‘Sons of Anarchy’ makes Ron Perlman part of biker royalty
You won’t find the town of Charming on any real map of California and the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club — with all of its schemes, politics and skull-cracking heritage — is nothing more, of course, than a dark fiction that rumbles to life on FX for an hour every Tuesday night.
But, when you actually visit the bad-to-the-bone clubhouse that has been created on the set for “Sons of Anarchy,” it’s tempting to leave disbelief leaning on a chrome kickstand in the parking lot. The illusion of Charming’s most dangerous den is especially hard to resist when you hear the croaky baritone of Clarence “Clay” Morrow, the old lion of the gang, who is leaning over the club’s bar like a blackjack dealer waiting for the first mark of the night.
“It’s quite the place, you can feel it when you walk in,” said actor Ron Perlman, who found an invigorating and demanding new career chapter opened up with the “Sons of Anarchy” series premiere in 2008. Nodding toward a corner with the gang’s crest — a grim reaper with an M16 rifle in his bony clutch — Perlman smiled and added, “Home, sweet home.”
Things have been sweet for Perlman as he’s watched “Sons of Anarchy” chase, match and then surpass the ratings success of every FX series that preceded it over the channel’s 18-year run, including “Rescue Me,” “Nip/Tuck” and “The Shield.”
“Sons of Anarchy” began its fifth season in September with its largest single episode audience (7.5 million) and the tension has been high with the twists, turns, casualties and complications in the leather-clad tribe. Like HBO’s prestige dramas, “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones” (or “The Sopranos” before them), the characters rise and fall on the tides of their ambition but also get pulled down by the undertows of history, grudges, greed and betrayal.
The show centers on Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam), a sturdy soul in the middle of the wolf-pack world and the heir to gang history; his dad was John Teller, the gang founder who viewed the 1990s drug trade as a betrayal of the gang’s 1960s roots and was about to speak out when he was killed. His widow, Gemma Teller-Morrow (Katey Sagal), remained the queen of Charming when she married Perlman’s character, Morrow, who was the late leader’s close friend.
The end of fourth season found a seismic shake-up in the gang’s hierarchy as Morrow was toppled from power by Jax, who effectively managed his stepfather’s anxieties about some old letters that might point to a long-buried treachery.
If the physics of a twisted royal family sounds familiar it’s because with these bikers there’s something rotten in denim instead of Denmark. The show’s creator, Kurt Sutter, is hardly the first to borrow from Shakespeare, but for the actor there was a novel power to it fueling a biker epic. Like a Harley rumbling somewhere in the night, the core concept had a power that Perlman could hear from a distance even when the specific parts of the story engine weren’t yet in sight.
“My first exposure was a lunch meeting with Kurt Sutter where he was proposing the idea of me maybe playing this role,” Perlman said, “and he started talking about the superstructure of it being a modern-day mirror of the world of ‘Hamlet,’ with a dead king, a queen who has married the dead king’s best friend and a prince trying to figure out what happened to the dead king. You have your Horatio, your Claudius, your Laertes and you definitely have your Gertrude … and all of it was so seductive as a notion.”
The 62-year-old actor is no stranger to success, but the two signature roles of his career came with a caveat as far as face-time with the public: Perlman was in deep disguise for both with roles that required hours in the makeup chair.
First, he captured the heartache of the noble man-monster Vincent in the CBS prime-time series “Beauty and the Beast,” which won him a Golden Globe in 1989 for lead actor in a drama. In 2004’s “Hellboy” and its 2008 sequel, Perlman took on another yearning (albeit less brooding) outsider as the scarlet-skinned title character.
Perlman said the elaborate makeup and costume aspects of those roles were opportunities and craft challenges, not handicaps (shouldn’t every actor, he asked, aspire to lose themselves in an immersive role?).
He agreed, though, that “Sons of Anarchy” charged him up with the chance of flipping a familiar script. Instead of showing the disenfranchised man within a conflicted monster, the biker baron is a man with a monster inside and no qualms about power.
“What I found was that this was super-real, very little poetry to it, just a lot of hard-core moments and consequences,” Perlman said. “Of me personally, the material was asking a bunch of colors I had never played before. He’s the only character I have ever played who has no sense of humor about himself. And he is so sure of himself, of every move. There’s never any doubt in him, and I’ve never played anybody like that.”
Perlman added: “I didn’t understand Clay right away. He’s the character that’s most identified with me — I’m behind no makeup and this is the closest I’ve ever been to looking like me on-screen. But it’s the furthest I’ve ever been from playing someone who is like me.”
It has been alluring journey to fans too, like those who have been buying up the surprising range of “Sons of Anarchy” merchandise, which has put the logo not just on the expected T-shirts and coffee mugs but also on baby bibs, bikinis, dartboards and $400 leather jackets. The show has also captured the imagination of Harley hard-core types, the weekend warrior crowd and the tourist souls attracted by rebel fashion of biker culture.
(And, as ugly as it sounds, the show will likely get a surge of curious newcomers this week after the lurid life spiral and violent death of a former cast member with a history of drugs and rage. Police say Johnny Lewis, 28, fell from a Los Feliz rooftop Sept. 26 after killing his 81-year-old landlady. Sutter said via Twitter: “I wish I could say that I was shocked by the events … but I was not.”)
“Sons of Anarchy” and its violent allure reminds Perlman of the era of Bogart and Cagney and the Warner Bros. gangster films that at their best captured “something incredibly romantic about gangsters and the way they move through the universe.” At the core, and vital to the depiction, is the explosive nature of the characters, of course, but also the requirement that they are “people who stick to a code of behavior,” the actor said.
Perlman grew up in New York and said the sidewalk code of the old neighborhoods echo through place and time, which is why Shakespeare’s royal plotters can be superimposed over California roadhouse outlaws — and why the result appeals to the power-tie brokers who call out the name of Clay Morrow when they see the actor walking on New York nights.
“The guys are coming back from dinner, headed back to their offices on Wall Street, and they yell out,” Perlman said. “And then when I go out of town for a project I get messages from the local MC [the shorthand for motorcycle clubs] and they want to sit down and get to know me and have a powwow. That’s the review that probably means the most to us: that the MC world has embraced us. We get a lot of love of there. And trust me, that’s not an easy crowd.”
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