Q&A: Sons of Anarchy’s Harold Perrineau talks How He Went After His Role, His Musical Theater Background and Treating Himself Like a Brand
Harold Perrineau has starred in two of my favorite shows, OZ and Lost and now, he’s jumped into the cast of another of my favorites, FX’s Sons of Anarchy.
In the new season of SOA, he plays this years big bad, Damon Pope. Pope is out for revenge because of the death of his daughter at the end last season and now, he’s declared war on the SOA gang. If you watched the first 3 episodes of the season, you’ll know that he’s already accomplished part of plan.
Harold is such a fun guy to talk with and in this Q & A, he doesn’t disappoint. He chats about how he went after the role of Pope (thanks to some prodding from his wife), working with the cast, his musical theater background and how he treats himself like a brand.
Sons of Anarchy airs on Tuesdays at 10pm on FX You play a really nasty character in this show. Can you talk about kind of how you prepared for it and how you just go into that mindset?
Harold Perrineau: I had talked to Kurt Sutter a bit about the character. We talked at length a bit about his ideas about “Damon Pope,” some of the people that “Damon Pope” reminded him of; one of them being Frank Lucas who was the movie American Gangster that Denzel Washington did, was based on his life. And then, I started doing a bunch of research on my own about a different guys who took their sort of street life and then turned them into more legit businesses and that’s kind of how I sort of setup “Damon Pope” and how he might think or the way he may act in retaliation to things that are very emotional for him like that. So, basically, I just sort of pulled on these different sorts of businessmen and gangsters who I thought had similar kinds of backgrounds.
How did you become involved in this show originally?
Harold Perrineau: I knew they were looking for “Damon Pope” for a while. Kurt Sutter was tweeting about it and I followed him on Twitter. My wife is always reading it and one day she said, “You know, they still haven’t found ‘Damon Pope.’ Maybe you should try to send Kurt an e-mail.” And so, I did and sent him an e-mail just to see if I could get a meeting with him and he took the meeting and we sat and talked about it. By the time I got home, he bravely said, “Let’s do it.” And so, there I am.
When you doing a show like this, what do you look for mostly? Do you look for the character you’re going to play in the overall show?
Harold Perrineau: Certainly, I look at the character that I’m going to play. I’m largely aware of the characters I’m going to play, but often, I look for the content of what’s going on.
Oz is one of those things—when I did Oz back in the day, we didn’t know where it was going to go, but I was really interested in this idea of whether prisons were for retribution or actual redemption and I knew that that was part of the conversation that we were going to be having with Oz as well as being entertaining; the same with lots of other things that I pick. I kind of try to pick things that I would be proud to be part of, that I’m really happy to say, “Yes, I was part of that conversation,” even if it’s a hard conversation about some of the entertainment things or whatever.
I like to do things that are fun, entertaining and also kind of help you think. I’m not so interested in a lot of like mindless things that sort of take you away from your life or take you out of your experiences, but things that are just plain stupid, I guess.
What was it about “Pope” that you liked?
Harold Perrineau: I like the show Sons of Anarchy. I like Kurt Sutter. I like the idea of this guy who’s not just rolling in as some gangster to be tough, but he’s a guy who just lost his child. One of the things that I felt like might be really challenging and kind of fun is to see if the audience members just go like, “Oh, he’s just a terrible guy” or if someone can go, “Hey, if somebody had killed my daughter for a frivolous reason that ‘Tig’ killed his daughter, what would I do” and actually have some empathy for “Pope.” I’m really curious about whether that will ever play out, or if it’s just going to be like, “He’s just a bad dude.” So, for me I thought that was an interesting thing to try to spot and then try to bring to the character.
How does it feel coming in…and playing like the main bady in this season?
Harold Perrineau: It was a little daunting I have to say because they are a bunch of dudes who play bad asses. They’re great actors and they do really, really well. And so, I felt in the very beginning it was going to be sort of interesting trying to ingratiate myself into this group of guys while also keeping a bit of distance because I knew that my character is just going to be an adversary and I didn’t want any of my own personal feelings about liking them or any of that stuff to come across with “Damon Pope” because I think “Damon Pope” is very focused and serious about what he needs done and wants to do.
So, it was a little tricky, but they’re a great cast of people and great actors. And so, they made it really, really easy.
You mentioned earlier that you had approached Kurt about the role of “Damon Pope.” Had he already kind of started scripting for “Pope” or were you used as another point to kind of fashion the character around you specifically?
Harold Perrineau: No. He had already started scripting “Pope” and he had an idea about “Pope” at the end of Season 4. He had been down the line of meeting people and stuff like that for the character and I guess those things didn’t work out. When they didn’t work out and I knew I had some free time, I kind of thought whatever that idea was was a long shot—what his idea for “Pope” was is probably a long shot for me because I don’t normally cast like that, but I had confidence that I could probably pull something off. So, it wasn’t fashioned after me at all.
I think as it’s going on there is a working together as I’m doing it, as he’s writing it, that somehow they start forming like the same person. It all starts gelling together. But yes, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have me in mind when he originally wrote “Damon Pope.”
What’s Sons of Anarchy like when you get into the mix? Is it a different kind of working experience for you?
Harold Perrineau: Well, without giving too much away, it is different in that with Lost and with Oz, there was such a huge cast of people and there was always tons of people and personalities around all the time and so, you’re negotiating that when you’re working and playing the role and stuff like that. The sort of luxury I’ve had with Sons of Anarchy is while there are lots of people on the show itself, “Damon Pope” is very specific and he’s very focused. And so, I’m really not around everybody as much. And so, for me, it doesn’t feel like there’s that much to negotiate. I feel like I can really focus in on what this one character has to do and who he has to do it to or with or whatever. So, in that sense, I don’t feel how big and broad like the rest of the cast is like I did in the other two shows.
The other shows you had a chance to watch it to build the ground swell and rise to popularity. This show you’re riding in on the peak for now, the peak of its success. Did you have an idea from your previous experience what to expect with the fan base that this has and with how available Sutter is to his audience and the sheer passion that people have for this show? Did you feel a different kind of energy once you became a part of the mythos?
Harold Perrineau: Yes. This all feels like new because I just sort of walked into this house that was already built. And so, yes, you’re right. Earlier on, you kind of get to feel it like growing and growing and growing and it’s really fun and exciting and watching it grow is pretty cool. But this, I was really shocked by like how passionate all the people are about the show, how, like you said, available Kurt is to his audience.
So, I feel like a little like I’m playing catch-up, like I don’t know what people expect or what they do and they’re already in there and they’re settled in. They really love the show and they know everything about the show and I really am trying to like catch up as much as I can and do all of my homework and see the shows and know what the people are talking about because they really do seem to love the show and are passionate about it.
I am feeling the love. I’ve got to say that. They’re really loyal even if they don’t like “Damon Pope.”
Do you have a preference of which types of scenes you’d rather do? Do you like doing the violence to challenge your pent up energy, or do you prefer the softer side?
Harold Perrineau: That’s an interesting question because it really feels like we’re not getting too like esoteric. It feels like a real ying-yang for me. I like them both. I need them both for very different things, like I like to do the softer things because I do like to consider things not so violently or romantically or really loving, but I grew up in the United States, in Brooklyn. So, there’s a certain amount of rage and pent up anger that is just kind of always there. So, to get to express that in a really healthy way and sometimes a cool way is really good for me as well. So, I really like them both because they both serve real big needs in my life.
What would you say makes a career in this industry rewarding for you so far?
Harold Perrineau: The thing that’s making the career the most rewarding and is also kind of the most frustrating is that I’ve gotten to play a lot of different things. I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things and that’s really what I wanted to do. I really love being an actor and for me, an actor really gets to step into many, many different lives and experience them and try to bring them to life and tell the story that the writer is telling. I’ve been able to do things that you wouldn’t expect me to do or things that I think I should be able to do, but no one else does. And so, you can bring life to that kind of thing, but it’s also the thing that’s the most frustrating because people will see a thing and sort of because the way the business is and the branding is, it’s hard to just pin down, like, “Oh, he can do that one thing.” So, I feel like I’m constantly, constantly having to prove like, “Oh, yes, I can do that too,” not like in a bragging way, but it’s like this is what my job is as an actor. If I can’t do it right now, I certainly can figure it out because that’s what my job is.
So, it is both the thing that I’m most proud of and the thing that causes me the most sort of stress because I’m always having to prove, like really, really keep proving that I can pull this off as well. Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I can’t do it, but I really like trying. So, that’s the answer.
Earlier, you talked about your first shooting day and shooting your first scene. You’re in a new environment, around new people. How do you prepare for that and prepare for that one particular scene you were talking about? I mean your nerves got to be like amped up. Are you just so prepared for that that you don’t let your nerves get in the way?
Harold Perrineau: Well, no. They actually do get in the way and that’s fortunately the great thing about film. You get to keep trying it until the nerves go away. I had Paris Barclay on set who was—as we were both learning about “Damon Pope” and what worked and what didn’t work, I had Paris Barclay there to help me really like hone in and find very, very specific things to do. We used to experiment with a few different ways of approaching it. That really helps your nerves when you have a really great director and then you guys can actually collaborate or really think things through together. So, that helps a lot.
You said your wife kind of pushed you to talk to Kurt about this. Are you going to give her 10%?
Harold Perrineau: I give her so much more than 10%. I kind of wish she was my manager or agent because it would be a lot less expensive.
When you did receive the pilot script for Oz, did you at that time, did you foresee it being such a ground breaking series? It was one of the first series for HBO. How did you feel about that?
Harold Perrineau: I called my mother. I said, “Hey, ma, I’m about to do this thing that’s a little crazy. I just want you to know that I love you. I don’t want to disrespect our family or anything.” So, when we first read the pilot script, I thought, “Whoa.” One, I couldn’t believe that we were going to do it on television and two, some of it was just so wild. There are things that didn’t even make the screen that were just so like outrageous that I was a little nervous. I really had that feeling of like, what does this do for me. Does it like help elevate my career or do I wind up going down as like, “Oh, he was part of that group of crazy people that tried to do that thing on HBO.” And so, luckily, HBO kept doing wilder stuff.
How you did you feel about the cancellation of The Unusuals?
Harold Perrineau: Oh, man, one of the biggest bummers ever; one of the biggest bummers ever. Noah Hawley is such a great writer and showrunner and we were having such a great time. We thought for sure the show would keep going. Renner was a friend of mine from before and me and Adam Goldberg just had a great time working together. So, when the show didn’t get picked up I was pretty bummed for a long time and I’ve been out there working and doing stuff for a while, so I try not to get too attached, but I was pretty attached to that. I was having a really great time playing “Leo Banks.” I thought we were going to get explored that some more, but I’m bummed.
I’m happy for Jeremy. He kept going and doing lots of amazing things and Adam and I … but I was bummed about it. That’s the answer.
There are two things that you mentioned that are astounding and they’re parts of the business we’re facing now that we’ve never had to face before. You talked about being a brand and you talked about using social media. I don’t think De Niro had to deal with that when he was coming up. So, I kind of want to get your vibe as to how do you manage that where the artifice of being an actor is compromised all the time because of how available you are and because you’re right, you’re building a brand and people look at you that way. So, packaging is the entertainment industry. How do you kind of live in those worlds that kind of make the art a little bit more subdued than the business?
Harold Perrineau: Hopefully I won’t have a long answer for this, but the answer is … because it’s all happening like so fast. Some of it is really uncharted and some of it is very charted. I mean like building brands is very charted, but uncharted in the social media way because new things keep happening and stuff like that.
Anyway, what I keep saying to myself, what I keep saying to myself is I just keep really being true to what I like to do. If I just keep doing that, if I try my best not to make a bunch of compromises to who I am, not to what I can do, but to who I am then that will be my brand. There is only one me. There’s only me and if you buy it, cool. If you don’t, cool.
And so, while I like being able to make money and take care of my family, I really am able to do that now. I hope that that doesn’t change where I can’t take care of my family and stuff like that, but I don’t want to have to sell my soul so much that I’m suddenly not happy about who I am because then I feel like even if I did make the money then I wouldn’t be able to be the kind of person I am at home. That’s all theory. I don’t even know. That’s just what I’m doing right now. That’s the only way I know how to go about it right now, just keep trying to be like as true to Harold as I can if that make sense.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t in the business?
Harold Perrineau: If I wasn’t in the business? That’s really interesting. It’s a question my dad used to ask a long time ago and he’d say, “Of course, you could always get a job at the post office,” which was in that movie back in the day too and it was really real.
I really don’t know. I’m one of those people who is a jack of all trades and a master of none. There are so many things that I’m interested in and there are so many things I could probably do and don’t. So, I don’t know what I would be doing. I know that I have a certain amount of tenacity to do whatever I’m doing as well as possible. So, I’m sure that wherever it was, even if it were the post office, you know what I mean, I would be doing a really respectable, respectful job and being as successful as I could at that, but I don’t really, really know.
The truth is I wish I could say I’d be fighting in the UFC. I really wish I could say that, but that’s not really realistic, but I love it so much I wish I could say that.
A few of the few characters you have played have been confined to a wheelchair. Was that at all a challenge or a limitation to portray that?
Harold Perrineau: There was a little bit of challenge and I really felt grateful that I had a long history as a dancer before I was an actor because once I sort of kind of learned what you would do as a paraplegic, I knew what capabilities you had, then I could try to work on enhancing those things that I was able to use while not using my legs. So, it took a little bit of practice. It took a little bit of practice and rehearsing and I went to a couple of different places and talked to some people. Every year, we tried to make it look like his legs were atrophying some more. So, I’d buy bigger and bigger pants that I would wear on the show. So, it took a little bit of work and practice. And so, when I did it again in Lost, it was just kind of a throw back. Even Damon Lindelof said, “I think it was funny to put ‘Michael’ in a wheelchair.” It’s … “what’s up” to all the Oz fans.
You said earlier that you had done some musical theater?
Harold Perrineau: Yes, I was a musical theater major in college and my first show was off Broadway and then eventually on Broadway were all musicals.
What did you do on Broadway?
Harold Perrineau: I was in the chorus of the revival of Revival of Dreamgirls and this is like back in the ‘90s. I went out on tour, like an international tour with Dreamgirls and then that show came back to Broadway again. So, I did that on Broadway and then off Broadway I did like Godspell and Street Dreams and like all these other little musicals, but yes, those are my first jobs. I was a dancer, singer and musical theater guy.
Would you think about doing another show?
Harold Perrineau: I would love to do another show. I haven’t had the opportunity lately. The coolest thing that actually happens, I did the show that’ll be on in November, called The Wedding Band and that’s the closest to a musical that I’ve been able to be part of. It’s going to be a lot of really great singing and a lot of great songs. I got to play like, I don’t know, 10 different instruments in this thing. So, it was just a ton of fun. So, that was the closest to a musical I’ve gotten in a while. I just haven’t had the opportunity lately.