Q & A with Sons of Anarchy's Harold Perrineau

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Actor Harold Perrineau

Comedy, drama, sci-fi, you name the genre and Harold Perrineau has likely worked in it. The gifted stage and screen actor has delivered a number of memorable performances in such major network or cable TV series as Oz, Lost, ER, I’ll Fly Away and Law & Order as well as over a dozen feature films including The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. He chuckles when recalling his big screen debut in 1990’s King of New York.

“In the first scene we shot, my character has already joined this gang. I didn’t have any lines. I’m just standing in the background smoking a cigarette, but the problem was I didn’t smoke,” says Perrineau. “I stood there wanting to put my best foot forward in front of actors like Christopher Walken and Laurence Fishburne, but it wasn’t easy. I was a nervous wreck and people kept telling me, ‘Hey, kid, relax,’ and I’d say, ‘I am relaxed.’ I remember watching that scene afterwards and in it I’m squinting, my eyes are watery from all the smoke and meanwhile I’m trying to be this oh-so-serious actor.

“My very next job was on The Cosby Show. It was another small role but nonetheless I spent hours preparing and creating an entire back story for my character. On the day of filming, we rehearsed the scene and I may have been a bit overzealous in my efforts. When we were done, Mr. Cosby said to me, ‘Son, you’ve got to cut out all that acting.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know if I’m going to make it in this business.’”

The actor has not only made it in the acting business, he has flourished. Currently, he can be seen in the hit FX series Sons of Anarchy. On the surface, his character of Damon Pope is a successful and powerful businessman, but if you dug deeper, you would find a shrewd, calculating and ruthless gangster. Of course, if you did discover Pope’s tainted alter ego, he would kill you without blinking an eye. This man has a method to his madness, though, and is focused on the task at hand.

Last week, the good-natured and engaging Perrineau spoke with me and other journalists about his work on Sons of Anarchy and acting career in general. The following is an edited version of our Q&A. Enjoy!

So you obviously play a really nasty character in Sons of Anarchy. Can you talk about how you prepared for the role and got into that mindset?

Kurt Sutter [series creator/executive producer] and I talked at length about his ideas for Damon Pope and some of the people that the character reminded him of, one of them being Frank Lucas from the Denzel Washington movie American Gangster, which was based on Lucas’s life. I also then did some research on my own about different guys who took their sort of street life and turned it into more of a legit business. That’s how I sort of set up Damon Pope and how he might think or act in retaliation to things that are very emotional for him. So I basically pooled these different businessmen and gangsters who I felt had similar types of backgrounds.

How did you originally become involved in this show?

I knew they were looking for someone to play 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 to me, “You know, they still haven’t found Damon Pope. Maybe you should try to send Kurt an e-mail.” So I did, just to see if I could get a meeting with him, which worked. Kurt and I talked and by the time I got home, he bravely said, “Let’s do it.”

From Oz to Lost and now Sons of Anarchy, is there any particular little thing you look for when deciding whether or not to take on role?

I look at the character that I’m going to play, but often I look for the content of what’s going on. For example, 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. I knew that was part of the conversation that we were going to be having with Oz as well as being entertaining. The same is true with lots of other roles that I play. I try to choose things that I’d be proud to be part of and that I’m really happy to say, “Yes, I was part of that conversation,” even if it’s a hard conversation. I like to do things that are fun as well as entertaining and also kind of help people think.

What was it about Pope that you liked?

I like the show Sons of Anarchy, I like Kurt Sutter, and I like the idea of this guy who’s not just rolling in as some tough gangster, but as someone who just lost his child. One of the things that I felt might be really challenging as well as kind of fun was to see if the audience is like, “Oh, he’s just a terrible guy” or if someone thinks, “Hey, if somebody had killed my daughter for a frivolous reason, what would I do,” and actually have some empathy for Pope. I’m really curious about whether or not 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 element to try to spot and bring to the character.

In the show, everyone’s a bad ass. How does it feel coming in and playing the main baddie this season?

I have to say it was a little daunting, especially because there are a bunch of dudes who already play bad asses on the show. They’re great actors and they do really, really well. 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. I knew that my character was going to be an adversary and I didn’t want any of my own personal feelings about liking them or anything like that to come across with Damon Pope. I think the character is very focused and serious about what he needs to have done and wants to do. Pope wants some satisfaction for the death of his daughter and he won’t be denied.

So it was a little tricky, but they’re a great cast of people along with great actors, and they made it really easy.

You mentioned earlier that you had approached Kurt Sutter about the role of Damon Pope, and what I wanted to ask in that same regard is had he already begun writing for Pope or were you used as another point to kind of fashion the character around you specifically?

No. Kurt had already started scripting Pope and, in fact, he had an idea about the character at the end of season four. Kurt had been down the line of meeting people and stuff like that for the character and I guess things didn’t work out. When they didn’t, and I knew I had some free time, I thought whatever his idea for Pope was it was probably a long shot for me. I don’t normally cast like that, but I had confidence that I could probably pull something off.

I think as a show then goes on, there is a working together as the actor is playing the role and the writers are writing it, where somehow they begin to merge into the same person. It all starts gelling together. But yes, I’m pretty sure that Kurt didn’t have me in mind when he originally wrote Damon Pope.

You have a habit of being attached to very interesting and diverse projects and Sons of Anarchy is no different. I wanted to get your vibe as to the dynamic on-set. I mean, Tom Fontana [Oz creator/executive producer/writer] is notorious in the way that he runs a set, and obviously Lost was the myriad tapestry that it was. What’s Sons of Anarchy like when you get into the mix? Is it a different kind of working experience for you?

Well, without giving too much away, it is different in that with Lost and Oz, there was such a huge cast and there was always tons of people and personalities around all the time. So you’re negotiating that when you’re working and playing the role. 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, again, very focused. I’m really not around everybody as much, so for me, it doesn’t feel like there’s that much to negotiate. I feel like I can really focus on what this one character has to do, who he has to do it to or with or whatever. So, in that sense, I don’t feel how big and broad the rest of the cast is like I did in the other two shows.

With the other shows you had a chance to watch them build the groundswell and rise to popularity. With Sons of Anarchy you’re coming in on the peak of its success. Did you have an idea from your previous experiences what to expect with this show’s fan base as well as with how available Kurt 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?

This all feels like new because I just sort of walked into this house that was already built. So yes, you’re right. Earlier on, you kind of get to feel it growing, growing and growing, and it’s really fun and exciting and watching it grow is pretty cool. But with this show, I was really shocked by how passionate people are about the show and how, like you said, available Kurt is to his audience. They really love the show and know everything about it. So I really am trying to catch up as much as I can and do all my homework in order to know what the people are talking about. I am feeling the love, though. I’ve got to say that. The viewers are really loyal even if they don’t like Damon Pope.

Do you have a preference as to 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 to elevate your humanity?

That’s an interesting question because it really feels like we’re not getting too esoteric. It feels like a real yin and yang for me. I like them both and need them both for very different reasons. I like to do the softer scenes because I like to consider things not so violently. However, I grew up in Brooklyn, so there’s a certain amount of rage and pent up anger that is just kind of always there. To be able to express that in a really healthy way and sometimes a cool way is really good for me, too. So, I really like them both because they serve specific needs in my life.

What sticks out most in your mind about filming your first Sons of Anarchy episode and initially stepping into the Damon Pope role?

I guess for me the obvious thing is my first day of work. The very first thing I did was burn someone’s daughter in front of them as they stood helplessly by and watched. What sticks out in my mind is like, “Oh, my. Where can this go from here? How much heavier can this really get and how do I bring a real depth and honesty to this while I’m cringing at the thought of the whole thing.” So my first day was a little confusing. It sounds like I’m confused a lot [he jokes]. I’m not really, but that was a little confusing.

What makes a career in this industry rewarding for you so far?

The thing that’s make my 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 gets to step into many different lives and experience them and not only try to bring those lives to life but also tell the stories that the writers have written. I’ve been able to do things you wouldn’t expect me to do or that I think I should be able to do, but no one else thinks so.

So you can bring a character to life, but it’s also the thing that’s the most frustrating because people will see your performance and, because the way the business is and the way branding is, it’s hard to just pin down like, “Oh, he can do that one thing.” So, I feel like I constantly have to prove, “Yes, I can do that, too." And not at all in a bragging way, but it’s like this my job is as an actor. If I can’t do it right now, I certainly can figure it out. Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I can’t do it, but I really enjoy trying.

You talked your first shooting day on Sons of Anarchy and shooting your first scene. You’re in a new environment and around new people. How do you prepare for that and for that one scene, in particular, you were talking about? I mean, your nerves have to be amped up, or are you just so prepared for that that you don’t let your nerves get in the way?

Well, no. They actually do get in the way and, fortunately, that’s the great thing about film. You get to keep trying it until the nerves go away. I had Paris Barclay [series executive producer/regular director] on set as we were both learning about Damon Pope and what worked and what didn’t work. He helped me really hone in and find very specific things to do. We experimented with a few different ways of approaching it. That helps a great deal with your nerves when you not only have a great director, but then you guys actually collaborate and think things through together.

After watching the season opener of Sons of Anarchy, I began thinking that although Pope is really kind of evil at certain points in the episode, he actually has a lot of similarities, I think, to your Michael Dawson character on Lost as far as being a father. Can you talk about that and compare the two characters a little bit?

Yes, I actually do think that they are similar and being a parent myself, the question always becomes for me, if someone were to hurt, kidnap or in any way put your child in danger, how far would you go? The answer for me is always that I would go as far as I could and that I had to. With Michael being stranded on the island, he didn’t really having any resources. So he could only collaborate with Ben [Michael Emerson] in order to get his son back, which meant he had to do one heinous thing and one that he fully regretted. What would you do in order to get your child back?

It’s the same with Damon; he lives in a really violent world where there’s not a lot of talking, negotiating, hand-holding or, “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean to kill your daughter. I meant to kill the guy next to her.” There’s none of that kind of friendly banter, even in a world where it really feels like survival of the fittest. After all the years of work, love and caring, to have someone just take away your daughter without regard, how far would you go? I’d probably go that far. I’d probably go further, you know what I mean? I’d be that mad and in that world, I’d understand. As Harold, I wouldn’t do it, but in that world, I get it.

Please note, all Sons of Anarchy photos by Frank Mioelotta and copyright of FX.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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