Perlman

Universal Pictures/Warner Bros.

Ron Perlman has over 200 acting credits on his IMDb page, mapping a prolific, productive career that spans three decades. A classically trained actor, he’s lent his talents to stage and screen and his larger than life presence to television and film, and he’s even done voice work for video games and cartoons. From his turn as Vincent the lion-man in the short-lived cult hit television series Beauty and the Beast in the late 80s, to his work as Hellboy, arguably his most recognizable and iconic role, Perlman has garnered a loving fan-base and has cultivated a career out of playing unconventional characters — tortured creatures with intensely human qualities no matter what their exteriors convey to the contrary. Perlman is an anomaly of an actor — willing to play the most strange, obscure parts at times, and talented enough to play them well and make them both fascinating and relatable to us.

His friendship with Guillermo del Toro, which started when they worked together on Cronos (1993), is arguably what led Perlman to his eventual, more mainstream fame, specifically the aforementioned Hellboy (2004). Literally no one else could have played this part, or at least, they could not have played it as effectively and the whole project would have suffered. It may seem easy to try and reduce a celebration of Perlman’s career to an examination of this character alone, but I’m not doing so because it is easy, rather because it is particularly noteworthy and can be seen be used as a kind of case study for Perlman’s incredible talent. Hellboy is one of my all-time favorite comic-book characters, one that may have seemed nearly impossible to bring to the big screen.

The Hellboy comic book series from Dark Horse Comics is all about tone. From the dreary colors and jagged, rough quality of the illustrations, the movie version had a lot to live up to for me; it had to be dark and gritty and creepy but also witty and comical and whimsical. No one could have captured any of this like del Toro did. The master of monsters, del Toro created the world of Hellboy on screen to be just as strange and funny and scary as the comics often are, and yet accessible to new audiences.

These superheroes are really just misunderstood misfits, and their mythology is complex, incorporating everything from black magic to steampunk science, and from Nazis to Rasputin. As much credit as I give to del Toro for the films’ tone and quality being spot on, they’d be nothing without Perlman in the title role. His performance as the gruff but lovable anti-hero is perfect — beneath the makeup that gives him his hard, devil-red appearance, is something more sensitive and human, and I think a lot of other actors would have been unsuccessful in letting those qualities shine through like Perlman does in the role. He is angrier than the Hulk and broods quite a bit more with a dry sense of humor as an extra kind of defense mechanism, and yet in his eyes alone, somehow, you see that that’s not the whole story. Whereas the Hulk gets to turn back to Bruce Banner when he’s not angry, Hellboy always looks the way he is, and to an extent, that is what motivates his anger and his pain and his sadness, and it is what hides his humanity on a strictly aesthetic level. Perlman portrays the character in all of his complicated glory, though; one scene involving saving some kittens while battling and back-talking a gruesome creature in a subway station in the first film pretty much sums up the duality and irony of his identity. And this is just one of many achievements in his own complicated career.

(Besides celebrating Ron Perlman’s 65th birthday and his awesome career with this article, I’d like to point out that this week is pretty special in Hellboy geekdom for one other reason — tomorrow is April 14th, Abe Sapien’s “birthday” (in a way) — discovered with a tag containing the date which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Abe is a crucial character in the Hellboy canon, and deserves a little shout-out while we’re on the subject.)

Now that that’s been said, there’s one other thing about the Hellboy canon and Ron Perlman’s relation to it that I feel is important to talk about: Perlman would make an amazing creature in any Frankenstein adaptation. The reason I mention this here is, the Frankenstein monster currently has his own comic book series from Mike Mignola (the creator of Hellboy) called Frankenstein Underground. But, unfortunately, Perlman probably wouldn’t be able to play this iteration of the famous monster, because in Hellboy’s chronology, the two outcasts’ paths do intersect. That said, if rumors of del Toro doing a Frankenstein adaptation do come to fruition, and if it isn’t an adaptation of this specific incarnation of the tale, then I’d like to hope that Perlman would be highly considered to play the iconic role. I think if his previous work is any indication, he’d do the part justice and then some, and the actor-director chemistry he has with del Toro is always an especially entertaining treat.

For instance, del Toro did right by casting his good friend in the role of Hannibal Chau in Pacific Rim (2013). Ultimately, what makes Perlman so great in these roles (especially that of Hannibal) is that he is clearly having so much fun, and that experience is one that translates to us as viewers; he is always hamming up these kinds of smaller roles, stealing scenes (even entire films) with his dynamism. His performances as these unique and over-the-top characters seem to blossom from something inherently unique in him; maybe it his stature or unconventional features or his many years working unencumbered by mainstream fame, but Perlman seems to understand the characters he plays on a deeply human level no matter how inhuman (or in the case of Hannibal, inhumane) they may look or seem. And then he revels in playing them– he embodies them fully and seems to genuinely enjoy doing so, and the result is that much more enjoyable for audiences watching. I haven’t seen any of Sons of Anarchy, but I have no doubt that he is particularly amazing in this overall acclaimed series, and I’m happy for him that he’s found so many creative outlets through which he can let his diverse skills as an actor be known, no matter the medium, or how much (or how little) makeup is involved.