one here?” he asked, pulling off a helmet to reveal a mohawked skull devoid of the temporary tattoos that transform him into “Juice.”

He was quickly joined by Callie, Hunnam, Hurt, Boone and Coates — each of whom looked like versions of the characters they play on the show, only without the “Sons of Anarchy” cuts. Perlman was not there. Had he been, “I probably would’ve been at the back of the pack,” he said in a later telephone interview from Shreveport, La., where he was filming “Season of the Witch” with Nicolas Cage.

Confirming that of the entire cast he is the least comfortable on two wheels (even though he plays the club’s leader), he said, “I’m not wired for that kind of thrill.... I’m intimidated by the size of [the bike], the power of it, the exposure of it, and I really like my Mercedes with the Bose sound and the air conditioning and the fact that I can light a cigar and text message while I’m driving.”

While he’s “finding a bit of a comfort zone with riding that is giving way to a modicum of enthusiasm,” he said, he doesn’t own a bike.

Boone was the first cast member to buy in. He purchased a Road Glide shortly after being cast “so I didn’t look an idiot,” he said. He now rides every day, as does Hunnam, who says he’s put 7,500 miles on his Harley in the past year.

“It’s become my exclusive form of transportation,” said Hunnam, who is often recognized because of his long blond hair.

Fearing recognition for the cast, I suggested we go for a ride that would land us at a restaurant that bikers don’t normally go. Coates suggested La Tuna Canyon and breakfast at the Hill Street Café in Pasadena — a decision that was made with a lot of off-color bantering.

The actors are every bit as foul-mouthed in real life as they are on the show. Most of them also smoke. But decidedly unlike their on-camera personas, there were smiles and an overall joviality as they yukked it up like the pals they’ve become working 80-hour weeks together.

“This show has made us a real family,” said Rossi, who often devotes the few hours he has left over every week to spending even more time with the cast, as they did on a recent Saturday.

We fired up our hogs and headed off out of North Hollywood. Unlike the show, there was no real leader. Nor was there any sense of order. At times Callie took the lead, only to be passed by Boone or Hurst. There were no scripted formations. There was, however, the occasional act of showboating, as Hurst rode hands-free or Callie use hand signs instead of his bike’s turn signals. They are, after all, actors.

It was all a bit loosey-goosey — not at all how a club like the Hells Angels would ride, or even how the cast rides on TV: as a tight pack, in a staggered formation for the cameras.

In other words, they rode like the real riders they’ve become — traveling fast, having fun, riding free.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com


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