His face is a triptych of granite-like features. When the camera focuses on Ron Perlman, it captures, with clarity, the sum of his distinguished parts -- the lantern jaw, the deep-set eyes and the high, square forehead.
Perlman is 6 feet 2, which hardly conveys the berth he has occupied on-screen over the years, in movies like 1982's "Quest for Fire," where he played a Neanderthal, and 1995's surrealist French film "City of Lost Children," where he was a tender circus strong man.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ron Perlman: An article in Monday's Calendar section about actor Ron Perlman, star of the film "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," indicated that Guillermo del Toro directed the 1997 film "Alien: Resurrection." That film was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. —
The movies, though, have exaggerated his features, so much so that you half-expect to be be lunching with a giant. While physically imposing, the actor who walked into a West Hollywood eatery the other day was not, technically, huge. Wearing jeans and an untucked shirt, Perlman made his way to the table with a slight limp, the result of a broken toe he suffered on the Budapest, Hungary, set of "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," which opened Friday and earned $35,885,000, ranking No. 1 at the box office.
It has been Perlman's semi-obscure fate to exist, on camera, under layers of carefully applied grotesquerie. This includes the TV series "Beauty and the Beast," which gave him a kind of folk fame some 20 years ago.
"Hellboy II: The Golden Army" -- in which our hero battles a vengeful prince of darkness, a mammoth troll, flesh-eating tooth fairies and that hellacious army of the subtitle -- required three hours in the makeup chair on a good day, Perlman said, six hours on other days.
But one senses that Perlman has finally found all the artifice to be liberating. No other role has gotten to the core of his personality -- or done nearly so much for his career -- as Hellboy, the benevolent but churlish demon with a blue-collar ethos and freak-show brawn, first shepherded from the pages of Mike Mignola's graphic novels to the big screen in 2004 by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro.
It was Perlman's physical resemblance to the comic book Hellboy -- the heavy brow, angular head and imposing presence -- that made him an ideal muse for the director. And with "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," del Toro, riding the wave of his Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth," seems even freer to mine the dichotomy of his main character.
The "Hellboy" legend is a nurture-over-nature paradigm. Hellboy, after all, should have been all evil -- brought to earth by Nazi occultists to be an agent of doom, only to end up working for the good guys at a top-secret government hideout (it's in New Jersey) in the battle against paranormal malevolence.
Down in his messy room of an antechamber, the beast becomes, via the love of his adoptive, government scientist father (John Hurt), both a physically indestructible weapon and peckishly human.
Yes, Hellboy is red, massive and has a tail, but he shaves his horns to fit in. He has a fondness for house cats. He talks like a hard-boiled detective. He watches too much TV and eats a great many pancakes. And his mood is entirely dictated by how things are going with his enduring love Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), the life partner who can morph into a fireball.
As Perlman said of the character: "He's basically just a flailing mass of sentiment and emotion."
Which is why, in "Hellboy II," amid all of del Toro's signature monsters (the "troll market" sequence is dizzying with them), there is a rather remarkable scene in which Hellboy, having had a row with Liz, stands mournfully in the shower, beer in hand, as the Eels song "Beautiful Freak" scores the scene.
"I get chills up my spine thinking about my first reaction to the emotional world that Guillermo explores," Perlman said. ". . . I have trouble capturing his true genius. Because it's so unique and so much unlike what anybody else is grappling with, in any form of culture. You see Guillermo continuing to use kind of the same set pieces and grapple with what is truly monstrous, and it always has this juxtaposition of the conventional human versus the conventional creature/monster -- and what is truly monstrous."
At 58, Perlman is, to be sure, the summer's most unusual comic-book action star, amid a season in which Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, and the combo platter of Christian Bale and the late Heath Ledger are the stars of "The Dark Knight," due later this month.
He is, by contrast, a child of New York in the 1950s who at age 14 had already reached 6-foot-2 and weighed 290 pounds, he said. "A big, fat, gawky kid," he recalled, who would later flunk the physical required to get into the city university Lehman College.
That feeling of outsider-ness no doubt contributed to his fast friendship with del Toro, a comic-book aficionado who waited out some seven years of studio skepticism about the idea of Perlman as the "Hellboy" lead, taking development meetings with a clay sculpture of Perlman as the character.
It started with fan mail
The two first met in the early '90s, when del Toro, then a fledgling horror director with a costume-effects business in Mexico City, sent Perlman a flattering letter, hoping he would agree to be in his first film, the 1993 low-budget and creepy "Cronos." (The director had seen the actor while studying the makeup in "Quest for Fire" and "Beauty and the Beast.")
Del Toro's letter happened to catch Perlman at one of a series of fallow points in his career, when he was wondering if he should leave Los Angeles and move his family back to New York.
Over lunch, Perlman talked philosophically of times when he was overextended on credit cards, of painting his house to unload it. His words hinted at a thicket of struggle and self-recrimination -- a feeling, Perlman noted, that lends itself to doing "Hellboy."
If del Toro rescued him from an abyss, it has been Perlman's fate to be more appreciated by filmmakers abroad than at home. Pre-"Hellboy," his three biggest movie parts -- "Quest for Fire," "The Name of the Rose" and "City of Lost Children" -- all came from Frenchmen. In more recent years, del Toro would call with a part for him in one of his films, such as "Alien: Resurrection" or "Blade II."
"I always think Ron was created in the mold of Russian realism sculpture," said del Toro. "Meaning the proportions of his hands and his head are just massive. The fact is he's not a terribly tall guy, [but] he does carry himself like an immense guy. The camera is instantly, magnetically attracted to [him]."
Good to be talked about
Today, Perlman says, his career is exactly as he imagined it would be when he first saw the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" with Charles Laughton.
" 'Hellboy II' has to be a watershed experience for me," Perlman said. "I'm starting to see the mainstream part of Hollywood finally include me in their discussions."
To wit: The menacing crucifix tattoo decorating the actor's neck these days is fake -- a body prop for a new TV series for the FX network called "Sons of Anarchy" from Kurt Sutter, a writer-producer on the down-and-dirty cop series "The Shield," in which Perlman stars as the leader of a Hell's Angel gang trying to keep the town of Charming, Calif., well, "charming."
And then there is the possibility, no doubt, of "Hellboy III," by which time Perlman will have hit 60 -- a demonizing age in Hollywood, though Hellboy's dealt with worse.